Iris Ralph in her article “An Animal Studies and Ecocritical Reading of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight" raises an interesting comparison between the fox and Bertilak, which should not be ignored or subverted for the primary association of the hunted animal with the “hunted” Sir Gawain. While her attention to the poet’s emphasis on themes of honesty and deceit is significant, especially in the way she connects it to Bertilak, overall I find her argument to be flawed. Ralph promotes a critical shift in scholarly focus on animals within medieval texts. Rather than reading into animals as allegories or tropes for human beings and their (lesser) traits (432), an approach she finds both overly simplistic and reductive, scholars should be investigating animals within the reciprocal relationships they share with the other human characters. With regards to the fox, and animal Ralph thoroughly supports as both tricked and abused within the text given that it is only being hunted for the pleasure of killing for a trophy, Ralph appears to take a strong stance against traditional views which read such an animal as “an allegory for the human, particularly an allegory for the human failings of ‘slyness,’ ‘deceit,’ and ‘fraudulence’" (434). Yet, even as she is arguing for treating animals within texts on their own merits and with their own agency as “Actual animals” with “actual relations between humans” and their environment (434), she proceeds to make associations with the characters that mirror the type of analogous comparisons she is arguing against. For example, she notes how the fox in both its appearance and behavioral slyness, or deceitfulness, connects not only to Gawain, but also to Bertilak, if not more so, given how he deceives Gawain by tricking him into the game where they exchange their winnings and the overall beheading game since he is in fact the Greek Knight, as well as the fox and other animals in hunting them for pleasure (437). However, in stating that the “bushy red-bearded crafty Bertilak of Hautdesert . . . evokes the figural fox” (438), is she not simply reversing the analogous comparison—instead of the fox that evokes the human character failings (craftiness and deceit), it is the human character that evokes the fox? The assumption informing such a comparison indicates that foxes, both literary and real ones, are by nature sly and deceitful—and I’m not sure this statement can really be made without first extending metaphorical associations of human emotions, actions, and intentions to the animal, real or otherwise. Furthermore, by creating any comparison between the animals Ralph returns to the analogizing framework. Finally, Ralph's arguments would benefit from using more primary sources to support her claims involving the poet’s likely knowledge of and sympathy for “the many secular acts, bills, charters, ordinances, statutes, and other orders issuing from parliament or the crown in the fourteenth century that prohibited or curbed acts of cruelty to animals” (437). While on the surface this seems like striking evidence for the time period, Ralph fails to specifically identify or really discuss, by providing citations and analysis of the original documents, of any of the texts generally mentioned above. Overall, I found the article lacking evidentiary support and the assumptions a bit too overreaching in their assertion of animal sympathy for the time period.
I’m still a bit torn on how to interpret Marie de France’s lai “Bisclavret.” It follows the expected form of the lai, depicting love as suffering for all parties involved, but it is also a very gendered tale in which male and female suffer due to gendered punishments. Are the punishments fair? Are they equal? What commentary on marriage and gender is being made in this text? Basically, the husband’s punishment (being turned semi-permanently into a werewolf) is inflicted upon him by his wife (and his wife’s new love interest) because he kept a secret from her. The secret—of his turning into a werewolf once a month, of course—was kept, however, in relatively good conscience; he was afraid of revealing this personal flaw to his wife and did not want to upset her. The wife’s punishment, later in the tale, is losing her nose (and bearing children with no noses), inflicted by the werewolf as punishment for keeping him from turning back into a human and abandoning him for another man. Both punishments affect physical appearance. Bisclavret’s unappealing appearance as a wolf, however, doesn’t do him much disservice; the king and knights still take him in and he enters into the homosocial bond that gives no value to appearance. He is valued and cared for just as much when he is a wolf as when he is a man. The wife’s change in appearance is different, though. Women’s appearances contribute greatly to their domestic lives (acceptance by the husband) and public lives (acceptance by female social circle), and the fact that her children were born without noses (and all of them female!) seems a far more serious punishment than that inflicted on Bisclavret. On one hand, I’d like to lay blame on the wife for such a harsh punishment toward her husband for keeping a rather harmless secret. On the other hand, the tale can be read as the wife’s inability to make choices regarding her love life without outside judgement and subsequent punishment. Is this a tale of warning for women who choose to leave their husbands more than it is a tale of warning for husbands not to keep secrets from their wives? Rather than being merely an amusing commentary on marriage, I feel like “Bisclavret” leans toward commentary on the acceptable and unacceptable behaviors of the wife in relation to her husband.