In class on Friday, we spent a lot of time discussing how to understand Renard as a character (and how it might relate to Fantastic Mr. Fox, the trailer of which I've included above in case you haven't seen it). Is Renard the hero? The anti-hero? Is he all-around evil or more of a simple, mischievous creature? We could all agree that the stories were funny, but is it a sort of general schadenfreude or more pointed humor derived from watching the stupid or gullible get conned? During my research for my final paper, I came across an interesting article that showcases one literary tradition that includes Renard and explain how one might understand why we continue to root for someone so mean and cruel.
One way Renard can be thought of is that he epitomizes the "clever hero" as described by Orrin Klapp in his article for The Journal of American Folklore. There is clearly a long tradition of Robin Hood-style characters that continues today with TV shows like Leverage as well as a fascination with the trickster-villain in shows like Burn Notice. (Yes, everything in life reminds me of a TV show.) Klapp argues that Renard is one of the earlier examples of a "clever hero" who we root for even though he doesn't have a redeeming moral value 1. We like this clever hero, says Klapp, not only because it's funny to watch characters be mocked and tricked. Klapp argues the appeal of a clever hero comes from the fact that he is a "leveler", a character who makes the high and mighty appear no longer invincible, while the weak and inferior are able to emerge victorious 2. But first, how do we know a "clever hero" story when we see one?
Klapp outlines three major features of a "clever hero" story - the clever triumph, the trickster as the underdog, and the escape 3. The clever triumph is one in which the trickster is able to use his wits to achieve his goal (or at least part of it). We argued extensively in class about whether or not Renard can be considered 'successful'. Klapp, however, argues that he certainly is because he is able to get away with most of his tricks without direct punishment. Because the traditional 'system' has not 'won' (Renard is able to evade going to trial and then evades punishment), then the anti-system trickster has 'won'. In this sense, Renard can be considered triumphant upon return to his home after each tale. In fact, Klapp argues this is one of the reasons we identify the trickster as the 'hero' of the story - "the clever hero is a specialist... he may not be a good man... nor is he an outstanding servant of his group... in his own field he is hard to beat" 4. In this way, every person can relate to Renard - very few people are exceptional among all people, but most are very good at one thing or another.
In case you're still skeptical that Renard can be considered a 'success', which is critical to all parts of Klapp's theory (although most explicitly the 'clever triumph'), I would suggest you look at analyses of the counter-culture regarding foxes that Renard created. Sahar Amer wrote a great article analyzing the rebellion of Marie de France's Fables against the Renard tradition (which became so widespread it created a second word for 'fox' in French - 'renart', which was used to signify a trickster fox like Renard and nearly replaced 'goupil' during the later medieval period as the word for 'fox')5. Evidently, the 'renart'-trickery-success associations became so strong that stories of unsuccessful foxes (or nicer foxes) widely disappeared from literature until Marie de France tried to insert morals back into Renard-style stories 6. Although modern readers might have difficulty equating "survival" with "success" when we think about it too long, especially when compared to later winner-take-all stories like Robin Hood, Renard appears to have become widely known as a successful trickster in the medieval mindset and something of that association remains in our impressions of Renard.
The second reason why Klapp identifies as so why we so enjoy "clever heroes" is that they are the underdog. Often, according to Klapp, this manifests itself in a very literal way - our hero is often significantly smaller than his adversary7. This is often very true in Renard as well. Although we have nothing specific against Bear, he is significantly larger and more physically powerful that Renard (so, among others, is Ysengrim). This power differential makes us quickly equate Renard with the underdog - how is he going to avoid being forced to court by this significantly larger creature? Klapp argues that part of the joy of watching a clever hero is watching an adversary who is "overconfident, a bully, pompous, overbearing, or slightly stupid" as well as significantly stronger have a swift reversal of fortune so suddenly "it is the little fellow who is laughing"8. The ability of the physically smaller or weaker underdog, even if we know he is mentally superior or cruel, to cause misfortune for his powerful counterpart delights us because it allows us to experience a triumph over those who are more powerful than ourselves. One can only imagine peasants and lesser nobles equally delighting in these stories that show to powerful nobles being humbled and beaten by a "smaller" noble. In a more modern setting, think of how we root for Ash in Fantastic Mr. Fox to gain his father's respect instead of Kristofferson (his cousin) even though the latter has done nothing wrong or unkind. The mere fact that Ash is an underdog makes us hope he is able to overcome 'the odds' and his physical inferiority.
Finally, Klapp argues that we delight in the escape and especially the continual escape. The hero's ability to escape not only allows him to fight another day, but it leaves others looking "slow-footed and foolish"9. Renard clearly does this when he is always able to eventually return home (albeit sometimes with some injuries) having evaded most of the harm possible. The escape also creates an inversion of success - although the hero's small size makes him a target for larger foes, his quickness and petiteness allow him to escape traps and come out superior to his adversary. As an audience, we find this appealing because it says that our often exploited weaknesses can not only be overcome, they can also be assets.
Using Klapp's framework of the "clever hero" we can find several reasons why we continue to root for Renard and find humor in his opponents' misfortunes despite Renard's flaws. First, Renard is able to achieve success through cleverness alone - he does not have to be a good person or highly skilled in everything. Renard needs only this one skill that he has mastered in order to be able to win, providing a much more achievable goal for his human readers. Second, Renard is the underdog physically. His small size causes us to delight when the more physically powerful are defeated or wronged, because we can identify the opponent with a powerful antagonist in our own lives. Thirdly, Renard is able to use his small size to continually escape, turning his physical size from a limitation to an asset. As readers, we find the idea that our own weaknesses could turn out to be life-saving strengths intensely appealing.
1. Klapp, Orrin E. “The Clever Hero.” The Journal of American Folklore 67.263 (1954): 21-34.
5. Amer, Sahar. “A Fox is not Always a Fox! Or How Not to Be a Renart in Marie de France’s ‘Fables.’” Rocky Mountain Review of Language and Literature 51.1 (1997): 9-20.
7, Klapp, Orrin E. “The Clever Hero.” The Journal of American Folklore 67.263 (1954): 21-34.