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AnimalsA History$
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Peter Adamson and G. Fay Edwards

Print publication date: 2018

Print ISBN-13: 9780199375967

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: June 2018

DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780199375967.001.0001

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subversive laughter in reynard the fox

(p.157) Reflection

James Simpson

Oxford University Press

Medieval literature abounds in stories about animals, of which there are two main, easily distinguished, varieties: animal fables and beast epic.1 Animal fables claim Aesop as their source. They are small narratives in which animals act and speak, with even smaller morals tacked on at the end of the little stories. They involve many animals (e.g., mice, lambs, cocks, foxes, birds, wolves, lions, and frogs). Such stories were used to teach schoolboys both Latin and some commonsense morality into the bargain (e.g., do not overeat; do not overreach; save up for the hard times; justice can be rough and ready, so keep clear of the predators). Beast epic, by contrast, is a group of interconnected narratives, set in the court of the lion; its single (anti-)hero is Reynard the Fox. Beast epic presents narratives of dark but vital humor that repeat the same narrative with many variations: its rhetorically brilliant fox, Reynard, outwits all comers by manipulating their bottomless greed. No matter how tight the corner into which Reynard has been backed, we know he will escape. He escapes through brilliant narrative control and intimate, intuitive knowledge of his enemies’ weaknesses. He exposes the arrogance of the greedy but even more damagingly the hypocrisy of the “civilized” order. We learn a fundamental truth from these stories: both animals and humans are predatory and self-interested ...

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