Reynard is to Northern European folktales as Raven is to Alaska. Trickster, joker and deceiver. The stories reached English in watered-down form, like the Grimm Brothers Fox stories.
Here’s a Reyanrd the Fox1 story from WC’s ancestral stomping grounds, Holland, that gives you a flavor of Reynard as the stories were told about him in the 1400s.
You must know that once upon a time Reynard the Fox and Bruin the Bear went into partnership and kept house together. Would you like to know the reason? Well, Reynard knew that Bruin had a beehive full of honeycomb, and that was what he wanted; but Bruin kept so close a guard upon his honey that Master Reynard didn’t know how to get away from him and get hold of the honey. So one day he said to Bruin, “Pardner, I have to go and be gossip—that means god-father, you know—to one of my old friends.” “Why, certainly,” said Bruin. So off Reynard goes into the woods, and after a time he crept back and uncovered the beehive and had such a feast of honey. Then he went back to Bruin, who asked him what name had been given to the child. Reynard had forgotten all about the christening and could only say, “Just-begun.” “What a funny name,” said Master Bruin.
A little while after Reynard thought he would like another feast of honey. So he told Bruin that he had to go to another christening; and off he went. And when he came back and Bruin asked him what was the name given to the child Reynard said, “Half-eaten.” The third time the same thing occurred, and this time the name given by Reynard to the child that didn’t exist was “All-gone,”—you can guess why.
A short time afterwards Master Bruin thought he would like to eat up some of his honey and asked Reynard to come and join him in the feast. When they got to the beehive Bruin was so surprised to find that there was no honey left; and he turned round to Reynard and said, “Just-begun, Half-eaten, All-gone—so that is what you meant; you have eaten my honey.” “Why no,” said Reynard, “how could that be? I have never stirred from your side except when I went a-gossiping, and then I was far away from here. You must have eaten the honey yourself, perhaps when you were asleep; at any rate we can easily tell; let us lie down here in the sunshine, and if either of us has eaten the honey, the sun will soon sweat it out of us.” No sooner said than done, and the two lay side by side in the sunshine. Soon Master Bruin commenced to doze, and Mr. Reynard took some honey from the hive and smeared it round Bruin’s snout; then he woke him up and said, “See, the honey is oozing out of your snout; you must have eaten it when you were asleep.”
Some time after this Reynard saw a man driving a cart full of fish, which made his mouth water. So he ran and he ran and he ran till he got far away in front of the cart and lay down in the road as still as if he were dead. When the man came up to him and saw him lying there dead, as he thought, he said to himself, “Why, that will make a beautiful red fox scarf and muff for my wife Ann.” And he got down and seized hold of Reynard and threw him into the cart all along with the fish, and then he went driving on as before. Reynard began to throw the fish out till there were none left, and then he jumped out himself without the man noticing it, who drove up to his door and called out, “Ann, Ann, see what I have brought you.” And when his wife came to the door she looked into the cart and said, “Why, there is nothing there.”
Reynard in the meantime had brought all his fish together and began eating some when up comes Bruin and asked for a share. “No, no,” said Reynard, “we only share food when we have shared work. I fished for these, you go and fish for others.””Why, how could you fish for these? the water is all frozen over,” said Bruin.
“I’ll soon show you,” said Reynard, and brought him down to the bank of the river, and pointed to a hole in the ice and said, “I put my tail in that, and the fish were so hungry I couldn’t draw them up quick enough. Why do you not do the same?”
So Bruin put his tail down and waited and waited but no fish came. “Have patience, man,” said Reynard; “as soon as one fish comes the rest will follow.”
“Ah, I feel a bite,” said Bruin, as the water commenced to freeze round his tail and caught it in the ice.
“Better wait till two or three have been caught and then you can catch three at a time. I’ll go back and finish my lunch.”
And with that Master Reynard trotted up to the man’s wife and said to her, “Ma’am, there’s a big black bear caught by the tail in the ice; you can do what you like with him.” So the woman called her husband and they took big sticks and went down to the river and commenced whacking Bruin who, by this time, was fast in the ice. He pulled and he pulled and he pulled, till at last he got away leaving three quarters of his tail in the ice, and that is why bears have such short tails up to the present day.
Meanwhile Master Reynard was having a great time in the man’s house, golloping everything he could find till the man and his wife came back and found him with his nose in the cream jug. As soon as he heard them come in he tried to get away, but not before the man had seized hold of the cream jug and thrown it at him, just catching him on the tail, and that is the reason why the tips of foxes’ tails are cream white to this very day.
Historians will tell you that the tales of Reynard are allegories; that Bruin the Bear (as well as Ysengrim the Wolf) is the corrupt priesthood and Reynard the poor peasant, the common man. Perhaps so. But, perhaps, they were just stories for children. Or those of us who are still children at heart.
More stories of Reynard are on the Web, especially at Project Guttenberg, as well as a decent selection of other Northern European folktales.