Our Favorite Magical Animal
It is definitely fair to say that animals play a big role in different types of fantastic stories. But few animals make for more interesting additions to mythology or folklore than the fox. Foxes and fox magic play a huge role in stories from both Eastern and Western traditions, and fox magic has long helped to exaggerate the natural traits of these wily forest creatures.
In many fairy tales and other such stories, foxes traditionally play a role that thrives on either being sneaky or supernatural, or sometimes even both. In Asian mythologies from Japan, China, and Korea, foxes are often depicted with more than one tail and the ability to shapeshift, turning into beautiful women for the purpose of seducing or possessing important men. Meanwhile, in European cultures, fox spirits in stories are more often masculine, intelligent tricksters, frequently with anthropomorphic features. And in the oral traditions of the American Indian, foxes (as well as coyotes) are also frequently tricksters and thieves.
Let’s take a closer look at some specific examples of fox magic in both older folktales, as well as today’s modern media, beginning with:
My Girlfriend is a Nine-Tailed Fox
Gumiho and the Inter-Species Romance
My Girlfriend is a Nine-Tailed Fox is a Korean television drama based in part on the traditional folktale of the gumiho, a female fox spirit who is traditionally mean-spirited and hungry for human hearts (literally). However, in this 2010 television drama, the titular fox is Mi Ho, and she doesn’t want to eat the male protagonist’s heart. Instead, she falls in love with him. And because of her shape-shifting abilities, this is not nearly as weird as it would be if she stayed in the form of a fox the whole time. But much like traditional gumiho folktales, where shape-shifting fox spirits retain some element of their foxiness, like ears or a tail, there are many moments where you can see Mi Ho indeed still has nine tails as a human. And since this is ostensibly a love story, there is a good chance that Mi Ho and her desired paramour end up together by the end of the series, but if you really want to know you will have to check it out for yourself.
The Sandman: The Dream Hunters
Kitsune Falls in Love
The Sandman: The Dream Hunters is a fairy tale written by Neil Gaiman and illustrated by Yoshitaka Amano. This tale is another love story, this time between a Buddhist priest and a playful kitsune. Kitsune is the Japanese word for fox spirit, and the fox in this story begins the tale by trying to frustrate the priest, before changing to a beautiful woman and falling in love with him. Again, this is consistent with Japanese folk tales where kitsune are not necessarily good or evil, and act in accordance with their own desires. The Dream Hunters is a beautiful story in its original format (as evidenced by the illustration above), and there is a comic book adaptation by P. Craig Russell that visually expands on Gaiman and Amano’s original tale.
Fantastic Mr. Fox
Fantastic Mr. Fox was originally a book by Roald Dahl that was later adapted into a feature film by Wes Anderson. While the titular Mr. Fox (voiced by George Clooney) may be lacking in literal magical ability, there is certainly something...different about this character. Mr. Fox portrays the foxy stereotype of being a wily trickster, often to his and his family’s detriment, although everything tends to work out for this intelligent and anthropomorphic scalawag. His hijinx could also generally be described as merely mischievous, and not outright evil, in stark contrast to his traditional European counterpart...
Reynard the Fox
The Magician King's Nasty Antagonist
Reynard the Fox is another anthropomorphic fox, but this fellow tends to be portrayed as much more black-hearted than the Fantastic Mr. Fox. Reynard is shown in numerous classic European folk tales to be a sneaky robber baron who only looks good in comparison to the downright scandalous actions of his contemporaries, the nasty Noble the Lion and Bruin the Bear. However, there are modern stories that have utilized Reynard in ways that leave no room for empathy towards the character. One such book is Lev Grossman’s The Magician King, wherein Reynard is at first seen by other characters as a sneaky but harmless trickster, but ultimately reveals his quite nasty true colors.
Such brutal interpretations of the character of Reynard are consistent with traditional tales of this fantastic fox, where he usually seeks to fulfill his own sexual and gastronomical proclivities without concern for anyone else. Still, the character is so popular that his name was the origin for the French word for fox (renard).
It Might Not Be Love
It Might Just Be Fox-Fire
It is clear from all of the stories above that while supernatural foxes may often be entertaining in their magical and mischievous activities, they do not always have the best interests of those around them at heart. They tend to be very passionate creatures in folktales, containing quite a bit of “fox fire,” but do not let their shape-shifting or their disingenuous promises fool you: a fox wants your heart, but they will be content to either win it over or just eat it outright.