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Famous Boars in Medieval Arthurian Romance

By Minjie Su

The Year of Pig has officially begun. With the first full moon of the lunar year shining in the sky, let us talk about the medieval legends of pigs – wild boars, to be more specific, because they are a favourite of medieval romance, and because they sound much cooler.

First, a few words on the beast itself and what was thought to be its nature. In Etymologiae of Isidore of Seville, verres, the Latin word for ‘boar’ is believed to be derived from vis, ‘strength, force’, to highlight its great strength. Aper, ‘wild boar’, is derived from feritas (‘ferocity’), but ‘with the letter f removed and a p substituted. The other origin of aper is the Greek word σύαγρος, which is meant for things wild, or untamed. While Isidore’s terms give away the boar’s defining quality: fierceness, Bartholomaeus Anglicus allows us to see just how fierce a boar can be. In De proprietatibus rerum (‘On the Properties of Things’), Bartholomaeus explains that, unlike other beasts whose instinct would be to run when being chased, the boar would fret its tusks (i.e., its ‘sword’) against a tree and prepare to charge. A hunter’s spear simply does not scare it; nor does the danger of death.

As a result, boars make perfect enemies that the hero must conquer in order to complete their quest. Moreover, an activity such as boar hunting allows to show the lords and ladies a-riding, and the knights to show off their skills in a much courtlier setting. As hunting takes place in the forest, along the border between the civilised world and the wilderness, it provides a natural transition from the world of the familiar to the world of the unknown and the other.

Below, there are some famous boar who have made a name in songs and legends.

Twrch Trwyth

In the welsh tale Culhwch ac Olwen (Culhwch and Owen), where King Arthur makes his first appearance, Prince Culhwch is cursed by his stepmother to woo Olwen, daughter of the Chief Giant Ysbaddaden. In order to succeed, Olwen must complete thirty-nine impossible tasks set by Ysbaddaden, one of which is to obtain the comb, the razor, and the shears hidden between the ears of Twrch Trwyth. This turns out to be an essential task, for it is only with these tools that Culhwch can kill Ysbaddaden when shaving him, and Ysbaddaden must die at his daughter’s wedding. Therefore, as you can expect, this task will be the hardest: Twrch Trwyth was once a king, son of the ruler Taredd; he is turned into a boar by God because of his sins and has been holding grudge against God ever since. As a boar, Twrch Trwyth is extremely dangerous – perhaps even more so than when he was a man – he not only has venomous bristles but is also surrounded by seven no less deadly piglets. Culhwch needs all the help he can get.

And that help comes in the form of Arthur and his troops. He first fights Twrch in Ireland, the boar’s home country, but to no avail: they fight for nine days and nine nights straight, Arthur suffers heavy loss, but the boar only loses one piglet.

Afterwards, Arthur sends Gwrhyr the Interpreter of Languages to talk with Twrch. Realising that Arthur will not stop until one of them is dead, Twrch and the piglets swim to Wales to challenge Arthur in his home country. Battle after battle, hunt after hunt, the piglets are killed one by one, and Twrch is eventually cornered at Cornwall. The treasures are obtained, and the boar – now alone – is driven to into sea. No one knows what happens to him or where he goes.

British Library MS Royal 20 A V fol. 49

The Great Boar of Inglewood

Twrch may be the toughest boar that King Arthur has ever hunted (but not managed to kill), but he is far from the only boar conquered by the Once and the Future King. In The Avowyng of Arthur, a Middle English rhyme romance that only survives in a 15th-century manuscript, Arthur sets out to hunt the great boar of Inglewood. The beast is said to be ‘a well grim gryse’ (a very formidable boar) and ‘a balefull bare’ (a frightening boar). This time, he is only accompanied by Sir Gawain, Sir Kay, and Baldwin of Britain. En route, each of the characters vows to accomplish some heroic, seemingly impossible quests. Arthur, of course, vows to kill the boar and cut it into pieces, Gawain to keep vigil at the Tarn Wathelene, Kay to ride through the Forest looking for adventure and battles. Baldwin, however, makes three vows of entirely different nature: never to be jealous of a woman, never to refuse anybody hospitality, and never to fear death.

This individual vowing allows the storyline to split into four, and Arthur gets to face the boar alone, where he shows off his skill not as a military man (as he does in Culhwch ac Olwen) but as a hunter and woodsman. Meanwhile, the other three knights are also being tested. As you might have guessed, all manage to keep their honour intact and win great glory.

The Boar Hunt in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

A boar hunting scene also features in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, where Lord Bertilak de Hautdesert aka the Green Knight spends a day hunting a wild boar in the woods. With the bloodhounds barking and chasing around, and the huntsmen sounding the horns, ‘the best of boars’ is excited by this signal of battle and charges at the riders, which fits Bartholomaeus’s account pretty well. Although the beast is old, it is no less ferocious: ‘He was grim and grisly, the greatest of all. His groans were ghastly. He grieved everyone when down to the dirt he dashed three in a stroke.’ But the huntsmen of Lord Bertilak takes the beast down in no time.

However, the point of this boar hunting is not to show off the huntsmen’s skills or to employ a widespread literary trope as much as to allow another type of hunting. Just as the Green Knight and his troops are hotly chasing after the boar, Lady Bertilak is trying to ‘hunt’ another worthy reward: Sir Gawain. As it turns out, Gawain stays late in bed and does not participate in the hunt; he spends his morning ‘in fine linen’. The lady ‘lurked near’ the bed but soon starts to reproach the knight for not living up to his reputation as someone who never lets a lady down. The juxtaposition of the two scenes invites comparison between the back and forth of courtship and the running and chasing of hunting, revealing a darker, more dangerous side of love and desire. Indeed, this is especially true for Sir Gawain, for, should he yield to the lady’s charms, he would be killed when the time comes for him to receive the Green Knight’s strike.

You can follow Minjie Su on Twitter @minjie_su 

Click here to read more articles by Minjie

Top Image: British Library MS Additional 49622 fol.151r



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