William and the Werewolf

By Michael Smith

A beautifully illustrated translation of the fourteenth-century chivalric epic.

Sunday, 17 January 2021

The folk motif of the Fair Unknown in William of Palerne

In the words of Leah Haught of the Camelot Project, the "Fair Unknown" is a “universally popular folk motif with strong Arthurian connections in which a young man of questionable lineage becomes an integral part of society. Initially appearing in court without an established identity, the Fair Unknown nevertheless boldly demands to be knighted.” Classic examples in the Arthurian canon are Chretien’s Perceval and the Middle English romance Libeaus Desconus, sometimes attributed to Thomas Chestre.

Stolen from his parents

In William and the Werewolf (William of Palerne), the reader already knows the identity of the Fair Unknown – William - because at the beginning he is taken from the King and Queen of Palerne (Palermo) by the werewolf. The audience is aware that the werewolf is in fact friendly because had he not been there, the King’s brother, keen to inherit the kingdom, would have had the boy killed.

Once the werewolf is sure that William is safe, he hides him in a den and brings food for him. While the werewolf is foraging one day, William – still in his princely clothes - becomes fascinated by the beauty of the flowers and birds around him and emerges from his hideway. It is at this point that he is discovered by a cowherd and his dog in a passage of touching charm and originality. I read from this passage in the attached film.

Found by a friendly cowherd

The cowherd takes in the boy and, with his wife, bring up William in the forest where he clearly exhibits lordly characteristics in his generosity and demeanour. At this point, however, he is simply an unknown to the rustic couple who, childless, bring him up as their own son.

It is only when the emperor of Rome comes across William while lost out hunting that the boy becomes a true “fair unknown”. The emperor, hearing of William’s early clothing and strange story and observing his behaviour and beauty, becomes convinced of William’s apparent lordly status. He convinces the cowherd that William needs to be brought up in surroundings more suited to someone so lordly. Taken back to Rome, William is placed with the emperor’s only daughter Melior and so the main part of the story begins.

An amusing transition

Haught tells us that the “Fair Unknown” “tends to be markedly — albeit amusingly — uninhibited because of his isolated upbringing, and frequently knows little of his own paternity. Although he is quickly knighted, the Fair Unknown must prove his worth through an extended series of adventures before finally cementing his position within society through continued proof of his prowess and, ultimately, through marriage and the acquisition of property.”

As we will see in later updates, much of what William does at the Roman court fills this description perfectly. Yet, there are significant twists, not least of which is William’s burgeoning romance with Melior which drives the narrative onwards as the identity of the “fair unknown” – a man who has forgotten his early boyhood – is gradually revealed through the help of the ever-present werewolf.

A hearwarming message

However, a more fundamental narrative sits always below the surface of this romance which gives it its real charm: William never forgets the cowherd and his wife. Held clasped within the heart of this magnificent romance is its profound understanding for those less fortunate than ourselves.

In its time, a time beset by plague, William and the Werewolf offered a hopeful vision for humanity beyond the pain and trials of the hardest of days.

With your help, William and the Werewolf can be told again to a world which needs its positive message once again. Please share this wonderful alliterative romance so it can reach full funding.

 

Michael Smith

Translator and Printmaker

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Comments

Jeanne Hand-Boniakowski
 Jeanne Hand-Boniakowski says:

Lovely essay and reading. Thank you. I have been charmed by the Fair Unknown stories (though I was unaware of the term) especially as a youngster near adolescence. So many kids daydreamed that we had been adopted, or mixed up at the hospital, or swapped by fairies. Now that I am aging into a widowed crone, looking at my own children’s hair show grey, I have been reaching back to the tales that fired my young imagination, and seeing them anew. I am so glad you have chosen this story. I loved your Gawain and was glad to help. Looking forward to this book. Stay safe and be well.

posted 18th January 2021

Michael Smith
 Michael Smith says:

Thank you Jeanne - I really appreciate the support (and thank you for supporting Gawain too) and lovely to hear how the update brought back some memories as well. This particular romance (William) has immense charm across its entire story; it really is a window on a distant age and with some lovely cameos within it. Michael

posted 19th January 2021

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