The Rage of the Wolf: Metamorphosis and Identity in Medieval Werewolf Tales

The Rage of the Wolf: Metamorphosis and Identity in Medieval Werewolf Tales

By Jessica Lynne Bettini

Master’s Thesis, East Tennessee State University, 2011

Abstract: The metamorphosis of man to beast has fascinated audiences for millennia. The werewolves of medieval literature were forced to conform to the Church’s view of metamorphosis and, in so doing, transformed from bestial and savage to benevolent and rational. Analysis of Marie de France’s Bisclavret, the anonymous Arthur and Gorlagon, the Irish tale The Crop-Eared Dog, and the French Roman d’aventure Guillaume de Palerne reveals insight into medieval views of change, identity, and what it meant to exist in the medieval world. Each of these tales is told from the werewolf‟s point of view, and in each the wolf undergoes a fury or madness where he cannot seem to help turning savage and harming people. This “rage of the wolf” lies at the root of the identities of these werewolves, reflecting the conflict between good and evil, the physical and the spiritual, and Church doctrine and a rapidly changing society.

Introduction: The metamorphosis of man to beast has captivated audiences for over four thousand years. The interest in human metamorphosis is visible in ancient art and literature, originally transmitted through oral tradition, medieval secular and clerical writing, as well as contemporary movies and novels. While modern, Hollywood werewolves are often the bestial, savage counterparts to the sexy, predatory vampire, they are merely the latest metamorphosis of a creature which has fascinated humanity for millennia.

The earliest recorded secular mention of werewolves is in the Akkadian Epic of Gilgamesh, dated approximately 2000 BCE. The goddess of love, Ishtar, attempts to seduce King Gilgamesh, who reminds her of a former lover: “You have loved the shepherd of the flock; he made meal-cake for you day after day, he killed kids for your sake. You struck and turned him into a wolf; now his own herd-boys chase him away, his own hounds worry his flanks… And if you and I should be lovers, should not I be served in the same fashion as all these others whom you loved once?”. In addition to being the first literary indication of interest in metamorphosis, the story also links women—malicious women, in particular—to metamorphosis, as well as indicates a single or prolonged transformation: she “turned him into a wolf” and “now his own herd-boys chase him.” The shepherd was transformed and remains so. Also significant is King Gilgamesh‟s companion, Enkidu, a half-man, half-beast who was covered with matted hair and lived as a beast until learning of human desires. Clearly, an interest in human transformation and with human/beast hybrids was alive in ancient Mesopotamia.

Click here to read this thesis from East Tennessee State University

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