On Foxes and Human Beings

Since Litro is focussed this month on wildlife, and since it includes two fine pieces about foxes, I thought it would be fun to look at the peculiar and quite unique relationship between the fox and the human being in a few bits of folklore. Let’s start at the beginning: the beginning of the common era. It’s the first century, anno domini, and Gaius Plinius Secundus is penning a few facts about the fox for his Natural History:

“Foxes produce young that are unfinished at birth, and shape them by licking them. In this they are like lions and bears, though fox cubs are born in an even more unfinished state than the others, and it is rare to see a fox giving birth.”

Jump forward to the year twelve hundred, and the Aberdeen Bestiary has this to say about the fox:

“…it is fleet-footed and never runs in a straight line but twists and turns. It is a clever, crafty animal. When it is hungry and can find nothing to eat, it rolls itself in red earth so that it seems to be stained with blood, lies on the ground and holds it breath, so that it seems scarcely alive. When birds see that it is not breathing, that it is flecked with blood and that its tongue is sticking out of its mouth, they think that it is dead and descend to perch on it. Thus it seizes them and devours them. The Devil is of a similar nature.”

So it’s fair to say that the fox has been a little misrepresented over the years. It’s a love-hate thing. The fox has been seen as sly and cunning, often devious, often devilish, but also respected for these very qualities. Arguably the fox invented the concept of the antihero, centuries before that term was even coined. The medieval French romance Reynard the Fox casts him as such, thwarting the establishment and the aristocracy through his guile and roguish charm, and there are some fascinating links between that story and those of such diverse characters as Robin Hood (whose code name was Reynard) and Goldilocks. 

There’s a theory that says that as our population becomes increasingly metropolitan, we will stop (or have already stopped) associating specific human qualities with specific animals. In other words, when humans have less interaction with wildlife, they will see less of the human in it. If this is true, the fox at least has taken steps to ensure it remains in our collective consciousness. This article from National Geographic highlights the success of the urban fox in London, also pointing out some of the trouble it causes. Type something like ‘London fox’ into the BBC website’s search box and you’ll find several accounts of foxes that terrorise (here’s an example; here’s something else entirely). I remember walking down Harrow Road one night, past Kensal Green cemetery, when a fox sprung out of nowhere onto the wall beside me and hissed at me in such a blood-curdling way that I was scared out of my wits. This was a very different creature to the ones I’ve seen playing with cubs in country fields. This thing was a vicious little monster, a piece of the wild hungry for blood. Except of course it wasn’t, it was just a fox like any other. But I was anthropomorphising it, like everybody has since the first fox crept into the first human camp to bite the first head off the first chicken.

I love it, though, that the fox as a species has made this move. It’s stuck with its reputation as the trickster of folklore, neither good nor bad. It could have rested on its laurels after the fox-hunting ban, where (with the disclaimer that this is simplifying things) it found a support among urban-dwelling people that it had never much enjoyed in the countryside. It could have maintained its image as the noble, beautiful creature of the woods, but instead it hurried into the cities to eat pet bunnies and scream at the top of its voice all night. I won’t be the good guy, says the fox, but I won’t be the bad guy either. And that’s exactly the way it has always been. Maybe that’s why we all respect it so much, because like the human being it is of contrary character. Fantastic work, Mr. Fox.

Ali Shaw

About Ali Shaw

Ali Shaw is the author of the novels The Man who Rained and The Girl with Glass Feet, which won the Desmond Elliot Prize and was shortlisted for the Costa First Book Award. He is currently at work on his third novel.

Ali Shaw is the author of the novels The Man who Rained and The Girl with Glass Feet, which won the Desmond Elliot Prize and was shortlisted for the Costa First Book Award. He is currently at work on his third novel.

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