Foxes – friend or foe?

Foxes are often chosen as an animal protagonist in a children’s book. Cunning, quiet and carnivorous*, they are often viewed as the enemy. But is this always the case? Let’s examine a few and discover whether foxes are friends…or foes. *Actually, foxes are omnivorous rather than carnivorous, as they eat fruit and vegetables as well as meat, but stories often focus on their hunting habits, so I will stick with that slightly inaccurate description.

Is the fox a fierce predator?

In many stories the fox will display the normal appetites of a real world fox – even if they are dressed like an Edwardian gentleman (The Tale of Jemima Puddleduck by Beatrix Potter). However, their efforts are usually doomed to failure as children’s books are generally considered to be inappropriate places for the harsh realities of nature to be shown. A rare exception to this is The Fox Busters (Dick King-Smith) where many of the chickens do indeed meet a sudden and inglorious end in the teeth of a fox. However, the valiant hens fight back in surprising ways and the laws of storytelling conquer those of nature. (This book is also notable for a brilliant, child-level explanation of natural selection in the second chapter). Unsurprisingly, the books in which foxes behave in the most realistic ways (in terms of their animal characteristics) are mainly those written by authors who of those who specialise in animal stories and have an affinity with the rural environment such as the aforementioned King-Smith and Potter, and Michael Morpurgo. In his Little Foxes the animals are simultaneously predatory and vulnerable. The ‘wildness’ of the fox is sustained right until the end and the animals are treated without sentimentality. Perhaps more surprisingly the other example of pure fox essence is displayed by Roald Dahl, an author more noted for flights of fancy than naturalistic observations. In Fantastic Mr. Fox the battle of fox versus chicken is once more played out, but this time firmly from the hungry fox’s point of view (and that of his family). Mr Fox is cunning and resourceful – but he is also arrogant and puts the life of his family in danger by showing off. That is not to say that he is a foe, merely a well-rounded character. The fox in The Gruffalo (Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler) is clearly a predator too, albeit one out-smarted by a mouse. In all of these, humans tend to be either the enemy, or an irrelevance. So being a realistic predator is not a guarantee that a fox character will be a foe.

Does the fox display particular cunning?

Sometimes the foxy quality in question will relate to some aspect of cunning rather than a primarily carnivorous diet. In Shifty McGifty and Slippery Sam and the Missing Masterpiece by Tracey Corderoy (illustrated by Steven Lenton) the point that the picture-stealing fox is extra crafty is really hammered home by naming him Cunningham Sly. Marco the fox in The Antlered Ship by Dashka Slater (illustrated by the Fan Brothers) has a different kind of intelligence; he is philosophical and asks questions like “How deep does the sun go when it sinks into the sea?”, but his fox family have no interest in such theoretical issues. More interesting is when this characteristic is inverted and where the fox in the story is not nearly as cunning as he likes to think. Rosie’s Walk by Pat Hutchins is a classic of this kind. Part of the joke comes from the reversing of the typical stereotype of the fox as wily and the hen as foolish. I don’t think it would work anything like as well with Rosie being an antelope leading a lion a merry dance around the savannah, even if the formula was the same.

So are foxes in stories always fox-like?

In short, no. In some books the fox is really a child substitute, and could just as well be a raccoon or a hamster; the Foxy books by Colin and Jacqui Hawkins and Five More Minutes by Marta Altes fit this definition. The fox in Nick Butterworth’s delightful Percy the Park Keeper stories also displays few fox-like characteristics. Pat Hutchins once again uses her beautiful illustrative powers on a fox in The Silver Christmas Tree but I think we can all agree that giving a mouse a duster as a Christmas present is not typically fox-like behaviour (great story though). For a cute fox with all-too-realistic urges, you could look at Outfoxed by Claudia Boldt. Here, Harold the fox is missing the normal chicken-eating urges, but does possess the appropriate amount of cunning, enabling him to work out how he can preserve his honour without letting the family down.

So, are foxes friends or foes? The answer would seem to be, it depends from whose perspective the story is seen. They can be brave heroes (or heroines) struggling to keep their families from starvation (Fantastic Mr Fox, Little Foxes) or dastardly villains trying to lure the story’s protagonist to an untimely end (Jemima Puddleduck, Rosie’s Walk), usually unsuccessfully. Or they can give a mouse a duster. Whether they are a hero or villain, foxes have inspired some of the best children’s writers to create books with flair, cunning, humour and fabulous illustrations. Which other books that you love feature friendly or fearsome foxes? Let me know in the comments.

All pictures taken by Barbara Thomas.

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