Massey (2007 Congress)

Jeff Massey
(Molloy College, Rockville Center, New York)
“‘There, Wolf . . . There, Castle’:  Comedy, Romance, and the Self-Deconstructing Medieval Monster”

Abstract of Paper Presented at the 42nd International Congress on Medieval Studies (Kalamazoo, 2007)
Session on “Getting Medieval:  Medieval Monstrosities and Their Ill Repute”
Sponsored by the Research Group on Manuscript Evidence
Organized by Jennifer A. T. Smith

2007 Congress

In the twelfth century there emerged the figure of the “sympathetic werewolf,” an almost tragic figure of a man’s mind trapped in a wolf’s body.  Modern lycanthropes, in films ranging from The Wolf Man and An American Werewolf in London to Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and Underworld, continue to evidence the simultaneously horrifying and sympathetic nature of this hybrid monstrosity.

But beyond sympathy, werewolves in medieval romances elicited both humorous and deconstructive responses.  That is, in Arthur and Gorlagon and William of Palerne, the unconventional appearance of the werewolf raises questions of appearance and convention in/of the very work it inhabits.  In short, the comic werewolf in these tales serves as a tool for parodic self-deconstruction.

In medieval romances the werewolves by all outward appearances are wolves.  That is, they are quadrupeds, unlike their contemporaries the bipedal cynocephaloi and modern filmic werewolves.  They display a human intelligence far beyond that of their human romance counterparts.  Put another way, the animal who exhibits a normal human intelligence underscores the lack of realistic intelligence in the traditional human romance characters around him.  As a result, the audience of the romance, already primed to see beyond the surface appearances by the existence of the werewolf in the narrative, is alerted to the awkward conventions of the romance itself and the self-imposed limits of the genre.

In the Latin romance Arthur and Gorlagon, the normally heroic King Arthur is reduced to a simpleton who never gets the joke or the message.  He fails to recognize that his host is a werewolf just as he fails to recognize that his wife Geinevere is an adultress.  In the English romance William of Parerne, Alphouns the werewolf repeatedly aids the naive couple William and Meliors, who, as Norman Hinton has rightly pointed out, are “stiff figures, almost frozen into conventional attitudes, sometimes devoid of narrative subtlety.”  Alphouns, the monstrous werewolf, is the most realistic character in the tale, an incongruity which signals the artificial form of the romance he inhabits.  Marie, in her Lai de Bisclavret, allows the werewolf Bisclavet to run free while pigeon-holing her other characters into static and predictable (that is, hyper-conventional) stances.  Again, the unexpected appearance of a sympathetic and self-conscious werewolf turns the romance conventions on end.

If, as Caroline Jewers has recently suggested, parody has always been inherent in medieval romance, perhaps one of the most unlikely but effective means of establishing that parody was a sympathetic monster.  In the romance world of blacks and whites, the werewolf stands out a hoary grey / it doesn’t fit convention, and its incongruity helps to destabilize and invigorate the very romance it inhabits.  Far more than simply a stock “scaqry monster,” the medieval werewolf broke narrative convention; understanding this complex figure may help us breadk the conventional modern image of medieval literature as a humorless landscape stocked with predictably dreary castles, dire wolves, and morbid monsters.


Website Editor’s Note:

The Abstract of Prof. Massey’s Paper for one of our Sessions at the next Congress appears here

We thank him for his continuing contributions.