Monday, 20 April 2015

Badgers in Literature: Grimbart, nephew of Reynard the Fox


In North America and Europe alike, there is a long history and many stories about badgers in relationship with their canid neighbours--generally coyotes in the former, foxes in the latter. Not only have cooperative hunting and dwelling interactions been extensively observed as actual behaviours in nature, they have also become part of the lore about these species in their respective territories.

These storied traditions can be found among many Indigenous peoples in North America, from Apaches and various Pueblo communities of the southwestern US to Clackamas peoples in Oregon and Cheyennes of the Great Plains. (Some of these stories are discussed at length in Badger, with more extensive commentary and additional material to be featured in a future blog post.) This long affiliation even figures in the older Nahuatl word for badger, tlalcoyote--"earth coyote"--in recognition of the animals' frequent shared hunting behaviours.

In Europe, such accounts are most elaborately featured in the folkloric tradition around the trickster-fox Reynard and his devoted nephew, Grimbart (Grimbard/Grimbert). 

Reynard bids farewell to his family. Illustration by Wilhelm von Kaulbach, 1886.

These animal tales date back to the medieval period and make their way from the Netherlands through France, Belgium, Germany, and to England. In his new translation of the Reynard stories, scholar James Simpson gives the following genealogy: "The Reynardian stories derive ultimately from Aesop….The continuous narrative characteristic of the Reynard material begins, however, with The Escape of the Captive (or Ecbasis Captivi, mid-eleventh century) and is greatly developed in the Ysengrimus (1148-49), an important source for the earliest branches of the French Roman de Renart. The so-called 'branches' of the Roman de Renart are short narrative sequences in French, composed probably between the 1170s and the middle of the thirteenth century. These stories ultimately inspired many more adaptations in other Western European languages for the next 250 years and beyond…." [1]

Reynard is an immoral, lying, shrewd con man who uses his guile and false tongue to triumph over stronger, more fearsome foes, including Isengrim the Wolf, Bruin the Bear, Tybert the Cat, and even King Noble the Lion, always using their greed and pride against them. He’s devoted to his family, but not above betraying friends to ensure his own survival and that of his kin. Wildly popular in Europe for centuries, they have since faded from wider consciousness, appearing here and there now largely through obscure literary allusion or the occasional cartoon reference. (The 1973 Walt Disney film Robin Hood is an interesting example of a mash-up of two narrative traditions: the decidedly dark Reynard is stripped of his antisocial, anarchic qualities and becomes the heroic freedom-fighter Robin Hood, his nemesis Isengrim becomes the Sherriff of Nottingham, King Noble is reduced to the incompetent usurper Prince John, and the foolish pseudo-confessor Grimbert shape-shifts into Robin's stalwart ally Friar Tuck. The historian and medievalist Andrew E. Larsen has a fascinating blog post about the transformation of the Reynard stories into the family-friendly Disney film that's well worth attention.)

Reynard the Fox, Simpson’s new translation, is an excellent introduction to the Reynard cycle, and includes all the bawdy, brutal, and bewildering material of William Caxton’s fifteenth-century version in accessible and lively prose. (The charming illustrations by Edith E. Newman effectively invoke early twentieth-century children's book illustration, but I much prefer Wilhelm von Kaulbach's expressive etchings like the one included above.)

James Simpson's new translation of the Reynard cycle, 2015.

Briefly, the book is a series of stories set in the court of King Noble, where Reynard has been accused of many crimes, among them deception, theft, abuse, murder, and rape. He is undeniably guilty, but the stories chronicle his shrewd manipulations of his accusers’ own crimes and moral failings to not just escape punishment but to become one of the King’s chief counselors. In this way, as Simpson observes, “the predator fox becomes a hero, or antihero of sorts, since he’s wonderfully clever, makes no claim to moral superiority, and for the most part cheats only stupid, greedy, predatory, and often brutal hypocrites. Not only that, but he cheats them repeatedly, since their readiness to fall victim to greed is infinite.”[2] Reynard’s world is very much Tennyson’s “Nature, red in tooth and claw,” where the cleverness of weaker animals is the only real protection from the cruelty of more powerful beasts.

And what of Grimbart, the badger? Throughout the stories, and in spite of Reynard’s ever-shifting fortunes in King Noble’s court, Grimbart is fiercely loyal to his vulpine uncle. (Family connections are not species specific—kinship is about character and broader category of affiliation rather than biology.) Grimbart is one of the only animals to vocally defend Reynard against the fox’s enemies; he brings the King’s missives to the outlaw and accompanies his uncle to face the King’s justice. At the end of the cycle, when Reynard is forced to fight the much stronger Isengrim in mortal combat, Grimbart serves on his support team, prepared to stand in for his uncle if needed. And when Reynard emerges victorious and rises high in the King’s court, Grimbart and a few others are recognized for their loyalty as kin, and their own fortunes go up as a result. 

Reynard before King Noble, with Grimbart at his side. Source unknown.

Yet, like most of the animals in the Reynard cycle, Grimbart’s loyalty and familial feelings are embedded in more dubious moral practice, for the badger knows full well that Reynard is guilty of all these crimes, from the most mundane and playful to the horrific and brutal. Indeed, Reynard twice makes a full confession to Grimbart as they travel to court to make his defense. Both know his guilt, but Grimbart serves as a self-proclaimed confessor to his uncle, absolving him of his crimes, but more with a cynical wink and nod than because of any deep conviction that Reynard actually feels shame for his actions. And the badger actively lies to the King and court to ensure that Reynard escapes punishment. In Reynard’s world, truth and lies are means to an end, and the end is family loyalty and the survival of the small against the large. (It is notable, too, that the creatures who stand beside Reynard are all either exotic animals, such as his shrewd aunt, the she-ape Rukenawe, or mustelids also considered vermin at the time, such as otters, ferrets, stoats, weasels, and polecats, along with rodents and other presumed pests.)

Reynard's pilgrimage. Illustration by Joseph Wolf, 1887.

The unfailingly devoted Grimbart is a good nephew, and therefore a model of family commitment. But he is also an accomplice to Reynard’s terrible crimes, and even helps to facilitate Reynard’s cruelty. As such, he is an ambivalent figure in keeping with other European literary and folkloric badgers (at least until Kenneth Grahame’s more consistently positive Mr. Badger): admired for his stubborn kinship loyalty, but treated with deep suspicion for choosing Reynard’s “vermin” values over those of the court and church.




[1] James Simpson, “Introduction,” in Reynard the Fox (New York: Liveright, 2015), p. 21.
[2] Simpson, “Introduction,” p. 24.