THE QUESTING BEAST AND THE WHITE BOAR
One of the strangest creatures encountered in Arthurian romance – and, indeed, in all of medieval literature – is the Questing Beast. A good description of this elusive, mysterious creature may be found in the excellent article prepared by The Camelot Project at the University of Rochester:
An excellent recent scholarly treatment of the beast may be found in Malorie Sponseller’s graduate thesis, QUESTING THE BEAST: FROM MALORY TO MILTON:
The most important thing to distinguish is that there are actually TWO Questing Beasts. The first is found in the story of Perlesvaus. In this source it is an allegorical monster representing Christ. However, the description of the beast in this romance allows us to make a tentative identification of the model or prototype used by the romance’s author.
According to Sponseller’s thesis (citing William Nitze), Perlesvaus “was composed after 1191 and before 1212, presumably soon after 1200.” The romance’s section on the Beast is nicely summarized by Sponseller thusly:
Riding through the Lonely Forest, Perlesvaus comes across a beautiful glade with a red cross positioned in the center. On either side of the clearing is a person: on one side a white-clad knight and on the other an elegant maiden, each holding a golden vessel. From the surrounding forest runs a remarkable creature in great alarm, “for she bore a litter of twelve in her belly which were yelping like a pack of dogs, and she fled through the glade, terrified by the barking of the dogs inside of her). She is “as white as new-fallen snow, bigger than a hare but smaller than a fox”. Perlesvaus “felt great pity for her, for she looked gentle and very beautiful, with eyes like two emeralds”. The animal approaches the unnamed knight for help, but receiving none she turns to the forcing the Jews to realize they had done wrong. Because the Twelve Tribes did not have faith in their God and later crucified his son, the twelve dogs represent the doubting tribes: “the twelve dogs are the Jews whom God nourished and who were born into the Law which He'd established, but never wished to believe in Him or love Him; instead they crucified Him and broke his body as basely as they could”. The importance of the number twelve in Christian culture derives from the twelve disciples of Christ; the fact that the Beast gives birth to this specific number of wolves links her to Christ’s disciples and makes their symbolic representation more concrete. Christ submits to the tribes' destruction, just as the Beast is torn to pieces. Their inability to eat the Beast's flesh symbolizes the tribes' inability “to partake of the sacrament of His body”.
When I visualized this scene in my mind, I realized I had come across it before. In fact, it is an episode from the Welsh Mabinogion tale, “Manawydan son of Llyr”. In that tale, Pryderi and his hounds follow a WHITE BOAR into an Otherworld Castle (probably the hill-fort above Ludchurch in Pembrokeshire). He grasps a golden basin there and becomes stuck to it. Later his mother, Rhiannon, while in search of her son, also becomes stuck to this basin. And the red cross in the glade?
Well, according to John Cule in “Some Early Hospitals in Wales and the Border”, National Library of Wales Journal, 1977, Winter Volume XX/2, the Templars (whose red cross was quite distinctive) were most likely present at Templeton very near Ludchurch:
"There may have been a hospice of the Templars in the lordship of Narberth. The modern church of St. John in the village of Templeton was built on the site of an older building, which had earlier been used as an Unitarian Meeting House. The Knights of the Temple, who gave the village its name of Templar's Town, may have possessed land here. When the Templars were suppressed in 1308, their estates were sequestrated and transferred to the Hospitallers of St. John. At this time Templeton passed to the Mortimers of Narberth."
In other words, the original Questing Beast was none other than the white boar, the knight and lady holding golden vessels were Pryderi and Rhiannon, respectfully, and the red cross was the mark of the Templars, who had a religious house between Ludchurch and Narberth.
By the time we get to the SUITE DE MERLIN, the Beast has undergone a transformation. It is now “a very large beast, the most bizarre of form ever seen… Now I see the greatest wonder I have ever seen. For I have never heard of such a bizarre beast as this one. If it is marvelous on the outside, it is even more marvelous on the inside. For I can hear and recognize quite clearly that it has in its body living hounds who are barking”.
The small mystery has now become large. Later still, as demonstrated best by Helmut Nickel in his journal article WHAT KIND OF ANIMAL WAS THE QUESTING BEAST? (Arthuriana, Vol. 14, No. 2, SUMMER 2004, pp. 66-69), the Questing Beast goes through yet another transmogrification. Nickel makes a very good case for identifying the Beast with the giraffe, known to the medieval world as the camelopard, a word combining camel with leopard, on account of the giraffe’s spots. And, indeed, some of the later descriptions of the Beast do match that of the giraffe to an uncanny degree.
I’m here quoting from Nickel’s article on the ‘Douce’ and ‘Dagglor’:
“The detailed description of the Beast’s body from the Prose Tristan is also taken over by the author of the Roman de Palamedes with the addition that the neck is like that of an animal called 'Douce in his [Palamedes] language.' In Perceforest, it is said that the Beast’s strange neck resembles that of an animal that the Saracens call Dagglor, and it has all the colors of the world… From this description we can deduce that the Beast was an exotic animal, most likely from the Saracens' lands. Indeed, the name Douce 'in his [Palamedes'] language' might give a clue to the Beast's identity. The French doux (fem. douce) means 'sweet, charming, pleasant,' and it is generally thought that an Arabic word zrf= zurafa meaning 'graceful, nice, sweet' would be the root of 'giraffe.' However, Arabic scholars insist that this is a false etymology and 'giraffe' is more likely derived from zrf = zaraffa, which the Arabic-English Lexicon lists as 'camelopard or giraffe, a certain beast of beautiful make, the fore legs are longer than its hind legs; said to be called by a name signifying [that] it has the form of an assemblage of animals, i.e. camel ox-leopard, because it has resemblances to the camel and the ox and the leopard.' It seems that with the name Douce the author of the Roman de Palamedes picked the wrong zrf, although he was on the right track. The long swaying neck of a giraffe can be word-pictured as that of a serpent? More flattering than that of a camel? The body with its pattern of irregular spots reminds of the spotted pelt of the leopard, while its narrow hind quarters and tufted tail are comparable to those of a lion that also look narrow against its imposingly maned shoulders. Feet 'like a stag's' or 'like those of an ox' obviously are meant to express that there were cloven hoofs. Unfortunately, the Arabic-English Lexicon does not yield any explanation about the animal Dagglor.”
The solution to the Dagglor (also ‘Dogglor’) mystery was resolved satisfactorily by Gilles Polizzi in his paper “Deux romans “déguisés” à la Renaissance: le Chevalier Doré (1541) et Gérard d’Euphrate (1549)” in Réforme Humanisme Renaissance, 71, pp. 165-178. There he astutely observes that the forest the Beast inhabits, usually called the forest ‘du Glat’, i.e. the Forest of Barking/Yelping, is in one MS. Called ‘du Glar’. Thus the supposed Saracen (or Arabic) Dogglar – otherwise unattested anywhere – is, in fact, a corruption of ‘du Glar’, itself a corruption of ‘du Glat’! Thus the animal that is called Dogglar is the animal ‘of barking/yelping’.
NOTE ON THE DEATH AND DEATH-PLACE OF THE QUESTING BEAST
In the Arthurian Post-Vulgate Cycle, Palamedes, Perceval and Galahad are the knights who drive the Beast to a body of what known afterwards as the “Lake of the Beast”. Here Palamedes slays the monster with his lance. We are told that when the Beast felt itself wounded, it
“… went under the water and began to make such a great tumult all through the lake that it seemed that all the devils of hell were there in the lake, and it began to throw and shoot forth such flames on all sides that anyone who saw it would have thought it one of the greatest marvels in the world. That fire did not last long, but a marvel resulted from it that still endures there now: that lake began to grow hot and to boil in such a way that it never stopped boiling, but it boils still and will boil as long as the world lasts, or so men believe.”
The situation of the lake itself is described as follows:
“… they [the knights] entered a deep valley, and in the middle of that valley there was a small, deep lake. On the bank were the greyhounds; they encircled the lake on all sides…”
We are reminded instantly of the avang or addanc (= Welsh afanc) of the Welsh tale “Peredur son of Efrawc”, who is called the ‘llyn avang’, often translated as ‘Monster of the Lake”. However, there is no reference in the Peredur story to the boiling lake. This last sounds like a hot or thermal spring, which the ancients believed was caused by fire within the earth heating water to the boiling point. And, indeed, the slaying of the monster in the lake, and the spewing of fire, suggests a volcanic caldera that later became the scene of a thermal lake.
Wales has several lakes said to be homes of afancs, but only the pool on the River Conwy was called Llyn-yr-Afanc. None of these lakes are “boiling”, however. The description of the lake highly favors a high mountain body of water, much like those afanc lakes placed in Snowdonia in Gwynedd.
I find the lake completely surrounded by hounds particularly intriguing. Why? Because just a few kilometers north of Llyn Glaslyn, one of the homes of the afanc, is a mountain lake called Llyn y Cwn, “Lake of the Hounds.” The original name of Glaslyn was Llyn Ffynnon Las, the “Lake of the Blue Fountain”. Welsh ffynnon is a borrowing from Latin fons, fontis, and was the equivalent of aquae (http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.04.0059%3Aentry%3Dfons&highlight=fountain). Thus the idea that the lake was boiling may have come about because it bore a name meaning “fountain”.