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By Minjie Su
What are the nature and heart of a woman – or, indeed, of any human being? This is a question that we probably have been obsessed with for as long as humans have existed. If we know the answer, we will definitely feel a lot more secure, for there will be no deceit, no betrayal, no hidden traps. But, on the other hand, there will also be a lot less fun, for it is the quest for answer that makes good stories.
There is this one time that the Once and Future King himself desired to know the answer, as recorded in Arthur and Gorlagon, one of the four Latin Arthurian romances survived in a single 14th-century manuscript (Rawlinson MS. B. 149, Bodleian Library, Oxford). As in your standard Arthurian adventure story, it all starts on Pentecost. Arthur holds a great feast to entertain his court, filled with renowned lords and ladies from far and wide. High in spirit and possibly a bit tipsy, Arthur kisses Guinevere mid-feast, in front of everyone. However, the queen does not take this show of affection very kindly; instead, she reproaches Arthur for having ‘never fathomed either the nature or the heart of a woman’. With his curiosity piqued (and perhaps his self-esteem a bit hurt), Arthur embarks on a quest of knowledge, vowing that he shall never taste either food or drink until he finds the answer.
During his journey, Arthur encounters three kings: Gargol, Torleil, Gorlagon. It has been argued that Torleil is probably a corrupted form of Gorleil, and the three kings are in fact one and the same. In Gargol and Torleil’s courts, Arthur is persuaded to join the hosts for dinner, therefore breaking his vow. As a result, he is sent onto the next king without learning anything. It is only with Gorlagon that Arthur holds his ground extraordinarily firmly: although he is repeatedly tested – not only is Gorlagon’s invitation ‘Arthur, dismount and eat’ highly formulaic, but it is also strategically positioned within the text as little narrative dividers – Arthur declines every single time, never minding how awkward and humorous it must seem that, during this entire time, he is on his horse amidst a royal banquet.
However, instead of giving Arthur an answer right away, Gorlagon offers to tell him a story. The story concerns an unnamed king, whose fate is tied to a sapling that was planted in his garden the day he was born. If one cuts down the tree and touch the king with its branch, uttering the words ‘be a wolf, have the mind of a wolf’, the king will turn into a wolf. What happens next is very similar to Le lai du Bisclavret and Melion (both being 12th-century French werewolf tales): the queen has a lover; when she finds out her husband’s secret, she gets rid of him by turning him into a wolf. Yet instead of ‘have the mind of a wolf’, she utters ‘have the mind of a man’. So, the king becomes a wolf only in body but retains human reason, memory, and intelligence.
Having failed in his attempt to avenge himself, the wolf takes shelter with a foreign king. The story is still quite similar to Bisclavret and Melion, where the wolf wins over the sovereign by exhibiting extraordinary manners, such as begging for mercy and eating white bread. Yet an inset tale is added here, a tale that follows the barebones of the legend of St Guinefort, the dog saint. This king’s queen also has a lover. During their rendezvous in the king’s bedroom during the king’s absence, the wolf attacks the lover. As revenge, the queen hides her son and accuses the wolf for having eaten the boy. But unlike in Guinefort’s story, where the furious prince kills the faithful dog without investigating into the matter, the king takes time to ponder over the matter: the wolf has been behaving well ever since he got here; it simply doesn’t add up if he suddenly starts to eat little children. The king’s hesitation in making a decision buys the wolf time. He leads the king to where the infant is hidden. With the queen’s crime revealed, she and her lover are put to death.
After this occurrence, the king is even more convinced that the wolf is by no means ordinary. Therefore, he sets the wolf free and follows him with an armed force to the wolf’s kingdom, where he forces the queen into confession. She cannot help but restore her ex-husband to human form with the same sapling branch.
Thus ends Gorlagon’s story, and Arthur finally agrees to dismount and eat, but on one condition: he observes that there is
‘a woman sitting opposite you of a sad countenance, and holding before her a dish a human head bespattered with blood, who has wept whenever you have smiled, and who has kissed the bloodstained head whenever you have kissed your wife during the telling of your tale’
And demands to know who she is. Then Gorlagon reveals to Arthur that he is the werewolf in the story, the helping king is his brother Gargol, and the head-kissing woman is his (ex)wife. This is his punishment for her. The next day, Arthur leaves Gorlagon’s court, ‘but little the wiser’.
But what precisely does Arthur learn or not learn? On the bright side, Arthur does develop from a listener to a speaker, in the sense that he is permitted and learns to ask questions, something that is lacking in Percival, whose silence lets the Holy Grail slip away. However, just how helpful this learning is is hard to tell. The romance presents three couples: Gorlagon and his queen, Gargol and his queen, Arthur and Guinevere. Whereas the adultery of Gorlagon and Gargol’s queens is exposed, Guinevere’s is not and will not – we all know that, when Arthur finally learns the truth, it will be too late, and he himself and his kingdom will fall.
(All translations of Arthur and Gorlagon is taken from ‘Arthur and Gorlagon’, trans. by F. A. Milne and A. Nutt, Folklore, 15:1 (1904)
You can follow Minjie Su on Twitter @minjie_su
Top Image: Bibliothèque nationale de France MS Français 343 fol.8v