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Reynard the Fox: A New Translation
translated by james simpson
liveright, 256 pages, $24.95

A few weeks ago I found in my mailbox a brand-new, plastic-sealed, hardcover copy of Shakespeare’s complete works, sporting on its cover a close-up hellfire picture of a jester’s cap and bells, which looked for all the world like an instrument of torture. It was the 3E—that is what the cover reads—of the Norton Shakespeare, edited by Stephen Greenblatt, probably the most celebrated Shakespeare scholar in America, and the senior editor of that college standby, The ­Norton Anthology of English Literature. Greenblatt is a reductive New Historicist into whose mill a thousand works can go, and all will come out sounding like a cross between Leviathan and Heart of Darkness. So I left it on my desk unopened, and when one of my students, a regular visitor to my office, asked me if I was actually going to give the book away as of no use or delight to me, I let him take it, though with a bad conscience.

Greenblatt has now written the foreword to a new work by James Simpson, his Harvard colleague and a fellow editor of The Norton Anthology. The two men agree as well as a gray sky and a gray moor; for both scholars, human things are best understood as plays for power, with religion merely one of the more contemptible forms of the game. The work in question is Simpson’s Reynard the Fox, a translation into Really Modern English of William Caxton’s The History of Reynard the Fox (1481). Caxton himself had translated, into Less Modern English, a Dutch epic, Die hystorie van Reynaert die Vos. Nor was that work an original. It was a rendering of the Latin verse epic Reinardus Vulpes. That in turn was composed of stories deriving from a long-loved tradition of comic tales about the wily red fellow, going back all the way to the eleventh century. Readers of Chaucer may recall, for example, the Nun’s Priest’s Tale, with its chickens debating about predestination and the reliability of dreams, while Mister Russell the fox lurks nearby, plotting how to trick the proud and silly and hot-for-hens Chaunticleer into letting him snatch him by the throat.

It is important to keep that perennial popularity in mind, because, according to Simpson’s telling of it, Reynard is a sort of philosophical and literary blood brother to ­Machiavelli’s The Prince (1513). Simpson knows well that the Reynard stories were “runaway best sellers since the late twelfth century,” but what he really wants to stress is the lesson we are to learn from them, which is the same as what we are to learn from the much-later Machiavelli, he of the sunken countenance and the jaundiced eyes. “These racy animal stories,” Simpson writes, “celebrate survival through trickery. However, whereas Machiavelli had counseled kings to survive their enemies and subjects, Reynard is rather about how clever subjects can survive enemies and kings.”

That’s oddly put, since Machiavelli is at pains to remind princes that their own people will not want to rebel, so long as the prince leaves their wives and their goods alone. There is no one to outlast, unless the prince provokes the people to begin with. But nobody can read Caxton’s Reynard and think that it is a manual for political survival. It is too much fun for that. “Reynard is not political satire,” writes Donald Sands in his 1960 edition. “It may be in part satirical, but it is chiefly a rather good-natured criticism of the human race in general.” But no one, as far as I know, has ever accused Greenblatt and his fellow New Historicists of good nature.

Caxton read Reynard as old-fashioned rollicking moral counsel, the sort of thing that we find in ­Chaucer. “This book is made for need and profit of all good folk,” writes Caxton in his Less Modern English introduction, “as far as they in reading or hearing of it shall more understand and feel the foresaid subtle deceits that daily be used in the world, not to the intent that men should use them, but that every man should eschew and keep him from the subtle false shrews that they be not deceived.” In other words, we are not supposed to be foxes, even if it is worse to be the fox’s often greedy and dishonest enemies. “For them that understand it,” says Caxton, “it shall be right joyous, pleasant, and profitable.”

Simpson says that he wants, as a translator, “to render the source text as delightfully and intelligibly as possible” for his “intended new audience.” That source text, Caxton’s book, includes more beast tales than those of Reynard, which Simpson does not provide. It also includes Caxton’s introduction, which I have cited above. Simpson does not provide it, either. Why not?

My guess is that it cuts against Simpson’s reductive aim. “All of us are fascinated by animals,” he writes, “not least because we are ourselves animals who need to pretend otherwise” (emphasis mine). When I read such words, I adapt in my mind the words of C. S. Lewis in The Abolition of Man. Someone insists that we are animals only; I hear “You are animals only, and I, a shrewder animal than you are, will treat you accordingly.” In other words, I hear the strains of someone who in that important respect denies that he is an animal at all. We don’t know about our common animality, but he does, and that gives him power, the only thing he really wants. There is another name for such a being, and it is neither man nor beast. I suppose that his debunking message is just the thing that worldly and ambitious students want to hear.

I have said that Simpson has translated Reynard from Less Modern English into Really Modern English. It seems that there’s a group in Oregon doing much the same thing to Shakespeare, translating him from Pretty Thoroughly Modern English into Really Modern English. Why Sarah Bernhardt and Henry Irving never thought of it, or why their audiences seemed not to need it, I don’t know. Am I being entirely fair to Simpson? Let the reader judge. Here is a passage, which I have chosen at random, from one of Reynard’s speeches in Caxton’s Less Modern English:

Thus, my lord the king, I have had sorrow for you, whereof you can me but little thank. I know Bruin the bear for such a shrew and ravener wherefore I thought if he were king, we should all be destroyed and lost. I know our sovereign lord the king of so high birth, so mighty, so benign and merciful that I thought truly it had been an evil change for to have a foul stinking thief and to refuse a noble stately lion.

How much translation does that passage really need? One might make it entirely intelligible to readers nowadays by providing a gloss here or there, as Sands does, or by something more like a slight transposition than a translation. Here is Simpson’s version of the same:

Thus, my lord King, I was so worried about you, for which you’re repaying me now with small thanks. I know Bruin the bear is a vicious, rapacious thief. I thought that if he were King we’d all be destroyed. I also know that our sovereign lord the King is a figure of such high birth—so mighty and so generous and so merciful—that I thought a change involving acceptance of a stinking thief, and repudiation of a noble, mighty, stately lion, would have been truly disastrous.

All right, in a certain sense it is clearer to us, because the word usage and the syntax are ours. But in another sense it is not clearer. Simpson has reversed the emphasis of the last sentence, losing the strong parallelism between “foul stinking thief” and “noble stately lion.” He has split the second sentence in half, losing the connection between a fact and its consequence. He has blunted Caxton’s sharp and specific manner of expression. The king becomes a “figure.” Instead of the fine direct infinitives, “to have” and “to refuse,” we have abstract verbal nouns, “involving acceptance of” and “repudiation of,” so that Reynard suddenly sounds as if he were composing a delicate office memorandum.

There’s something else here, something you have to hear rather than see. Caxton’s prose may well strike us as courtly, decorous, expansive, big-hearted—rather as if Lancelot from his beloved Morte D’Arthur were regaling ladies with the merry tales of the wily fox and his less witty victims. Isn’t that, too, part of the “source text” that our contemporaries ought to have a chance to delight in Simpson’s prose is none of those things. It is clipped. It is slangy, sometimes in a gangsterish way, and sometimes in a stuffy way, so that Reynard sounds sometimes like a hoodlum, sometimes a bored sophisticate. Now, I am not saying that the translation is simply bad. Simpson is like Greenblatt in this regard too. Unlike most hot critics in the academy, he can actually write English.

One must admit that in its reductive way, the work is very good. You can read the book in one sitting, and laugh at how Reynard traps Bruin in a cleft oak, and how Tybert the cat, scratching and clawing to get out of a trap, costs the parish priest one of his “stones,” much to the dismay of his wife, who wails that she won’t get to play the “sweet game” anymore.

But you won’t find more than that, nor does Simpson want you to. Here is the priest in Caxton, still twin-stoned, crying out to his neighbors to help his wife, who has fallen in the water: “Now every man see to! All they that may help her, be they men or women, I give to them all pardon of their penance and release all their sins.” Simpson reduces: “Every man look to it! I’ll absolve all the sins of those who can help!” Again the emphasis is reversed, and a couple of things are dropped. Simpson either does not know or does not care that “pardon of their penance” refers to a work, which would here be made good by the strenuous effort to save his wife. Caxton’s “release” is rendered accurately but abstractly by “absolution.” What’s lost is the flair, that hint of an ultimate concern that renders Chaucer, for example, all the merrier in his ribald tales, with a merriment that the secular scholar cannot share. It is hard to be a medieval or Renaissance painter in gray.

Simpson would have us believe that Caxton took an audacious chance when he decided to translate and publish Reynard the Fox, because he usually published works of “aristocratic idealism and piety,” which he knew would sell. What chance it was to publish so popular a work, I cannot imagine. No doubt Caxton wanted to earn a good living. But that is all that Simpson will understand of his motives and of those who bought the book: “Reynard the Fox was also a seller because it answered to the intensely competitive, materialist conditions in which Caxton himself prospered, no less than it answers to our own times.” Everyone is defined by his material ambitions—a degree, a bankbook, a seat in Congress, whatever, and that must end us, that must be our cure.

Simpson and Greenblatt have in the end nothing to offer but the weary and tedious wisdom of those whose only hope is in the world, and who therefore have no hope even in that world. Alexander Pope long ago complained of the critic motivated by envy for a talent he did not possess. We might now complain of the critic motivated by a disdain for a faith he cannot grasp, a hope he cannot hold, and a love he cannot feel. Perhaps I should not have given my student that edition of Shakespeare after all.

Anthony Esolen is professor of English at Providence College.

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