By Minjie Su
Werewolves in medieval romances do not usually fare well, especially when it comes to love life and family relationships – look at Bisclavret and Gorlagon, in which their wives take advantage of their wolf curse and betray them. But this does not always have to be the case. Here we have a werewolf who is cherished and welcomed back to his family with practically no fuss, and finds love, honour, and friendship in the very end – just what we need to hear on Valentine’s Day.
Composed in the old Picard dialect, the romance of Guillaume de Palerne is passed onto us in a single manuscript (Paris, Arsenal FR. 6565), dated back to the thirteenth century. However, it has been convincingly argued that the romance itself was composed quite some time earlier, somewhere between 1194 and 1197. Little is known about the poet, except he must have visited Palermo and Sicily, otherwise he would not be able to describe these two places so accurately and so vividly. The patron or, rather, the patroness of the romance has been identified as Countess Yolande, whose nephew Baldwin VI of Flanders was a son-in-law of Marie de Champagne, patroness of Chrétien de Troyes and daughter to Eleanor of Aquitaine. The interest in literature, so it appears, runs in the family.
On the outside, the romance of Guillaume de Palerne centres on the story of Guillaume, prince of Sicily, and his love story with Melior, daughter to the Emperor of Rome. But once you have started reading, it won’t take long to discover that the romance in fact has a second storyline, running in parallel to Guillaume’s: the werewolf.
Our story starts in Sicily. Queen Felise of Palermo gives birth to a prince. Everyone is rejoiced because of the good news except the uncle (of course), who would inherit the throne should the king die heirless. He bribes the maidservants in charge of the royal child, so they agree to poison the infant prince along side with the king. According to their plan, the plot shall be carried out in a family gathering in an enclosed garden. Before the villains can issue the poison, however, a huge wolf coming out of nowhere leaps over the walls, snatches the baby, and runs away, leaving all those present in great shock.
Unaware that this seemingly fatal accident is a strike of luck in disguise, the parents suffer great sorrow, believing that their child lost for ever, having been devoured by a ferocious, evil beast. But we the readers are not kept in suspense for long. Having pictured us a picture of the wailing and crying in the Palermian court, the poet turns to Spain and tells the old story of evil queens and stepmothers: to make sure the throne will be passed to her own child, Queen Brande transforms Prince Alfonse, the king’s eldest son with his first wife, into a wolf with a touch of a magic wolfskin glove. Retaining human understanding and intelligence (as they do), the wolf wanders to Palermo and overhears the uncle’s conspiracy by chance. He immediately recognises his own fate in what would become of Guillaume, sympathises with this perfect stranger, and takes upon himself to keep the young prince out of harm. He takes the baby all the way to the vicinity of Rome, where the baby is adopted by a cowherd.
Is this good enough for baby Guillaume, though? Does the wolf consider his mission completed? Heck no! Some years later, when Guillaume becomes a handsome young chap, the Emperor of Rome comes to hunt in the neighbouring woods. The wolf leaps out, attracts the attention of the hounds, and leads the Emperor all the way to Guillaume. Stricken by the youth’s noble appearance, the Emperor takes Guillaume in and makes him a knight. In Rome, Guillaume gains great fame in warfare and enjoys great favour in the imperial court, but the most precious prize he wins is the love of the Emperor’s only daughter, Princess Melior.
Unfortunately, Princess Melior is betrothed to the son of the Emperor of Greece, who is in fact Guillaume’s maternal uncle. (Yes, uncle-nephew rivalry in love affairs is quite a thing in medieval romances, just look at Tristan and Iseult.) The young lovers have no choice but to elope: they have Melior’s faithful lady-in-waiting steal a pair of white bear skins from the royal kitchen, have themselves sewn in (except the hands, so they can still eat and drink elegantly and in a humanly manner), and successfully run into the woods with everybody believing they are actual bears and too scared to follow.
Despite Guillaume’s years as a cowherd’s son, he does not know a thing about surviving in the wild. Nor does Merlior, apparently. So, now is the perfect time for the wolf to get back on stage. Not only does Alfonse provide the eloping lovers with (fancy) food and drink and new animal skins to upgrade their disguise, he also helps them to elude capture. The lovers believe the wolf is heaven sent and entirely rely on the beast’s judgement, which proves from time to time much better than their own. The wolf guides the young couple all the way to Palermo, where Guillaume eventually is recognised by his mother, reunited with his family – which at this point is only composed of Queen Felise and her daughter, with the other male relatives being conveniently dead.
The city then is under siege by Alfonse’s father, who wishes to woo Guillaume’s daughter for Alfonse’s half-brother. Guillaume – now known as the Knight of the White Wolf, for he adopts the wolf image on his shield – defeats the enemy and reconciles the two countries. As they sit in the hall toasting for the newly established peace, the wolf walks into the hall, embraces the Spanish king, and weeps, as if to request him something. The human intelligence and affection of the wolf greatly strike the king; he remembers his missing child all those years ago and suspects there might be some trick on his wife’s part. He summons Queen Brande and forces her to turn Alfonse back, which she does and for which she is kindly forgiven. In the end, all the kingdoms – Palermo, Rome, Greece, Spain – come to terms (what else can they do when all the royals turn out to be related?). Guillaume marries his sweet heart, and his sister marries Alfonse. The story ends in a double marriage and you may rest assure that they will live happily ever after.
In addition to being a story celebrating courtly love and all the romance tropes, Guillaume de Palerne is essentially a story of transformation and disguise: Alfonse physically becomes a wolf and lives as one in the wild for many a year, while Guillaume and Melior fake the process by wearing skins of wild beasts. It is true that Guillaume de Palermo is a tale of love, but it is also a tale that invites self-questioning: if lack of human appearance, deprivation of human body does not necessarily make one less of a human, then, what does? What is it to make a human, human?
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Top Image: Illustration from L’Histoire du noble preux et vaillant chevalier Guillaume de Palerne et de la belle Melior lequel Guillaume de Palerne fut filz du roy de Cecille. BNF Réserve des livres rares, RES-Y2-693