- From Aesop to Reynard: Beast Literature in Medieval Britain
From Aesop to Reynard traces a temporal and textual set of relations among several genres of beast literature, focusing most often on beast epics and fables. Organized roughly chronologically, the book moves across more than a millennium from the emergence of Aesopic tales in classical Latin traditions through the emergence of beast epic in the eleventh century and onward to Henryson's "epicized fables" in the fifteenth century. The study's argument does not fall victim to chronology by structuring its vast materials simply to trace sources, influences, and the development of forms. Instead, Mann's chronology is the starting point for discovering quirky particularities, interventions from further genres, complex cross-currents, disappearances, and rediscoveries. From Aesop to Reynard is importantly introductory in its broad coverage and accessible arrangement of information about hundreds of works whose interrelations truly deserve the trendy term "rhizomous." At the same time, in its extended analyses of its most central texts, this book contributes substantially to scholarship on the stakes of beast literature: how we might understand its invocations of animals, what its social uses were, and how it could be bent to particular occasions and agendas.
Although From Aesop to Reynard is far more than a genre study, one of Mann's productive approaches to beast literature is through genre considerations. Aiming to trace "not what animals mean, but how animals mean" (1), she begins by drawing some basic distinctions between beast fable and beast epic. The fable strives for insight into the ways of the world, into how things happen, not insight into how conditions might change or how characters develop. "The fable renounces novelty; new narratives lead to old conclusions, revealing themselves as variations on the ancient themes" (43). Serving this purpose, the use of animal protagonists conveys inevitability: whatever language the animals may [End Page 445] deploy to defend or gloss their actions, these actions prove to be governed by animal natures such as the predator's violence and the prey's meekness. Two aspects of fable particularly resonate with aspects of beast epic: for both genres, language is untrustworthy, masking motives and misrepresenting situations to the advantage of speakers; and both genres endorse "the power of nature—the inescapable basis of both human and animal existence, which sets unbreachable bounds to ambition and pretentiousness" (306). These consonances help explain how the two genres can so fully cross-pollinate despite other traits that are distinctive to beast epic, such as its astonishing verbosity, its vaunted amorality, and its satirical take on behavior.
Each chapter discusses interconnections among a few forms and genres: Chapter 4 sets The Owl and the Nightingale in the context of bestiaries, animal debates, and fables; Chapter 6 argues that Chaucer's Nun's Priest's Tale owes less to beast fable than to beast epic as exemplified in The Vox and the Wolf and the Roman de Renart. Peripherally related materials from sermons, proverbs, lays, and romances are worked into these discussions with a fine sense of timing and proportion. For example, when the Owl retells the lay of Laüstic in The Owl and the Nightingale, the lay's nightingale is treated not as an innocent victim of human passions but instead as the guilty instigator of illicit human love, rightly killed for her fault. Mann argues that here, as with the Owl's and the Nightingale's invocations of familiar fables, the birds' twisted perspective emphasizes their physical existence as birds: they "treat beast literature as if it was simply a mine of information about each other's disgraceful past" (177). The effect is partly comic: the birds misread their subordination to allegoresis in fable, and they act absurdly insofar as they act like humans. Yet the effect is also to set against their allegoresis another way of taking their representation: they refer to themselves as natural creatures with habits that derive from their differing species. Their natures provide an incompatible crosscurrent to the anthropomorphizing aspects of their presentation.