It’s well established that wolves get a bum deal in the fairy-tale world. We’re looking at you, Big Bad Wolf. But if there’s one stereotyped anthropomorphic animal I always feel a little sorry for it’s the wolf’s close relative, the fox.
Cunning, sly, wily, sometimes cruel, sometimes charming (but ultimately to satisfy its own needs), the fox doesn’t get much love in the world of stories. Even Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr Fox is a trickster but, admittedly, one we all root for.
We’ve featured many fox stories in Storytime and The Sly Fox is the star of our latest cover, with illustrations by the brilliant Louis D Wiyono. In this classic fairy tale, the fox becomes obsessed by the thought of the tasty little chicken who keeps outwitting him. As a result, he sets out to catch her and eat her once and for all. There are variants of this story all over the world.
What we particularly love about it is the energetic manner in which the fox catches the chicken. There’s high-speed tail whirling, no less. We also like the smart way in which the hen gets her revenge. Always carry scissors, thread and a needle, folks!
It’s likely that the wily fox figure so dominant in Western children’s literature has its roots not just in the fables of Aesop, but another foxy trickster called Reynard. This character first appeared in the Middle Ages, and starred in stories in France, Holland, Germany and England. Further east, there are numerous fox tricksters, including Kuma Lisa in Russia and Bulgaria, and the wonderful Kitsune fox spirits of Japan.
We thought it would be fun have a look at some of our favourite foxy fairy tales and fables to see just how many similarities there are. Schools or teachers who are looking at fox stories should find this round-up interesting. (Plus subscribing schools can download our free Sly Fox resource pack – find out more here.)
Fabulous Foxy Fairy Tales
1. Greedy Foxes
Like foxes in real life, scavenging for survival, the greedy or hungry fox character features heavily in the literary world, especially in fables and folk tales. Perhaps the first fictional greedy fox that most children encounter is the one who finishes off that edible rebel, The Gingerbread Man, (star of Storytime Issue 2). Having charmed the spicy little fellow into crossing the river on his back, the fox proceeds to scoff him bit by soggy bit.
Another fantastic charmer appears in the fable The Fox and the Crow in Storytime Issue 5. This time, he flatters an attention-starved crow into dropping a tasty morsel of cheese. Finally, in our Storytime Issue 15 fable, The Greedy Fox, a fox’s eyes are bigger than its belly. This fox – shown right – pays for its greed, but lives to feast another day.
2. Sly Foxes
As well as The Sly Fox, there’s also the opportunistic fox that appears at the end of Henny Penny in Storytime Issue 19. (This story is also known as Chicken Licken and Chicken Little.) The fox craftily lures Henny and her feathered friends into its den, promising a shortcut to the Queen’s house! In many versions of the story, fox and family gobble most of them up. In our version, he wasn’t successful and the bird brains get away. The fox in our Storytime Issue 30 fable, The Goat and the Fox, is another cunning creature, tricking an unwitting goat into jumping down a well with him, so he can use the goat as a means of escape.
3. Outfoxed Foxes
Brer Fox traditionally plays the antagonist in the Brer Rabbit stories and, though he tries to be smart, he invariably gets outwitted by the cantankerous bunny. He certainly does in our Storytime Issue 19 story, when Brer Rabbit decimates his vegetable garden.
In Storytime Issue 25, our fable The Fox and the Cat also demonstrates that foxes don’t always win. On this occasion, the fox boasts about his intelligence, but a cat makes him look a fool.
In another fable, The Fox and the Grapes (which we’ve yet to feature in Storytime), after much effort, the fox gives up on a tasty snack of grapes, claiming that he didn’t want them anyway. Cognitive dissonance replaces cunning.
Okay, so that’s a lot of sly or greedy foxes. A skulk you could say (probably my favourite of the collective nouns for foxes). We tried to redress the balance a bit with the gorgeous fairy tale The Fantastic Fox in Storytime Issue 23. In it the fox is actually the wise sidekick and facilitator of the main protagonist’s success. It’s probably time we included more stories where the fox character doesn’t fit the usual stereotypes, isn’t it? We’ll see what we can do about that.
What are your favourite foxes in literature – picture books and novels too? Let us know via Twitter, Facebook or Instagram. We always love to hear from you.
Wishing you a wily week!