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Reynard the Fox by F.W. Von Goethe

Reynard the Fox

by F.W. Von Goethe

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In a long narrative poem featuring the wily fox and the rest of the animal kingdom, Goethe creates an elaborate satire on feudal hierarchy and the medieval church. The story is quite simple: the king of beasts is mad at Reynard for his numerous acts of mischief and villainy, including careless acts of murder and fraud. Since Reynard refuses to come, the king begins to send his most trusted advisors to fetch in: the bear, the cat, and the wolf. Reynard uses his wit and cunning to thwart them all, and let them in for a serious beating, as well. The king is enraged, so the badger, relative and friend to the fox, convinces Reynard that he must turn himself in or the king will destroy his entire family.

Reynard realizes the game is up, so he finally appears at court. Things don't look well for the wily fox, but just before the point his execution, he spins out s lie so convincing that the king believes Reynard is his loyal subject, and the bear and wolf are secret betrayers. Reynard leaves with the blessings of the king, and his accusers are thrown in jail.

Not one to resist a good chance to gloat, Reynard tricks the rabbit into losing his head (literally) and sends it back to the king. The noble lion is enraged. He sends for Reynard again, and the cycle repeats. This time, when Reynard finally appears before true king, he offers to clear his name by combat. Whoever wins must be telling the truth. The wolf gladly accepts his challenge. Unfortunately for wolf, fox is a cunning fighter as well. Reynard wins and is showered with honors and power, while those that accused him are abandoned in disgrace.

The humor is in the satire and the intentional misrepresentation in descriptions. For example, every time Goethe refers to the noble king and and noble beasts, their actions and thoughts are anything but noble. Praise in this book is never sincere, and good actions are punished while bad actions ultimately succeed. The final joke is Goethe's summation of his tale, where he encourages listeners to be true and good, by copying the example set out in the narrative, which is, actually, all about corruption succeeding. The poem is longer than a summary implies, as countless speeches and accusations lengthen the narrative, not to mention accounts of the fox's terrible exploits, given by multiple witnesses and Reynard himself. Nonetheless, it's a fast read, and evoked several chuckles from me. I would have liked it more if Reynard were actually likable. While the other animals were pompous hypocrites, Reynard was still he worst of the batch. He gleefully killed others or led them to their deaths, raped the wolf's wife and mocked her (not an unusual occurrence in older tales, where rape and other horrid crimes are often used in satire), and happily led animals to brutal beatings and maimings. I like the trickster fox in folk tales, but this fox is too awful to be likable. I appreciated the satire in the story, but I wasn't pleased to see Reynard triumph in the end. This was an interesting diversion from my typical reading choices, a bit unnecessarily too harsh and too long, but generally amusing. ( )
  nmhale | May 15, 2015 |
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