On The Fox And The Dog

Something that has always puzzled me about the famous story in which the quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog is its lack of detail. Ever since it first appeared in The Michigan School Moderator in 1885, it has been a popular and well-known story, and I would guess that most people know its basic outline. There is a fox which is quick and brown, and it jumps over a dog which is lazy. Even the most harebrained dimwit can understand that, and it is made all the more vivid by being told in the present tense. That gives it a sense of immediacy, such that we could almost be present, witnessing the fox jumping over the dog.

Yet I cannot be alone in thinking that the tale leaves too many unanswered questions. Of course, as sophisticated readers we do not necessarily want everything handed to us on a plate. We expect to do some work, and part of the pleasure of a tale well told is that we may well have to exercise our imaginations to fill gaps, to flesh out details, to complete a picture which is only hinted at. But in the story of the fox and the dog there is so much missing from the narrative that we are ultimately dissatisfied.

Even the few details we are given beg further questions. How quick is the fox, exactly? Quickness is surely relative. Is the fox quicker or slower than, say, a tortoise or a steam train? Does it move with the swiftness of a javelin through the air, or of a cheetah? Without having any moving object to compare it with, we have no idea of its speed.

The only other thing we know about the fox is that it is brown. Well, that tells us little, given that there are innumerable shades of brown, from umber to dun and from dun to umber, and all sorts of others I cannot be bothered to list. If we were to grab hold of the fox and hold it up against a paint chart, a grid of squares of various shades of brown, where would we stop and cry “Aha! Look how closely the colour of this fox struggling in our grasp and attempting to bite our wrist matches the colour of that square, such that if we painted the room with it from floor to ceiling we would render the fox invisible!”? We do not know the answer to that question.

Things are even less satisfactory in the case of the dog. At least with the fox we are given two snippets of information, vague as both those snippets may be. But all we are told of the dog is that it is lazy. It is true that, being a personality trait, the imputation of laziness tells us more – much more – about the character of the dog than we ever learn about the character of the fox. Insightful as this may be, however, it is meagre pickings.

Thus we have several questions directly related to what little we do know. How many more are thrown up when we consider what we are not told! What manner of dog is it? Is it asleep or awake? Has it been recently fed? Is it sound of limb? Does it wear a collar to which is affixed a small round metal tag with its name engraved upon it? Is it a homeless stray? Where the hell is the damned dog anyway? On a lawn? Outside a kennel? Inside a kennel? As the questions multiply, we begin to lose patience with the dog. If it were real rather than fictional, we would be tempted to kick it, or at least to throw a stick for it to go and fetch, were it to overcome its idleness. As a dog in a story it leaves much to be desired. One thinks, briefly and fugitively, of the hound of the Baskervilles, or the lapdog belonging to the lady in the Chekhov story. No doubt you can add your own fictional dogs. By any measure, the lazy dog in the present story is a pretty sorry specimen.

We may posit a similar, and endless, list of questions about the fox, if we are so minded. Frankly the prospect is wearying. The sad fact is we know in advance that repeated readings of the story will help us answer none of them.

If we put aside both the fox and the dog, and consider in isolation the action of the story, we realise how feeble it is. We have as much idea of the motivation of the fox, in jumping over the dog, as Tippi Hedren had about that scene in The Birds where her character Melanie Daniels inexplicably enters a room full of savage frenzied birds. At least Tippi had the wit to ask Alfred Hitchcock why on earth Melanie would be so stupid. We do not know if the fox is being equally stupid, or wise, or perhaps merely playful. It might be larking about for no apparent reason. But as readers, we want to know.

I must confess that I became so exasperated with the writer that I determined to send one of my notorious Letters of Remonstrance. Recipients, among them Jeanette Winterson, Will Self, and the late Iris Murdoch, are known to quake in their boots and make abject promises to mend their ways. Then I recalled that the story of the fox and the dog was originally published in 1885 and thus, barring a freak of nature, the author was almost certainly dead and gone to that place from where none return except zombies. I pummelled a cushion in my frustration.

My next step will be to go to the Wolverine State and to trawl through the archives of The Michigan School Moderator, hoping to lay my hands on working notes, early drafts, and possibly alternative versions of the tale. Then I intend to publish a long overdue critical edition, annotated with scholarly notes, of at least eight hundred pages, including colour plates with mezzotints of a fox (quick and brown) and a dog (lazy). I think I shall ask eighty-two-year-old Tippi Hedren to write the foreword.

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3 Responses to “On The Fox And The Dog”


  • Ah, now then, this fox.
    I wonder if it was the fox Robert Hughes spoke of in Pt.1 of the land-mark BBC series, Shock of the New?
    The fox, we are informed by Mr. Hughes, knew many things yet was companion to a hedgehog that knew one big thing.

    OSM

  • I thank you for your review, my dearest Mr. Key, which I think – in broad strokes – sums up the most pertinent questions to students of the story, the ‘pillars’ of our discipline.
    I think you will agree with me also that many of the factual questions you raise will in time be answered upon careful scrutiny of video documentation now published (or is that ‘leaked’ one might speculate) about the incident: https://video.twimg.com/tweet_video/C16czVIWEAADzgj.mp4. I advise all people to see the video and form their own opinions, but in my eyes, the dog appears to be standing, it is of a light brown (cappuccino?) colour, and the fox does indeed appear to be in a somewhat playful mood – if ‘playful’ and ‘mood’ can be properly applied to canines.

    Of more interest, perhaps, to students of the story is the new insights the video give about the performance of the actual jump. How many of us, for instance, had in our mental reproduction of the scene envisioned the fox *landing* on the dog. If I am not much mistaken, the photographic evidence of this occurring will spawn much renewed interest, will force us to rethink many interpretation we had come to accept as self-evident, and, we may hope, open up entirely new avenues of research into the psychological implications of the story.

    My personal analysis on the history of studies in the dog-and-fox story is that the community can be roughly divided between parabelists, historist and omenists – of course proposing this meta-theory will infuriate many if not all scholars in the field, but alas, so is my burden…:
    Parableists see the story as a parable, to be read for its symbolic and moral implications (far too many and multiform to mention here – not least because the emergence of the video, I think we all must now agree, renders the entire avenue of thought untenable). To parableists (or the agniostics if you prefer) it is irrelevant whether the event actually occurred or not; the story has very real social and human significance today irrespectably. Historists see the incident as an actual occurrence of the past; omenists, on the other hand, see it as prophetic vision of a future, possibly, messianic event (not unlike the less well researched story of the lamb lying down with the lion published in a much inferior literary piece of drivel whose name momentarily slips my mind but which may be familiar to your readers).

    The new video evidence should feed much renewed interest in the two latter schools of thought: Is this the final proof that the quick brown fox did indeed jump over the lazy dog – and when and where did this then happen..? Or is this the sign that Armageddon is upon us? I think we all agree that we are living in intensely interesting – what could be traumatizing – times. I for one shall sleep little while this new evidence is being scrutinized in labs and offices around the world.

    As to the implications for our field as such, I believe this could be the time that lay people, average Janes and average Joes around the world, realize that we are not, emphatically not, crackpots and monomaniacs. Our studies have very serious and very real implications for the future of mankind. I foresee a future of even more specialized journals and conferences, and perhaps even an international newspaper dedicated to fox-and-dog’ology. I foresee a future where any serious national newspaper worthy of its name will have a daily section or a weekly supplement on current trends and new findings on a par with their treatment of business, culture, weather, TV and politics. I foresee in other words, brothers and sisters, a future where we will receive the same media coverage as our colleagues and rivals in dogs-on-skateboard’ology. I have always held that an important component in their media flair was the constant outpouring of new photographic evidence which is only too eagerly lapped up (if you will excuse the pun) by newsrooms.

    These are exciting times, Mr. Key, and I trust you will follow the development closely in your show. You have always been a leading light in independent coverage of the news the people really want to know about.

  • … Upon further inspection more questions are raised, questions we have never asked ourselves, I believe. I hasten to mention two. You will excuse my erratic style. I feel that this must out and that content must take precedence over style:

    As stipulated in your original piece, most previous research into the colour of the fox – the exact shade of its brownness – has unquestioningly assumed that the fox had *one* colour. What I think most viewers (those not blind or colour blind – minorities who have rarely though to say ‘never’ would also be a lie – taken an interest in the question) will agree is that the fox is indeed multi-coloured. Some areas appear much lighter than others, some darker. Indeed some areas seem scarcely properly described as ‘brown’ at all – without this in any sense invalidating the truth of the description of the fox as – taken in its entirety – brown.

    Also interpretations of the fox’s jump have seen it as *one* seamless action, one movement of jumping-flying-and-landing, as if the fox’s leap was governed by the premeditated intention of ‘jumping-over’. One alternative interpretation of the events fuelled by the video, and especially of the fox’s landing on the dog, is that the action was not so much intended as a jumping-over action, but maybe instead as a complex sequence of ‘jumping-up-and-sliding-down’. If you will for a moment entertain the possibility of the view, it raises new questions into the psychology of the fox including reasons for the jump and indeed WHETHER IT IS EVEN AWARE OF THE DOG AS A SENTIENT AND ANIMATE ENTITY!

    Firstly the sliding-off may be viewed as an non-intentional mishap or a miscalculation by the fox. Perhaps the fox never intended the falling-and-landing. Perhaps, dare I raise the question, the fox in the story lives in complete oblivion of gravity and the saying that ‘all that go up must come down’? Seeing the even as ‘jumping-up-and-sliding-down’ may profoundly change our understanding of the fox, but also of the moral implications of the story. Is it perhaps the story of a dreamer, a visionary being met by the realities of a vicious mechanical universe..?

    Secondly, if the fox is not so much jumping (playfully, joyfully, tauntingly etc.) *over* the dog, it is perhaps jumping to gain a vantage point? Perhaps, just perhaps I will not claim this as my hypothesis, the fox views the dog merely as a physical feature in the landscape? Perhaps it might as well have jumped onto a rock, a barrel or similar, only a dog (or more truthfully an object that we humans perceive as a dog, for the fox as I speculate may have no compatible term) was the nearest object. If the fox is indeed unaware of the dog as a canine, an animate being etc., the implications of the story – indeed much of what we know of it – must be completely reviewed: No longer is the fox playful, joyful, taunting etc., but also no longer is it aware of the peril it is exposing itself to. Perhaps, then, this is the story of a happy-go-lucky fox who escapes the dangers of the world through ignorance..? But why, it this is so, did it jump in the first places? What was it trying to see? Or was it perhaps fleeing something? We shall never know, but we may speculate.

    And if you entertain the idea that the fox was not so much ‘jumping-over’ as ‘jumping-up’, what happens to the dog in the story? Is it aware of the fox as an animate entity? Is this perhaps the story of domestication and the effect it has on the cognition and the interpersonal (or inter-canine) life of wild vs. domesticized animals? And what does the dog think of the intentions of the fox? Does it know that (or does it indeed speculate whether) the fox sees it as animate? How does it interpret the intentions of the fox’s jumping? Does if experience a (joyful, playful, taunting) jumping-over or a visionary or naïve ‘jumping-up’? And how does it feel (for dogs have feelings I am sure we all agree) about the fox’s perceiving it as an animate, sentient being vs. perceiving is as a mere physical, inanimate object? Do dogs get depressed if they feel ignored by fellow, although wild, members of the canine family? And may this even explain the dogs laziness in the first place?

    So many questions, Mr. Key. So many questions.

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