The Motif Of Transformation In The Lais Of Marie De France
One of many medieval writers using the motif of transformation in their works is Marie de France. In one of her lais, Bisclavret, she explores the idea of a man turning into a wolf and the aftermath of his wife finding out about his true nature. By choosing the wolf as an animal in which the man is changing to, the author creates the metaphor of not only dual but also the beastly side of human nature. What is interesting in this tale is the fact that despite his hidden and animalistic side, it is Bisclavret that is portrayed as loyal and kind – ‘He was a good and handsome knight who conducted himself nobly’ – whereas his wife ironically displays more beastly and cruel qualities – upon finding out about her husband’s secret, she focuses only on her feelings – ‘She tormented and harried him’ – and she also presents no concern over Bisclavret’s wellbeing.
She even goes as far as to use what her husband told her against him as ‘She described the path he took to the forest and sent him for her husband’s clothes. Thus was Bisclavret betrayed and wronged by his wife’. In making this contradiction, of an animal, a man haunted by the curse and condemned yet still being more humane and genuine than his own wife, Marie de France is able to make a statement of how it is people’s actions that truly define them and how one’s actions can affect the other. It is shown clearly in the example of Bisclavret attacking his wife’s new husband and acting in a way in which he never did towards other people, but his behaviour was in a way a reaction to the betrayal of the knight and the wife – ‘Throughout the household it was remarked that he would not have done it without good reason. The knight had wronged him somehow or other, for he was bent on revenge’.
In a book chapter, Wolf, Man and Wolf-Man, Susan Crane states that a man’s ‘transformation into a lupine state is an unmitigated disaster, a manifestation of the human capacity for sinful and lawless behaviour or a total evacuation of the human self’ however that is not the case with Bisclavret. He is very much aware of his actions and is ashamed of them. He does not transform into the wolf out of a choice or a need to escape his humanity. In fact, his wolf state is simply an intensified true form of his morals and virtues – ‘As soon as he saw the king he run up to him and begged him for mercy. He took hold of his stirrup and kissed his foot and leg’. He carries the guilt of his actions and he keeps transformations a secret from his wife and the rest of the society – ‘Each week he was absent for three full days […] and no one in the household knew what happened to him’. When given the opportunity to change from a wolf into a human again, he hesitates – ‘It is most humiliating for him’. He needs to accept his wolf form as it is as well as get to know himself as he truly is before he is ready to be a man again. His approach to himself is crucial in order to understand the complexity and duality of humankind in a way in Marie de France depicts it.
As his ‘transformation into a werewolf is an unexplained, unmotivated marvel with important measuring and testing’ it functions as a device of studying the choice he, and consequently all people, makes. At the beginning of the lai, he is described as a person of impeccable reputation, loved and respected, however as he speaks of the way in which he lives ‘in the deepest part of the wood where he feeds off the prey he can capture’. That attempt of keeping the two important parts of his life distinct is the reason why he is initially struggling with himself, his shame and guilt, and by accepting himself as he is, Bisclavret is able to move on from his suffering and be the person he is meant to be as the king ‘restored his land to him’. There is a definite distinction in human nature that Marie de France is trying to portray as she compares the reaction of both the wife and the king upon learning the truth about Bisclavret. As the wife is disgusted and cannot be in a relationship with him any longer, the wolf’s relationship with the king is much more affectionate and stable.
In a way, he is treated as an animal – ‘plenty of food and water must be provided for it’ – however, there is a certain sense of love and comfort that Bisclavret is able to find in his lord – ‘He considered the wolf to be a great wonder and loved it dearly’. By doing this comparison Marie de France is able to show how one’s action is affecting another human being. Bisclavret is rejected by his wife and forced into isolation and loneliness, however, he finds the acceptance of the king that he needs in order to accept himself as he is. The transformation of a man into a wolf, shifting human into a beast, whilst using the imagery of darkness, betrayal and revenge, serves as an exploration of primal fears regarding humanity and in consequence what it means to be human and what makes a human. Whether it’s the biology, the behaviour, emotions or materialistic needs that are creating humans as they are, with Bisclavret Marie de France is able to convince the reader that nothing is as important as kindness, respect and acceptance of another human being.
Ultimately, Bisclavret is a statement of moderation and of a choice. It is functioning as a research of the realism of human emotions and their complexity, as well as the conflict of morality versus cruelty as it is seen by the ‘beasts offering a particular instance of anthropomorphic behaviour that supports a general observation on the ways of humankind’. As human nature, the dual nature of the werewolf ‘epitomizes the dilemma of humankind which must battle the forces of good and evil within’. As each person has a battle with their inner beast, showing the transformation in medieval literature shows that it is clear that no one is truly and only defined by their darkness and humanity can be put above this beastliness.
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One of many medieval writers using the motif of transformation in their works is Marie de France. In one of her lais, Bisclavret, she explores the idea of a man […]