It is Sunday morning and we have good reason to regret laying wooden floor in our bedroom.
We would like to ignore the sun streaming through the forest trees outside, and to burrow further down underneath the duvet and sleep a little longer. Phil is even doing snory sound effects to make the whole business extra convincing.
But there is a creature with a total of 20 small hard claws skittering back and forth across the wooden floor, setting up such a racket that a team of hammering carpenters would be hard put to it to match it.
They are polite – even courteous – claws. They hammer percussively to Phil’s side of the bed with diplomatic reticence; and when the fake snoring emerges they recede to the door in deference. But bladders beckon, and desperation brings the claws tap-tapping back to the bedside in polite reminder.
Macaulay the dog has woken. Abandon sleep, all ye who look above the duvet.
Because you can ignore the sound, just, if you stuff pillows in your ears: after all, you are already ignoring a brilliant Spring dawn. But the moment you put your head over the edge of the duvet, you are doomed.
Macaulay’s chief weapon is his laser-gaze. It sears the consciousness; it bores into the soul like some great modern mining machine. Meet The Gaze, mark my words, and every pretence is but gossamer cobweb in the face of a formidable four-legged will.
He has two reasons for wanting to go out, of course. Yes, he must have his recreational time to scent his territory. But he is keen to get out there and bark mindlessly at the fox who lives on the other side of the fence.
There is nothing more therapeutic than a good loud volley of barking at some miscreant with a red tail who’s clearly just asking for it.
The fox is fancy free, where the dog would like to be; he goes where he pleases and eats prey where he can.
How long have we been watching the fox, delighted by his crafty antics at the periphery of our lives? The oldest stories of talking animals go back to a Phrygian slave in the sixth century: Aesop.
But his tales have been woefully watered down, used as school texts and retold until all the fire sputtered out of them.
Come the twelfth century, the fire was back. And one of its most vivid criminal elements was that russet mastermind, Reynard The Fox. Even today, some of the fox’s antics, are howlingly funny, filled with bawdy exuberance.
Take the farmer’s wife who discovers one of the key members of her farmyard is missing- courtesy of Reynard – and bolts to tell someone:
“I have lost my cock! The fox has taken him!
“Old slattern!” cried Constant, “Why didn’t you catch the fox?”
“By all the saints, I couldn’t! He wouldn’t wait for me!”
“But you could hit him?”
“With this stick!”
“Indeed I couldn’t: he ran so fast that two Breton hounds couldn’t have caught him!”
Reynard: begun in tales in Alsace-Lorraine, his red tail spread like wildfire throughout France, Germany and the Low Countries during the 1100s. And it’s thought he was the precursor to another fox: Dan Russell.
While his name may sound as if it belongs to a white van man driver on the M25, Dan has an altogether more august provenance.
He is Chaucer’s naughty fox from the end of the 14th century, bested by Chanticleer the singing cockerel in the Nun’s Priest’s Tale.
And Dan has a special place in our hearts because it is in his tale that we have the first ever reference to one of our most embedded superstitions: the unlucky Friday, Friday of mischance or as Chaucer puts it – meschaunce.
Dan – or Daun – means ‘Sir’. And Russell is a reference to the russet red of the fox’s coat.
So Chanticleer is this big beautiful cockerel with a gorgeous voice and seven wives. And one night he has an awful dream that he is about to die. He has a long discussion with his favourite wife about whether the dream was just indigestion, but still manages to engage in conversation with Dan, a known chicken-guzzler, that very day.
Dan is a wily flatterer.Chanticleer’s father was such an unparalelled singer: might Dan not hear his son extend his elegant neck and sing in the same way?
Alas, the father was destined to be dinner, and Chanticleer is snatched as he poses to sing.
And on a Friday falls all this meschaunce.
He gets out of it: don’t get me wrong. the cockerel persuades the fox to open his mouth to taunt his chasers, and the bird makes good his escape to the top of the tree.
Perhaps, after all, Dan Russell was the first real victim of unlucky Friday.
Written in reponse to Side View’s weekend theme: Friday 13th.
I used Kenneth Sisam’s forward and notes (Kenneth was one of Tolkein’s lecturers at Oxford) on the Priest’s Nun’s Tale which you can find here
Image source here