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.