Chanticleer and the Fox: My Book Review

January 8, 2009

Yesterday I read Bridget a picture book we have – Chanticleer and the Fox (illustrated by Barbara Cooney.) We have a ridiculous number of children’s books, and so although my older girls have undoubtedly read this one or at least studied its amazing illustrations, I had never read the text before. The story is adapted, as all literary types will know, from Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.

Now, I vaguely remember reading some of the Canterbury Tales in a college lit class, but it is one of those great works of literature that I sheepishly must admit I’ve not studied very thoroughly. So I was surprised by the story and by it’s powerful yet subtle “instruction” for life. I have read Walter Wangerin’s Book of the Dun Cow which features as it’s main character Chanticleer. I found that book to be a poignant and moving story. And it sprung into being after Wangerin studied Chaucer’s “Nun’s Priest Tales.” John H. Zimmerman, author of Other Worlds, makes the observation about Chanticleer, that he is “that vainglorious cock…who better than any man, perhaps, tutors us in human frailty.”

I think this is a lovely description of this character, and it’s the mark of a good story that it “instructs and delights” children as well as grownups.

Basically the story is about Chanticleer, the lordly rooster who reigns in the yard of a poor widow woman and her household of two daughters, three large sows, three cows, a sheep called Molly, and seven hens. Chanticleer is tempted by flattery when the fox slyly instructs him about how to really sound marvelous when he crows. “Now sing, sir, for holy charity; let’s see if you can sing as well as your father.”  Chanticleer succumbs to the honeyed words and in so doing, is seized by the fox and carried out of his yard. The entire household of beasts and people pursue the conniving fox, and Chanticleer, in his fear and humility, tempts the fox to brag of his capture.  The fox succumbs to this opportunity to display his pride, opens his mouth to begin his boasting, and so Chanticleer is freed. A simple tale, and yet profound in pointing out the foolish self-importance  that we embrace, and how it is often the cause of our demise.

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