Werewolf Fact #67 – The Lai of the Werewolf, “Bisclavret”

The time has come to discuss in depth my very favorite werewolf story! Yes, my favorite werewolf story doesn’t come from modern pop culture. Instead, it comes from medieval literature.

So let’s dive right into “Bisclavret,” one of the best werewolf stories ever told.

Please note that this post will contain the entirety of “Bisclavret,” in direct quotes, with my discussions interspersed throughout. So if you’ve never read the story, you can find the whole thing here!

For this in-depth look at “Bisclavret,” I will be using A Lycanthropy Reader: Werewolves in Western Culture by Charlotte F. Otten, one of my very favorite werewolf sourcebooks. It’s a wonderful collection of primary historical sources – and some stories that aren’t folklore but were always considered fictional – and some very good introductions to and discussions of said works by Otten herself.

In fact, in her introduction to the section that includes “Bisclavret,” Otten imparts some very wise words on werewolf legends as a whole…

On the moral level, the werewolf myth is a realistic assessment of the range of choices available to human beings. Humans who become werewolves in the myths and legends, or who cause others to become werewolves, are involved in moral metamorphosis: a process that recognizes the exhilaration that comes with engaging in degrading lycanthropic acts but also reveals the degradation that comes to those who deliberately choose to exhibit bestiality [bestial nature]. The werewolf myth, then, is a profound insight into human life. … Regarded as a moral myth, the presence in the human spirit of werewolves can direct the culture, the society, the individual human being to sources of healing. If it does so, it is a myth not of despair but of hope. (Otten 223)

I would personally add, also in relation to “Bisclavret,” thatit isn’t only those who become werewolves and behave as beasts or those who turn others into werewolves – it’s also extremely important in many werewolf myths how the werewolves themselves are treated by the human characters. How one treats a werewolf, with that person still being human but in the guise of a beast, is an important moral plot point in multiple werewolf legends, such as the werewolves of Ossory and – of course – Bisclavret. One is amoral if they assume a werewolf is evil solely because of their appearance, without judging their character first and appearance second. It’s not necessarily always a test of the werewolf character, it’s also a test of everyone around them. If the werewolf is virtuous and behaving like a human, isn’t it just as important to treat the werewolf like you would anyone else – even if it is a werewolf?

Now let’s get to Bisclavret

Written in the 12th century, “Bisclavret” is a bit of an enigma. Scholars kind of agree that it was likely written by Marie de France, or else a story she adapted from a much older tale, given there are different versions of this story – all very similar – floating around from similar time periods and cultures.

Marie de France herself says she translated this lai out of the Breton language, after having heard it elsewhere. I’m glad she did, as she preserved a fantastic werewolf story.

“Bisclavret” opens with some words from Marie de France…

Amongst the tales I will tell you once again, 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. (256)

I find her discussion of werewolf terminology interesting. She goes on to introduce the concept of werewolves themselves, which is, as she discusses it, a very commonly-known concept and found “in every land,” which she is absolutely right about (even if, of course, these legends weren’t always the same in nature, but werewolves certainly were everywhere).

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. The Were-Wolf is a fearsome beast. He lurks within the thick forest, mad and horrible to see. All the evil that he may, he does. He goeth to and fro, about the solitary place, seeking man, in order to devour him. Hearken, now, to the adventure of the Were-Wolf, that I have to tell. (256)

This doesn’t sound at all like Bisclavret, as you will discover. Marie de France seems to be describing a certain interpretation of the werewolf myth that didn’t even all that often apply but was steadily becoming a more accepted concept, especially in certain regions of Europe: that werewolves are “evil.” Or, at least – and most importantly – she states that werewolves are perceived as evil.

But are they really? Let’s read Bisclavret and find out. Because this opening displays the way the werewolf myth exists in the minds of many, but not necessarily the way werewolves really are, and I think that’s an important element of the story: Marie de France doesn’t open with “werewolves are all nice and cuddly,” because you need to read the story and determine the truth for yourself. But now you see the general perception, at least as this story presents it.

I love werewolves so much, you guys. I love this story, too. That’s something I have trouble conveying sometimes to my good readers: I love the concept of werewolves and I could talk about them until the sun dies. I love even the simplest presentations of “a werewolf is a man who suffers a change and runs wild in the darkest wood, horrible to behold, and devours men.” I just love it beyond words or reason. This is what I want. This is all I ask for. This but with more behind it than the simplicity of “evil,” just like Bisclavret presents.

Anyway!

So now we are introduced to our protagonist…

In Brittany there dwelt a baron who was marvellously esteemed of all his fellows. He was a stout knight, and a comely, and a man of office and repute. Right private was he to the mind of his lord, and dear to the counsel of his neighbours. This baron was wedded to a very worthy dame, right fair to see, and sweet of semblance. All his love was set on her, and all her love was given again to him. One only grief had this lady. For three whole days in every week her lord was absent from her side. She knew not where he went, nor on what errand. Neither did any of his house know the business which called him forth.

On a day when this lord was come again to his house, altogether joyous and content, the lady took him to task, right sweetly, in this fashion,

“Husband,” said she, “and fair, sweet friend, I have a certain thing to pray of you. Right willingly would I receive this gift, but I fear to anger you in the asking. It is better for me to have an empty hand, than to gain hard words.”

When the lord heard this matter, he took the lady in his arms, very tenderly, and kissed her.

“Wife,” he answered, “ask what you will. What would you have, for it is yours already?”

“By my faith,” said the lady, “soon shall I be whole. Husband, right long and wearisome are the days that you spend away from your home. I rise from my bed in the morning, sick at heart, I know not why. So fearful am I, lest you do aught to your loss, that I may not find any comfort. Very quickly shall I die for reason of my dread. Tell me now, where you go, and on what business! How may the knowledge of one who loves so closely, bring you to harm?”

This old tale is… very good at conveying someone manipulative and self-serving and even goes so far as to show her turn to other victims to use: this isn’t just a werewolf story, it’s a tale about manipulation*. Poor Bisclavret gets burned just for trusting the person who claims to love him so. It’s sad and relatable to see. A tale as old as time, and now the nice one that is “Beauty and the Beast.”

But being a werewolf is still a very bad thing, as established by the story’s opening! Naturally, he doesn’t want to tell.

“Wife,” made answer the lord, “nothing but evil can come if I tell you this secret. For the mercy of God do not require it of me. If you but knew, you would withdraw yourself from my love, and I should be lost indeed.”

When the lady heard this, she was persuaded that her baron sought to put her by with jesting words. Therefore she prayed and required him the more urgently, with tender looks and speech, till he was overborne, and told her all the story, hiding naught.

Now we’re back to that manipulation… anyway.

“Wife, I become Bisclaravet. I enter the forest, and live on prey and roots, within the thickest of the wood.”

This marks a difference with the opening already. The baron here claims he doesn’t eat human flesh! The opening clearly stated werewolves do evil and seek to devour men. Hmm, interesting.

After she had learned his secret, she prayed and entreated the more as to whether he ran in his raiment, or went spoiled of vesture.

“Wife,” said he, “I go naked as a beast.”

“Tell me, for hope of grace, what do you do with your clothing?”

“Fair wife, that I will never. If I should lose my raiment, or even be marked as I quit my vesture, then a Were-Wolf I must go for all the days of my life. Never again should I become man, save in that hour my clothing were given back to me. For this reason never will I show my lair.”

“Husband,” replied the lady to him, “I love you better than all the world. The less cause have you for doubting my faith, or hiding any tittle from me. What savour is here of friendship? How have I made forfeit of your love, for what sin do you mistrust my honor? Open now your heart, and tell what is good to be known.”

So at the end, outwearied and overborne by her importunity, he could no longer refrain, but told her all.

“Wife,” said he, “within this wood, a little from the path, there is a hidden way, and at the end thereof an ancient chapel, where often-times 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.”

The baron says he “often-times … bewail[s] his lot,” so he clearly doesn’t like being a werewolf. Just a small detail to point out. Truly the original classic werewolf hero.

On hearing this marvel the lady became sanguine of visage, because of her exceeding fear. She dared no longer to lie at his side, and turned over in her mind, this way and that, how best she could get her from him. Now there was a certain knight of those parts, who, for a great while, had sought and required this lady of her love. This knight had spend long years in her service, but little enough had he got thereby, not even fair words, or a promise. To him the dame wrote a letter, and meeting, made her purpose plain.

So not only did learning that the baron, her own husband, is a werewolf make this manipulative selfish woman turn on him instantly, but she also turned to a knight who is utterly failing his chivalric code and wanting love from this woman instead of courtly, chaste love from afar. And he’s probably too love-struck to realize she’s just going to use him until he is no longer beneficial to her in her own eyes, like she just did with the baron. We have a very bad combination.

“Fair friend,” said she, “be happy. That which you have coveted so long a time, I will grant without delay. Never again will I deny your suit. My heart, and all I have to give, are yours, so take me now as love and dame.”

Right sweetly the knight thanked her for her grace, and pledged her faith and fealty. When she had confirmed him by an oath, then she told him of his business of her lord–why he went, and what he became, and of his ravening within the wood. So she showed him of the chapel, and of the hollow stone, and of how to spoil the Were-Wolf of his vesture. Thus, by the kiss of his wife, was Bisclavaret betrayed. Often enough had he ravished his prey in desolate places, but from this journey he never returned. His kinsfolk and acquaintance came together to ask of his tidings, when this absence was noised abroad. Many a man, on many a day, searched the woodland, but none might find him, nor learn where Bisclavaret was gone.

The lady was wedded to the knight who had cherished her for so long a space. More than a year had passed since Bisclavaret disappeared. Then it chanced that the King would hunt in the self-same wood where the Were-Wolf lurked. When the hounds were unleashed they ran this way and that, and swiftly came upon his scent. At the view the huntsman winded on his horn, and the whole pack were at his heels. They followed him from morn to eve, till he was torn and bleeding, and was all adread lest they should pull him down. Now the King was very close to the quarry, and when Bisclavaret looked upon his master, he ran to him for pity and for grace. He took the stirrup within his paws, and fawned upon the prince’s foot. The King was very fearful at this sight, but presently he called his courtiers to his aid.

This scene very clearly points out, yet again, that the baron Bisclavret takes the shape of a wolf when he assumes his werewolf form. This is not uncommon in werewolf legends.

“Lords,” cried he, “hasten hither, and see this marvellous thing. Here is a beast who has the sense of a man. He abases himself before his foe, and cries for mercy, although he cannot speak. Beat off the hounds, and let no man do him harm. We will hunt no more to-day, but return to our own place, with the wonderful quarry we have taken.”

The King turned him about, and rode to his hall, Bisclavaret following at his side. Very near to his master the Were-Wolf went, like any dog, and had no care to seek again the wood. When the King had brought him safely to his own castle, he rejoiced greatly, for the beast was fair and strong, no mightier had any man seen.

Another pause here to point out that, once again, a werewolf that turns into a wolf is never conveyed as being an ordinary wolf – they are always bigger, stronger, “mightier.” Indeed, they are always the most impressive thing people have witnessed.

Much pride had the King in his marvellous beast. He held him so dear, that he bade all those who wished for his live, to cross the Wolf in naught, neither to strike him with a rod, but ever to see that he was richly fed and kennelled warm. This commandment the Court observed willingly. So all day the wolf sported with the lords, and at night he lay within the chamber of the King. There was not a man who did not make much of the beast, so frank was he and debonair. None had reason to do him wrong, for ever was he about his master, and for his part did evil to none. Every day were these two companions together, and all perceived that the King loved him as his friend.

What a great section. Already friends before, now the baron and his King are friends again, even if he has taken the form of a beast and cannot speak. Even in werewolf form, he acts as a loyal knight and bodyguard, with the king giving him full trust of his life despite him being a beast. I love the emphasis on Bisclavret’s courtly mannerisms and his culture, and even the emphasis that he does not do “evil,” also in direct contradiction to the assumptions the story’s opening would lead you to believe. But things are about to change…

Hearken now to that which chanced.

The King held a high Court, and bade his great vassals and barons, and all the lords of his venery to the feast. Never was there a goodlier feast, nor one set for with sweeter show and pomp. Amongst those who were bidden, came that same knight who had the wife of Bisclavaret for dame. He came to the castle, richly gowned, with a fair company, but little he deemed whom he would find so near. Bisclavaret marked his foe the moment he stood within the hall. He ran towards him, and seized him with his fangs, in the King’s very presence, and to the view of all. Doubtless he would have done him much mischief, had not the King called and chidden him, and threatened him with a rod. Once, and twice, again, the Wolf set upon the knight in the very light of day. All men marvelled at his malice, for sweet and serviceable was the beast, and to that hour had shown hatred of none. With one consent the household deemed that this deed was done with full reason, and that the Wolf had suffered at the knight’s hand some bitter wrong. Right wary of his foe was the knight until the feast had ended, and all the barons had taken farewell of their lord, and departed, each to his own house. Wit hthese, amongst the very first, wen that lord whom Bisclavaret so fiercely had assailed. Small was the wonder he was glad to go.

Bisclavret at last shows a werewolf’s rage – but only in a righteous way. He only attacks the one who wronged him. So what does the King make of his new beast of a friend behaving in such a way? Does he have him killed? Does he decide he’s a monster?

Not long while after this adventure it came to pass that the courteous King would hunt in that forest where Bisclavaret was found. With the prince came his wolf, and a fair company. Now at nightfall the King abode within a certain lodge of that country, and this was known of that dame who before was the wife of Bisclavaret. In the morning the lady clothed her in her most dainty apparel, and hastened to the lodge, since she desired to speak with the King, and to offer him a rich present.

Also typical manipulative behavior. You may think of medieval tales as simple, but they had a lot to say and to teach.

When the lady entered in the chamber, neither man no leash might restrain the fury of the Wolf. He became as a mad dog in his hatred and malice. Breaking from his bonds he sprang at the lady’s face, and bit the nose from her visage.

Please note that this is a medieval trope, as it were: the removal of the nose. It’s quite a lot to break down. But let’s maintain focus on the werewolf…

From every side men ran to the succour of the dame. They beat off the wolf from his prey, and for a little would have cut him to pieces with their swords. But a certain wise consellor said to the King,

“Sire, hearken now to me. This beast is always with you, and there is not one of us all who has not known him for long. He goes in and out amongst us, nor has molested any man, neither done wrong or felony to any, save only to this dame, one only time as we have seen. He has done evil to this lady, and to that knight, who is now the husband of the dame. Sire, she was once the wife of that lord who was so close and private to your heart, but who went, and none might find where he had gone. Now, therefore, put the dame in a sure place, and question her straitly, so that she may tell–if perchance she knows thereof– for what reason this Beast holds her in such mortal hate. For many a strange deed has chanced, as well we know, in this marvellous land of Brittany.”

Smart man! This paragraph also serves to highlight that the King and the knight/baron Bisclavret were already friends before and – I’m sure – trusted companions, as kings and their knights generally tend to be, especially in stories. After all, there are tales very similar to Bisclavret as told in King Arthur stories about one of his knights of the Round Table, his most trusted brothers-in-arms. It is no different here, as Bisclavret was once a brother to this king, if also subservient to his lord in rank – which, in this time period and in such tales, generally served to make the bond of brotherhood and honorable oaths still stronger.

The counsellor also points out about “many a strange deed” and is apparently talking about werewolves. This is the first time someone suggests that the Wolf may actually be a man.

The King listened to these words, and deemed the counsel good. He laid hands upon the knight, and put the dame in surety in another place. He caused them to be questioned right straitly, so that their torment was very grevious. At the end, partly because of her distress, and partly by reason of her exceeding fear, the lady’s lips were loosed, and she told her tale. She showed them of the betrayal of her lord, and how his raiment was stolen from the hollow stone. Since then she knew not where he went, nor what had befallen him, for he had never come again to his own land. Only, in her heart, well she deemed and was persuaded, that Bisclavaret was he.

Straightaway the King demanded the vesture of his baron, whether this were to the wish of the lady, or whether it were against her wish. When the raiment was brought to him, he caused it to be spread before Bisclavaret, but the Wolf made as though he had not seen. Then that cunning and crafty counsellor took the King apart, that he might give him a fresh rede.

Well, obviously, Bisclavret isn’t too keen on turning back into a human right in front of everyone. I appreciate this aspect. Returning to the shape of a man is no small and simple feat, and it’s a shameful and degrading process both to do it and to have the truth of his nature known – not to mention it might be difficult, especially after being in the form of a beast for so long. This is then highlighted by the counsellor…

“Sire,” said he [the counsellor], “you do not wisely, nor well, to set this raiment before Bisclavaret, in the sight of all. In shame and much tribulation must he lay aside the beast, and again become man. Carry our wolf within your most secret chamber, and put his vestment therein. Then close the door upon him, and leave him alone for a space. So we shall see presently whether the ravening beast may indeed return to human shape.”

The King carried the Wolf to his chamber, and shut the doors upon him fast. He delayed for a brief while, and taking two lords of his fellowship with him, came again to the room.

I guess the king was a little worried about what he might find! Can’t really blame him.

Entering therein, all three, softly together, they found the knight sleeping in the King’s bed, like a little child. The King ran swiftly to the bed and taking his friend in his arms, embraced and kissed him fondly, above a hundred times.

The king is clearly a big fan of la bise, and since he hasn’t seen the knight for so long, he has to make up for all those lost greetings. It’d be a great scene for a cartoon, honestly. Kissing meant a wider variety of things in this time period than it often does today: a kiss could be greeting, respect, forgiveness, or even a sign of peace, rather than some simple blanket gesture of romantic love, as it is thought of today. The king does a lot of talking when he greets the knight in such a way, telling him that he is welcomed back and that he’s happy to see him and all is forgiven. So… no punishment for being a werewolf!

When man’s speech returned once more [to the knight/Bisclavret], he told him [the King] of his adventure. Then the King restored his friend the fief that was stolen from him, and gave such rich gifts, moreover, as I cannot tell. As for the wife who had betrayed Bisclavaret, he bade her avoid his country, and chased her from the realm. So she went forth, she and her second lord together, to seek a more abiding city, and were no more seen.

The adventure that you have heard is no vain fable. Verily and indeed it chanced as I have said. The Lay of the Were-Wolf, truly, was written that it should ever be borne in mind.

No “the evil werewolf must die,” no mention of his curse or passing it on to others – the werewolf is a hero and is accepted as one in spite of his bestial transformation. Truly an interesting specimen among werewolf tales.

*: Yes, this aspect of the story is indeed often interpreted as negative against women, but that isn’t something I will get into with this post. I will instead be viewing it as a werewolf legend and not criticizing other aspects. It’s true that women were often viewed and treated unfairly in this time period and generally made out to be evil manipulative creatures in many medieval tales (though not all, and not all the female characters always were), as that was often the mindset of this time period, but that’s an issue for another time and another blog, as this blog is about werewolves. I did, however, want to acknowledge that issue, because I’m quite aware of it (especially as a woman in medieval studies), instead of ignoring it altogether. I personally do not think it lessens the story or makes the moral any less powerful, especially if we recognize the biases of the time period – and that a woman chose, herself, to retell this story in the first place, as I too am a woman choosing to retell it now.

I do so deeply enjoy “Bisclavret” and the truly classical tale of deepest fealty and trust to one’s King, the humanity displayed by the “wolf” (werewolf), and even how the King is thankful to have the faithful baron returned to human form – with no question or horror to learn that he was a werewolf to begin with.

The relationship between lord and knight is something not often conveyed in modern culture, as it’s not really something we have anymore, so it’s always fun to read about in such a fantastical sense. And many medieval stories are about courtly love, but not so with this one. Don’t get me wrong, I love courtly love, but it’s fun to see a platonic story as well.

So there we have it, the tale of “Bisclavret”! It’s one of my favorite werewolf stories. It’s classic, it’s simple, and it’s about a good and chivalrous, courtly knight werewolf. As we all know… I do love the idea of a werewolf knight.

Until next time!

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