|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…." 
|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.” 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.
|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.)
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.