Fox stories are quite different from the majority of folk tales I have researched before. The focus is on the interaction between the fox and the world of wild animals. This is a world populated by blunt, clicéd characters in animal guise. It mirrors the hierarchical society of humans with despotic lion kings and greedy, wolfish lords. A surprisingly small number of fox related yarns involve chickens or other domesticated animals and, apart from our agricultural activities, very little separates humanity from the animal kingdom, not even language, with bears, snakes, wolves, crows and foxes all perfectly capable of making themselves understood through speech just as if all mammals and birds shared a common mode of communication.
The famed low cunning of old Tod is matched by an equal level of openness and naivety. Whilst tales of trickery seem to gravitate to the little red dog like sleaze to conservative MPs they are almost as often the trickee as they the tricker: As one fox is making off with a rooster he has captured the farmer calls for the return of his bird. The cockerel says “You should tell him I’m not his any more I’m yours!”, Fox takes the advice, opens his mouth to taunt the farmer whereupon the plucky fowl flies to safety. In “The Kings Son Goes Bearhunting” a fox helps out a farmer who has accidentally promised his horse to a bear. After fooling the bear out of both the horse and his life Fox goes with the farmer to collect his agreed reward of 3 chickens. The farmer makes the fox wait while he brings out the chickens in a bag, “If I open the bag they will fly away, you’ll have to climb in and get them” he says. Fox climbs in to what is in fact an empty bag and the farmer beats him against a rock!
For all their cons and swindles the foxes of folklore are almost permanently hungry, each successful hustle being followed by a loss to another furry grifter or a straight up bully. Undeterred they move on to the next mark. As with other tricksters such as the middle east’s Muller Nasrudin, Africas Anansis the spider god and the Native American’s Coyote, Fox’s powers are as often used to help a fellow being as to steal from them. The trickster’s interest appears to be as much in the application of intelligence, in the process of problem solving by deception, as in the product of the ploy. These other tricksters are also as likely to be the target of chicanery as the perpetrator and as such are collectively known as the The Divine Fool, a worldwide mythological archetype who acts as a mirror through which humanity can examine our relationship to curiosity and cleverness, kindness and cruelty, selfishness and stupidity.
None of the worldwide foolish scam artists can be described as exactly principled in their character, even the fox tales that make it into Aesop, with his classic wrap up of “…and the moral of that story is…” come out more as pragmatic advice for career politicians than ethical guidance for the young. Why then do we tell these peans to the unscrupulous? Why perpetuate these apparent encouragements to artifice? As ever context is everything. In the bushmen societies of Africa, one of the last remnants of the gathering and hunting lifestyle humanity evolved over hundreds of thousands of years, the societal norms lean much more towards sharing and supporting than ours do. In these societies the trickster’s self centred antics are tantamount to horror stories. They are a warning that if you behave like that to those around you then they will behave like that to you. Fox’s perpetual state of hunger is not just a storyteller’s device to provide incentive for the set up, but the inevitable consequence of acting in the interests of the individual over those of the tribe. Simultaneously, those who are duped are being punished for not sharing, with the trickster acting as karmic retribution.
There is no doubt: the Fox is much more than just fluffy thief.