NSFW: If We Don’t Spy on Some Acronyms, the Terrorists Will Win

As some of you may have heard by now, The US Government has launched an effort to keep tabs on terrorists who meet in online games like World of Warcraft, Call of Duty 4, and Second Life. This is old news, I know, dating back to the beginning of March, but as a medievalist I have no pretensions to timeliness. In my defense, The Daily Show just got around to making fun of it this week, and they’ve got dozens of writers on staff.*

I first learned of the US government’s program to track the threat of Al Quaeda in Azeroth through this BBC story. The best part of the story, for me, is the judicious understatement in the captioned image that accompanies it:


a hawt blood elf warlock
Experts say terror groups are unlikely to use games such as World of Warcraft.


Really, BBC copy editor? Your experts don’t think that Osama Bin Ladin spends evenings dancing around as a hawt night elf druid trying to recruit the young and impressionable into global jihad? Ok, you’re right, that does sound a bit far fetched–and anyway, I heard he respecced into herbalism and is too busy ATM grinding in Zangarmarsh. (Bog Lords FTW!)

The medieval angle that makes this bizarre waste of taxpayer money news appropriate for Got Medieval is not the elven babe pictured above or World of Warcraft in general, but rather the name that the US has chosen for the program that eavesdrops on MMORPG- and FPS-gamers: Project Reynard.

Reynard the Fox is one of the pieces of medieval popular culture that modern culture** (particularly the English-speaking part of it), has almost entirely forgotten. At best, he has been reduced to a single trivia fact: the explanation for why in Disney’s 1973 Robin Hood movie Robin is a fox (after Reynard), Richard a lion (after his king, Noble), and the Sheriff of Nottingham a wolf (after Reynard’s antagonist, Isengrim). More than likely, the government official tasked with finding a good name for this stealthy spy initiative looked Reynard up at Wikipedia, which, as of this writing, describes Reynard rather mildly as “a trickster figure whose tale is told in a number of anthropomorphic tales.”

So then, allow me to re-introduce the real Reynard the Fox (pictured center) who has licensed his name to the US government’s virtual data-mining program:***

So, obviously, Wikipedia is leaving a few things out, but in this, the web encyclopedia is in good company. One of the more famous early modern English printed versions of the Reynard (fr: Renart) cycle billed itself as The Most Delectable History of Reynard the Fox. Newly Corrected and Purged, from all grossness in Phrase and Matter. Augmented and Enlarged with sundry Excellent Morals and Expositions upon every several Chapter.

Trust Got Medieval to bring back the grossness in both phrase and matter! In the picture above from an illuminated manuscript of the cycle, we find that our merry trickster Reynard has gotten Hersent the She-Wolf, the wife of his rival Isengrim, to chase him back to his house and in through the door. Since she is wider than him, she doesn’t quite fit through the door to his cute little fox hole, and so she gets stuck. Reynard, the cheeky little scamp, goes straight out the back door so that he can circle around and use Hersent’s back door. On the left, that’s Isengrim arriving to find Reynard thrusting away at his wife enthusiastically. As the story proceeds, Reynard convinces Isengrim that he was merely trying to help push Hersent through the hole to help her get unstuck and enlists Isengrim to help him push harder. It’s just like that story where Winnie the Pooh gets stuck in Rabbit’s hole, except everyone’s having sex. Dirty wolf-on-fox-on-wolf sex.

From this seminal act of furry eroticism, a multi-branching cycle of dirty, bloody tales spins off. The main characters are, as Wikipedia says, anthropomorphic animals, but unlike in Aesopian fables or Saturday morning cartoons, the animals in the Roman de Renart are not just little humans with fur and ears and tales. Yes, they walk and talk, they wear clothes, they have a king, they go to church, and they even bring adorable little lawsuits against one another, but, from time to time, one of them (usually Reynard), is going to have to eat one of the others, because that’s what animals do. Yes, Reynard’s cute little animal friends have names like “Browny the Bear,” but the story about Browny’s love of honey ends with him getting all the skin ripped off of his head, courtesy of a trap in a tree laid by Sir Reynard, who then taunts the horrifically wounded bear for the unfashionable red hood he’s now “wearing.”

Reynard is a trickster, but the sort of trickster who shows up to confession and eats the priest and mails the priest’s head to the king. He’s the sort that sneaks into your home, sleeps with your wife, and pisses on your aghast children before running off with all the food from your cupboard.****

But maybe I’m selling the government short when I propose that they didn’t research past Wikipedia. Maybe the FBI intended just this sort of allusion. Perhaps they wanted to send a message to the terrorists: while you’re in Second Life busy pretending to be an anthropomorphic diaper-wearing wolf as part of an elaborate plot to get somebody to blow something up, the US government will be eating your friends and making sweet, sweet love to your wife, possibly at the same time.

*Keep watching until 2:53 in the clip linked in that sentence to meet “Beowolf Porpoiseburg.” Well worth the click.
**Especially by culture warriors who look back to the Middle Ages as a time unencumbered by irony when respect for religion and authority flourished–the sort of account you’d get in a book like Brad Miner’s Compleat Gentleman.
**Frequent readers of my blog will perhaps suspect, as do I, that Lancelot and Isengrim use the same architect.
***And in the later tales, things get progressively trippier. In one, Reynard poses as a doctor and tricks the king into eating his subjects. In another, Reynard paints himself yellow as part of an elaborate parody of Tristan and Isolde. In yet another, Reynard finds a stick that lets him dig holes that magically become female genitalia.****
****I wish I had a good explanation for why magical private parts come up so often here on my blog, but the Yale health plan only covers one semester’s worth of therapy. I suppose it’s technically possible to study the Middle Ages without the subject ever being broached, but honestly, everywhere I look, there they are.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Katrin

    Concerning the magical private parts, do you know the german story about the rose garden? The lady goes into her garden every morning, and by accident sits on a very special herb that gives her private parts the power of speech. And then the two quarrel and decide to split… very, very funny indeed. The story is called “Von dem rosen dorn eyn gut red”, and it’s in a book called “Der münch mit dem genßlein. 13 spätmittelalterliche Verserzählungen.”

  • Got Medieval

    This is precisely what I mean. Here I am, minding my own business, trying to tidy up an argument about Bliocadran, and ambulatory genitalia just fall right into my lap.

    Never heard of it before now, but at this rate, I’m halfway to a conference paper. Thanks!

    A quick JSTOR search says that the male version of the story exists, too, Nonnenturnier, which follows the adventures of the newly liberated genitals of a castrated man at a convent.

    Turns out the Germans were more interesting than Parzival would lead one to believe. Who knew?

  • Katrin

    Well, if your model of German medieval texts is good ol’ Parzival, you’re in for a surprise when you start reading the (late medieval) maerelein. There’s sexiness galore – really educational. The one downside of reading those interesting texts is that probably for a few days afterwards, you’ll laugh out loud or blush in normal conversations, since what your opposite just said makes for a delicious medieval double-entendre. Think words like ring, eat, drink. One of my favorite expressions is “the eleventh finger”. Muahahaha. Need a co-author for that paper?

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