Imagine this: you are on the moors, or maybe somewhere in the hills, and the sun is inching its way towards the horizon. You are making your way homeward along a rough trail, nothing more than a dirt track worn down by the feet of travellers. It is cool, and the wind is fierce, clutching at your hair and your clothes, but what few clouds are in the sky are scudding rapidly away and there is no threat of rain.
You pause for a moment to take in the sunset, which is tinting the sky pink and orange, and the sun itself, which is turning reddish as it bobs lower, almost touching the mountains in the distance. Red sky at night, shepherd’s delight, you remember, and shiver a little. The sun is so red tonight; you cannot help but think of blood.
Then you hear voices.
You glance round, and soon spy a young couple standing under a raggedy tree, twisted by the gales. There is a pretty young girl with dark hair and red lips, and a man, leaning towards her, eyes bright and teeth very white. You can only make out their murmurs, not words, and are just getting ready to continue when the man glances over at you.
You shudder. Something cold and empty begins gnawing at your stomach, and you stumble back a pace. Those eyes catch hold of you, pierce you and you have a sudden sympathy for that mouse your cat caught a week ago. They are dark, penetrating, and glow eerily in the red light of the sunset. They do not look human – and neither does his smile, which is white and sharp and curls itself over the man’s face like a claw.
Then he looks away, and puts an arm around the girl, and they begin walking down another trail, one barely visible in the tough moorland grass. And you scurry off, your heart beating furiously, anxious for home, but with a fraction of your fuddled mind still with that girl. No one will ever see her again, you feel sure of it.
You have seen what few humans have ever seen. You have seen Reynardine in pursuit of his prey.
Reynardine, depending on which source you are reading is either a very human outlaw, or a were-fox with a penchant for seducing beautiful young maidens. Needless to say, it is the latter this blog is preoccupied with. The stories and songs that feature Reynardine usually follow the same pattern; Reynardine seduces a beautiful young girl who has gone for an ill-advised walk in the woods or across the moors, and she is so entranced that she follows him anywhere he goes. The maiden’s ultimate fate is left to the imagination, but we can assume she either dies or – oh, horror! – gets seduced and loses her virtue, assuming said virtue resides between her legs. (I personally agree with the girl in an entirely different story, that anything that resides so close to your arsehole is something you’re well rid of.)
To the best of my knowledge, Reynardine is an entirely separate figure from the more famous Reynard, who is a shape-shifting red fox and trickster. He is the central character in a number of English, Dutch, French and German fables, the earliest of which dates from somewhere in France and was written during the twelfth century.
Reynardine, on the other hand, appears to date from the 19th century, or the 18th century at the earliest. He is the central figure in an old English ballad, only one version of which was collected before 1800. In 1814 he appeared in a broadside ballad titled ‘The Mountains High,’ and since then has been the subject of folksongs sung by no less than Fairport Convention and Martin Carthy (they’re folk/folk rock musicians, for the uninitiated. They’re a bit good.) Reynardine has also appeared in American folksongs, with no less a personage than Washington Irving confirming that the ballad had crossed the Atlantic by the 1830s.My own personal favourite is the re-imagining Blood Red Sky, written and performed by Seth Lakeman.
Reynardine’s name has obvious associations, being so similar to Reynard. It suggests foxiness – not the sort of foxiness associated with women with red lipstick and suggestive walks, but characteristics that are ascribed, fairly or unfairly, to foxes. It suggests cunning, cleverness, a penchant for mischief, perhaps a tendency towards roguish good looks… and more negatively, it suggests slyness, dishonesty, a life lived outside the law, and even viciousness.
Reynardine is perhaps threatening, but so far his actions are not truly monstrous. Nonetheless, his penchant for beautiful young maidens has eerie overtones of the Bluebeard fairy tale, especially given that while most versions of the song depict Reynardine leading the woman away, none of them ever depict her returning. There is also a disturbing suggestion of murder in some versions of the story. Seth Lakeman’s song invokes imagery of blood and sharp teeth repeatedly. The English fairy tale ‘Mr Fox’ (not a ballad, but following a similar plot) focuses on a young woman courted by the man of the title, who is rich and handsome, but never invites her back to his home. One day, driven by curiosity, she drops by unannounced, to be greeted by the sight of skeletons in blood-stained wedding dresses. Needless to say, the sight dampens her enthusiasm for the idea of Mr Fox as a husband and for once, he gets his comeuppance.
Although he does not have a long personal history (at least by folklore standards, having existed for a little over two hundred years), Reynardine is an inheritor of a much longer tradition of shape-shifters and demonic bridegrooms. Werewolves have been around for literally thousands of years, having first appeared in written fiction in The Epic of Gilgamesh, which dates from sometime in the 2nd century BC. Were-foxes have an equally long history in some non-Western cultures, with the kitsune having existed in Japanese literature since the 11th century.
Wicked bridegrooms abound in fairy tales too. There’s ‘The Robber Bridegroom,’ by the Brothers Grimm, Perrault’s Bluebeard, and in more recent times Angela Carter’s seminal ‘The Bloody Chamber.’ These are only a few examples of a story that has dozens, if not hundreds of variations. Of course, Reynardine doesn’t even make honest women out of his lady loves before they meet their fate. The bounder.
Short history or not, I find Reynardine an intriguing figure. Because we know so little about him, he shares the characteristics traditionally ascribed to the fox in legend – adaptability, elusiveness, mysteriousness and danger. And there’s plenty of potential for more. Folk musicians are still singing about him, still adding their own spin to the story. Perhaps you’ll be the next one to meet Reynardine, when the setting sun hangs blood-red in the sky.
Till next time, everyone.
Don’t go out alone.