IV Bisclavretby Marie de France. Translated by David Slavitt.
There is another Breton lay
I must not omit of Bisclavret
(the Normans give him another name,
"Garwaf," but the two are the same).
It hasn't happened lately, but then
every once in a while some men
were transformed into werewolves and went
into the forests where they spent
their lives doing mischief. They would eat
anybody they happened to meet.
One who was affected that way,
as you have guessed, was Bisclavret.
There was in Brittany long ago
a baron with whom the world had no
complaint. He was noble and handsome, too.
He advised his lord and was one of the few
to whom he listened with great attention.
The baron had, I ought to mention,
a wife who was pretty and worthy as well.
They loved each other, but I must tell
how every week he would go away
and not return until the third day.
Nobody had the foggiest guess
about where he'd gone. This caused distress
in the wife's mind. Although she knew
that husbands don't have to answer to
their wives, she said in the nicest way,
"My dear sweet love, can you not say
where you go when you're not here.
There is nothing in the world I fear
more than your anger, but can you perhaps
forgive me for my wifely lapse
that arises from my concern for you?"
He was in a good mood and drew
her to him in an embrace.
He kissed her and still was close to her face
when he told her to ask whatever she
liked, and if her question could be
answered, he would enlighten her.
With a sweet smile and almost a purr
she said, "I am so upset without
your presence here! Allay my doubt
and quiet my fear. I have to know
what you do and where you go.
Do you have a lover somewhere?
That would be wrong of you and unfair.
If it's something else, then put to rest
the curiosity in my breast."
"Have mercy," he said, "your inquiry
can only bring great harm to me
if I answer you, and will be of no
earthly good to you. I know
that I may lose your love, and I,
if that should happen, would surely die."
This ought to have silenced her but of course
gave her curiosity force
and urgency it hadn't had
before. She persisted, and the sad
husband, with his eyes downcast,
replied to her question and at last
told her that he sometimes became
a werewolf. It was with some shame
that he explained how, in the wood,
he lived on whatever prey he could
capture and kill. She digested this
and then inquired of him what his
costume was in these bizarre
forays. "Lady, werewolves are
completely naked," was his reply.
She laughed at this (I can't guess why)
and asked him where he hid his clothes-
to make conversation, I suppose.
"Don't ask me that, I pray you. If I
were somehow to lose them it would be my
lot to remain a werewolf forever
unless they were returned, and never
walk the earth as a man again."
This should have satisfied her, but when
she heard him say this, she swore that she
loved him and would eternally.
For him to keep secrets from her would show
doubt on his part. "I have done no
wrongs to you! You have no cause
for any suspicions!" And without pause
she continued in that vein, accusing,
wheedling, bullying, and abusing.
Finally, he broke down and told
her how near the wood there was an old
chapel that has a bush close by.
"There is a broad flat stone that I
have hollowed out in which I store
my clothing until I am ready for
my return." She was wide-eyed
and appeared to have been satisfied,
but she was alarmed and filled with fear
to learn that her husband was a were-
wolf. How ghastly! How could she
and such a creature have intimacy?
How to get rid of him was her
only question. The answers were
clear enough-for there was a knight
who had been paying her court and was quite
ardent. She had never returned
the passion with which he said he burned,
but she let him know that that could change
if he were to help her to arrange
a bit of mischief. "I offer you
not only my love but my body, too,
if will do me a service." He
agreed to this with alacrity.
She told him about her husband and his
hiding place for his clothes. At this
the knight immediately obeyed--
and thus was Bisclavret betrayed
by his faithless wife. Because he had
vanished before, the court was sad
but not surprised. They quartered the ground
of the wood but not a trace was found
and even his friends had to give
up, having their lives to live.
The knight married the lady he
loved and they lived happily.
A year came and went and one
day the king went out for the fun
of hunting in that forest where
Bisclavret had made his lair.
The hounds picked up his distinctive scent
and followed him wherever he went.
They were about to leap and tear
him to bits but arriving there
was the king, whom Bisclavret espied.
The werewolf ran up to his side,
took hold of his stirrup, and kissed it shoe
which beasts in the woods don't often do.
The king was impressed and he summoned his party
to see what had given him such a start. He
thought it was strange and marveled aloud
that the animal could be endowed
with intelligence and could plead for its
life. "A beast that has such wits
I will protect, and on those grounds
I order that you restrain the hounds."
The king, because it was late in the day,
returned to the palace with Bisclavret
following closely, afraid to be
separated from his benefactor.
The king, because the beast could distract or
amuse, was delighted to have him there,
and he ordered his kitchen staff to prepare
whatever foods the wolf might eat.
The animal seemed tame, even sweet,
and became a palace pet. It kept
watch at night while his majesty slept.
Is this the happy ending? Not
quite. So, let me tell you what
happened next, when the king held court
and summoned his nobles of every sort
to assemble before him to celebrate
a festival. Among these great
peers of the land was the knight you may
recall, for the wife of Bisclavret
had married him. He hadn't the least
idea about the king's pet beast
but when he entered the palace hall
the wolf with no hesitation at all
leapt on him and sank his jaws
into his thigh. (He had good cause
but no one knew what that might be.)
He might have killed him instantly
but the king spoke sharply and raised a stick
as if to beat him, which did the trick.
Twice more during the day this same
kind of attack occurred. The blame,
some said, was the wolf's, but others believed
that the wolf itself might have been aggrieved
by the knight somehow, for none but he
had aroused the wolf's ferocity.
Back and forth the reasoning went
in their good natured argument,
and the king enjoyed it although he tended
toward those who excused what his animal friend did.
Some time later the king on his way
elsewhere, near the forest of Bisclavret
decided to rest for the night and found
a convenient inn. Word went around
of the royal visit. Bisclavret's spouse,
dressed in her finest, left the house
with a basket of elegant dainties to bring
to the inn, hoping to please the king.
When Bisclavret saw her, he
dashed toward her. He could not be
restrained even by several men.
He pounced upon the woman and then
bit her nose from off her face.
There were guards and huntsmen all over the place
about to kill the wolf, but a wise
man told the king: "No one denies
the gentleness of the beast. There must
be some reason for what he has just
done. He has to have some kind of grudge
against her and her husband. Judge
his case as you would that of a man.
Question the lady and see if you can
find some reason for his rage."
The king heard the words of the mage
and ordered the woman taken away
and put on the rack until she would say
what she had done to provoke such hate
as the wolf's behavior might demonstrate.
A shriek, a whimper, a plea, a curse,
pain, and the fear of even worse…
To make it stop, she had to expose
her plot and the knight's theft of the clothes
of Bisclavret, since which time he
had not been seen. The wolf was he,
she was certain. The king demanded
the clothes be fetched and they soon were handed
to him who put them down before
the wolf in a bundle on the floor.
But the animal seemed indifferent to
this offering. The wise man who
had spoken before explained that it might
be from embarrassment or fright.
He might not want to be seen as he
was transformed back to humanity.
"Put him in your room with this
bundle and we shall learn what is
the matter. If he has privacy,
that may be enough. We'll see."
The king took this advice and put
the wolf in his bedroom. The doors were shut.
Two hours later two barons and he
entered the chamber quietly
to find Bisclavret on the bed, asleep.
The king embraces him. They weep
together in their joy. How grand!
The king restores Bisclavret's land
and gives him even more. The wife
and the knight he banishes for life.
They depart and, as one hears,
have children, but the girls she bears
are born without noses on their faces,
the outward sign of their disgraces.
This is the truth, and do not doubt it.
The Bretons still tell tales about it.