Translation, transformation, magical mid-points, and other werewolves

In the “Animal Reading” lecture this week, we had a backdrop of changing forest scenery while attempting werewolfish reading; today is under the sign of the dog, wolf, and werewolf.

References are to the Penguin Classics editions (Marie trans. Burgess, Montaigne trans. Screech), as this course is taught through English and using translations—with occasional reference, today for example, to the original—in readily-available cheap paperback, that can be obtained second-hand for little, as a compromise between keeping student costs down and retaining content and quality. ‪And having complete books—not dismembered extracts—out of ecosystemic respect.‬

From the syllabus:


  • TOPIC:
    Animals communicating with humans and reading them, anthropomorphic animals, and metamorphosing humans
    • Marie de France: Bisclavret, Yonec
    • Montaigne: I. 8, 11, 14, 36, 48 – II. 11, 27, 30
    • (+ II. 12 excerpts)


We started class by assembling some dogs, wolves, and werewolves on the board. We also talked about associations—all kinds, all sources, all periods—and explanations and rationalisations. And shape-shifting and shamans.

Tuesday links, provided shortly before class (in case anyone wants to take a sneaky peak before or during …):



(Note that there are no manuscript illuminations of Bisclavret, and werewolf transformation is rarely depicted; we discussed good examples in film and TV; but I’m not including here student work written on the white-boards in class; that’s part of the active transformative work of class, in class, as a class community and of individuals; that stays in class and is not public. I hereby admit that I agree that American Werewolf in London is great—I’m old enough to have seen it as an actual teenager, on video when that was an exciting innovation—and my favourite recent werewolf transformations are in Being Human (the UK one) and Hemlock Grove. (So bite me.) The Company of Wolves is one of the best werewolf movies ever made, ever; my favourite literary werewolves are Angela Carter’s; and I challenge even the most churlish of dislikers not to love Terry Pratchett’s werewolves and that greatest of wargs, Granny Weatherwax.)


Some key moments:

  1. About translation and transformation: the 12th-c. Old French, in verse, uses a lot of words and some significant rhymes around “mettre,” to put; including in the mini-prologue at the beginning (lines 1-20), about translation and story-telling, “putting” into different / new words, with a story changing along the way; “putting different clothes” on it, for a different audience and time and place. Ex. m’entremet at the end of line one, “I’m undertaking, trying” with a sense of effort (the word in our translation), trying, not being completely sure of the end result; this is related to Montaigne’s idea of “essay,” to try. It’s an experiment. The Old French Bisclavret also uses other words and word-play—changing words and playing with these changes—to do with transformation, change, movement: avenir, devindrent (adventure / happen, become).
  2. We never see actual transformation, just hear about it (there’s a lot of embedded telling stories within the story). Two key transformation (non-)scenes: near the beginning (lines 57-79), our nameless werewolf tells his wife his secret. The rhyme-word is bisclavret (“Dame, jeo devienc bisclavret” inc. devenir, to become) and in the next line it’s rhymed with met (“En cele grant foret me met,” I put myself / I change myself in/inside the forest); in the middle, between the two, is foret: change happens in the forest. Forests are places of change and agents of change. They’re often in border territory. They may be wild, where you go to when you are going wild, where you go to so as to go wild.  (Note that, as elsewhere in Marie’s lays, characters usually don’t have names: think about this.)

  3. Mid-points are structurally important in story-telling, of this period and culture and elsewhere: a moment of knowledge, discovery, self-discovery; after which something changes. What happens in the middle of Bisclavret? Lines 135-160: the werewolf meets (dogs and) the king, there is communication and understanding—without words, across species—because the kind is a wise king who listens. (And who tries: trying is important, even if you don’t succeed, or not immediately.) Our werewolf will then, perhaps comically, behave like a loyal good dog. Except for some personal revenge. A key line (157): the king says “Cests beste a entente e sen”: “The beast possesses understanding and intelligence.” Sen is also related to sense, senses, and sensitivity.

  4. And we have a final transformation scene, the structural parallel of the first one (that we just hear about, from our werewolf saying what happens to him): when the modest werewolf puts his clothes back on and turns into a man (lines 275-304). The Old French weaves together variations on the transformation-verb mettre (to put): mise, l. 279 (rhymed with guise, outward appearance / disguise), mut (l. 286, to change), mener (to lead, to move people, l. 289; mena, l. 293; menez, l. 296); plus “to become” (devient, l. 291) and “to be remembered forever” (remembrance, l. 318). “Remembering” is also re-membering, putting something back together that had been dismembered, taken apart, limbs torn off; like stereotypical wolves eating humans, and like our werewolf ripping off (esracha, l. 235, literally “uprooting” and “eradicating”) his ex-wife’s nose … which will be remembered forever in her descendants’ inherited disfigurement. It made them less human, faceless; and remember it’s a nose, the canine prime sensory and communicative organ.

Our werewolf is as close to a dog as he is to a wolf; and at the end, when we see him in human form again for the first time, it’s in a dog-like position: asleep on his master’s bed. Note also how the king acts in a dog-like way afterwards (lines 293-304).

Background images:


Essay I.36, “On the custom of wearing clothes”: wearing clothes is weird and unnatural, and “contrived” laws—man-made, artificial, the superficial trappings of culture—can be absurd and foolish (p. 253-54). The end (p. 256, last paragraph) has even more clothes—changing several times a day—but with a crucial difference: the wise generous truly noble ruler gives things away (useful things).

Next up, we did a rapid reading of the mammoth essay in the middle (p. 489-683), which IS NOT REQUIRED READING. Here are some parts from the point of view of dogs and werewolves. (We’ll return to some other excerpts, such as those concerning elephants, later in the course.)


In the middle of your book is a long strange essay, II.12, that starts out with Montaigne talking about doing a translation project—the same kind of work (sort of) that Marie is doing—of a 14th-15th c. Latin book, a “natural theology” that has an important place in the history of philosophy. It is in part about nature. Montaigne rapidly goes off-course and off-book, and into animal superiority. Big topics: scepticism, empiricism, observation.

Humans are animals, and as lower animals because of their nakedness. Human characteristics are not just human but, when you observe the natural world—notice how there’s less name-dropping of Authorities and fewer Great Quotations here—you see how human animals are, how animal humans are, and how characteristics conventionally attached to one or the other, and divisions between them, are artificial. Unnatural, absurd, irrational, etc. Montaigne looks at play, hunting, communication, understanding, thought, dreaming, making sense of the world (geese reasoning, tortoises doing experimental science, elephant religion).

This is a very abbreviated version; but here’s what the essay looks like from the point of view of a dog.

Humans are vain and foolish, especially in concluding that they are superior in understanding to (other) animals:

  • p. 505-08, communication, animals doing so by sound, humans also doing so using other senses
  • p. 512 (last paragraph)-513
  • p. 522, first two sentences
  • p. 526, “Animals obey the rules of Nature better…” paragraph: animals are more moderate and wise
  • p. 663–67 and p. 672 vertigo, 674-80: sensory perception (“The senses are the beginning and the end of human knowledge.”), “If the senses are our basic judges [= how we form judgements] […] the animals have as much right as we do, or even more. Some certainly have better hearing, sight, smell, touch or taste.” (p. 674; related: there might be senses that we don’t know of and can’t imagine, too.) Working towards p. 680, “To conclude:” and impermanence, everything is “flowing and rolling ceaselessly: nothing certain can be established […] since both judged and judging are ever shifting and changing.” And Stoicism.

The human custom of wearing clothes is weird, and a sign of frailty: (it’s a very rainy day and O’Brien is wearing a very waterproof hooded coat and solid boots as she is a terrible wimp who hates getting wet)

  • p. 509, end of page —511
  • p. 539
  • p. 564: metaphorical nakedness as a better way towards knowledge

There are several dogs:

  • p. 517, a dog reasoning (after a paragraph about goats, tortoises / turtles, dragons, storks, and elephants showing signs that they have “scientific knowledge based on skill and reason”); and another excellent example on p. 520; and a parallel passage about animals creating gods in their own image, and explaining that very reasonably, p. 597
  • p. 518, trained and educated dogs: a guide-dog, a juggler’s assistant
  • p. 525, 531, 534: love and fidelity and sympathy
  • p. 536-37, dogs dreaming
  • (the image of a bone to chew on, p. 566)
  • p. 576: dog-gods

a very famous cat:

  • p. 505, “When I play with my cat, how do I know that she is not passing time with me rather than I with her?” and its continuation in the 1595 posthumous editions of the Essays (so: this could be by Françoise de La Chassaigne (Madame de Montaigne) and/or by Marie de Gournay), “We entertain ourselves with mutual monkey-tricks. If I have times when I want to begin or say no, so does she.”

and werewolves, who appear in a part of the essay that’s about transformation, the transmigration of souls (including from one animal to another, animal/human, human/animal), and a big general theme of movement:

  • p. 580, “metempsychosis in which souls change their dwelling-places” and move from one place—and creature—to another (then there’s a cool section about multiple possible worlds, via the 1st c. BCE Epicurean philosopher Lucretius); and p. 624
  • p. 619 and a rabid dog: a reminder that rabies is one of several rationalisations explaining certain werewolves

The theme of movement—“translation” in the etymological sense, moving from one place to another—would be another reason for Montaigne jumping around and digressing: this is supposed to show you thinking in live action. He also mocks himself for this good/bad/human/natural habit:

  • p. 514, “to get back to the subject…”
  • p. 520, “(I realize I am digressing, showing no sense of order, but I can no more observe order when arranging these examples than  in the rest of my work.”) in a quite organised dog-centred section.
  • p. 641, “The more I jumped forward, the more I now leap back […] This very awareness of my mutability …”
  • p. 648, “But to get on.” (That’s a whole paragraph. After a snarky paragraph about clothing foolishness.)
  • p. 658-59, a very serious fart
  • p. 683, in a very mutable conclusion-after-a-conclusion, with several changes (especially compared to the flow of the previous pages): “I would merely add one more word […] in order to bring to a close this long and tedious discourse which could furnish me with matter for ever.” (He then does the opposite of closing. And that “tedious discourse” is ambiguous: this essay? talking about that translation? the last topic in the paragraph before, God?)

(Some background links:)

Montaigne’s natural habitat (more on Thursday, and horses) inc. wine and 16th-c. clothing and 🙄 fashion:

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