The Lay of the Were-Wolf: In the Forest, No One Can Hear You Shapeshift

I think it is crucial that everyone in the world knows that Camelot has its own werewolf. I myself was unaware of this fact for too long and that’s just not acceptable.

The Lay of the Were-Wolf’, also known as ‘Bisclavaret’, was originally written in French by Marie de France in the 12th century. In medieval literature, a ‘lay’ or ‘lai’ refers a short romance written in octosyllabic verse. It’s delightful to find a female voice among all the men associated with Arthurian legend! I was undecided whether to cover this one or an alternate version of the same story, ‘Melion’, a Breton lay by an anonymous author, but an analysis I was reading described ‘Melion’ as ‘woman-hating’, so we’re going with the female author and hoping for the best. I am using a translation by Eugene Mason from French Mediaeval Romances from the Lays of Marie de France, published in 2004 as a Project Gutenberg ebook. It’s available here.

Amongst the tales I tell you once again,’ Marie de France begins, ‘I would not forget the Lay of the Were-Wolf. Such beasts as he are known in every land. Bisclavaret he is named in Brittany; whilst the Norman calls him Garwal. It is a certain thing, and within the knowledge of all, that many a christened man has suffered this change, and ran wild in woods, as a Were-Wolf.’ She goes on to explain what an evil, ravening monster a werewolf is. This is in direct contrast to the subsequent paragraph, which introduces us to a handsome and respectable baron, a favourite of King Arthur, who is married to an equally attractive member of society. The lady’s only concern is that for three days of every week her husband vanishes without explanation. That’s a lot of married life he’s missing out on and no one in the household appears to be in his confidence. Eventually the lady approaches her husband with a sweet, timid speech about how much she loves him and how much she worries about these strange absences. As well she might.

The baron is very reluctant to tell her his secret, sure that no good can come of it, but he loves his wife and eventually gives way. He regularly turns into a wolf. Surprise! “Within this wood, a little from the path, there is a hidden way,” he tells her, “and at the end thereof an ancient chapel, where oftentimes I have bewailed my lot. Near by is a great hollow stone, concealed by a bush, and there is the secret place where I hide my raiment, till I would return to my own home.” It is unclear whether this transformation is something voluntary or not; certainly it does not appear related to the moon in any way. Either way, it’s not a fun part of Bisclavaret’s life. The key to transforming back into a man seems to be dressing again in his own clothes.

His wife retains admirable composure under stress but really she is not taking the news at all well. About as badly as she can, in fact; she immediately starts planning how to get rid of Bisclavaret. She remembers a knight who tried to win her (married) favour, and who she had no use for until now. She writes to him and arranges a meeting, where she explains the full situation. The knight can claim her as his own…if her husband is not around to get in the way. The next time Bisclavaret disappears into the woods, he does not come back. His family and friends look for him, in vain, and the lady keeps her end of the bargain by marrying her co-conspirator.

Over a year later, King Arthur happens to be hunting in the wood. His hounds go after the wolf, until he’s bloody and defeated, about to be killed. To Arthur’s astonishment, the wolf runs to him as if pleading for mercy. Arthur calls off the hunt and returns to court with the wolf at his heels like a devoted dog. All the courtiers are warned to treat him well and he sleeps in Arthur’s own chambers at night. In fact the wolf becomes something of a mascot, very popular at court.

Arthur holds a banquet for his lords and among the guests is the knight who married Bisclavaret’s ‘widow’. The wolf recognises him instantly and lunges at him, for once like a wild animal. Arthur calls him off, but the knight is eyed with suspicion by the entire court, who take their wolf’s side and think the knight must have done something to earn that kind of hostility from everyone’s lupine bestie. As soon as possible, the knight escapes court and the wolf’s accusing growls.

When Arthur returns to the wood where he found his wolf, preparing for another hunt, he receives a visitor: none of than Bisclavaret’s ex, hoping to win favour with the king by bringing gifts. No sooner does the wolf see her than he goes on the attack, managing to bite off the lady’s nose before he’s driven back.

No matter how popular, you can’t let the king’s pet go around disfiguring ladies of the realm. That vengeance would probably have been it for the wolf if one of the king’s councillors had not remembered Bisclavaret’s disappearance. He advises the king look into the matter. By which I mean, Arthur locks up the knight and lady and has them both tortured until the lady confesses. Got to say, there is not a lot of chivalry happening anywhere in this story! It’s all very grimdark.

Learning about the trick of Bisclavaret’s clothes, Arthur lays them out before his wolf, who…does exactly nothing. The councillor tells Arthur that he’s humiliating Bisclavaret and should let him transform in privacy, which is actually a surprisingly decent point. Arthur takes the wolf to his own chambers and after an uncertain time waiting, returns to find a human man curled up asleep in his bed. Arthur greets his friend with a lot of kissing and heaps him with gifts as a thank you for being alive and human. As for the knight and lady, Arthur banishes them from the realm and they are not seen again.

One of the differences in Melion is that the werewolf lord starts off single and will only marry a woman who has never loved anyone but himself. His wife declares she must eat the flesh of a specific stag and in order to catch it, Melion transforms himself into wolf shape using a magic ring. He ends up drawing all the wrong conclusions from his choices (that women are terrible and men should not trust their wives; hardly an original sentiment). He is also quite keen to turn his ex into a werewolf, in an eye for an eye approach, but Arthur talks him out of it and he ends up just telling her to go to hell. I feel that her position as the King of Ireland’s daughter may have played a role in that act of clemency. There is a third Arthurian werewolf lay, Biclarel, also anonymous, also with a big downer on women. It begins with an admonition: ‘He is very foolish who marries/ A fickle wench:/ It is just not worth it for him to suffer/ And to expose himself to all that shame/ With great risk to soul and body/ From which he will never be free;/ And he who understood women’s hearts well/ Would never be in such peril.’ The real lycanthropy, you see, was the women we married along the way.

Bisclavaret puts me in mind of the water spirit Melusine from European folklore. There is a legend in which Melusine is a wife with a secret monstrous side who requires one day of privacy every week to be herself. Her husband cannot resist spying on her, and in doing so loses her. Notably, no one’s nose is removed in the process. The werewolf knight does have every right to his grievance, of course, being abandoned in the forest in the shape of an animal is a fairly horrendous way for a relationship to end, but I do find it interesting how completely unsympathetic all of these stories – and all of the characters in these stories – are to the wives. While I’m sure the king felt very secure in his relationship with his devoted wolf, he might feel differently were he married to him. This is not what Bisclavaret’s wife signed up for, and she has a very limited range of options to get out of a relationship she no longer wants. It’s the Bluebeard Clause: if you wait for him to reveal the room full of dead girls, it’s probably too late. That spiel about marriage being a risky proposition at the beginning of Biclarel applies to both parties, not just the werewolf knight. Trust has to go both ways, and in each version of this story, it goes neither.

You know what? I really want to know how Guinevere would have handled all this.

Sources: French Mediaeval Romances from the Lays of Marie de France – translated by Eugene Mason (Project Gutenberg, 2004), Melion and Biclarel: Two Old French Werwolf Lays – translated and edited by Amanda Hopkins (University of Liverpool, 2005)

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