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More Texts and Audio of “Mr. Fox” for Halloween

Profile of a man in a ruffled collar and tall hat carrying a sword in his right hand and holding what appears to be hair in his left.

Mr. Fox, as drawn by Herbert Cole and published in a 1906 edition of Fairy Gold: A Book of Old English Fairy Tales by Ernest Rhys. (London: J. M. Dent & Sons.)

In two previous posts, I presented an audio recording of the traditional folktale “Mr. Fox,” as told by Connie Regan-Blake, and then a textual transcription of her telling.

This prompted a query by reference librarian Jurretta Heckscher:

Do you have any information on the source of “Mr. Fox” beyond the description that it’s “a classic English story”? It’s quite a tale, and I’d love to know more about it.

This was a terrific question, and exactly the sort that folklorists love to answer.  It also occurs to me that several early texts and illustrations of this story are available and in the public domain to be published on this blog and linked to online, so in this post I’ll present a few versions and link to several more, including an exciting audio recording at the end!

I’ll begin answering with the information I included in the first blog post, the one featuring audio of Connie’s performance:

‘Mr. Fox’ is classified by folklorists as a version of ATU 955, known generically by the Grimms’ title ‘The Robber Bridegroom.’ It’s closely related to the tale known as ‘Bluebeard,’ which first appeared in a French version in Charles Perrault’s 1697 volume Histoires ou Contes du Temps passé: Les Contes de ma Mère l’Oye. But evidence of English versions like Connie’s, in which the dangerous groom is often known as Mr. Fox, may predate the French and German evidence. The Scottish antiquarian Robert Chambers identified references to the story in both Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing (ca. 1598) and book III of Spenser’s The Faerie Queene (ca. 1596).

(You can read a translation of the Perrault story here, and a translation of the Grimms’ tale here.)

To expand on this history a little, in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, Benedick says “Like the old tale, it is not so, nor ’twas not so: but indeed God forbid it should be so.” In Spenser’s Faerie Queene, the nymph Britomart explores the house of the dangerous sorcerer Busyrane, coming across the phrases “Be bold, be bold” and “Be bold, be bold, but not too bold” inscribed over doorways, just as in “Mr. Fox.” Although the appearance in the 16th century of just one of these phrases from the tale might suggest that the phrase in question predates the tale itself, the appearance of both strongly suggests the story was being told as an “old tale” in Shakespeare’s time.

A man with a sword drags a woman toward a staircase. Another woman cowers behind a large cask.

An Illustration of a scene from “Mr. Fox” from Joseph Jacobs’s English Fairy Tales (1890)

It’s because of this connection with Shakespeare that the story was first recorded in a more or less complete text with the name “Mr. Fox.” The version in question appeared in 1821, in Samuel Johnson’s re-edition of Edmond Malone’s Variorum edition of Shakespeare’s works. It was contributed by John Brickdale Blakeway, who first realized that Benedick’s statement was a reference to “Mr. Fox.” Blakeway explained that the story, told to him by a great-aunt, “froze my young blood.” Scholars later determined that the great-aunt was born in 1715, and Blakeway himself was born in 1765, showing that the complete story was almost certainly in oral tradition in England in the eighteenth century.  Here is Blakeway’s letter, including his text of “Mr. Fox.”

Benedict. Like the old tale, it is not so, nor ’twas not so : but indeed God forbid it should be so.]

A scene from “Mr. Fox,” as drawn by Herbert Cole and published in a 1906 edition of Fairy Gold: A Book of Old English Fairy Tales by Ernest Rhys. (London: J. M. Dent & Sons.)

I believe none of the commentators have understood this; it is an allusion, as the speaker says, to an old tale, which may perhaps be still extant in some collections of such things, or which Shakspeare may have heard, as I have, related by a great aunt, in his childhood.
Once upon a time, there was a young lady, (called Lady Mary in the story) who had two brothers. One summer they all three went to a country seat of theirs, which they had not before visited. Among the other gentry in the neighbourhood who came to see them, was a Mr. Fox, a batchelor, with whom they, particularly the young lady, were much pleased. He used often to dine with them, and frequently invited Lady Mary to come and see his house. One day that her brothers were absent elsewhere, and she had nothing better to do, she determined to go thither; and accordingly set out unattended. When she arrived at the house, and knocked at the door, no one answered. At length she opened it, and went in; over the portal of the hall was written “Be bold, be bold, but not too bold:” she advanced: over the staircase, the same inscription: she went up: over the entrance of a gallery, the same: she proceeded: over the door of a chamber, — “Be bold, be bold, but not too bold, lest that your heart’s blood should run cold.” She opened it; it was full of skeletons, tubs full of blood, &c. She retreated in haste; coming down stairs, she saw out of a window Mr. Fox advancing towards the house, with a drawn sword in one hand, while with the other he dragged along a young lady by her hair. Lady Mary had just time to slip down, and hide herself under the stairs, before Mr. Fox and his victim arrived at the foot of them. As he pulled the young lady up stairs, she caught hold of one of the bannisters with her hand, on which was a rich bracelet. Mr. Fox cut it off with his sword: the hand and bracelet fell into Lady Mary’s lap, who then contrived to escape unobserved, and got home safe to her brother’s house.

After a few days, Mr. Fox came to dine with them as usual (whether by invitation, or of his own accord, this deponent saith not). After dinner, when the guests began to amuse each other with extraordinary anecdotes. Lady Mary at length said, she would relate to them a remarkable dream she had lately had. I dreamt, said she, that as you, Mr. Fox, had often invited me to your house, I would go there one morning. When I came to the house, I knocked, &c. but no one answered. When I opened the door, over the hall was written, “Be bold, be bold, but not too bold.” But, said she, turning to Mr. Fox, and smiling. It is not so, nor it was not so; then she pursues the rest of the story, concluding at every turn with “It is not so, nor it was not so,” till she comes to the room full of dead bodies, when Mr. Fox took up the burden of the tale, and said, “It is not so, nor it was not so, and God forbid it should be so:” which he continues to repeat at every subsequent turn of the dreadful story, till she came to the circumstance of his cutting off the young lady’s hand, when, upon his saying as usual, “It is not so, nor it was not so, and God forbid it should be so. Lady Mary retorts, But it is so, and it was so, and here the hand I have to show, at the same time producing the hand and bracelet from her lap: whereupon the guests drew their swords, and instantly cut Mr. Fox into a thousand pieces.

Such is the old tale to which Shakspeare evidently alludes, and which has often “froze my young blood,” when I was a child, as, I dare say, it had done his before me. I will not apologize for repeating it, since it is manifest that such old wives’ tales often prove the best elucidation of this writer’s meaning. Blakeway.

If Blakeway’s version has a shortcoming, it’s that he suddenly felt the desire to summarize just as the tale got dramatic, leading to a long buildup and then the anticlimax of “skeletons, tubs full of blood, &c.” Luckily, his version became a source for other writers more interested in the story’s value as a dramatic and frightening narrative, who didn’t skip over the details.

The most important of these was probably Joseph Jacobs, who published an adaptation in his 1890 volume English Fairy Tales.  Here is Jacobs’s version:

An illustration of a scene from “Mr. Fox” drawn by John D. Batten for Joseph Jacobs’s English Fairy Tales (1890)

LADY Mary was young, and Lady Mary was fair. She had two brothers and more lovers than she could count. But of them all, the bravest and most gallant was a Mr. Fox, whom she met when she was down at her father’s country house. No one knew who Mr. Fox was; but he was certainly brave, and surely rich, and of all her lovers Lady Mary cared for him alone. At last it was agreed upon between them that they should be married. Lady Mary asked Mr. Fox where they should live, and he described to her his castle, and where it was; but, strange to say, did not ask her or her brothers to come and see it.

So one day, near the wedding day, when her brothers were out, and Mr. Fox was away for a day or two on business, as he said, Lady Mary set out for Mr. Fox’s castle. And after many searchings, she came at last to it, and a fine strong house it was, with high walls and a deep moat. And when she came up to the gateway she saw written on it:

Be bold, be bold.

But as the gate was open, she went through it, and found no one there. So she went up to the doorway, and over it she found written:

Be bold, be bold, but not too bold.

Still she went on, till she came into the hall. and went up the broad stairs till she came to a door in the gallery, over which was written:

Be bold, be bold, but not too bold.
Lest that your heart’s blood should run cold.

But Lady Mary was a brave one, she was, and she opened the door, and what do you think she saw? Why, bodies and skeletons of beautiful young ladies all stained with blood. So Lady Mary thought it was high time to get out of that horrid place, and she closed the door, went through the gallery, and was just going down the stairs, and out of the hall, when who should she see though the window but Mr. Fox dragging a beautiful young lady along from the gateway to the door.

Lady Mary rushed downstairs, and hid herself behind a cask, just in time, as Mr. Fox came in with the poor young lady, who seemed to have fainted. Just as he got near Lady Mary, Mr. Fox saw a diamond ring glittering on the finger of the young lady he was dragging, and he tried to pull it off. But it was tightly fixed, and would not come off, so Mr. Fox cursed and swore, and drew his sword, raised it, and brought it down upon the hand of the poor lady. The sword cut off the hand, which jumped up into the air, and fell of all places in the world into Lady Mary’s lap. Mr. Fox looked about a bit, but did not think of looking behind the cask, so at last he went on dragging the young lady up the stairs into the Bloody Chamber.

As soon as she heard him pass through the gallery, Lady Mary crept out of the door, down through the gateway, and ran home as fast as she could.

Now it happened that the very next day the marriage contract of Lady Mary and Mr. Fox was to be signed, and there was a splendid breakfast before that. And when Mr. Fox was seated at table opposite Lady Mary, he looked at her. “How pale you are this morning, my dear.”

“Yes,” she said, “I had a bad night’s rest last night. I had horrible dreams.”

“Dreams go by contraries,” said Mr. Fox; “but tell us your dream, and your sweet voice will make the time pass till the happy hour comes.”

“I dreamed,” said Lady Mary, “that I went yestermorn to your castle, and I found it in the woods, with high walls, and a deep moat, and over the gateway was written:

“Be bold, be bold.”

“But it is not so, nor it was not so,” said Mr. Fox.

“And when I came to the doorway, over it was written:

Be bold, be bold, but not too bold.”

“But it is not so, nor it was not so,” said Mr. Fox.

“And then I went upstairs, and came to a gallery, at the end of which was a door, on which was written:

Be bold, be bold, but not too bold.
Lest that your heart’s blood should run cold.”

“But it is not so, nor it was not so,” said Mr. Fox.

“And then–and then I opened the door, and the room was filled with bodies and skeletons of poor dead women, all stained with their blood.”

“It is not so, nor it was not so. And God forbid it should be so,” said Mr. Fox.

“I then dreamed that I rushed down the gallery, and just as I was going down the stairs I saw you, Mr. Fox, coming up to the hall door, dragging after you a poor young lady, rich and beautiful.”

“It is not so, nor it was not so. And God forbid it should be so,” said Mr. Fox.

“I rushed downstairs, just in time to hide myself behind a cask, when you, Mr. Fox, came in dragging the young lady by the arm. And, as you passed me, Mr. Fox, I thought I saw you try and get off her diamond ring, and when you could not, Mr. Fox, it seemed to me in my dream, that you out with your sword and hacked off the poor lady’s hand to get the ring.”

“It is not so, nor it was not so. And God forbid it should be so,” said Mr. Fox, and was going to say something else as he rose from his seat, when Lady Mary cried out:

“But it is so, and it was so. Here’s hand and ring I have to show,” and pulled out the lady’s hand from her dress, and pointed it straight at Mr. Fox. At once her brothers and her friends drew their swords and cut Mr. Fox into a thousand pieces.

Jacobs has been a source for most modern tellers, including (I suspect) Connie Regan-Blake.  But “The Robber Bridegroom” also remained in oral tradition in Britain, both with and without the personal name “Mr. Fox.”  A long version called “Dr. Forster” was collected in 1914 by T.W. Thompson from Eva Gray in Grimsby, England, and was published by Neil Philip in The Penguin Book of English Folktales. Thompson also created a summary of Gray’s performance and referred to it as “The Cellar of Blood.” That version (again, derived from the same oral performance as “Dr. Forster”) has been published by Katharine Briggs in A Dictionary of British Folk-Tales in the English Language. Given this version featuring a killer named “Forster” in Lincolnshire, it’s a great testament to the continuity of oral tradition that a version called “Old Foster” was recorded from Jane Hicks Gentry in North Carolina by Isabel Gordon Carter in 1925, and published in the Journal of American Folklore.

There’s another related story called “Mr. Fox” in English tradition, in which a young woman goes to meet her lover at a secluded spot. She arrives early, and seeing suspicious signs of activity, climbs a tree. From there she observes her lover preparing to murder her, and sometimes overhears him talking to another man or singing to himself about his intentions. She remains in the tree until he leaves, then confronts him later with riddles that reveal her knowledge of his intention to kill her.

In one version of this tale, the young woman is killed, and her murder becomes the basis of a longstanding “town and gown” enmity between the city of Oxford and Oxford University. James Orchard Halliwell published that version in his book Popular Rhymes and Nursery Tales in 1849, as follows:

A man in a suit with a tail-coat and a bow tie stands leaning on a desk.

James Orchard Halliwell, photographed in 1863 by Ernest Edwards for Lovell Reeve’s Portraits of Men of Eminence in Literature, Science and Art, vol. I.

The Oxford Student
Obtained in Oxfordshire from tradition.

MANY years ago there lived at the University of Oxford a young student, who, having seduced the daughter of a tradesman, sought to conceal his crime by committing the more heinous one of murder. With this view, he made an appointment to meet her one evening in a secluded field. She was at the rendezvous considerably before the time agreed upon for their meeting, and hid herself in a tree. The student arrived on the spot shortly afterwards, but what was the astonishment of the girl to observe that he commenced digging a grave. Her fears and suspicions were aroused, and she did not leave her place of concealment till the student, despairing of her arrival, returned to his college. The next day, when she was at the door of her father’s house, he passed and saluted her as usual. She returned his greeting by repeating the following lines:

One moonshiny night, as I sat high,
Waiting for one to come by,
The boughs did bend; my heart did ache
To see what hole the fox did make.

Astounded by her unexpected knowledge of his base design, in a moment of fury he stabbed her to the heart. This murder occasioned a violent conflict between the tradespeople and the students, the latter taking part with the murderer, and so fierce was the skirmish, that Brewer’s Lane, it is said, ran down with blood. The place of appointment was adjoining the Divinity Walk, which was in time past far more secluded than at the present day, and she is said to have been buried in the grave made for her by her paramour.

Halliwell follows the story with the following note about a different version:

According to another version of the tale, the name of the student was Fox, and a fellow-student went with him to assist in digging the grave. The verses in this account differ somewhat from the above.

As I went out in a moonlight night,
I set my back against the moon,
I looked for one, and saw two come:
The boughs did bend, the leaves did shake,
I saw the hole the Fox did make.

Halliwell doesn’t say whether the young woman is killed by Mr. Fox in this second version of the story, but in most tellings she survives. A good example was published by Sidney Oldall Addy in Household Tales with Other Traditional Remains, Collected in the Counties of York, Lincoln, Derby, and Nottingham, in 1895:

The Girl Who Got Up the Tree

A girl who was leaving her master’s service at a farm in the country told her sweetheart that she would meet him near a stile where they had met many times before. This stile was overhung by a tree. The girl got there before him and found a hole dug underneath the tree, and a pickaxe and spade lying by the side of the hole. She was much frightened at what she saw, and got up the tree. After she had been up the tree awhile her sweetheart came, and another man with him. Thinking that the girl had not yet come, the two men began to talk, and the girl heard her sweetheart say,” She will not come to-night. We’ll go home now, and come back and kill her to-morrow night.” As soon as they had gone the girl came down the tree and ran home to her father. When she had told him what she had seen, the father pondered a.while and then said to his daughter: “We will have a feast and ask our friends, and we will ask thy sweetheart to come and the man that came with him to the tree.” So the two men came along with the other guests. In the evening they began to ask riddles of each other, but the girl who had got up the tree was the last to ask hers. She said:

I’ll rede you a riddle, I’ll rede it you right
“Where was I last Saturday night ?
The wind did blow, the leaves did shake,
When I saw the hole the fox did make.

When the two men who had intended to murder the girl heard this they ran out of the house.

Addy, too, follows his version with a note on variation:

The following variation occurs:

One moonlight night as I sat high
Waiting for one but two came by,
The boughs did bend, my heart did quake
To see the hole the fox did make

Note that in Halliwell’s variant the murderer kills the young woman and in Addy’s he fails to kill her, but in both he apparently escapes. Thus, it’s possible this is another exploit of the same Mr. Fox who appears in the other story. One could therefore interpret Mr. Fox as a recurring character in English folklore, like Robin Hood or Jack.

It’s also interesting that this form of the tale, in which the intended victim climbs a tree, has remained strong in oral tradition as well. Katharine Briggs collected it from storyteller Ruth Tongue in 1960. Tongue’s version, called “Mr. Fox’s Courtship,” is interesting in that the riddles are sung as songs, making the whole performance what folklorists call a cantefable. A transcription of the performance has been published in various of Briggs’s books, including Folktales of England, which she co-authored with Tongue.

Kenny Goldstein (left) and Peter Bartis, two dear departed friends. “Mr. Fox” was one of Kenny’s favorite stories, and he recorded Ruth Tongue’s version of it on tape.

My mentor in folklore, Kenneth S. Goldstein, also visited with Ruth Tongue and collected her version on a reel of tape. I heard it in 1990 or so, soon after I arrived to study with Kenny at the University of Pennsylvania. On that tape, Tongue speaks the riddle during the tale, but follows up by singing another version as a song.

It’s interesting to note that the version she told to Kenny was very different from the one she told to Briggs and published in their book. This suggests that she did not memorize the specific wording of her stories, instead remembering the plots and re-composing the tale at each performance.

Tongue was a storyteller, a singer, and a folklorist, but not trained in ethnography or folklore scholarship. As this blog relates, she is often criticized for making up songs and stories entirely, or building stories around mere scraps of traditional beliefs or sayings, and then claiming she learned them from informants whose names she never knew or could not recall. She may have done so in some cases, but in the case of “Mr. Fox,” her version takes no more liberties with the known tradition than many other storytellers do. However, we should note that she may have borrowed her ending, in which Mr. Fox is cornered at a party the following night and (presumably) killed, from the other main form of “Mr. Fox.”

The really great thing is that we can now all hear Ruth Tongue tell the tale. After Kenny passed away in 1995, a group of his students, friends, and family, including me, helped to pack up his collections and get them to the institutions where they would eventually be archived. I’m delighted to say that the University of Mississippi, which got the Ruth Tongue tape, digitized it and placed it online this past August. I’ll place a link below.

I’ll also attempt to transcribe the tale, using my usual form of transcription informed by my training in ethnolinguistics. I’ll point out first that Ruth Tongue told stories in a strong Somerset dialect in which the form of pronouns usually reserved for the subject is frequently used as the object, and vice versa, leading to phrases like “come and meet I…and us’ll make a match of it.”

On a personal note, it’s very nice for me that exploring this question led me to discover the Ruth Tongue tape online. Halloween is a time for remembering departed loved ones, as well as a time for hearing spooky stories. By hearing this recording, which I first got to hear with a beloved, departed teacher almost 30 years ago, I am lucky enough to do both at once.

Find audio of Ruth Tongue’s “Mr. Fox’s Courtship,” as told to Kenny Goldstein, at this link.  Below, find my own transcription of the tale!

And, of course, Happy Halloween and Día de Muertos to all!

Well there were a
a very nice, upstandable young maid
with a fortune.
Oh, her had a lot o’ money to come to she.
And, o’ course, there was lots o’ people as come along
and thought they’d like to get their hands on it.
But no, she wouldn’t…
she wouldn’t have nothin’ to do with they.
And then one day Mr. Fox himself, he come a courting.
And he smiled, nice, like, to see.
He showed his teeth.
Very nice teeth they were, a bit sharp, but, uh
she didn’t mind that; he
could talk very sweet.
Well, the head and tail of it all was
that he say to her
“Come and meet I
on Saturday night
down coppice
and bring your jewels with you
and us’ll make a match of it.”
Well, her were a spirity maid,
and her had her head screwed on the right way,
so her didn’t quite trust him.
So her come early, see?
And
then she took a look-see at what she could see under one there
tree, and [laugh] marveled.
She hopped into that tree
quicker than you could imagine.
Aye, there were a GRAVE underneath it!
Well
she sat there with all her jewels a-dangling around her neck
and her rings on her fingers
and she shivered to herself.
And then she heard mister Fox coming along
and he didn’t come alone neither, by himself
there were another one with him.
And what was worse:
they had spades!
And they come to the grave
and the maid she sat up above
and she waited
and they waited
and by-and-by
night was over and cock crew
and she hadn’t come
so they up with their spades and they goes off.
And what they says to each other I wouldn’t like to tell ye!
Well, when they’d gone a good long time
The maid, her come down
and her went home
and her thought about it.
But her kept her lips buttoned, see?
Well, there were a party
next night
and
Mr. Fox, he were there all properly a-grin.
So, she didn’t gainsay him
But she up and she said:
“I’ll ask you a riddle.”
So everybody, they listens, like
And she tells them this one:
(There’s a whole song about it
she didn’t quite sing
But this time she says:)
Well
Too little for a ‘oss [horse]
too large for a bee
what were it?
Well, he guessed this
and he guessed that
and he guessed ‘tother thing.
But no.
And then her up and her said to him:
“‘Twere the grave you digged for me.”
Well, such Fox, he showed his teeth
Properly a grin, he did, but
He hopping out of that window as fast as he could go!
He wasn’t gonna wait and see
what her friends and kinsfolk were gonna do.
But I told you her had her head screwed on right, didn’t I?
Well her’d told the hounds
and they was waiting for him outside.
I don’t reckon that he digged no more graves
of pretty rich young misses.

That be one story, and here’s the old song about it:

Where were I last Saturday night?
I were up in the ivy tree
False foxes under me
Seeking to bury me
Under the ivy tree
The boughs they did shake
My heart it did quake
To see the grave they digg-ed for me
But as for me, I were up in the tree.
As they creep-ed home by the dark of the moon
I were up in the ivy tree
They fell in the grave, and they die-ed soon
I were up in the ivy tree
The boughs they did quake
My heart it did quake
All in the grave they digg-ed for me
But as for me, I were up in the tree.

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