This week, let’s take a look at a single story instead of a bigger overview of ideas and things. This time, I bring you a story from a 14th century manuscript – and it’s a King Arthur story, too!
There is a tradition you may or may not be aware of that folklorists often refer to as the “werewolf husband.” This is used to refer to a kind of story model that came around in the Middle Ages especially. Many of the stories I mentioned in brief in this post on werewolf knights (and how werewolves were often benevolent in the Middle Ages), but I’m going to get into more detail about one in particular here – King Arthur and King Gorlagon.
A fair warning before we get into this: as you may be aware, there were several medieval stories (though not all of them, despite what people like to think a lot) that are pretty down on women. This is one of those stories.
But the story contains a very fun werewolf, so let’s take a look at it! Since it’s very long, I’m going to be breaking it into two parts, one post for this week and one for (hopefully) next week.
I’ll be quoting from Frank A. Milne’s translation, which can be found here, but is also printed in Charlotte F. Otten’s A Lycanthropy Reader, one of my favorite werewolf folklore books.
Once upon a time, King Arthur was holding a banquet for Pentecost, a Christian holiday. Well, he was so happy he turned right around and kissed his Queen, Guinevere. She didn’t care much for that, because wow, that came out of pretty much nowhere. She asks him why he did that, so he butters her up telling her that she is the sweetest and most amazing thing. In response, she decides that he must know her heart. To which Arthur responds,
Arthur. I doubt not that your heart is well disposed towards me, and I certainly think that your affection is absolutely known to me.
The Queen. You are undoubtedly mistaken, Arthur, for you acknowledge that you have never yet fathomed either the nature or the heart of a woman.
Well, Arthur’s a little hurt at that insinuation, as you might imagine. So he swears up and down and all around that he won’t even eat until he learns the nature and heart of a woman. He sets off on a great journey to find the truth about all this, and he ends up visiting three different kings: Gargol, Torleil, and finally Gorlagon.
But in the courts of the first two kings, Gargol and Torleil, Arthur ends up getting talked into joining them for their banquets, which breaks his vow. So he scoots to the next king and then the next without learning anything at all.
Finally, he reaches Gorlagon, who continually beseeches Arthur to join him for his supper, but Arthur continually refuses, sometimes pretty comically. He keeps his butt firmly on his horse in the middle of a banquet, not eating anything, and keeps insisting that Gorlagon continue his story.
I’m pretty much fast forwarding through the other two kings because Arthur’s situations with them don’t relate to what I consider to be the meat of this story: the werewolf.
When Arthur arrives in the court of Gorlagon, Gorlagon convinces him to let his entourage stop and eat while he offers to tell Arthur a story instead of giving a direct answer…
So when they had seated themselves at table, King Gorlagon said, “Arthur, since you are so eager to hear this business, give ear, and keep in mind what I am about to tell you.”
In this tale, we hear about an unnamed king who had a truly amazing garden full of all kinds of herbs, spices, fruits, etc. But he also had a sapling that was planted at the time of his birth, which was the exact same height as him, and to it his fate was tied:
it had been decreed by fate that whoever should cut it down, and striking his head with the slenderer part of it, should say, “Be a wolf and have the understanding of a wolf,” he would at once become a wolf, and have the understanding of a wolf. And for this reason the King watched the sapling with great care and with great diligence, for he had no doubt that his safety depended upon it.
Well, the king, as you might imagine, was very concerned with the safety of this tree. He built a wall around it, he posted only his most trusted guards, and he didn’t let anyone but those closest to him anywhere near it. But, long story short, one day his queen and wife got interested in another guy and also observed him – the king – going into this garden so much. So she asked him – but unlike Bisclavret, he didn’t tell her. That made her mad, of course.
and improperly suspecting that he was in the habit of consorting with an adulteress in the garden, cried out, “I call all the gods of heaven to witness that I will never eat with you henceforth until you tell me the reason.” And rising suddenly from the table she went to her bedchamber, cunningly feigning sickness, and lay in bed for three days without taking any food.
So she did that.
By the third day, the king gave up because he was worried she might let herself die. He tried to convince her to eat and told her that “the thing she wished to know was a secret which he would never dare to tell anyone.” She convinced him to tell her then, and she swore she’d keep the secret and not tell anyone.
Well, of course, you can imagine how that went.
The queen cut down the sapling while the king was away, hid it in her sleeve, and made to hug him but instead bapped him with it “struck him on the head with it once and again, crying, ‘Be a wolf, be a wolf’ – but she didn’t say the last part.
She said “have the understanding of a man.”
Instantly, the king turned into a wolf and fled, and she sent hounds after him. But the king still had his human mind (again: emphasis that werewolves always retain their human intelligence and that is part of what makes them terrifying).
At this point, our host, Gorlagon, insists…
Arthur, see, you have now learned in part the heart, the nature, and the ways of woman. Dismount now and eat, and afterwards I will relate at greater length what remains. For yours is a weighty question, and there are few who know how to answer it, and when I have told you all you will be but little the wiser.
As he will do time and again. And yes, he does seem very bitter that he married a crappy woman, doesn’t he? I suppose we can’t entirely blame him, but gee, way to pass judgment (he does apparently get over this, though, as he is married once more after this and also, uh, well – we’ll get to the other thing).
Arthur, though, is holding to his vow that he will take no food until he’s learned the truth. Arthur is apparently a good enough guy that he doesn’t take that to be the nature of a woman, so he insists that Gorlagon continue anyway.
So Gorlagon launches back into it: this king, now a wolf with the intelligence of a man – or, as we like to call them, a werewolf – is run out of his own kingdom with hounds on his heels. The queen, meanwhile, sets herself up with her lover and takes control of the kingdom.
So, over the course of two years, the werewolf king goes and finds himself a nice she-wolf and shacks up with her and has two cute adorable smooshy big-pawed fuzzy little wolf puppies with moist boopsnoots. No, I’m not kidding. The king goes and gets some she-wolf action and knocks her up. Kinky.
Now this werewolf decides that he wants revenge…
Now near that wood there was a fortress at which the Queen was very often wont to sojourn with the King. And so this human wolf, looking out for his opportunity, took his shewolf with her cubs one evening, and rushed unexpectedly into the town, and finding the two little boys of whom the aforesaid youth had become the father by his wife, playing by chance under the tower without anyone to guard them, he attacked and slew them, tearing them cruelly limb from limb.
It’s not so good.
After killing the illegitimate children of his cheating wife, the king of course gets himself and his wolf family in trouble for giving in to his rage and vengeance. But the wolves get away clean… this time.
The queen orders for careful watch to be taken for those wolves. But the king, consumed by anger and vengeance (sound familiar for a werewolf?), tries again. He kills some more people, “tearing out their bowels” (again: yes, werewolves are scary, not your cannon fodder) and getting away clean.
But, unfortunately, his pups were found in the woods and hanged. The poor, poor puppies.
And thus abruptly ends my sympathy for any humans in this story.
That, of course, makes the werewolf fly into a complete rage…
overwhelmed with very great grief for the loss of his cubs and maddened by the greatness of his sorrow, made nightly forays against the flocks and herds of that province, and attacked them with such great slaughter that all the inhabitants, placing in ambush a large pack of hounds, met together to hunt and catch him
The werewolf fled from country to country, ravaging everything, until he eventually “began to vent his rage with implacable fury, not only against the beasts but also against human beings.”
By the time he reached the third country, the king of that country – who was young and “of a mild disposition” – decided he would go and track the wolf himself with many huntsmen and hounds…
For so greatly was the wolf held in dread that no one dared to go to rest anywhere around, but everyone kept watch the whole night long against his inroads.
Exciting! Now instead of a super weird medieval story it’s become a classic terrifying werewolf tale!
By the way? This is a GREAT werewolf story if you want to see a classic folkloric example of just how badass werewolves are really meant to be (and also get to see them using their paws as hands – or does he have clawed, hairy hands, as is implied by one particular passage where he takes a baby into his arms? who knows? – and breaking chains and generally being awesome).
Now let’s resume-
Well, we left off with our werewolf king ravaging the countryside, and then came a young king to hunt the beast and slay it. Our werewolf is not a fool, though, and this is yet another reminder that werewolves retain their human intelligence…
So one night when the wolf had gone to a neighbouring village, greedy for bloodshed, and was standing under the eaves of a certain house listening intently to a conversation that was going on within, it happened that he heard the man nearest him tell how the King had proposed to seek and track him down on the following day
The werewolf returned to the woods and wondered what to do. He didn’t really want to be killed by this hotshot king and his entourage of hunters. So when the king and his hounds and hunters arrived at the forest, the werewolf hid and waited for everyone to go by (hounds got nothin’ on him, good luck finding a werewolf)…
He waited until the king approached. And then he, in the spirit of Bisclavret… and I’m going to quote this entire section because I love it, so here we go–
he saw the King approaching (for he judged from his countenance that it was the King) he dropped his head and ran close after him, and encircling the King’s right foot with his paws he would have licked him affectionately like a suppliant asking for pardon, with such groanings as he was capable of.
Then two noblemen who were guarding the King’s person, seeing this enormous wolf (for they had never seen any of so vast a size), cried out, “Master, see here is the wolf we seek! see, here is the wolf we seek! strike him, slay him, do not let the hateful beast attack us!”
The wolf, utterly fearless of their cries, followed close after the King, and kept licking him gently. The King was wonderfully moved, and after looking at the wolf for some time and perceiving that there was no fierceness in him, but that he was rather like one who craved for pardon, was much astonished, and commanded that none of his men should dare to inflict any harm on him, declaring- that he had detected some signs of human understanding in him; so putting down his right hand to caress the wolf he gently stroked his head and scratched his ears.
Groanings, not barking. These people knew what a wolf actually sounds like. If It was a modern story, I bet they’d have said he barked… Anyway.
Then the werewolf went home with the king! He even rode on a horse. So with his new werewolf friend, the king ordered everyone home. But he didn’t get very far before a great stag appeared. Wanting to test “his wolf” and see if it would obey him, the king ordered the werewolf to go after the stag. The werewolf caught and killed it instantly.
So the king said,
“Of a truth you must be kept alive and not killed, seeing that you know how to show such service to us.”
And here, yet again, we get another small interruption of Gorlagon beseeching King Arthur to eat. And again, Arthur stays true to his word and refuses. Gorlagon then resumes the story…
So the wolf remained with the King, and was held in very great affection by him. Whatever the King commanded him he performed, and he never showed any fierceness towards or inflicted any hurt upon any one. He daily stood at table before the King at dinner time with his forepaws erect, eating of his bread and drinking from the same cup. Wherever the King went he accompanied him, so that even at night he would not go to rest anywhere save beside his master’s couch.
However, we come to the twist in the story…
The king had to go away for a long time, so he left “his wolf”/the werewolf with the queen. But this queen hated the wolf and told the king that she was afraid of the wolf, saying he might attack her in the night. To which the king said,
“Have no fear of that, for I have detected no such symptom in him all the long time he has been with me. However, if you have any doubt of it, I will have a chain made and will have him fastened up to my bed-ladder.” So the King gave orders that a chain of gold should be made, and when the wolf had been fastened up by it to the steps, he hastened away to the business he had on hand.
And here again we are interrupted for Gorlagon to ask Arthur to dismount and eat – which he still refuses to do. So back to the story…
The king left, the werewolf remained chained up, and the queen didn’t care for him as she should have. The king ordered that he be chained up at night only, but she kept him chained constantly. And then she did something, uh, not great – she cheated on the king.
In fact, she cheated on the king with a guy in that exact bedchamber that the werewolf was in. Can you imagine – this poor werewolf. Well, he didn’t like that much…
And when the wolf saw them rushing into each other’s impious embraces he blazed forth with fury, his eyes reddening, and the hair on his neck standing up, and he began to make as though he would attack them, but was held back by the chain by which he was fastened. And when he saw they had no intention of desisting from the iniquity on which they had embarked, he gnashed his teeth, and dug up the ground with his paws, and venting his rage over all his body, with awful howls he stretched the chain with such violence that it snapped in two.
When loose he rushed with fury upon the sewer [the lover] and threw him from the bed, and tore him so savagely that he left him half-dead. But to the Queen he did no harm at all, but only gazed upon her with venom in his eye. Hearing the mournful groans of the sewer, the servants tore the door from its hinges and rushed in. When asked the cause of all the tumult, that cunning Queen concocted a lying story, and told the servants that the wolf had devoured her son, and had torn the sewer as they saw while he was attempting to rescue the little one from death, and that he would have treated her in the same way had they not arrived in time to succour her. So the sewer was brought half dead to the guest-chamber. But the Queen fearing that the King might somehow discover the truth of the matter, and considering how she might take her revenge on the wolf, shut up the child, whom she had represented as having been devoured by the wolf, along with his nurse in an underground room far removed from any access; every one being under the impression that he had in fact been devoured.
Werewolf stories are so cool, you guys. I love werewolves. Have I ever mentioned that? I bet I haven’t.
And now again Gorlagon tries to get Arthur to eat something – and Arthur refuses. Thus the story is resumed.
The moment the king returned, the queen dressed herself up in blood and torn-up clothes and cut her hair short to pretend she’d been mauled by the werewolf, and she rushed to the king beseeching him to do something about it – and telling him that the werewolf had devoured their infant son. However, the werewolf heard all this and ran out of the bedchamber and into the king’s embraces–
jumping about joyfully, and gambolling with greater delight than he [the wolf] had ever done before. At this the King, distracted by contending emotions, was in doubt what he should do, on the one hand reflecting that his wife would not tell him an untruth, on the other that if the wolf had been guilty of so great a crime against him he would undoubtedly not have dared to meet him with such joyful bounds.
Anyway, the werewolf invites the king to follow him…
the wolf sitting close by him touched his foot gently with his paw, and took the border of his cloak into his mouth, and by a movement of the head invited him to follow him. The King, who understood the wolf’s customary signals, got up and followed him through the different bedchambers to the underground room where the boy was hidden away. And finding the door bolted the wolf knocked three or four times with his paw, as much as to ask that it might be opened to him.
The werewolf knows where the queen hid the son. Well, when he can’t get inside, he just busts the door down – “the wolf, unable to endure the delay, drew back a little, and spreading out the claws of his four paws he rushed headlong at the door, and driving it in, threw it down upon the middle of the floor broken and shattered.” – because you can’t expect a silly door to hold back a werewolf.
And then he picks the child up – “Then running forward he took the infant from its cradle in his shaggy arms, and gently held it up to the King’s face for a kiss.”
This is such a great werewolf story, lemme tell you – noble werewolf bowing and asking for mercy, werewolf breaking golden chains, busting down doors, using his paws as hands, cradling infants in their shaggy arms– my goodness, I’m swooning over this werewolf, here. This werewolf is the best werewolf.
So the king goes to the sewer (the lover) and talks to him about it, the werewolf wanting to tear the guy’s face off (again) the entire time. Eventually, the sewer confesses to his crimes.
And… thus follows very graphic descriptions of how the queen and the sewer both were put to death because this young king was a real fiery dude. So anyway, now they’re dead.
And now again Gorlagon asks Arthur to eat… and again Arthur refuses. He’s holding fast here. Haha. Get it? Holding fast, because he’s fasting. Anyway…
After that, this king really began to wonder about this incredible werewolf with all his intelligence and nobility. He asked his wise men what they all thought about the situation, and he tells them that he couldn’t possibly be a beast. When he says this, the werewolf gets very excited and licks the king’s hands and does everything he can to gesture that the king is telling the truth.
The king catches on, and he declares that he well and truly wants to restore this wolf to his human form, “’even at the cost of my worldly substance; nay, even at the very risk of my life.’” What a bro, this king, after all the werewolf has done for him.
So he lets the werewolf go and will follow him wherever he leads, hoping the werewolf can lead him to the source of this curse and the king can help him find a cure. He immediately went to the ocean and indicated he wanted to cross – so this king launched an entire fleet and took the werewolf across the ocean, back toward his own land.
And yet again, Gorlagon tries to get Arthur to eat. Arthur refuses.
At last, they land in the werewolf’s kingdom. There, the werewolf signals them “by his customary nod and gesture” that this was his country. The king sets off with an army – and the moment they arrive in a town, the king realizes that this particular land is under very cruel and tyrannical rule by an evil king. And somebody nearby, too, was helpfully “lamenting their master, who by the craft and subtilty [sic] of his wife had been changed into a wolf, remembering what a kind and gentle master he was.”
So now we draw to the close pretty quickly here – the king finds out the truth and attacks this kingdom very suddenly, conquers the place, and captures both this king and the queen and makes them his subjects.
Woo! Victory for him! He’s getting a lot of good stuff out of this, this king.
AGAIN Gorlagon tells Arthur to eat, and Arthur gets pretty annoyed: “You are like a harper who almost before he has finished playing the music of a song, keeps on repeatedly interposing the concluding passages without anyone singing to his accompaniment.“
So Gorlagon finishes the bloody story at long last. He tells of how the king ordered this evil queen to undo the wrong she’d done to her werewolf husband. After, you know, torturing her with all kinds of horrible things and getting a confession out of her.
Until, finally, she gives the king the sapling that started all this mess. The king then undoes the werewolf curse-
The wolf became a man as he had been before, though far more beautiful and comely, being now possessed of such grace that one could at once detect that he was a man of great nobility.
The king and the werewolf have all the best bro-hugs and the king gives the werewolf back his kingdom. Then the king yote back to his own place and they all lived happily ever after!
There’s some more, too, like how Gorlagon was actually the werewolf all along. And how he hated his ex so very, very badly that he literally kept her around and made her kiss the severed and embalmed head of her lover every time Gorlagon kisses his new wife.
Yeah. Wow. Harsh, huh? I’ve heard things about people and their exes, but… yeesh.
When I became a wolf it is evident that the kingdom to which I first went was that of my middle brother, King Gorleil. And the King who took such great pains to care for me you can have no doubt was my youngest brother, King Gargol, to whom you came in the first instance.
So now we know why there were three kings in the story, even if I skipped over the first two to get to the fun werewolf stuff!
And then Arthur FINALLY dismounts and has something to eat, at Gorlagon’s beseeching, with Gorlagon and his new wife.
The end! Wild, huh?
But we can’t deny that the werewolf in this story, Gorlagon himself, is freaking awesome.