Wolf Man


Blog 4, Wolf Man

“Wolf Man” was written a little earlier than the “Peach Tree.”  Like “Peach Tree,” the story has it’s origins in the Lais of Marie de France.


The Lais were short poetic hero tales in octosyllabic rhymed couplets. Marie’s intention was to tell the true story of a knight, who turned into a werewolf for three days out of every week and wandered the forest as a beast. Like my hero, the wife wheedles the truth out of the husband, even though he knows he would be better off not telling her.  However, whereas in my story, Lyudka is already involved with Kirill, and simply looking for an excuse to get rid of Oleg, in Marie’s tale, the wife has always been deeply in love with her husband. The revelation of his secret so frightens her that she accepts the love of a suitor, who has been courting her for a very long time. It is this suitor, who steals the husband’s clothes and thus sentences him to a life as a beast. The couple marries, and the beast mourns. One day, the King runs across the werewolf (Bisclavret) and chases it all over the forest. In the end, the werewolf comes to the King’s stirrup and kisses his leg and foot. The King is so impressed with his courtesy that he lets the werewolf go. It follows him to court, where it is accepted and eventually beloved by all.


At length, the King calls all his barons to court, among whom, the Werewolf’s wife and her second husband.  Bisclavret tries to attack the woman the moment he sees her, but the King holds him back with a stick. People remark that the beast must have a reason for wanting to attack her. It is not until the lady’s second visit to the court that Bisclavret bites off her nose. A wise man advises the King to torture her, and, after much discomfort, she admits to having had her second husband steal Bisclavret’s clothes.  The couple is banished from court and country; Bisclavret is reinstated. The King finds him sleeping in his bed, after he has become a man again. The sovereign embraces him and gives him back his land.


I kept many of the narrative details of my medieval source. Indeed, both are apologues: Marie tells us a true story about an exemplary beast and a foolish woman. The moral is weak because the purpose of her tale is to relate an interesting truth in the romantic mode.


L’aventure k’avez oïe

(The adventure that you have [just] heard)

Veraie fu, n’en dutez mie.

(Was true, of this have not doubt,)

De Bisclavret fu fez li lais

(The Lay was made [written] about Bisclavret [Normand for “werewolf”])

Pur remembrance a tuz dis mais.

(It has been told so it would be remembered for ever after)


My story is also an exemplum, but very much tongue in cheek: 


The moral to this tale is that, while overly inquisitive wives deserve to have their noses bitten off, some husbands can be quite savage and are better left in the forest. Moreover, since neither husbands nor wives are likely to change their bad habits, it behooves them to take each other as they are, or not at all.


As can be seen by the closing moral lesson, my tale, although also an apologue, is written in the satiric mode, for very different purposes than Marie’s tale.  And so, we can see from just this bit, that I have actually “made it new” in the medieval sense of the word. Twelfth and thirteenth-century writers took an existing narrative and turned it on it’s ear in order to come up with a brand new work. And, if you read the story, you will see that that is precisely what I have done. While there are a limited number of plots in the world, the possibilities in the handling of each of these plots is infinite.  If this kind of thing interests you, I would be happy to talk about it some more in later blogs.


For the moment, let me just say that I wrote this after spending six weeks in China and Russia, which is why the tale is set in Russia rather than in France. My favorite teacher used to say, “Ah, la belle poésie des noms!”‘Oh, the beautiful poetry of names!’ meaning that names, in and of themselves, held volumes of beauty and meaning.  I think that this story was perhaps the very first time I realized what he meant. The beauty of the Siberian forest and Lake Baikal, which I have seen with my own eyes, contrast with the ugliness of the characters, who are funny because their baseness is too rude for literary narrative. Lyudka was, for me, the perfect name for a greedy peasant woman; Oleg was certainly a poor, clumsy bear, caught in his wife’s greedy grasp through his readiness to believe in the romantic pipe dream she offers. And the soldier’s name, Kirill  suggested the oily feel of the adventurer to me.


The Peach Tree

I must have written “The Peach Tree” around 1987, after a year or so of thinking about how to write a short story. Still heavily influenced by medieval literature, especially by the twelfth-century narrative poetess, Marie de France, I had decided to “rework” some of her narratives as practice. But, by the time I got to “The Peach Tree,” I was ready to strike out on my own.


The story is based on Marie de France’s “Equitan,” to be sure, but it is a very different tale from Marie’s.  For the poetess, her story was an exemplum of what happens when we do wrong to others. It comes back to us:


                                Ici purreit ensample prendre

                                Tels purcace le mal d’autrui

                                Dunt tuz le mals revert sur lui.


To be sure, my King, like Equitan, is overly fond of wenches and none too careful about guarding his friendship with his favorite vassal, the Seneschal. However, Equitan comes across as a weak, immoral, smart ass, whereas my King is a sociopath, who sees other people as useful, or not. Equitan’s excuse for seducing the young woman is that she’d have to take a lover anyway, to keep up her “curteisie” (the whole business of being a magnet for the young men at court because you are possibly beautiful, but more probably, the only woman at court). The Seneschal, he reasons, couldn’t hold her anyway, so he shouldn’t mind so much that he, Equitan takes her for his lover:


                                Si bele dame tant mar fust

                `              S’ele n’amast e dru n’eust!

                                Que devendreit sa curteisie,

                                S’ele n’amast de druerie?

                                Suz ciel n’ad humme, s’el l’amast,

                                Ki durement n’en amendast.

                                Li seneschals, si l’ot cunter,

                                Ne l’en deit mie trop peser:

                                Suls ne la peot il pas tenir!


When the young woman worries about what will become of her, he tells her she’s bargaining with him like a bourgeois:


                                “Dame, merci! Nel dites mes!

                                Cil ne sunt mie fin curteis,

                                Ainz est bargaine de burgeis, . . .


By contrast, my King is courtly (i.e., courteous, well-manered, charming, etc. on the surface, except when he doesn’t get his own way, in which case he falls upon the floor in a temper tantrum). He also has to win at everything, which is why he likes his poor Seneshal so much-he can always best him. When confronted with the beauty of his vassal’s young wife, he must have her! Selfish and immature, he doesn’t even think things through. He sends her husband off to war so he can enjoy the woman. At no time is he overly concerned about whether the man lives or dies! He is a full-blown sociopath in medieval garb, if you will.


In both Marie’s tale and mine, it is the woman’s idea to get rid of the husband.  In “Equitan”, the king goes along with the plan with the same devil-may-care amorality he displays from the very beginning. In my story, the King has forgotten how much he liked his vassa,l because he has been sleeping with the guy’s wife for two years. He helps her to kill the husband, but in a way that removes him from the reality of the murder.  It is her idea to poison the husband’s favorite fruit tree by feeding a magician’s potion to the roots. In “Equitan,” the wife heats up a bath tub, to be used by the husband after he has been bled. Equitan is supposed to dive into the tub with the cold water, whereas the unwitting husband will bleed out in the hot water. Of course, things backfire. The husband catches the wife in bed with Equitan, and Equitan dives into the hot bath by mistake. With a truly medieval flourish, the husband takes the wife, turns her upside down, and plunges her into the hot tub, head first, with her lover!


In “The Peach Tree,” the priest, Baudoin, warns the husband, returning from war, of the King’s treachery and the couples’ plan to murder him. The husband has a cake made out of peaches to honor the lovers. He has the cake decorated with the story of Mars and Venus, caught in the nets of Venus’ horrible husband, Vulcan. The King knows the story, and it makes him very uncomfortable. Unlike the Seneschal in “Equitan,” the husband in “The Peach Tree” is a brutish lover, probably not unlike Vulcan.  So the wife’s treachery has some foundation in my story, whereas  it is completely gratuitous in Marie’s tale. My “exemplum” is about being waylaid on one’s true path through life by appearances.


Because I was still learning, I was courageous enough to alter the original story completely, but the poisoning of the peach tree came to me from the I Claudius, where poor Augustus trusts in his figs because he figures they are the only thing in the house that are safe to eat. Still, this narrative of mine was original enough to publish, and so I did, with the understanding that it was a step on the way in learning to produce original works.