I finished the first drafts of my pirate stories for The Buccaneering Book of Pirates this week, in time to look at the proofs for my third effort for the Collins Big Cats reading scheme. They arrived in the post yesterday, with black and white roughs for the illustrations and a colour copy of the front cover. I really loved that fox on the tree stump. He has a mischievous twinkle in his eyes, and he also looks a bit full of himself. Which he needs to be! This fox is the star of a Chinese folk tale in which he has to use his wits to evade being gobbled up by a tiger.
The fox nearly always plays the part of the trickster and/or the underdog in world myths. In pre-Christain cultures he was seen as a god, or as a demi-god who had access to the same powers as the gods. Because of this, post-Christian narrative tends to see him as devilish, or at least not to be trusted, although he also tends to be the most helpful to other animals. I’ve never come across a folk tale or legend where the fox does harm to human beings.
The gorgeous, clever fox in my story [in my head he’s called Jode, after my gorgeous, clever godson, , although the name doesn’t appear in the final text] is an ordinary fox, living in a forest somewhere in China. But Chinese and Malay mythology is also full of magical foxes, who are nearly always female and, like the Greek gods, can change shape to look like beautiful human beings, ethereal beings, moonbeams or sunbeams and even human breath, presumably on a frosty morning. They are called Huli Jing, and are said to be immortal. Japanese fox spirits are very similar to the Chinese – in fact they might be their oral-culture descendants. They can have up to nine bushy tails and were once said to be the servants and messengers of Inari, the Japanese god of rice. Greedy landlords, vain rulers and deceitful merchants often fall prey to these wonderful, shape-shifting tricksters. Inari’s fox-messengers were always white, a symbol of honesty and goodness. But there are other foxes in Chinese and Asian mythology who are definitely on the dark side. They are werefoxes, intent on prolonging their lives by feasting on living human beings.
The fox also appears in European oral traditions and literature. Aesop’s fables feature foxes, and Greek mythology boats the Teumassian fox, a giant vixen who could never be caught. It was created by the gods who wanted to punish the people of Thebes for slighting them. Nordic stories feature Vulpecula. The fox was also protected by Dionysius, and is messenger. Reynard, a trickster par excellence, appears in pan-European stories, including German, Dutch, Italian, English and French. Written stories about him can be traced back to circa 1174 when Pierre de St. Cloud’s Roman de Reynard was first published in instalments. He even appears in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, as Rossel, in The Nun Priest’s Tale.
In The US, the fox is known as Brer Fox. His Native American cousin is Coyote, who is not only a trickster but also possesses magical powers. Latin and South American stories too feature trickster foxes, often with bushy red tails and the gift of the gab. It is said in Asian mythology that foxes and men have always shared space and lived together. Perhaps it’s this proximity that makes the fox such a beguiling figure in our imagination and world-culture.
You can read some fox stories in my version of Aesop’s Fables, published by Kingfisher in the UK and US. The King of the Forest will be published by harpercollins in 2013.