Fox stories

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Following on from yesterday's post on the fox in myth, legend, and mythic arts, I'd like to take a second look at fox imagery in poetry.

There are so many fine poems about foxes that I could fill the page attempting to list them all, but some of the very best include: "The Fox" and "Straight Talk from Fox" by Mary Oliver, "Vixen" and "Fox Sleep" by W.S. Merwin, "The Thought Fox" by Ted Hughes, "February: The Boy Breughel" by Norman Dubie, "The Fox Bead in May" (based on Asian "9-tailed fox" folklore) by Hannah Sanghee Park, "The Fox Smiled, Famished" by Mike Allen, "Michio Ito's Fox & Hawk" by Yusef Komunyakaa, and "Three Foxes by the Edge of the Field at Twilight" by Jane Hirshfield (tucked into the picture captions; run your cursor over the images to read it)...in addition to the fox poems quoted in yesterday's post, and A.A. Milne's charming children's poem about three foxes who don't wear sockses.

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My favorite fox poems of all, however, are by the great American poet Lucille Clifton (1936-2010), whose work "emphasizes endurance and strength through adversity, focusing particularly on African-American experience and family life."  Here's the first of them:

Fox Child, from one of my old sketchbookstelling our stories
by Lucille Clifton

the fox came every evening to my door
asking for nothing. my fear
trapped me inside, hoping to dismiss her
but she sat till morning, waiting.

at dawn we would, each of us,
rise from our haunches, look through the glass
then walk away.

did she gather her village around her
and sing of the hairless moon face,
the trembling snout, the ignorant eyes?

child, i tell you now it was not
the animal blood i was hiding from,
it was the poet in her, the poet and
the terrible stories she could tell.

The second poem is an absolute stunner: "A Dream of Foxes," written in six parts. You'll it find here.


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The gorgeous fox photographs today are by British wildlife photographer Richard Bowler.

"I've been passionate about the natural world all my life," Richard says. "This interest led me into angling, to get closer to a world hidden beneath the surface of a river or lake. Angling took me all over the world, to places well off the beaten track, North, South and Central America, the Indian ocean and my particular favourite, Africa. It was on these trips that I felt the need to learn how to capture what I was seeing with the camera. Soon taking pictures became much more important than catching fish, and now I'm much more likely to be found holding a camera than a fishing rod. I hope through my photographs to show the character of the animal and, through that, to make people care."

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Lucille Clifton

Words: The poem above is from The Terrible Stories by Lucille Clifton (BOA Editions,  1996). The poem in the picture captions is from Each Happiness Ringed by Lions by Jane Hirshfield (Bloodaxe Books, 2005). All rights reserved by the authors.

Pictures: The photographs are by Richard Bowler, and the little drawing, "Fox Child & Friend," is from one of my sketchbooks. All rights reserved by the artists.


A Skulk of Foxes

Photograph by Katerina Plotnikova

Zao Fox Village, Japan - photography by Rebecca Daum

The folkloric fox found trotting through the "Reynardine" ballad in yesterday's post comes to us in a dark Trickster guise: both courteous and treacherous, creative and destructive, perfectly civilized and utterly wild. Trickster foxes (whether comic, deadly, or, as is often the case, a combination of the two)  appear in old stories gathered from countries and cultures all over the world -- including Aesop's Fables from ancient Greece, the Reynard stories of medieval Europe,  the Giovannuzza tales of Italy, the Brer Fox lore of the American South, and stories from diverse Native American traditions...

Brer Fox and Brer Rabbit by A.B. Frost

Foxes by Erica Il Cane

...but at the darker end of the fox-lore spectrum we find creatures of a more dangerous cast: Reynardine, Mr. Fox, kitsune (the Japanese fox wife), kumiho (the Korean nine-tailed fox), and other perfidious shape-shifters.

Japanese fox printFox women populate many story traditions but they're particularly prevalent across the Far East. Fox wives, writes Korean-American folklorist Heinz Insu Fenkl, are seductive creatures who "entice unwary scholars and travelers with the lure of their sexuality and the illusion of their beauty and riches. They drain the men of their yang -- their masculine force -- and leave them dissipated or dead (much in the same way La Belle Dame Sans Merci in Keats's poem leaves her parade of hapless male victims).

"Korean fox lore, which comes from China (from sources probably originating in India and overlapping with Sumerian lamia lore) is actually quite simple compared to the complex body of fox culture that evolved in Japan. The Japanese fox, or kitsune, probably due to its resonance with the indigenous Shinto religion, is remarkably sophisticated.  Whereas the arcane aspects of fox lore are only known to specialists in other East Asian Japanese fox printcountries, the Japanese kitsune lore is more commonly accessible. Tabloid media in Tokyo recently identified the negative influence of kitsune possession among members of the Aum Shinregyo (the cult responsible for the sarin attacks in the Tokyo subway). Popular media often report stories of young women possessed by demonic kitsune, and once in a while, in the more rural areas, one will run across positive reports of the kitsune associated with the rice god, Inari."

(To read Heinz's full essay on "Fox Wives & Other Dangerous Women," go here.)

There are fox wives in Western folklore as well, but rather fewer of them, and they tend to be more benevolent: skittish and shy, or mysterious and wild, but fond of their human partners. An exception to this general rule can be found in the räven stories of Scandinavia, where the fox-women who roam the forests of northern Europe are portrayed as heart-stoppingly beautiful, fiercely independent, and deadly to encounter.

Fox Woman by Susan Seddon Boulet

The Fox by Julie MorstadIn a musical composition inspired by these legends, the Swedish/Finnish band Hedningarna sings:

Fire and frost are in your eyes
are you a woman or a fox?

Wild and sly you hunt in time of darkness
long sleeves hide your claws
with your prey you play
your mouth is red with blood.

Silver Fox with Crows by Ellen Jewett

From Little Elvie in the Wild Wood by Catherine Hyde

Fox in the Reeds by Ohara Koson

The "nine-tailed fox" of China and Japan is often (but not always) a demonic spirit, malevolent in intent. It takes possession of human bodies, both male and female, moving for one victim to another over thousands of years, seducing mortal men and women in order to dine on their hearts and livers. Human organs are also a delicacy for the nine-tailed fox, or kumiho, of Korean lore -- although the earliest texts don't present the kumiho as evil so much as amoral and unpredictable, occasionally even benevolent, much like the faeries of English folklore.

In the West, it's the fox men we need to beware of, including Reynardine from the ballad tradition and Mr. Fox from the fairy tale of that name. Mr. Fox is cousin to the Robber Bridegroom, Bluebeard, and the nine-tailed fox, promising marriage to a gentlewoman while his lair is littered with her predecessors' bones. Neil Gaiman drew inspiration from the tale when he wrote his wry, wicked poem "The White Road":

Mr. Fox illustration by John D. BattenThere was something sly about his smile,
his eyes so black and sharp, his rufous hair. Something
that sent her early to their trysting place,
beneath the oak, beside the thornbush,
something that made her
climb the tree and wait.
Climb a tree, and in her condition.
Her love arrived at dusk,
skulking by owl-light,
carrying a bag,
from which he took a mattock, shovel, knife.
He worked with a will, beside the thornbush,
beneath the oaken tree,
he whistled gently, and he sang,
as he dug her grave, that old song...

shall I sing it for you, now, good folk?

(To read the full poem, go here.)

Jeannine Hall Gailey, by contrast, casts a sympathetic eye on fox shape-shifters, writing plaintively from a kitsune's point of view in "The Fox-Wife's Invitation":

Three fox paintingsThese ears aren't to be trusted.
The keening in the night, didn't you hear?
Once I believed all the stories didn’t have endings,
but I realized the endings were invented, like zero,
had yet to be imagined.
The months come around again,
and we are in the same place;
full moons, cherries in bloom,
the same deer, the same frogs,
the same helpless scratching at the dirt.
You leave poems I can’t read
behind on the sheets,
I try to teach you songs made of twigs and frost.
you may be imprisoned in an underwater palace;
I'll come riding to the rescue in disguise.
Leave the magic tricks to me and to the teakettle.
I've inhaled the spells of willow trees,
spat them out as blankets of white crane feathers.
Sleep easy, from behind the closet door
I'll invent our fortunes, spin them from my own skin.

Although chancy to encounter in myth, and too wild to domesticate easily (in stories and in life), some of us long for foxes nonetheless, for their musky scent, their hot breath, their sharp-toothed magic.  "I needed fox," wrote Adrienne Rich:

Badly I needed
a vixen for the long time none had come near me
I needed recognition from a
triangulated face     burnt-yellow eyes
fronting the long body the fierce and sacrificial tail
I needed history of fox     briars of legend it was said she had run through
I was in want of fox

And the truth of briars she had to have run through
I craved to feel on her pelt     if my hands could even slide
past or her body slide between them     sharp truth distressing surfaces of fur
lacerated skin calling legend to account
a vixen's courage in vixen terms

(Full poem here.)

Ah, but Fox is right here, right beside us,
Jack Roberts answers, a little warily:

Not the five tiny black birds that flew
out from behind the mirror
over the washstand,

nor the raccoon that crept
out of the hamper,

nor even the opossum that hung
from the ceiling fan

troubled me half so much as
the fox in the bathtub.

There's a wildness in our lives.
We need not look for it.

(Full poem here.)

Fox Spirit

There are a number of good novels that draw upon fox legends -- foremost among them, Kij Johnson's exquisite The Fox Woman, which no fan of mythic fiction should miss. I also recommend Neil Gaiman's The Dream Hunters (with the Japanese artist Yoshitaka Amano);  Larissa Lai's When Fox Is a Thousand; and Ellen Steiber's gorgeous A Rumor of Gems (as well as her heart-breaking novella "The Fox Wife," published in Ruby Slippers, Golden Tears). Alice Hoffman's disquieting Here on Earth is a contemporary take on the Reynardine/Mr. Fox theme, as is Helen Oyeyemi's Mr. Fox, a complex work full of stories within stories within stories. For younger readers, try the "Legend of Little Fur" series by Isobelle Carmody. And for mythic poetry, I especially recommend She Returns to the Floating World by Jeannine Hall Gailey and Sister Fox’s Field Guide to the Writing Life by Jane Yolen. 

More fox tales are listed here. Please add your own favourites in the Comments below.

Fox tails and tales

For the fox in myth, legend, and lore, try:

Fox by Martin Wallen; Reynard the Fox, edited by Kenneth Varty; Kitsune: Japan's Fox of Mystery, Romance, and Humour by Kiyoshi Nozaki; Alien Kind: Foxes and Late Imperial Chinese Narrative by Raina Huntington; The Discourse on Foxes and Ghosts: Ji Yun and Eighteenth-Century Literati Storytelling by Leo Tak-hung Chan; The Fox and the Jewel: Shared and Private Meanings in Contemporary Japanese Inari Worship, by Karen Smythers....

And, best of all, Reynard the Fox by Anne Louise Avery, which I'll talk more about in a forthcoming post.Reading Together by Julianna SwaneyPicture credits: Identification of the foxy art above can be found in the picture captions; run your cursor over the images to see them. Words: The passage by Heinz Insu Fenkl is from "Fox Wives & Other Dangerous Women," published in The Journal of Mythic Arts (1998); "The White Road" by Neil Gaiman and "The Fox-Wife's Invitation" by Jeannine Hall Gailey are also from JoMA (1998 and 2008); "Fox" by Adrienne Rich  is from Fox: Poems 1998-2000 (Norton, 2003); and "Dream Fox" by Jack Roberts is from Tar River Poetry (2007). All rights to the art & text above are reserved by their respective creators.


Tunes for a Monday Morning

A mossy stone wall and oak in fog

On a foggy winter's morning on Dartmoor, let's start with appropriately atmospheric music and go from there....

Above: "The Fog," composed and performed by Spiers & Boden (John Spiers on melodica, Jon Boden on fiddle), from their fine new abum Fallow Ground (2021). In addition to the Spiers & Boden albums and their solo work, both musicians were founding members of Bellowhead -- which is reuniting for a one-off tour later this year.

Below: "Reynardine," also from the new album. This one's a traditional English ballad about a dangerous fox shape-shifter, related to the Mr. Fox fairy tale. (See Neil Gaiman's poem "The White Road" for another take on the Reynardine/Mr. Fox/Robber Bridegroom motif, and Anne Louise Avery's brilliant retelling of the trickster tales of Reynard the Fox.)

Above: "The Birth of Robin Hood" (Child Ballad #102), performed by Spiers & Boden on their fifth album, Vagabond (2010).

Below: "Princess Royal" from fiddler Sam Sweeney (with Louis Campbell, Jack Rutter, and my Modern Fairies colleague Ben Nicholls). Sweeney was also a member of Bellowhead, and now performs with the folk trio Leveret. "Princess Royal" appears on his beautiful solo album Unearth Repeat (2020).

Above: "Sheath and Knife" (Child Ballad #16), performed by singer, cellist, fiddler and viola player Rachael McShane with The Cartographers (Matthew Ord and Julian Sutton) on their ballad-filled album When All Is Still (2018). McShane, too, is a Bellowhead alumnus.

Below: "The Molecatcher," a traditional song (with a new melody) from the same album.

And after that winding road of songs we really ought to end with some classic Bellowhead.

Below: "New York Girls," a modern take on an old sea shanty, performed live in 2011. This one goes out to all my women friends and publishing colleagues in NYC. It's a long, long way from there to Dartmoor...but once a New York Girl, always a New York Girl. (And yes, I can dance the polka.)

An early winter's morning on Meldon Hill