Summer Books: Illustrating Bisclavret [The Lais of the Werewolf] and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Illustrating Bisclavret and Sir Gawain

It’s Medieval Bad Girls (and Chickens) Week in our Summer Books Series. And we’ve started out with two “bad wives,” or, at least two seemingly bad wives.

First, we read the Busby and Burgess translation of Marie de France’s 12th century Lais of the Werewolf or Bisclavret (The Lais of Marie de France, Penguin). The story of Bisclavret is a Werewolf tale. The female narrator describes a brave lord, a favourite of the king, who has the unfortunate habit of turning into a werewolf three days out of the week.  Only by putting his clothes back on is he able to become a human at the end of each three-day cycle.  Once his inquisitive wife gets wind of where he’s “disappearing” each week, however, she decides to have another knight, an old flame of hers, remove the lord’s clothes from their hiding place. Thenceforth, Bisclavret is a werewolf long-term, and the wife goes and marries the knight.  Bisclavret, however, is no normal “garwalf” or werewolf, in the sense that he is too noble to harm most other humans. In fact, the king, on a hunt, is so taken with the wolf’s “intelligence” and mildness among men (Bisclavret has licked his boot), that he adopts him and brings him back to his castle where he is beloved by all.  The king soon hosts a festival, at which his wife’s paramour makes an appearance. Bisclavret immediately bites the knight, to the shock of all. The prevailing wisdom, however, is that the wolf must have been harmed by the knight to have done such a terrible thing.  Later, Bisclavret’s wife attends the king in a house in the wood, where she is assaulted by Bisclavret, who bites off her nose. The king’s aide suggests that the woman should be interrogated, at which time Bisclavret’s true identity is revealed. The wife is forced to return Bisclavret’s clothing, and, once he is given “privacy,” Bisclavret returns to his human form. He returns to the castle with the king. The wife and her lover are banished. And, some of their children are born without noses.

Then, we read a prose version of the story of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight from Roger Lancelyn Green’s King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table.  One evening, at King Arthur’s round table, Sir Gawain takes on the challenge offered by a sinister character called The Green Knight.  He agrees to try his sword upon the neck of the Green Knight and, in return, travel to the Knight’s Green Chapel in one year’s time to have the same honour performed upon his own neck. Gawain beheads the Green Knight, only to have the knight rise up, take up his head, and announce how much he looks forward to meeting Gawain in 12 months time. Gawain later sets out for the Green Chapel. Toward the end of his journey, he stays with a lord and lady at a remote castle. The lord himself makes a deal with Gawain that, over the course of three days, he will bring him the spoils of his days hunting if Gawain returns him anything he “captures” at home resting in his castle. The drop-dead-gorgeous wife of this lord then visits Gawain and tempts him to “engage” with her. Gawain accepts nothing more than a kiss or two on the first of the two evenings, thus exchanging kisses with the king when he returns from his hunt.  On the final day, Gawain not only accepts three kisses from the lady, but, also, in secret, a “lace” which is said to keep its wearer from harm. He salutes the lord three times when he returns from the hunt, but hides the lace. When the lord escorts him to the Green Chapel, Gawain awaits his fate. Lo and behold, the lord and the Green Knight are one and the same, and Gawain escapes with a mere scratch on his neck as “punishment” for keeping the lace a secret. Had he done anything else with the fair lady, of course, the punishment would have surely been death.

After I read our stories out loud and the kids illustrated them in their Yesterday Books, we watched a BBC documentary of Simon Armitage discussing his journey to the site(s) of Sir Gawain’s adventures. [Many thanks to Nathalie Foy of 4Mothers1blog for the suggestion!] We’re looking forward to reading Armitage’s version of Sir Gawain  later this fall as well as listening to the audio book version of his new translation of the poem.

Here are the kids’ illustrations:

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Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
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