Bisclavret and the Werewolf Conundrum

Bisclavret by Marie De France is not your typical everyday werewolf story. You can do your research on Lycanthropy and find some information about werewolf bites in stories, the lunar cycles, and full moons, but Marie De France did not write what you would expect a werewolf story to be. This isn’t Twilight with shirtless boys running through the woods of Forks Washington. Marie De France touches upon many different aspects of what makes a monster story and monster story but in more of a lighthearted way than most horror stories. Not only does this idea of contagion that comes with werewolves come into play, but romance, as well as heroism, is also questioned throughout the story. Which brings me to the question, Is the choice between sympathy and fear of monsters based on authorial intent, or the era of the creation of the story? 

“He loved her, she him: they loved each other.

But one thing was a bother:

Every week he was lost to her,”

Bisclavret Marie Defrance Line 23-25

In terms of the story Bisclavret, it discusses ideas of romance with lycanthropy. Reading it, it talks about this idea of the man having to leave because of his werewolf “problem” and when his love interest asks about it, and he finally tells her, she leaves him. “My lord, I’m in terror every day, Those days when you’ve gone away, My heart is so full of fear, I’m so afraid I’ll lose you, dear– If I don’t get some help, some healing, I will die soon of what I’m feeling!” (Marie De France) this not only contradicts her later statement of “Filled with fear by this adventure. Often and often passed through her head Plans to get right out, escape, for She didn’t want ever to share his bed, ” (Marie De France). In the beginning this stereotypes this idea that the “monster” will not gain love, and the hero will get the girl, but it doesn’t really go in this direction. 

 I connected this to a MTV show called Teen Wolf, which had a very similar storyline to this one. The main character who is the werewolf of the story, is bitten in the very first episode, and has to start to learn how to live with this new found “curse”.  He begins a romantic relationship with the new girl, who happens to be the daughter of a werewolf hunter. Through the seasons (spoilers) she finds out about him after continuously asking and asking what was up with him. Instead of hunting him, she merely breaks up with him, like the love interest in Bisclavret. I found this very intriguing, knowing that these two different stories were created in different times, but the similarities are comparable. This shows that this show could have been based on the idea of Bisclarvet, while placing a modern tie to it as well. This creates the idea that the problems and issues that were prominent in that time period, are very much present today. 

Based on the time period that Bisclarvet was written, it goes against the grain of what we know as the typical, main character gets the girl and all is good in the world. It reminds me of the Grimm brother’s stories as well as stories by Hans Christian Andersen – even though they wrote much later than Marie Defrance in the 1800’s – were once brutal, gory stories turned into beloved children’s stories and movies like the Little Mermaid and Rapunzel. An example of this being “Once more she gazed at the prince with half-glazed eyes, rushed off the ship down into the sea, and felt her body dissolve into foam,” (Andersen, The Little Mermaid pg. 11) which is an example of the original endings that we don’t abide by anymore. The point I am trying to get at in this case is that the time period it was written, stipulated the idea of refusing a happy ending. The werewolf, though he gained a friendship with the King, lost the love of his life because of his condition. This confirms the idea that the era was the reason for the unhappy endings, as well as the idea of the romantic shift of the genre. 

Also, in the show Teen Wolf, the lunar cycle is a big deal. Everytime the full moon comes around, it creates a big deal in the show, something always happens, conflicts and climaxes come to light. The main character can also have what they call “episodes” where he gets ‘wolfy’ but doesn’t completely change which is what I have really connected to Bisclarvet. In Bisclavret, it is a weekly happening. It is thought of as not so much a curse, but a way of life. Like in the show, their is this trope that a bite can transfer, which is not present in the Bisclavret reading. This carries this notion of horror in medieval writing, purely on the idea of fear of infection, as well as a fear of not being in control. This was written pre black death in the middle ages, which in terms of generational fear, this could be why it was not really thought of as a bite induced contagion as we know it to be now. Going back to Teen Wolf, the main character is a highschool student who plays sports isn’t originally athletic, but this newfound curse makes him stronger and faster etc. to the point where he fears he will not be able to control it, and that it will get out of hand to the point that his life will never be the same. This goes into the idea that Bisclavret did not have that we fear what we can’t control. As human beings we have to be in control of everything, and when you learn that you are no longer human, this point of view changes. 

Especially now in the days of covid, subconsciously our ideas of contagion and fear of infection are running our lives. Some people are afraid to even go to the supermarket without overpreparing with a hand sanitizer, face masks and lysol. In times of Bisclavret, they did not have the luxuries to keep themself as clean and hygienic as we do now, which is why the entire idea of werewolves and monsters for that time period was so horrific. 

“A garwolf is a savage beast,

While the fury’s on it, at least:

Eats men, wreaks evil, does no good,

Living and roaming in the deep wood,”

Bisclavret Marie De France Lines 9-12

The entire story of Bisclavret gives off this idea and truth that everyone carries a darkness with them – playing into the notion that you never know who the bad guy truly is. It plays into the fear that something is wrong with you and that something needs to be fixed creating the idea of eugenics through this idea of lycanthropy. The idea of breeding out the bad, and how evil is transferred from generation to generation bringing back the thought of if it is a curse, or is it a natural, common thing that wouldn’t be known if you didn’t talk about it and kept it to yourself. Comparing this to Beowulf, Beowulf  though perceived as the good guy, hero of the story, can be seen in a negative life, and could possibly be perceived as the so called “bad guy”. He tends to play into the role of toxic masculinity, constantly yelling and boasting about everything that he has done and the fact that he is the best at what he does, ridding the world of so called “monsters”, when in fact, he is not a good, or nice person to be around. This becomes the issue of if the werewolf who is misunderstood is the bad guy, or is the guy who looks like everyone else, but places them on a pedestal to be the “hero” even when he has done bad things to the so called “bad” guy. 

Overall, Bisclavret is a very interesting read. It goes against everything we have known as growing up in present times compared to when Marie De France wrote this story. The idea of romance, happy endings, and stereotypical monster stories are not the work of the past, but a preservation of the future. SOmething that we have created ourselves off of our new norms, the idea of contagion playing off of covid, as well as who are the real monsters hiding under our bed aspect to stories. 

2 thoughts on “Bisclavret and the Werewolf Conundrum

  1. I’d love to discuss Bisclarvet with you through different lenses. I always read through the queer lens, so your take about Bisclarvet losing “the love of his life”, the woman who immediately betrayed him due to something he had no say over and no ability to change – that made me do a double-take. Some textual evidence to back this up could make for a strong paper if you were so inclined, though evidence and engaged discussion about the text could always improve your understanding of it if you were up for it.

  2. I really liked how you discussed how it is not like normal werewolf/horror stories, there are definitely some points in the story where it does fit the themes of a normal horror story when Bisclarvet attacks his former wife and bits her nose off. I also agree with your point about how this story is more like today because it revolves around happy endings and romance. I really enjoyed how you talked about Covid and how it relates to the story, I never really thought about it too much. The big reason they were so afraid was because of the fact that they couldn’t protect themselves, while today we are able to protect ourselves by staying home and wearing masks.

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