Jan 24: Yonec and Bisclavret

Both stories show mythical beings that have the physical form of animals (nature) and yet embody very human characteristics. What significance does the hybridity of each creature (nature and human) hold and what does this imply about medieval attitudes about nature?

5 thoughts on “Jan 24: Yonec and Bisclavret

  1. An argument could be made that it shows a view of human beings as being firmly seen as a part of nature, but I actually think the opposite is true. I think people in the Middle Ages thought of themselves as being separate but akin to nature, especially when considered from the Christian perspective of both being fellow creatures. The liminal status of these fantastic characters only seems to underscore this. We are not shown that they are supernatural by their hair or skin being a different color (as in Japanese folklore) or their feet pointing the opposite way (as in certain West African folktales), but by their closeness to and identity within nature. Nature is seen as something separate and apart from humanity, and those who feel at home within it, or seem a part of it (ie, being in some way or another an animal) are therefore clearly not (fully) human.

    But neither is nature seen as fundamentally alien or opposed to humanity, either. The city inside the hill (a clear marker of Faerie) is on the road between one human place and another. The woods into which Bisclavret goes to become a wolf is within a day or so’s journey to his home. The woods are the setting of the king’s hunt. Again, I think this firm separation, but also lack of enmity, between humanity and nature goes back to the Christian view of both which sets them almost as siblings to each other, both being creations of God.

  2. The mystical beings in both “Biscalret” and “Yonec” are associated as being a bridge for man into a sanctuary. Both of the mystical beings are able to metamorphose from animal to man is a reverberant theme in Classical literature, most notably Ovid’s “Metamorphosis.” Both are also representative as being a place of sanctuary. The knight that is unable to morph back into his human form because of his wife’s treachery and secludes into nature until his wife’s actions are accounted for. Similarly, the knight in “Yonec” secludes into nature to his castle after his lover has wounded him. The wound is from them being discovered. Both of the mystical beings are harmed by a woman.

  3. While I do understand the argument of the hybridity emphasizing the distinction between complete humanity and nature, I believe the intention of Marie de France is to create the opposite effect and reflect a different view. The characters she chooses to have be these magically shifting beings are the most humane, frankly best characters in the play; they embody the ideals of a knight or a hero in Marie de France’s universe. Even in wolf form, Bisclaveret is praised for his “noble bearing and [his] charm” (Bisclavert Line 179). The chevalier in “Yonec” is described as the “strongest, proudest, and most fierce, the handsomest, most loved of men who in this world was ever born” (Yonec 516-518). Both heroes are described as extraordinarily wonderful, and it can be inferred that Marie de France is insinuating that the most wonderful people are connected to nature. She is reflecting a medieval worldview that believes that what allows these men to be so amazing is their strong tie to the natural world.

  4. Bisclavret is depicted as a beast that hunts and kills men, a werewolf. He disappears for three days a week to perform his transformation secretly, causing questions to arise, especially in his new bride. The use of a werewolf here could be a reflection of societal greed, competition and possibly sneakiness due to the stereotype of a wolf in folk stories such as “The Big Bad Wolf” or “Little Red Riding Hood”. The werewolf is also a mirroring of his wife’s selfishness and secrecy of what she truly thinks of her husband’s duality. The use of the bird in Yonec’s tale could be one of a protectiveness. The knight turns into a hawk to rescue the girl who has been kept away for seven years and it’s almost as though he is bringing her under his wing. The bird seems to represent a protectiveness and courageousness between his transformation into her to play sick to his comforting words as he slowly dies. One thing this could say about medieval attitudes towards nature is that there was a closeness between human beings and nature. They viewed specific animals as having specific attributes and by using these in writing in cohesion with humans, it gives the reader a more firm grasp of the type of person this character may be or could be a reflection of society or a person as seen in the Lais of Bisclavret and Yonec.

  5. I find this question very interesting; it seems to me that, despite the vastly different situations surrounding these two lais, both hybrid characters represent a mixture of feelings about nature. Bisclavret in particular is both fearsome and noble. His werewolf status—which scares his wife into betrayal—is somewhat paradoxically noble. Or, rather, the nobility of the man shines through his beastly form. The king and his men attack him at first, to be sure, but they soon recognize the good in him, sparing him and ultimately saving him from his fate. Yonic, too, is a somewhat mixed bag when it comes to the hybrid. At first, the lady is afraid of her lover’s hawk form; however, she is quickly overcome by his nobility and goodness of character. Despite adultry, too, the lover’s good reputation remains in tact, and the husband’s character comes into question. To me, this relates to a dual conception of nature itself. While threatening, it is also pure and good. Or, alternatively, and perhaps more accurately, while threatening, it is always conquerable; men overcome its beastly or fearsome qualities, retaining those good qualities within themselves, despite outside influence.

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