English Folklore: The Werewolf of Longdendale

Werewolf – Copyright 28/20/2020 zteve t evans

Longdendale

Presented here is a retelling of an old folktale collected by Thomas C. Middleton and published in his book “Legends of Longdendale.”  The story centers around Longdendale, a long valley in the Peak District, Derbyshire and is set in the time of King Henry II, after he had bestowed the monks of Basingwerke Abbey in Wales the nearby town of Glossop.  Longendale is situated just north of Glossop.  In earlier times it was part of the Royal Forest of the Peak and home to wolves, boar, deer and smaller animals.

The Abbots Chair

The tale begins at a place called the Abbot’s Chair, which originally was a large stone cross situated on a highway known as the Monk’s Road.  All that can be seen today is the stone socket which held the cross.  According to this tale the Abbot of Basingwerke Abbey held court and received the rents and tithes of his tenants in the area while sitting on the stone.  He also heard the petitions and grievances of the people of his estates and other such administration.

A Tale of Woe

On one such occasion there came to him an old widow full of misery and woe shedding bitter tears. Tearfully, she told the Abbot that she lived in fear of a very powerful witch who was skilled in the black arts and sorcery.  This evil witch had caused the death of her husband and all of her children and was now seeking to murder her.  The widow told him she was all alone in the world and had no one she could go to for help  and shelter.  Furthermore, her enemy was a cunning shape-shifter who could change her physical appearance into that of any animal or bird to commit crimes and escape capture and punishment.  She could also change herself to resemble any man, woman or child she desired that may suit her own evil purposes.

The Abbot’s Curse

The Abbot being a good and kindly man was outraged at the plight of the old widow and very angry with the witch.  He distributed bread and alms to her to ease her poverty and then laid a terrible curse upon the wicked old witch who persecuted her, 

“The eye of God that sees all shall see this wicked woman in whatever form she may be wearing here and now.  From this moment on she will remain in that form never being able to revert to human or other form until the time justice is done and she has paid for her sins!”

He declared that he foresaw the wrath of heaven falling upon the old witch and foretold she would face a cruel death shortly.

The Royal Hunt

On that very morning at that exact time the witch had transformed into a werewolf and was out in the forest seeking victims.   Moreover, King Henry II was visiting the Baron of Ashton-under-Lyne accompanied by his son, Prince Henry.  These three along with the Baron of Aston, the Lord of Longdendale and other nobles and dignitaries were out hunting in the Royal Forest. 

It was the practice of the Royal hunting party to hunt every corner and every nook and cranny of the forest.  Beaters were sent into the densest parts of the forest to drive the game into the paths of the hunters.  They were unaware of the alleged crimes of the witch and were not seeking her  but this practice increased the chances of her being driven before them.

Her shape-shifting abilities had allowed her in the past to simply transform into human form and send pursuers on a wild goose chase looking for her. Other times she would transform into a bird and fly away. 

And so as the Abbot was uttering his curse the Royal Hunt was out in the forest.  The star of the day was the Lord of Longdendale who slew an exceedingly large and ferocious wild boar after it had given a fierce battle.

Werewolf Attack

The young Prince Henry desperately wanted to match the feat of the Lord of Longdendale to prove his own valor.  He went off alone and sought out the wildest and remotest part of the forest hoping to find some worthy test of his courage and skill.  As he was roaming through the forest he was suddenly attacked by the werewolf and was almost killed.  Fortunately his trusty steed sensed the impending attack and veered sharply to the right as the werewolf sprang.  This allowed Prince Henry to push away the attacker and with his spear deliver a wound in its side.  He thrust hard, blood spurted and the beast wailed a savage but almost human cry.  In its desperation it managed to seize the spear and bite the weapon in two with its great jaws.  The prince quickly drew his long hunting knife to defend himself as best he could.

With the beast uttering unearthly but almost human-like cries it grasped his legs trying to pull him from his horse.  Quickly Henry stabbed the beast in its shoulder but in its frenzy it succeeded in dragging him to the ground.  

With his knife stuck in his foe’s shoulder Henry managed to grasp the beast around the throat.  Although he fought hard and bravely he could feel his own strength ebbing as he wrestled cheek to jowl with the attacker.  

He thought it was his end but as he was slipping into death the Baron of Ashton, who had heard the commotion arrived.  Seeing the dire peril of the king’s son he immediately sprang to his aid and engaged the werewolf in a deadly fight that was long and vicious. Finally, he managed to deliver a killing blow to its skull.  

The Baron of Ashton received great praise and honor not just from Henry but from the king and the rest of the Royal hunting party when they caught up. The body of the slain beast was given as a trophy to the baron who returned with it to his castle.  As the beast was being prepared for exhibition it was cut open and the heads of three babies that it had eaten earlier were found in its stomach.

This again caused much talk about the ferocity and evil nature of the beast.  Prince Henry emphasized again and again it’s savagery and the wild human-like cries it had uttered as it had attacked him.  

The Forester’s Testimony

On hearing the news of the slaying of this savage beast a forester stepped forward to give a most strange testimony to the lord’s and ladies saying, 

“If it may please my lords I have something to say that may be of interest to you concerning this strange and wild beast.As one of his Royal Foresters it was my duty to seek out and put a stop to those who dare to poach my king’s game.Having concealed myself in thick bushes I lay quietly in wait  hoping to catch a certain poacher in the act.  As I lay waiting I was startled by strange and ghoulish wailing.  On creeping through the forest to its source I was astounded to see a werewolf tearing and clawing at its very own skin.  It was as if it desired to shed it quickly such as a person would undress themselves.It’s cries were both hideous and pitiful and I thought it sounded like a twisted version of an old woman’s voice.  Human or other, it was a cracked and hideous cry that it uttered. I am afraid that on seeing and hearing this my courage failed.  I fled as fast and as far as I could from the frightful thing before its attention should fall upon myself.”

Then one by one other witnesses appeared who bore similar testimony concerning the beast.

The Abbot

That same evening a banquet was held in the hall of the Baron with the king, prince and the rest of the Royal hunting party in attendance.  Also invited was the good Abbot of Basingwerke Abbey  who was informed of the strange events of the day and inspected the body of the slain beast.   The Abbot had absolute faith that the werewolf was the wicked witch he had cursed earlier and evidence was brought that showed this to be true and she was never seen again.   The good Abbot took the old widow under his protection and from then on she lived the rest of her life in safety and comfort.

© 28/10/2020 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright 28, October, 2020 zteve t evans

Lycanthropy: Werewolves and the Law of Reciprocity

Gary Kramer / Public domain

Lycanthropy

There are many examples in folklore around the world that feature werewolves and lycanthropy where there is a transformation from human to wolf or vice versa. Sometimes a human may transform completely into a wolf or a wolf may transform into a human as is the case in this story.  In other examples a beastly hybrid of the two species – half-human – half wolf is the result. Sometimes the human shows some degree of shame or guilt over what they are and what they become. In the story below a werewolf in his human form expresses a frank admission to being both evil and fierce offering no excuses and showing no shame or guilt. He and his family, accept what they are without question and show no desire to be fully human. Quite simply they are what they are.  

The Law of Reciprocity

Despite their admission there is a very human law that appears to be of great importance to them and that is the Law of Reciprocity.  They never forget a kindness done to them. Part of that law says that when someone receives kindness from another they repay that person with an equal or better act of kindness in return. It can also mean that when someone hurts another the injured party in return repays that person with an equal amount of harm.  Another term may be “an eye, for an eye.”

Presented below is a retelling of a story titled “A Wolf Story, from Ancient legends, Mystic Charms & Superstitions of Ireland,” by Lady Wilde.  It is set in Ireland in a time when wolves roamed the wilds of that island and reveals a surprising side to werewolves not often seen while revealing a hidden gem of wisdom.

A Wolf Story

This story begins way back in Ireland many years before before the last wolf was killed in about 1786 and begins with a farmer named Connor.  One day as Connor was walking home through a lonely glen he heard a sniveling, whimpering sound, like some creature in great pain.  Looking around him he spied hiding in a thick bush a young wolf cub who appeared to be in great distress. He approached carefully and quietly not wishing to frighten it and not wanting to risk a confrontation with any parent wolf that might be at hand.

Wolf Cub

Seeing it was the cub was in considerable distress for a moment he was caught in two minds.  His first thought was that he could kill it and claim the reward the authorities gave on the production of a dead wolf.  His second thought was that here was a creature in distress who needed his assistance and without which it would surely die a slow, cruel, death.  Either way he could claim the reward. As a farmer he had at times had livestock taken by wolves and had little cause to find sympathy over the death of a wolf cub.  

Nevertheless,  he was an inherently kind man who objected to seeing the suffering of any creature.  A third thought then came to him that he should help it. Carefully examining the stricken creature found a large thorn in its side which he gently removed.  The small cub lay still in much distress and Connor thought that it would probably die anyway. Nevertheless, he resolved to help it all he could to live and put aside thoughts of reward. Therefore, before he left he got the stricken cub a drink of water and placed it in a safe place hoping a parent would find it. After offering s short prayers for its recovery he went on his way thinking no more of it.

Missing Cows

Time passed and he forgot the incident completely. One day many years later Connor was checking the well being of his livestock and was aghast to discover two of his finest cows were missing.  He looked all around his farmyard and searched his fields but no sign of them could he find anywhere on his property. Therefore he began a search of the surrounding countryside. He traveled on foot and in his hand he carried a stout blackthorn staff. This was to aid his walking and also for security for one never knew who or what was abroad in those days.

Having not the slightest idea which way his cows might have gone he walked around and around his property in ever widening circles asking everyone he came across if they had seen them.  He traveled many miles in this way and reached a considerable distance from his farm but no sight or sign did he see or hear any word of where his cows might be.

The Desolate Heath

All day long he walked and as evening began to fall he began to feel hungry and tired.  He had traveled along way from his farm and inhabited parts and realized he was alone in the wilds of a desolated and dark heath.  Looking all around at the dreary darkening landscape at first he could see no sign of any human presence other than a dilapidated, ancient shelter. At first he thought it to be thee den of some outlaw or vagabond or maybe some wild beast.

As he looked weighing up what do in the fast failing light he saw a small chink of light escaping from a crack in the boarding of the shelter. Thinking that there must be some human inhabitants present he took heart and approaching the shelter gently tapped on the door.   The door creaked open to reveal a tall, slender man with grey hair and dark glittering eyes. To Connor’ s surprise before he could say a word the old man spoke saying, “Ah! So you have found us at last.  Please come in, we have been awaiting you!”

Ushering the bemused farmer through the door and into the dwelling the old man gestured inside to an old  woman sitting by the fireside. She was thin and grey and had long,sharp teeth and her eyes eyes glittered lit by the flames of the fire. She gazed upon him and said, “Yes indeed you are welcome, we have been waiting for you to get here and now you are here and it is supper time.  Please won’t you join us for a bite to eat.”

A Family of Wolves

Connor was no coward but he was wary of the two and although bewildered he looked both up and down appraising them.  They were both old and weary looking but he was young and vigorous and still had his blackthorn staff. He reasoned he could quickly overcome them should he need and he was very, very hungry and outside the heath was steeped in pitch black darkness.  He knew he could never find his way back in the dark so he sat down at a table to join them, watching as the old woman stirred a bubbling pot hanging over the fire. Although she appeared to be giving all her attention to the pot he got the strange feeling that all the time she was watching him with her strange glittering eyes.

After a little while their came a knock at the door and the old man got up and opened it.  To the surprise of Connor in trotted a young, sleek, black wolf. Ignoring the visitor the black wolf trotted across the floor and disappeared into an adjoining room.  Shortly out of the adjoining room their came a handsome young man. He sat opposite Connor and looked hard and deep at him with glittering, penetrating eyes.

“Welcome, we have been awaiting your arrival,” he said at last. However, before the bemused farmer could answer there was another knock at the door.  Again the old man opened it and in trotted another handsome wolf that disappeared into the adjoining room.  Shortly, there emerged from this same room another handsome youth who sitting next to the first studied Connor intently with his glittering, grey eyes, but said not another word.

Connor’s Story

“These are our sons, ” said the old man gesturing towards the young men, “Now you must tell us what brings you here and what you want.  Few people ever come this way and we do not like strangers or to be spied upon.  Speak now and hold nothing back!”

So Connor told how he had lost his two cows and how he had begun searching for them.  Although he had searched all of his farm and the area around it but found no sign. He told how he began searching beyond his farm until he had at last arrived on this dark and bleak heath and found their home and was asked to take supper and shelter the night.  He told them he was no spy and not remotely interested in their doings though he wished them all good health and well being. Beginning to feel uncomfortable he added that if they could tell him where his cows were he would be most grateful and be off to find them.

After he had spoken his hosts looked from one to the other knowingly and laughed.  Connor was appalled at their laughter and although he feared their glittering eyes he grew angry and taking up his blackthorn staff said,. “I have told you my story with honesty and without guile and you mock me!”

Never Forget a Kindness

Now although he was outnumbered his anger was hot and standing up with his staff in his hand asked them to make way and he would go for he would not stay and be mocked and would rather face the the dark, desolate heath than stay. Their laughter stopped and the eldest of the young men who had been the first stood up and said,

Nay, friend pay our laughter no need.  We are fierce and we are evil, but we never forget one who has done us a kindness. Cast your mind back years ago to the day in the glen when you found a young wolf cub pierced through his side by a sharp thorn in agony and waiting for death. 

It was you who pulled out that thorn and tended my wound and gave me good water to drink. Having done all you possibly could you said a prayer for the cub’ s recovery and went your way to either die in peace or recover as God pleased.  I was that cub and it pleased God that I should recover.”

“Yes indeed I remember it and I am glad God saw fit to heal you,” said Connor, “and I remember how you licked my hand in gratitude!”

“Indeed I did, for I was greatly in your debt and still am but for now put your fear aside, sit down, enjoy supper with us and stay tonight with us without fear.  Tomorrow you shall find your cows and more,” the young man told him.

Putting his fear aside Connor sat down with them and partook of the meal.  Indeed it was a fine supper and he ate his fill and his hosts were merry, friendly and good company.  He soon fell asleep and after enjoying a good night of rest he awoke to find himself lying comfortably on one of his own hayricks in one of his fields.

Three Strange Cows

Remembering the events of the previous night and the words of the wolf he was optimistic he would at last find his cows.  Therefore hebset off in a circle looking for them. Although he searched all his fields and his farmyard he could find no trace of them and began to feel bitterly disappointed.   As he approached the haystack he had started from he saw that there were three fine looking cows quietly grazing in the field. Although they had a strange air they were very handsome and comely but he had never owned such cows and knew of no else who ever did either.  Nevertheless, being an honest man, wielding his blackthorn staff he tried to drive them out through the gate to find their proper owner.  

The Black Wolf

However, standing in the middle of the gateway stood a handsome black wolf who prevented the cows from passing through the gate.  Each time Connor tried to drive the cows through the wolf jumped up and drove them back. At last it dawned on him that this was the wolf he had spoken to the previous night whose life he had saved long ago in the glen.  Then he realized that the strange cows were a reward for saving the life of that wolf and so closed the gate and let the cows graze peacefully in the field.  

The Three Cows

Those three cows proved to produce the best milk and cream that made the finest butter and cheese in all of the island of Ireland.  Furthermore when he bred them they produced a fine, productive and valuable breed of cattle whose descendants still graze the rich grassy meadows of Ireland to this day.  

Connor wanted to thank the wolf but although he tried to find that dark and desolate heath he never could find it. He never again met one of those wolves who had been present that night.  Every now and then a hunter, or farmer, brought the body of a slain wolf into town to claim  bounty from the authorities for its death. This would cut him to the quick for he feared that it might be the wolf he had saved or one of his family. He could never know for sure but being a good man grieved nonetheless.

Through his kindness in saving the wolf cub Connor grew rich and prospered greatly and became proof of the ancient  Irish proverb,

“Blessings are won,

By a good deed done.”

The End

An Eye for an Eye

So on this occasion kindness was rewarded with kindness and Connor benefited greatly from it. Another relevant proverb is, “One good turn deserves another,” but what about when someone does us a bad turn is the opposite then true? Do we we invoke an “an eye for an eye“? When kindness is used people naturally want to repay in kind and there is a kind of gentle competitiveness to be the kindest. This builds strong positive bonds and relationships benefiting everyone, but when we enact an “eye for an eye,” everyone ends up blind.

Be kind!

© 26/02/2020 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright February 26th, 2020 zteve t evans

Bisclavret The Werewolf And The Beastliness of People

grijze_wolff

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

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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

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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