The Questing Beast and the doom of King Arthur

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Image by Howard Pyle – Public Domain

The Questing Beast in Arthurian legend

In Arthurian legend the Questing Beast was a strange, unworldly creature sought by some of the knights of the Round Table such as Sir Percival, Sir Palomides and Sir Pellinore.   The beast  was so named because of the noise it makes from its stomach that sound like a pack of questing hounds.  Sometimes because of this it was called the Beste Glatisant.  The word glatisant is related to a French word glapissant that means the barking or yelping of dogs.  It was also known as the Barking Beast and the Bizarre Beast.

Just as it was difficult to catch in the hunt it is an elusive beast in Arthurian legend and is presented differently in many of the versions of Arthurian stories at the different times in which it appears.  When it does appear it is usually in a short, symbolic way that prepares the ground for something of a profound or important nature.

The changing beast

The Questing Beast changed in appearance  from its first mention in early French Arthurian romances through various other works of literature through the ages.  The earliest versions described it as being a beautiful, pure white creature, smaller than a fox. The noise that issues from its belly was supposed to be the sound of its offspring that were tearing the insides of the beast apart. In later versions it becomes a very strange and unworldly beast having the body of a leopard, the head and neck of a snake, the haunches of a lion and the hooves of a deer depending on which text it appears in.

The first stories of the beast in Arthurian romance tells that it appeared after Arthur had an affair with Morgause, his half sister, which resulted in the conception of Mordred. They did not know they were related to each other when the incestuous affair began or how devastating the future consequences would prove to be.  Incest and adultery are significant themes in Arthurian legend which crop up in a number of stories.

Arthur and the Questing Beast

Arthur had to fight many battles and defeat many kings before he was acknowledged as overlord of all.  Throughout the fighting he had two invaluable aids that he relied upon. The first was Merlin his enigmatic mentor and trusted councilor.  The second was  his sword, Excalibur which he only drew from necessity.  As his conquests and fame spread knights came to follow him from across Britain.  Knights also came from over the sea such as Sir Lancelot, Sir Palomides and and the brothers Sir Ban and Sir Bors from Gaul.  It came to Arthur’s attention that one of his friends, the King of Cameliard was being attacked and was in dire need of assistance.  He and Sir Ban and King Bors went to his aid.  It was during this time that Arthur first saw and met with Guinevere who later became his queen.  After they had been victorious in the fighting Sir Ban and Sir Bors returned over the sea to Gaul but Arthur traveled to a town then called Carlion that lay upon the river Usk.

A dream of chaos

On his way he stopped to rest from his labors and while he rested he had a strange dream. He saw in this dream a land ravaged and haunted by gryphons, serpents and monsters of all kinds.  They preyed upon the people killing them and making them live in terror and chaos.  In his dream he fought against the monsters and although he finally killed them all bringing order to chaos he was badly wounded in the process.

The hart

He awoke from slumber with a heavy heart for the dream had seemed real and now it troubled him greatly.  In an attempt to drive it from his mind he called his knights telling them they would go hunting and the party rode off into the forest in search of game.  Once in the forest they soon roused a hart and Arthur  gave chase.   The hart ran hard and fast and his horse could not out pace it but Arthur would not give up and chased it all day long. Still he could not gain on it and eventually his exhausted horse died underneath him from its exertions.

The Questing Beast

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Arthur and the Questing Beast – Public Domain

Unable to continue the chase Arthur sat underneath a tree until he heard the sound of a pack of baying hounds coming in his direction. Raising his head to look he was astounded to see that a most strange and unworldly beast was coming through the forest towards him.

The sound of the yelping dogs was coming from inside it.  Never before had he seen or heard of such a creature as this and he watched in silent astonishment as it passed by.

The beast made its way to a nearby spring where it stopped and drank.  While it drank the terrible sound emitted from its belly stopped.  When it had  finished drinking the sound began again and the beast moved off disappearing into the forest.

Pellinore

As Arthur sat thinking about the strange creature along came a knight riding on an exhausted horse.  Seeing Arthur resting under the tree deep in thought he reined in his horse and asked Arthur if he had seen any sign of a bizarre and fell beast. Arthur told him that indeed he had and that it had appeared from the forest taken a drink at the well and then returned to the forest.  He also told him the way it had gone advising that it was probably two miles away by this time.  Curious about the knight, Arthur asked his name and what he wanted with such an unworldly creature.

The knight not seem to recognizing Arthur as king and replied that his name was Pellinore and he had followed the breast for a long time over a great distance.  He said he had ridden his poor horse nearly to death in pursuit of it and would continue still if he could only find a replacement.  In other stories Pellinore nearly kills Arthur who is saved by Merlin and Pellinor becomes a Knight of the Round Table and serves Arthur valiantly.

At that moment one of Arthur’s squires arrived with a fresh horse for Arthur. Seeing this the knight begged Arthur for the horse telling him he had pursued the breast for twelve months and swore that either he would kill it, or it would kill him.  Arthur then spoke to Pellinore and advised that he should let go of the pursuit and he would take it up for the same duration of time that he had hunted it, saying he had done his part and urged him to accept this offer.  Pellinore though would not accept this telling him it was his family’s doom to seek the beast and called Arthur a fool for making such a suggestion.  He told him that no one else in the world could kill the beast save himself and his next of kin, though he was mistaken possibly through his obsession with it.  The beast could only be killed by a few chosen individuals whose qualifications for the task are not revealed, but those who join the pursuit become totally obsessed to the point of derangement with it.

Pellinore then sprang forward pushing his squire aside and leapt upon the fresh horse he led. Arthur shook his head and told him that while he could steal his horse by force while he was unmounted he would like the chance to see which of them was the best horseman with a lance. Pellinore replied that when he wanted him he should come to this spring and there he would always be found. He then spurred the fresh horse in pursuit of the beast leaving Arthur bemused at Pellinore and the events that had unfolded.  Puzzled and annoyed Arthur watched as Pellinore rode off after the beast.  Then he sent his squire to fetch another horse and sat down under the tree again to wait.

Arthur meets a boy

Merlin, Arthur’s councilor and enchanter, transformed himself into a boy and appeared out of the forest to Arthur to his surprise and asked him why he seemed so thoughtful. Seeing only a boy Arthur told him that after what he had just seen he had  a lot to think about as it was the strangest thing in the world. The boy told him that he knew what he had just seen and that he should not let his mind dwell upon it.  He then told him that he knew all of his thoughts and that he knew Uther Pendragon was his father and that the Lady Igraine was his mother. This angered Arthur who demanded to know how he knew what he did not. The boy turned and told him that no one in the world knew him better than he and vanished into the forest.

Arthur meets an old man

Merlin then transformed himself into an old man and appeared to Arthur in this guise and went and sat down by the spring to rest. As Arthur approached to talk to him Merlin asked him why he looked so sad.  Arthur told him he had a lot to be sad about and that he had just met a boy who told him him things about himself that he should not know, adding that he knew the names of his mother and father.   The old man told him that the boy was right and that if he had only have listened to him he would have told him that he had made God angry when he lay with his sister.  From this would come a child that would bring down his realm killing him and his knights.  Astounded and angry Arthur demanded to know who he was he was now talking to.

Merlin’s revelations

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Merlin – Public Domain

The old man transformed into Merlin and told Arthur it was he who had come to him as a boy and then an old man.  He then told him that he knew all things that were to come and explained the origin of  the Questing Beast.

Merlin reveals to him that a human princess had given birth to the beast after she had lusted after her own brother.  A demon had promised to make her brother love her if she slept with it.  She agreed to the bargain but  when it was done the demon manipulated her into falsely accusing her brother of rape.  Her furious father ordered that her brother should be torn limb from limb by dogs.

Just before he died her brother foretold that his sister would conceive a monster that would make the same noise that the dogs made as he was torn apart.  As he had prophesied his sister gave birth to the monstrous Questing Beast.

Arthur’s doom revealed

Merlin then revealed to Arthur his destiny saying that he would die nobly being killed in battle. He then told him his own destiny would be shameful being imprisoned alive in the earth.  While they were talking Arthur’s squire returned with fresh horses.  Arthur and Merlin both mounted the  horses and rode off to Carlion.  When they arrived Arthur sent for Ulfius and Ector who had both known him since birth and asked them the truth about his parents and his conception.  They confirmed to him that Uther Pendragon was his father and Queen Igraine his mother. Arthur then sent for Igraine who came bringing with her fair daughter, Morgan le Fay with her.  Arthur welcomed them both in a way befitting their status and with great respect and Igraine confirmed what he had been told..

Chaos and balance

In this story the appearance of the Questing Beast  can be seen as a precursor to introduce a situation that is not right, or is unnatural, where the combination of wrongs, or even a single wrong, work to influence and manifest in the future.  For Arthur his incestuous liaison with Morgause will produce Mordred dooms him even though both were unaware of their relationship to each other. The beast was born from an incestuous relationship between the princess and her brother that produced the abominable creature. In the Arthurian world incest is against  the natural order creating chaos and unbalancing the human world.  Somehow the balance of nature must be restored and it is Pellinore and others after him who join the quest to kill the beast that tries to restore the balance of nature.

In the Arthurian world sin is not forgotten or cast aside it comes back in later life often with devastating effect and some see the  Questing Beast as a manifestation of the incest, violence and chaos that eventually destroys Arthur’s realm.  The irony is the beast itself is innocent, as was Arthur in the deception that Merlin placed on Igraine when Uther laid with her.   Both are the product of the wrongdoing of others and yet they become the instruments of god, or the gods.

The doom of King Arthur

So when Arthur meets the Questing Beast after dreaming of his own downfall he is told by Merlin about the circumstances  of his own birth.  He is told how he will be the father of the man who eventually kills him and brings his kingdom to ruin through his incestuous affair with Morgause.  Once Arthur had this knowledge he needed to find a way to deal with it which in later stories he attempts to do.  Although he cannot save his earthly life some might say he successfully saved his soul in how he later  eventually deals with Mordred and dies nobly in battle as foretold. Yet there is disagreement over whether he died.  Some accounts say he died while others say he was taken to Avalon for healing. Still others say he sleeps in a cave or waits in Avalon for the time he will return to save Britain from her enemies.

© 11/04/2016  zteve t evans

References and Attributions

Copyright April 11th, 2016 zteve t evans

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2 thoughts on “The Questing Beast and the doom of King Arthur

  1. Great post. Lots of moral lessons in the original stories. I prefer the BBC version of the Arthurian legends in Merlin, still a lot to deal with but without the extra confusion of who is related to who – and there’s tons of magic 🙂

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