The Lais of Marie de France

by

Marie de France

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The Lais of Marie de France: IV. Bisclavret Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Marie now tells the lay Bisclavret, as it’s called in Breton, or Garwaf, as the Normans call it. It used to be that men sometimes turned into werewolves, ferocious, forest-dwelling beasts. Once, a respected baron named Bisclavret lived in Brittany with his beautiful wife. But Bisclavret’s wife is worried: each week, her husband disappears for three full days, and nobody knows where he goes. One day, the lady confronts her husband about this, admitting she’s afraid that he has a lover. He denies this, but he claims he can’t tell her the truth about where he goes, or else he’ll be gravely harmed.
“Bisclavret” means “the werewolf.” This lay shares many details with another Breton lay called “Melion,” in which a woman helps her husband transform into a werewolf and then elopes with another man; the two stories probably came from the same source. It’s never explained exactly how or why the baron Bisclavret becomes a werewolf every week. Marie takes for granted that her audience accepts the existence of werewolves, as it was a widespread medieval folk belief.
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Bisclavret’s wife persists, however, and finally, Bisclavret reveals the whole story: he becomes a werewolf. Each week, he disappears into the depths of the forest in order to feed. When he transforms into a werewolf, he goes around naked, leaving his clothes in a secret location. He can’t tell her where, because if he were unable to recover his clothes, he would have to remain a werewolf forever. But the lady continues pestering her husband, saying that unless he tells her all the details, it will seem like he doesn’t truly love her. He finally tells her that there’s an old chapel near the wood, and he hides his clothes in a hollow stone there.
The biggest problem with Bisclavret’s werewolf identity is the conflict it creates in his marriage. It’s implied that Bisclavret doesn’t really trust his wife; if he did, why wouldn’t he tell her where his clothes are kept? Bisclavret’s wife is already portrayed somewhat unfavorably: she nags Bisclavret relentlessly, she’s mistrustful, and it doesn’t seem like Bisclavret really minds leaving her behind each week.
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Bisclavret’s wife is so disturbed by this story that she decides she must separate from her husband. She sends a message to a knight who’s been wooing her for a long time. She’s never responded to his advances before, but now she offers to become his mistress. When they’re together, she tells him everything about her husband the werewolf. Then she sends her lover in search of Bisclavret’s clothes, and after the knight finds and takes them, Bisclavret seems to have disappeared for good. Then the knight and the lady get married.
Again, it seems likely that Bisclavret’s marriage is already on shaky ground, at least judging from his wife’s eagerness to separate. In fact, it seems like she’s been waiting for an excuse to get together with her wooer, and the opportunity for revenge on Bisclavret seems like a great opportunity. She uses her lover to cruelly force Bisclavret to remain a werewolf and abandon her marriage.
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A whole year passes. One day the king goes hunting in the forest, and his hounds sniff out Bisclavret and pursue him mercilessly. But just as the dogs are about to destroy the werewolf, Bisclavret runs up to the king and starts kissing his foot. Astonished, the king sees that the beast has human intelligence and takes it under his protection. Bisclavret goes to live at the king’s castle, where he’s well-treated and is greatly devoted to the king.
The details Marie gives about Bisclavret suggest that he isn’t a typical, bloodthirsty werewolf. While he looks like a beast and lives in the forest, he retains human characteristics and a distinctly mild personality. Marie wants her readers to be sympathetic to the werewolf, even though it seemed at first like he was being set up as an antagonist.
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When the king holds a festival, people come from all the surrounding fiefs to celebrate. Among them is Bisclavret’s wife’s lover (now her second husband). As soon as this knight arrives, Bisclavret sinks his teeth into him and would have killed him if the king hadn’t threatened Bisclavret with a stick. Everyone is shocked, because the wolf is normally so gentle; they figure he wouldn’t have attacked the knight without good reason. At the end of the festival, the knight is one of the first to go; “no wonder Bisclavret hated him.”
It’s clear from this passage that Bisclavret still retains human memories and intelligence to some degree. He apparently recognizes his ex-wife’s lover as the one responsible for his current state, or at least knows that the man now claims Bisclavret’s wife as his own. There’s a humorous note in Marie’s aside, that Bisclavret obviously hates the man because of his rudeness in leaving the party early.
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Soon after this, the king goes into the forest with Bisclavret at his side. On the way home, he lodges in the region, and Bisclavret’s ex-wife goes to visit the king with an expensive present. As soon as Bisclavret sees her, he charges her and tears the nose right off her face. Everyone is outraged, but before anyone can kill the wolf, a wise man advises the king to look into this matter—the wolf clearly has something against this lady. The king agrees, takes the lady away, and has her tortured. The lady quickly reveals everything she knows about Bisclavret and everything she and her lover did to him. The king makes her bring Bisclavret’s clothes. At first, the wolf ignores the clothes, so they leave him in the king’s bedchamber to give him privacy.
When Bisclavret encounters his ex-wife, his violence escalates to a shocking degree as he disfigures her. It’s notable that everyone ultimately sympathizes with the wolf more than the woman—the wolf is regarded as justified in whatever he does to her, even when nobody else has a reason to suspect Bisclavret’s wife of anything. It seems she’s regarded as even more subhuman than the werewolf. The use of torture to force a confession, though not uncommon at the time, supports this idea. Bisclavret, meanwhile, behaves with a human-like sense of dignity, even wanting privacy.
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Related Quotes
Later, when the king returns, he finds the human Bisclavret sound asleep on his bed. The king embraces Bisclavret, restores his lands to him, and banishes Bisclavret’s ex-wife from the region, along with her lover. Together, Bisclavret’s ex-wife and her lover have many children, who are always recognizable by their appearance: many of the women in that family are born without noses.
Marie seems to want her audience to see her characters’ fates as just. In particular, the ex-wife’s disfigurement, banishment, and their effects on her offspring are supposed to be a just penalty for her betrayal of her husband. Adulterous spouses are sympathetic elsewhere in the Lais, but Bisclavret’s wife, much like the seneschal’s wife, is condemned for tricking and wishing harm on an innocent husband. The daughters’ nose-less condition obviously doesn’t make sense from the perspective of modern genetics, but that isn’t the point here.
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