Bisclavret (The Werewolf), is a Breton lai, by a medieval female writer and poet known as Marie de France. It is one of twelve narrative poems known as The lais of Marie de France. Many of the lais were derived from Breton folklore and legends with Celtic influences and elements of the supernatural all interwoven together. She claimed the lais were based on ballads she had heard from troubadours and minstrels.
In the poem translated Judith P. Shoaf, Marie explains that Garwalf is the Norman name for a werewolf and Bisclavret, the Breton name. However, Bisclavret, although still a werewolf, is significantly different from the Garwolf, displaying more restrained and disciplined behavior than the wild savagery usually associated with such beasts. (1)
Marie’s lais tell stories that move in and out of the supernatural and real world exploring complex emotions and morals that wreak havoc in the human condition. The lai of Bisclavret tells of a shape-shifting baron whose perfect world is marred by what he deems to be a terrible and shameful affliction. To hide his shame and in a sense to protect his own humanity from the perceptions of others, he keeps this a secret. This work presents a discussion of what it means to be human and then provides a version of the story concluding with a discussion on the humanity and “beastliness” shown by the main characters.
Human or Beast?
The shifting of human to beast amid the dark, tangled forest explores some of our primal fears, challenging our concept of humanity. Is it just the clothing we wear and the adornments, the accessories, and jewelry and the paraphernalia that we think give us status and make us attractive and carry with us that make us human? Or is it our behavior, our manners, the way we conduct ourselves and the way we treat and think of other people that make us human or worthy of love, respect, and acceptance?
Marie de France lived in medieval times in medieval society with medieval culture and philosophy. Her lais utilize legends and folklore of her time skilfully woven into narrative poems that tell stories that explore and challenge our understanding of the human condition and reflect the ethos of her times. But that world of Marie has passed and we now live in the modern world with all its trappings, culture, and philosophy. What can we make of Bisclavret (The Werewolf) by Marie de France today?
The Story of Bisclavret
There was once a most honorable and cultured baron who lived in Brittany many, many, years ago. He was a great favorite of the king and was great friends with all the other barons and lords of the land and they all held him in high esteem. He had a most beautiful wife who he loved dearly and she also loved him dearly. All, in all he would seem to be living a perfectly happy and fulfilling life but unbeknown to anyone else he had a most terrible secret.
Although she was very happy with her husband and her marriage his wife had one small concern about him that she did not understand and it worried her greatly. For three days in every single week, he would leave home and disappear completely from the household and no one knew his whereabouts or what he was doing. To begin with, she just accepted it as being part of their life together thinking he must have important business somewhere else, after all, he was baron with land and responsibilities. As time passed these absences began to worry her greatly thinking maybe he was seeing another woman. At last, she decided she must ask him where he went to and what he did.
One day after he had returned from one such outing she decided she could bear it no longer and confronted him. “I have something that is preying on my and I need to ask you something but I do not want to make you angry. It is for this that I am reluctant to ask,” she said. He looked at her lovingly and took her in his arms kissing her tenderly. “Make any request of me that you desire and surely if it is in my power to grant then I will grant it. How could I ever be angry with you?”
“I ask that you place your trust in my love for you and I beg you to tell me where it is you go during the days you spend away from me. I fear there is some trouble you are in and my mind is taken up with worrying about you when you are gone! Have you another woman you are seeing? Please, please tell me where you go and what you do – I cannot bear it when you are gone for so long, please will you not tell me?” She looked at him with imploring eyes as tears ran down her cheeks.
He was shocked and pushed his wife away from him. “For the love of God do not ask of me to reveal this to you. It is a burden I alone must bear and no one can help me. No good can come of me telling you this it would only cause evil and destroy your love for me bringing eternal damnation and sorrow to me. Do not ask what you do not understand!”
“ It is a cruel joke – do not joke with me I mean what I say in all seriousness. Unless I know where you go and what you do I can never again have peace of mind until I know!” she cried.
He was greatly discomforted by this and was torn between keeping the secret from her or revealing all. He decided he could not tell her and that she would just have to be satisfied with that. His good wife, however, was a determined woman and did not give in easily. Every time he returned from one of his absences she would approach him with tears in her eyes and beg he tell her where he had been. Again and again, she begged of him to lay his trust in her love for him and tell her. At last one day, he returned home and she was waiting for him and again begged him, “My husband please tell me where you have been, please trust my love for you. Surely you are seeing another woman!”
This time the baron worn down by her persistence and thinking that he could indeed trust her love told her to sit down and prepare herself for a great shock and looked into her eyes and said,“The reason I have to be away for three days every week is because I have to go deep into the forest where nobody goes. I take my clothes and off run naked. I kill and eat wild animals and plants and go like a beast in the woods where no one can find me. I am Bisclavret!”
And as she looked into his dark eyes she saw herself reflected in his eyes and as she listened his good wife turned white with horror and shock as he spoke and sat staring aghast at him. She would have preferred him to tell her he had taken a lover than this for she knew as all Bretons knew that Bisclavret was the werewolf. Eventually, she recovered herself and became determined to learn the full truth no matter how terrible about his fearful transformation.
“My husband I know I cannot conceal from you the shock and horror I feel but you know I have never done anything to hurt you and never done anything to make you lose your love and trust in me. Therefore, I implore you to tell me everything there is to know. Where do you keep your human raiment when you transform into a werewolf?”
“Do not ask! Do not ask this question! I can never reveal the place I hide my raiment! If I am seen taking it off, or if I lose it I must forever remain Bisclavret! Never could I ever become a man again until it is returned – never! Please do not ask this of me!” he replied shaking and turning white.
His wife hung her head and turned away distraught, “So you do not love me or trust me enough to tell me this secret. I am your loving wife and what have I ever done to earn such distrust? You no longer trust me, no longer love me?” she cried. “Alas, alas that I have forfeited your confidence! Oh, that I should live to see such a day!” and she fell to weeping bitterly. The baron looked at his weeping wife with love in his eyes and began to feel ashamed at what he had said.
At last, to ease his wife’s misery, he sat his her down beside him and told her everything. She sat and listened quietly and intently but avoiding his eyes as he revealed the full horror of transformation he went through and the secret place he hid his raiment. When he had finished he turned and left her but as he was leaving he could not see the fearful look in her eyes as he departed. Now he had told her his terrible secret his wife’s love for him had died. She was now terrified of him and began to think of a way to release herself from this cursed husband. The terrifying thought struck her that he might transform one night while they lay together and as well as fearful she was also revolted at the thought of lying with such a strange unnatural man or was he a beast?
At length, as she pondered about how she had come to this terrible situation she remembered a handsome Knight from her past who had once been her suitor. He had pleaded for her hand in marriage telling her he loved her more than anything and would do anything to please her. She had rejected him to marry the baron and he had been heartbroken.
So she went to him and apologized for her past rejection and promised him faithfully if he would help her she would give him her body and soul. She looked deep into his eyes and told him all about her husband and his terrifying affliction and begged his help. Realising he still wanted her as he looked into her eyes he readily agreed to help her. That night she gave him her body. The next day she took him and showed him where Bisclavret hid his raiment when the transformation took him and begged him to steal it and bring it to her.
And so the day came when the baron went off into the forest alone to endure his lonely transformation as he usually did but this time he never returned. His wife, putting on an act of concern, called on their friends and neighbors asking if they had seen him or knew of his whereabout but none did. Search parties were sent out but no trace of the baron could they find. They searched for a year and a day and then finding no trace of him abandoned the search. The lady went into mourning and after an appropriate period married the knight.
And the wheel turned, months passed and the King happened to be hunting in the forest not too far from the lost baron’s castle. His hounds picked up a strong scent and began baying and yelping and so the King ordered that they should be unleashed. They sprang upon the trail and were soon locked in a crazed pursuit of some wild beast. The King or his huntsmen had no idea of the manner of beast his dogs were in pursuit of but followed on behind for many hours. Eventually, the dogs cornered their quarry and were about to tear it to pieces when a very strange thing happened.
The exhausted beast turned to face the baying, snarling, pack and seeing the King ran to his horse and knelt before it clasping his great paws in supplication and prayer. He looked with pleading eyes into those of the King and its great maw moved as if struggling to speak but no words came out. The King was astounded. As he saw the beast in supplication before him and looked into its dark eyes his heart was touched for there was something familiar about the beast and yet unfamiliar and the sight of it making such a human gesture made him curious.
“Huntsmen, leash your dogs!” he cried, “for this is a beast I have never seen the like of before and will not kill such a wondrous thing. We will take it back to the palace alive and learn about it!”
So the dogs were leashed and the King and his party returned to the palace with the forest beast following tamely behind the King.
When they returned to the Court the beast was a source of fascination for one and all. It was friendly and playful and had the most gentle and benign nature. It followed the King everywhere he went and was like a great friendly playful dog with him. The King for his part grew to love the beast and would not be parted with it and it would sleep in the King’s chamber at the foot of his bed. A more remarkable beast the Court had never seen or heard of.
The beast turns
The day came when the King held a great feast and all of his liege lords from all of his dominions attended and among them came the knight who was now the husband of Bisclavret’s former wife. As soon as he saw his wife’s husband Bisclavret turned from a gentle docile creature into a raging beast and launched a savage attack on him. Fortunately for the knight, the King intervened and ordered Bisclavret to stop. Reluctantly he obeyed ending the attack and ran behind the King.
Bisclavret made two further attempts that evening to attack the knight requiring the King’s intervention on both occasions. The King and all the of his courtiers were shocked and puzzled at Bisclavret’s behavior as had only ever seen him like a big playful, friendly dog. Nobody could understand the sudden change and some assumed that the knight had done something that had threatened Bisclavret but none knew or could say what. Things calmed down and the evening wore on and the Knight was the first to leave the feast.
Some time later the King went hunting again in the same part of the forest where he had first encountered Bisclavret, taking him with him as he had grown exceedingly fond of the strange creature. As the evening drew in the King decided they would stay at one of his hunting lodges nearby for the night. Hearing of the King’s presence not far from her home Bisclavret’s former wife decided she would take a present for the King.
When she was shown into the King’s chamber immediately he saw her Bisclavret changed from a gentle docile creature into a savage beast. Leaping upon her he bit her nose off completely mutilating her beautiful face permanently. If the King and his servants had not intervened he would undoubtedly have torn her to pieces.
Although the King loved Bisclavret and did not understand the change in him he could not allow such savagery to continue and would have had him put to death. Fortunately one of his wise councilors spoke up, “Wait for surely something in the past has happened to it that has caused it to react in such a savage manner. Why is it that the very sight of these two – this husband and his wife – has caused this usual affectionate and gentle creature to become a raging, savage beast? Let these two be brought before you to explain why should it bear them such hatred. The woman was once the wife of one of your best and loyal barons. Someone you were greatly fond of who has not been seen, seeming to have disappeared from the face of the earth. Have them brought before you that you may question them of their knowledge of this matter honestly.”
The King listened to his counselor and thought about what he said. He could not understand why the creature should have reacted so savagely and he was genuinely very fond of it and did not want it killed unjustly. “Bring them to me and I will question them as you suggest and we will see what they have to say.”
So the two were brought before him and he questioned them long and hard and they continuously denied any knowledge of a reason why the creature should attack them. But the King was no fool and as he continued to probe them with questions he could see they were holding something back. Nevertheless, he persisted determined to get to the truth and at last the woman confessed.
She told the King about her first husband who became Bisclavret and how she had become terrified and revolted by the thought of him possibly transforming while he lay with her. Then she told him how she had persuaded Bisclavret to reveal the secret place where he hid his human raiment when the transformation took him. She confessed she had approached her former suitor to beg his help in stealing the raiment so that he could never again return to human form while she had them and told them that the reward for his help was his marriage to her. Tearfully she told the King that this Bisclavret was certainly her former husband the baron who had been his great friend.
At last, the King understood and now demanded she provides the raiment that had been stolen and be returned that Bisclavret may dress in them and once again become human. The hiding place of the raiment was revealed and they were brought and laid before Bisclavret. To everyone’s surprise, the beast completely ignored them as if they did not exist.
Once again it was the King’s wise councilor who spoke saying, “Can it be wondered at that he refuses to put them on in front of everyone here. He cannot surely return as a man without feeling great shame and embarrassment at what he has endured. Surely we cannot ask him to do this in front of us and I counsel you, Sire, that he be taken to your private rooms where he may put on his human form in his own time, in privacy, away from all eyes.”
The King agreed and took Bisclavret to his private room and left him alone. He later returned with two of his lords to see how Bisclavret was doing. On entering the room found him returned to the man who he had loved so much and sleeping soundly in his bed.
The King was overjoyed to have his friend back and roused him from his sleep. When the baron was ready he told his friend the King all about his affliction, the great shame he felt and all that had happened to him. The king was delighted to have him back and returned to him all that had been taken from him and gave him much more besides. As for the woman who betrayed him and her lover they were banished forever from his realm and it was said that many of the females in their family line thereafter were born without a nose and so ended the tale of Bisclavret.
Humanity and Beastliness
There are many different interpretations of the story by many different people. Some are concerned that it paints women in a poor light even accusing the author, Marie de France, of hating women. Nevertheless, there are many other interpretations and many see it as addressing the suppression of the beast within the human being and it is not certain that humans come out of it looking too good.
It is worth noting the twists that each of the main characters performs which bring out their “beastly” side. The wife originally portrayed as beautiful and loving reveals the “beast” in her by betraying the baron. Although it is understandable to feel fear and be revolted by his condition she does not attempt to come to terms with the “beastly” side of her husband. Instead, she sells herself by persuading the knight to steal her husband’s clothes knowing this would trap him in the werewolf form, promising her body and marriage in return. By accepting the proposal and carrying it out he allows his “beastly” nature to get the better of him while condemning the baron to remain Bisclavret running naked and beast-like in the forest .
The good King is taken very much by the humanity shown by Bisclavret in his wolf form and becomes fond of him breaking down the barrier between beast and human. The wise counselor although saving Bisclavret and urging the King to put faith in him lets his beastly side come to the fore by advocating torture to Bisclavret’s ex-wife. The good King by assenting to this allows the beast in himself to come out. But it is the terrible act of vengeance, the violent disfiguring of his ex-wife and generations of females in her line to come after Bisclavret bites off her nose that emphasize the difficulty of keeping the inner beast in check. This, surely, is a terrible act of vengeance even though he had suffered so and after he had displayed such humanity in his wolf form.
The days of Marie de France are long gone and here we are in the modern world and as we look around us we may wonder if there is indeed hope. Can we keep the beast within hidden and in check by fine clothing and good manners and behavior and all the trappings of the modern digital world, or is it all an act that will eventually reveal itself when the opportunity arises?
What do you think?
© 21/09/2016 zteve t evans
Reference and Attributions
Copyright September 21st, 2016 zteve t evans
- EBook of French Mediaeval Romances from the Lays of
Marie de France, by Marie de France
- (1) BISCLAVRET Marie de France, translated Judith P. Shoaf ©1996
- Bisclavret – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
- Chapter XI: The Breton Lays of Marie De France
- Bisclavret | UCL Mapping the European Breton Lai
- Lais of Marie de France – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
- Beauty and the Beast | UCL Mapping the European Breton Lai
- File:Grijze Wolff.jpg From Wikimedia Commons – Grijze Wolf – Author: Resimclub – Public Domain
- File:Wolf 1422 (PSF).png From Wikimedia Commons – Author: Pearson Scott Foresman – Public Domain
- Tiger! Tiger! title illustration.JPG From Wikimedia Commons – By W.H. Drake – Public Domain