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The Wolf Hunt: Gillian Bradshaw

Uh, I've just discovered that Blofeld's garden of death exists. It is a garden at Alnwick Castle instead of in Japan, but nevertheless. I...would go visit that garden, actually. But the fact that they've had to put a bench in one part of the garden since people sometimes pass out from the smell of one of the flowers is slightly alarming.

book cover of The Wolf Hunt Anyway! I read The Wolf Hunt, by Gillian Bradshaw. It's based on Bisclavret, one of the twelve famous lays by Marie de France - it's a poem about a man who turns into a werewolf, and he's treacherously betrayed by his wife and trapped in wolf form.

The Wolf Hunt is pretty true to the poem, but because the former is a modern novel and the latter is a short poem, there's considerably more fleshing out in the novel. I actually wrote a bit about her twelve lays (LJ | DW). Like a lot of medieval literature, there's just not a lot of exposition, character motivation, or set up, especially in poems this short. The heroes are always chivalrous and strong men, and that's about as far as the description goes. Motivations are usually logical and easily inferred (the wife is betraying the husband so that she can get with an earlier lover), then the poem goes back to describing what happens next.

In this novel, the story is told from multiple perspectives, but first (and chiefly) from the perspective of Marie Penthièvre. At the beginning of the novel Marie is told that her brother has been killed during the crusade and she needs to leave the convent and go home, as she's now her father's heir. On the way back, she realizes the knights are actually agents of the rival Duke of Brittany - the loyalties and oaths of allegiance are personal and therefore complicated and crossed, and though her family has taken one side, they've historically been allied to the other duchy, the lands around them are mixed as well, etc. She attempts to escape, and while in the forest, encounters a wolf. It runs away as soon as it sees her, and she ends up falling asleep from exhaustion by a stream. In her dream the wolf has come back, and as she wakes up it transforms into a bunch of outlaws. She's saved from rape/murder as a third man who arrives - Tiarnán. She is returned to the knights that were escorting her, and ends up in the hands of Duke Hoel anyway. As she tries to avoid becoming a pawn, she swears she will not marry anyone.

Tiarnán, who holds the manor Talensac from the Duke of Brittany, is one of the best knights in the country. He is engaged to and shortly thereafter marries Eline, for whom this is an advantageous match. They are initially very happy; Talensac is well looked after by Tiarnán, Eline enjoys setting up housekeeping, they're in the honeymoon phase. Eventually, however, Tiarnán leaves to go on a hunting trip for three days. Although the villagers in Talensac all say that Tiarnán is always leaving to go hunting for days on end and returns as expected each time, Eline becomes concerned, then frantic. None of the villagers know exactly where he goes, and he leaves his hunting dog at home. When Tiarnán comes back, Eline tries to get him to tell her what he does and where he goes, and he refuses. She keeps pressing him, thinking that he's going to see another woman. Eventually, he cracks and tells her - he transforms into a wolf and roams the nearby forest, though he says he never does any harm. Eline is disgusted and appalled, and under pretext of visiting her sister, leaves Talensac temporarily. She meets with a former suitor, Alain, whose ardour hasn't cooled, and she begs him to get rid of Tiarnán. Alain is afraid to fight Tiarnán, so instead they conspire. When Tiarnán transforms into the wolf, he takes off his clothing and hides it. Alain waits by Tiarnán's hiding spot, and after the wolf has left, takes the clothes, trapping Tiarnán in the wolf form.

I really like Gillian Bradshaw's work in general. She's a historian by training and clearly loves history and is generally very good at simultaneously giving her books a grounded sense of history without dumping information. This novel was a bit clumsier than the others, but still good - maybe because I know more about medieval France than I do about classical antiquity. There are recurring themes in her work, like the characters feeling caught between the culture they were born into and now live in - though not this one. She also has a lot of honourable characters - honour in the more modern sense. Wait, I've thought about it and maybe that's not true - most of the protagonists very good at fighting, which is for most of them their trade, requirement of their place in society. But they use their strength in fair/equal/justified contests, and they have a personal standard of conduct that they don't betray, even when it would be more pragmatic to cross it. (At some point when I read all of her books I may have to cross-analyze all the honourable characters and see if there's a unified concept.) Also, on the historical fiction gritty or idealized scale, hers falls somewhere in the middle. Usually the more historically-grounded novels are grimmer, which is sometimes justified and sometimes not. How much grit I like is pretty dependent on, well, a lot of things, but mostly I'm not a fan; I do read history and primary sources and I'm aware of how horrific people can be to each other, thanks; also what's in the record is the extraordinary and people are always happy to write up the horrific events blah blah blah, I don't need a moral lesson in every work of fiction that people can be monsters, thank you. So it was nice that this novel there didn't actually have to be an actual rape scene. I am so sick of those.

Much of the novel is from Marie and Eline's points of view, which was interesting. For one, through their points of view, Tiarnán's transformation isn't immediately obvious. Eline has no idea and when she does find out, she is viscerally disgusted. Eline in particular was compelling because I simultaneously hated her and found her pretty sympathetic. First my dislike: she has to choose between Alain and Tiarnán, and she chooses Tiarnán, and she really doesn't understand Tiarnán, just knows he's Hoel's best knight and that her father favours the match, and Tiarnán has good property - unlike Alain, who has none, just a pretty face. She immediately runs back to Alain as soon as she discovers Tiarnán's secret, even though he really did not want to tell her and in the end only did it once it was apparent she would never let it go. And she and Alain arrange Hoel to hunt Tiarnán in his wolf form. They are too afraid to actually destroy Tiarnán's clothing, so they settle for getting Hoel to hunt down him instead. She mistreats and is cruel to the manor's servants, who miss Tiarnán. And she turns on Tiarnán, though he's never been anything but kind to her. But on the other hand, Eline had to choose, and it's hard to fault someone whose life depends on marriage, not work, to choose the husband with property. And it's clear in the book that Eline is absolutely disgusted with Tiarnán's wolf form. She feels unclean and defiled after the realization. And that part was so clear to me. She feels that Tiarnán, by his werewolfness, has damned himself and her by association. It's hard to fault her for running away...but the cruelty is still there. Also, Alain is weak and a fool and she is really terrible at reading people. Hoel is horrified by the way Alain mismanages prosperous Talensac.

Marie is more of a straightforward character by comparison, and also honourable in her way. In some ways, her honour is more interesting, because while the male characters have recourse - legally, and by their fists - she has none, except what sympathy from other highly-placed people can get her, which isn't much, in a court that isn't even hers. In spite of it, she is determined to marry no one; as her father's heir, any marriage of hers is political. She is determined to not marry before she meets Hoel, when she thinks he's cruel, and also after she does, when she discovers he's fair and kind, and wouldn't make a bad choice. And she's afraid of childbirth and pregnancy, which is easily understood; her mother (and many other mothers...) died in childbed. She has her own understated journey once she confronts and meets the reality of Hoel and the actual dukes she owes allegiance to, and the people in Hoel's court generally.

I already talked about the honourable characters thing, but it's one of Tiarnán's defining characteristics - as a man, anyway. Conveying the story while he's in wolf form is tricky, because I think Bradshaw wants to emphasize it's not a form that's human in thought or consciousness at all, but in the original poem the wolf is clearly not purely wolf either; it jumps up and licks the duke's foot, and that's part of how it's recognized. So she takes the tack of the human consciousness gradually becoming stronger. It's an old device but OK, I guess. Tiarnán tries early on to visit Talensac, but both Elinor and Alain (who have hastily married, not long after Tiarnán is declared dead) have laid traps, afraid of him returning even in wolf form. Remembering his human tricks, he's able to avoid the traps, but winter as a wolf is hard, especially since the other true wolves are afraid of him and know there's something wrong. Eventually, Alain arranges a wolf hunt for Tiarnán, and although Tiarnán uses all the tricks he knows to evade capture, he's run to ground.

Eventually Marie recognizes Tiarnán; he's kept as a tamed wolf pet, which - poor Tiarnán - he accepts. He was Hoel's servant before and he still is, and he's generally treated well. But once Alain walks in, Tiarnán immediately attempts to murder him, and Eline too - like the do in the poem. In the poem he tears off her nose and all her children are born noseless... From this Marie, who has always liked Tiarnán, finally realizes. Rumours of a werewolf have been circling for a long time, though suspicion was always on Eon, an outlaw. (Actually the story of the outlaw was - well, horrible - and very much a story that I would be unsurprised to read about in a court record. A mistreated serf, revenges himself, outcast, angry at his lot in life etc.)

There's also a hermit who knows about Tiarnán's secret. He raised Tiarnán, and it's him that Tiarnán turns to to ask about it. The hermit tells Tiarnán that he believes there's no harm so long as Tiarnán does no harm, but once he realizes that Tiarnán's been betrayed and stuck in wolf form, is stricken with guilt. He recognizes the wolf that comes to visit him, and feeds him, but he doesn't and can't turn him back, and his attempt to get Eline to turn him back fails completely.

I could go on for a long time about a lot of different points - there's some interesting bits there about punishment and how it intertwines with helplessness in its effectiveness - but I have to end this review somewhere. Despite a somewhat clunky section with the wolf consciousness thing - it's not bad, but neither is it an elegant way to handle it (but I still do want to know Tiarnán's thoughts when he's a wolf - that's a good part to flesh out) - I really liked it. The novel ends with Tiarnán and Marie realizing their love, but I wonder if Tiarnán ever struggled after with the desire to turn into a wolf again. Before his first marriage (and during) he feels he shouldn't, but the itch is undeniable and he always transforms. The actual ending is a logical stopping point, but I wonder if Tiarnán felt the craving afterward. bo

Crosspost: http://silverflight8.dreamwidth.org/178713.html.


( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
Feb. 13th, 2017 06:29 am (UTC)
Oh, interesting! I've read the Lais for my Medieval Lit class (Yonec was my favorite, but I've always had a soft spot for the prince-as-bird trope), and didn't realize there's now a historical fantasy based on one. Medieval French werewolves are probably not my speed, but I still find it neat.
Feb. 19th, 2017 03:56 am (UTC)
Yes - there's the one where they use swans to carry messages too...

I love Gillian Bradshaw and 100% encourage reading her! While I'm at it, I love The Sand Reckoner (about Archimedes! No fantasy, just historical fiction) and The Island of Ghosts (about the Samartians in Roman Britain, sent there as part of a treaty, ditto straight historical). And of course her Arthurian trilogy :)
Feb. 13th, 2017 10:10 pm (UTC)
Oh, we have a poison garden at the Brooklyn Botanical Garden! The specific exhibit was in 2009, but they still have most of the plants growing.

Also, Wolf Hunt sounds very intriguing, though that is an unfortunate cover.
Feb. 19th, 2017 03:50 am (UTC)
Ooh that's cool! If I ever make a trip I'll have to visit.

Yeah I am not a fan. She doesn't really get good covers, except maybe the re-released Down the Long Wind trilogy :(
( 4 comments — Leave a comment )



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