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14 april 2019

Bisclavret is your typical medieval tale of courtly love, torture, and werewolves.

I was looking for something to captivate an introductory class in literary history next fall, and I don't see how Bisclavret can miss. Everybody likes werewolves to start with, and the bisclavret in Marie de France's 12th-century story (the word can mean simply "werewolf," though at times it is used as this werewolf's name) is a nice guy, or, wolf. His wife has a cheating heart, though, and that is where his troubles begin.

Our hero has a relationship problem that I doubt even Dan Savage has ever encountered. He spends a lot of his evenings alone and away from home, for obvious reasons. This makes his wife jealous. When he confesses his lycanthropic leanings, the first thing she asks is "what do you do with your clothes?" This is not just one of those questions that movie-goers ask idly during the dull bits. In Marie de France's Brittany, if you steal a bisclavret's clothes, he has to stay in wolf form indefinitely.

The wife seems unusually supportive. Normally such an admission would be met with encouragements to join Werewolves Anonymous. But once he's told her where he stashes his duds, Bisclavret's wife is all, "No problem, honey, I know you need your alone time." You see where this is going. The next time he's out howling, the wife filches his clothes, and he's condemned to wander around wolvishly. She meanwhile hops into the bed of a likely neighbor knight.

A year later, the king is out doing woodsy things, and comes across the bisclavret. The perceptive king realizes that this is no ordinary dog, and makes a kind of pet/courtier out of him. Bisclavret is nice as can be with all visitors except the lady whose husband disappeared a year ago and her new husband. Bisclavret goes so far as to bite off her nose. Should he be taken to the animal shelter?

The king's advisers have a different idea: torture the wife and get her to confess where she's hiding the werewolf's human clothes. This works well; Bisclavret is restored to his humanity and his honors, and wife and lover are banished and go off to found a line of noseless descendants.

The humor, energy, and troubling psychological aspects of Marie's >800-year-old tales can amaze a modern reader. So much of Victorian-and-later Arthurian romance is so dreary that one expects the originals to be like bad posthumous Tolkien or worse; and come to find that these are crackling stories with wicked twists.

In the Norton Critical Edition of Marie de France, Dorothy Gilbert offers facing-page versions of Bisclavret in medieval French and modern English. She aims to render Marie's short French couplets as much as possible into English rhyming couplets of the same length. The results are remarkably good. For various technical reasons, it is possibly easier to render Marie's language into modern English than into modern French, where different rules of prosody apply. The four-stress "tetrameter" gave way in later French poetry to the six-stress alexandrine; and though English settled on five-stress pentameter for anything with gravitas, four-stress lines remain a vital way to write everything from doggerel to serious lyric in English. Gilbert pulls out all the stops in a lovely, lively translation.

Marie de France. Bisclavret. Translated by Dorothy Gilbert. In Marie de France: Poetry. New York: Norton, 2015. 48-65. PQ 1494 .A3G55