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Monday, June 11, 2007

Sir Isumbras’s Unicorn

Posted by Adam Roberts on 06/11/07 at 08:10 AM

So, I read the medieval romance Sir Isumbras in part because I’ve always really loved, but never quite understood, this Millais picture.  Turns out, according to scholarly opinion, that the fourteenth-century romance has nothing to do with the picture after all:

John Millais’s transitional work, ‘A Dream of the Past — Sir Isumbras at the Ford’ (1857), depicts an ancient knight carrying two children of a poor woodcutter across a river on horseback. The character of Sir Isumbras derives from a 14th-century English romance, but this specific incident does not occur in the medieval poem. Rather, when exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1857 the painting bore a quotation from a pseudo-medieval romance by Millais’s friend, the art critic Tom Taylor, who wrote a fake medieval verse explaining the story.

Still I’m very glad to have read the original.  It’s cracking good stuff.

Sir Isumbras details the adventures of its doughty titular knight.  ‘Hys name was callyd Sere Ysumbras;/So doughty a knyght as he was’.  He’s a model of courtesy, is Isumbras:

He was bothe curteys and hende,
Every man was his frende
And loved he was with all.

A curteys man and hende he was;
His name was kalled Syr Isumbras,
Bothe curteys and fre,
His gentylnesse nor his curtesye
There kowthe no man hit discrye.

Courteous, see?  This rather repetitive manner is characteristic of the poem as a whole actually (the poet frequently sticks in the line ‘the knyghte was bothe hende and fre’ as filler if he needs an ‘ee’ rhyme to facilitate his stanza), but its effect is in large part to create that evocatively charming rough-edged directness and slightly off-kilter solidity that Coleridge mimicked so brilliantly in The Ancient Mariner.  And the story of Sir Isumbras is a corker.

So, Isumbras is riding in the wood when he comes upon a talking bird, who addresses him:

He seyde, “Welcome Syr Isumbras,
Thow haste forgete what thou was
For pryde of golde and fee.
The kynge of hevenn the gretheth so:
In yowthe or elde thou schall be wo,
Chese whedur hyt shall be.” [49-54]

[He said, “Welcome Sir Isumbras,
Thou hast forgetten what thou was
For pride of gold and fee.
The king of heaven greets thee so:
In youth or age thou’ll suffer woe,
Chose which one it shall be."]

I tried this puzzler out of a selection of kids (my daughter and her four cousins) aged between three and nine.  To my surprise they all spontaneously chose as did Sir Isumbras—which is to say, to have the woe in youth, and keep the happiness as something to look forward to in old age.  Well, strictly speaking, the three-year-old cousin didn’t choose that; she chose to run around the garden shouting ‘woo! woo! woo!’ naked except for an inflatable Scooby-Doo paddling-pool flotation ring around her tummy.  But with that sole exception the children were all prepared, at least theoretically, to defer their satisfaction.  I’m not sure, on reflection, why this surprised me as much as it did.  That children learn so early it’s better to put present happiness on hold, or at least to get suffering out of the way sooner so that it’s not hanging over our heads—it’s common sense, really.

Fortunately none of those children then suffered what Sir Isumbras immediately suffers.  He rides home to discover his home has burnt to the ground, his servants killed or fled, his livestock and wealth vanished.  Only his wife and three sons have survived, fled from the fire ‘as naked as they were born’.  They’re understandably upset by this sudden turn of events, but, diplomatically, he reminds them that they deserve their misery:

All the sorow that we ben inne,
Hit is for owre wykked synne; [119-20]

Which must have been a consolation to them.  On the other hand, and if Isumbras’s wife was anything like my wife, she might (courteously, or otherwise) have pointed out that he, not they, was the one rebuked by the magical bird for his ‘pryde of golde and fee’; and that he, not they, had made the decision—without consulting her—to endure immediate misery and suffering.  That, in other words, she is therefore entitled to feel a little narked.  But she doesn’t say this.  Or if she does it’s not recorded in the poem.

Courteous and hende Isumbras decides, rather than become a charitable burden upon his friends, to leave the land, taking his family with him.  They travel six days without food or drink, and then come to a river.  Isumbras carries his oldest son across this obstacle, and leaves him on the far side ‘by a brome’ telling him ‘son, sytte her styll’ [174] whilst he swims back to get the others.  This is a bad idea.  Whilst Isum’s on the other side a lion rushes in and gobbles up, or at least snatches away, Son No 1.  Ask yourself what you’d do in this situation.  Good.  Now compare your choice with Sir Isumbras’s:

With carefull herte and sykynge sore,
His myddleste sone he lafte thore,
And wente wepynge aweye. [181-3]

[With heart full of care and sinking sore,
His middle son he left there,
And went weeping away.]

It’s not clever.  Having ported middle son over the river, back he goes to fetch over youngest son; and, really, he has no right to be surprised when a ‘lybarte’ [184] nips in a devours his middle son.  Isumbras then at least takes the elementary precaution of carrying both wife and youngest son with him for the final trip, but his fortunes do not improve.  He bumps into a Sultan who takes a fancy to Mrs Sir Isumbras, on account of her beauty (she is, in striking phrase, ‘as white as whale-bone’, ‘hys wyff is whyt so whales bon’, 250).  He offers to buy her, and when Isumbras gets huffy about this he has his Sultanic goons beat the knight up (they ‘beten hym and hys ribbes braste’ [293]) and grabs Lady Isumbras anyway.

This is where it gets especially interesting.  His wife, now a great queen amongst the Saracens, manages to get some gold, food and clothing to her husband and youngest child before she’s whisked away in the Sultan’s ship.  Isumbras, glum, takes his youngest son by the hand and ‘forth he walketh in that lond’ [350].  They sit down under a tree, wrapping the food and gold in a red cloak.  A griffin steals the cloak.  Isumbras chases after the griffin, to no avail, and then returns to find that his son has been eaten by—I kidde ye not—a unicorn.

A gryffyn bare the golde awaye
For the red cloth that he syghe.
The knyghte was both hende and fre
And folowed hym to the Grekes See,
Therovur the gryffyn he flyghe.
Therewhyles ther come an unykorne;
His yonge sone awey hath borne
Sich sorrwe the knyghte gan dryghe.

We can nip past the remainder of the tale: Isumbras works for a blacksmith carrying lumps of iron ore to the smithy; he fights anonymously for ‘A Cristen kynge’ who goes to war with ‘the hethen kynge with batell stronge’, performs extraordinary feats but eschews recognition and reward choosing, instead, go to Jerusalem as a palmer.  He spends seven years in that city until an angel appears to him in a vision to tell him that he’s had enough suffering for now.  Thus the tipping point is reached, and in slightly truncated form the poet relates the rest: how Isumbras is reunited with his Queen, how he and she together face an enormous heathen army of more than 30,000 men (‘against thrytty dowsande and mo,/Ther come no Christen but they two’).  Finally, in the nick of time, their three sons ride in, apparently not eaten (or if eaten, then miraculously revivified):

Ther come rydynge knyghtes thre
On bestes that were wylde;
That on a lybarde, that other on a unykorn
And on a lyoun he rod beforn. [752-5]

Between them these five slay all ‘thrytty thowsand and thre’ of the Saracens, thereafter seizing the entire country and forcibly converting the whole population to Christianity.  So, a thoroughly happy ending altogether.

But I’m more interested, for the moment, on this business of a young boy being preyed upon by a unicorn.  I can’t think of any other texts or artistic representations of the unicorn in which the beast is seen as predatory like this.  Indeed, care of wikipedia I discover that unicorns were more goatish than hippic.  Here’s Pisanello’s charming Medal of Cecilia Gonzaga (1447) as one (of many) illustrations of that fact:

But a goat, even a monoceroid goat, is surely no more likely to eat a young boy than a horse, even a monoceroid horse.

The obvious point (it seems almost too obvious) is that the choice of unicorn here is determined not by the beast’s reputation for eating people so much as by the romance’s ending, and that this ending is in turn heraldic, rather than in any sense realistic.  Lion, leopard, unicorn: all three of these beasts appear in the royal English armory.  Presumably the poet is making an allegorical point, or at the least writing his poem around a politically charged imagistic blazon, in which what we might anachronistically call the Manifest Destiny of that Christian land England.

Alternately, or in addition, there is the Biblical unicorn.  It’s obvious enough that Sir Isumbras is chivalric a version of the Book of Job.  This is Job 39:9-12 in the King James:

Will the unicorn be willing to serve thee, or abide by thy crib? Canst thou bind the unicorn with band in the furrow? or will he harrow the valleys after thee? Wilt thou trust him, because his strength is great? or wilt thou leave thy labour to him? Wilt thou believe him, that he will bring home thy seed, and gather it into thy barn?

What I’m not sure of is whether this ‘unicorn’ for the Hebrew re’em (wikipedia, again) was a specific choice of the King James translators, or whether it was a generally accepted rendering of that term, and likely to be known to a fifteenth-century romancier.  The Vulgate, rather nicely, has ‘rhinoceros’ there (‘numquid volet rinoceros servire tibi aut morabitur ad praesepe tuum?’) which certainly fits better with the semiology of strength in which the passage trades.  ‘Rinoceros’ is not in my Lewis and Short, but the OED finds plenty of examples of it in English from 1400 onwards (‘monoceros’ [Latin] and monochordos [Greek] are both much more ancient).  So perhaps, as with the lion and the leopard, the point of the unicorn here is simply to signify strength—physical correlatives to the strength of faith and endurance that Isumbras demonstrates in his sufferings, and which are ultimately rewarded with the mass slaughter of heathens, and the chance to be in their base killing their d00ds.  Plus converting them.  A seemingly related strategy, that one.

But that still leaves a puzzle.  Wouldn’t the original audience to this poem be likely to throw up their hands at this point (‘a unicorn eating a young boy?  Tosh!’)?  Or are there plenty of other medieval examples, of which I’m unaware, of unicorns as predatory?

I know (of course) that the people to answer such a question are the people at In the Middle.  The conjunction, there, of ‘at’ and ‘in’ is ungainly, I know, but what can one do?  At least I’m not asking ‘what’s going on at in the middle’, or saying ‘there’s plenty of stuff of the sort I get off on over at in the middle’ or anything like that.


They know a lot about medieval beasts, do the people are In the Middle.  The answer to this question is probably on the site somewhere already, if only they had a search feature, into which I could enter ‘unicorn’.  But they have not.  One more examples of life’s little disappointments, that.


Having read the poem, I look again at the picture; and I don’t buy the idea that it has nothing do with the medieval text.  It’s a knight carrying children across a ford; that’s the poem’s central incident.  Millais, it’s true, has the knight horsed and elderly, which is either a speculative representation of the latter days of Sir Isumbras, in which he joyfully revisits a scene that in youth had been one of pain and loss … or else the age and mount of the knight are both just examples of Millais’ interpretative liberty, and this is the scene just prior to the moment when our hero drops his first two children (which the painter, for compactness sake, elides into a single journey) on the far bank and the various wild beasts comes ravening out.  In which case, it’s a very different picture, tonally, to the one I thought it was.


"Therewhyles ther come an unykorne;
His yonge sone awey hath borne”

Doesn’t that indicate that the unicorn carried the son away, rather than eating him?  Such as by picking him up in his mouth, or something.

By on 06/11/07 at 09:49 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Well, yes.

The narrative trick here, such as it is, is that as you’re reading or listening to the story you’re supposed to go ‘the little boy’s been eaten by a lion, oh no!’ and then ‘the other little boy’s been eaten by a leopard, double oh no!’ and so on through, until the finale can reveal ‘actually they weren’t eaten at all, they were just carried away, and now they return to rescue Dad in the hour of his need, isn’t that a nice twist?’ Which is fine and everything—I mean, the ambiguity is fine and everything—but I wonder if it doesn’t spoil it a bit when the unicorn appears.  Because either unicorns were in the habit of eating people in medieval lit, and the suspense is maintained, or else they weren’t and this bit of the story runs the risk of nonplussing the reader.  Couldn’t they bring on a bear or something?  A shark?  Something that might actually devour a small child?  Why not the griffin himself?

By Adam Roberts on 06/11/07 at 11:19 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Looking again at that Millais picture, at the end of the post there, with unicorns on my mind.  Does anybody else think that the way the shadow lying across the land on the far shore (top left hand corner) seems to segue into the horse’s head in a way that kind-of echoes a unicorn’s horn, Mannerist-style?  (Or a photographic negative of a unicorn, in this case?) Or am I reading too much into the picture?

By Adam Roberts on 06/11/07 at 11:22 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I didn’t mean to try to derail your (very amusing) post with an obvious point.  It’s just that I wouldn’t read “His young son away hath borne” (if that’s what it translates into) as indicating that the unicorn was supposed to have eaten him.  I would imagine that it was supposed to indicate that he was carried or dragged away into the wilderness, where presumably he’d get eaten by something else.  So there wouldn’t be a suspension of disbelief problem.

To add to the myths involved, were unicorns supposed to carry virgins, in this tradition?  Perhaps that’s why the unicorn carries off the youngest son, who would be one.

By on 06/11/07 at 11:29 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I can’t recall story about unicorns seizing human victims, but it was generally thought to be a very fierce beast.  That a maiden could tame it was its achilles heel, so to speak, because otherwise it couldn’t be caught.  And according the Medieval Bestiary site, it frequently fought elephants:

But unlike those In the Middle, I don’t know jack about medieval beasties.  However, I *do* know that the Isumbras story is very similar to the legend of St. Eustace.  In addition to meeting a talking deer with an image of Christ between its horns (the most famous moment associated with him and usually used to identify him iconographically), Eustace also had a river-crossing episode like Isumbras’s. In the Golden Legend version, Eustace has two sons, and loses the first to a wolf, the second to a lion (each of which “snatch” or “carry off” the boy).  But the legend tells us that each was rescued (by shepherds and hunters), though Eustace doesn’t know it until they’re all reunited.  The South English Legend version has the same details. (The SEL, btw, shows up in manuscripts with other metrical romances, and Isumbras shows up in collections with saints’ legends, which is not to say the SEL is a direct source, but that the circulating lives of saints’ lives and romances overlaps as much as their generic similarities.) Since the beasts are different in the romance—and there are three of them—I think your heraldric/political reading works, especially with the unusal use of the unicorn.

Btw, if you liked Sir Isumbras, you’ll *love* Havelok the Dane—available at the same site where you read Sir Isumbras (the TEAMS texts online).

By Dr. Virago on 06/11/07 at 03:11 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Perhaps that’s why the unicorn carries off the youngest son, who would be one.

I should think that the other sons are (supposed to be) virgins, too.

I concur that the unicorn didn’t eat the kid, but I also like the notion of expecting the unicorn to have eaten the kid. So I’m, haha, in the middle. I’m surprised at how little I know about unicorns; my dealings in medieval teratology are mostly restricted to cynocephali.

I’m inclined to have a look at the exegesis on the passage from Job. Tomorrow. Good place to get a sense of how to read that line, though, would be to look at one of the Middle English bibles of the late 14th c. I expect one of them did Job, but I don’t know off the top of my head.

As for the blacksmith part meriting only a nipping past: for shame! Iirc, doesn’t Isumbras gradually learn the trade and rebuild his armor, as it were, from the ground up? That’s fascinating stuff. Again, I’ll check tomorrow.

I love it when you do medieval stuff AR. Keep it up.

By Karl Steel on 06/11/07 at 10:33 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Ah, yes, remembered that right:

As he wente be a lowe,
Smethy-men herde he blowe,
A grete fyre sawe he glowe.
He askyd hem mete par charyté,
They bad hym swynke for “so doo wee,
We have non othir plowe.”
Thenne answers the knyght agayn,
“For mete wolde I swynke fayn.”
Faste he bar and drowgh.
They goven hym mete and drynk anon
And taughten hym to bere ston;
Thenne hadde he schame inough.

Thus they taughte hym to bere ston
Tyl the twelve monethis be comen and gon;
They wroughten hym ful wowgh.
Be that he cowde make a fyre,
Thenne took he mannys hyre
And wroughte more than twoo.
Al the longe sevene yere
A smethis man was he there
And yit monethis twoo.
By that he hadde hym armes dyght,
Al that fel for a knyght
To batayle whenne he wolde goo.

From here

“Swynke,” by the way, as my colleague Nicola Masciandaro observes in his book, is a very low class word for labor. And for other, more prurient things.

By Karl Steel on 06/11/07 at 10:38 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"‘Swynke,’ by the way ... is a very low class word for labor. And for other, more prurient things.

Linked to swyve, is it?

Dr V.  “Btw, if you liked Sir Isumbras, you’ll *love* Havelok the Dane—available at the same site where you read Sir Isumbras (the TEAMS texts online).” Actually I read the poem in a copy of this book; the web-link is there for convenience.  But I’ll certainly check out Havelok.

By Adam Roberts on 06/12/07 at 07:48 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I should add, Dr V:  That’s a cool link in your comment.  Lovely picture, and the knight in it is wielding the slenderest lance I have ever seen.

The Isidore of Seville stuff about, inter alia, fighting elephants does suggest that some medievals at least thought of unicorns as pretty fierce.

By Adam Roberts on 06/12/07 at 07:52 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Linked to swyve, is it?

I would have thought so, but it might just be a homophonic accident. Etymologically, they’re not linked (here and here).  But since I had ‘swyve’ on the brain, and transformed it into ‘swynke,’ and since the medievals perhaps did so too (See swynke, 2d, “toil in a sexual context, copulation"), I think you’re onto something.

DV: thanks for reminding me about that bestiary site. It really is a treat.

I love Havelock, but the romance I think of when I hear Isumbras is Octavian. A lioness runs off with a child, intending to feed it to its family, but finds itself unable to harm any child of noble blood ("Bot for it was a kynge sone iwysse, / The lyones moghte do it no mys"). A griffen comes along and flies off with both lioness and child, intending to feed them all to its family. The child sleeps through it all in the comfort of the lioness’s mouth. The lion defeats the griffin and the child--in a usual arrangement (see Romulus and Remus, Wolfdietrich, &c.?)--nurses at (on? itself?) the lion, turning the carnivore into food for itself.

By Karl Steel on 06/12/07 at 08:31 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Penguins and whales are also more vicious than modern sentimentalists believe. Sperm whales, anyway.

By John Emerson on 06/12/07 at 08:35 AM | Permanent link to this comment

From some of the exegesis:

“Numquid volet rhinoceros servire tibi, aut morabitur ad praesepe tuum?” Sive, ut alii dixerunt: Numquid volet monoceros servire tibi? Ex diversa editione transferentium advertimus, quod ipsum sit rhinoceros quod et monoceros, et Latine intelligatur unicornis, sive super nares cornu habens. Sunt ergo hujuscemodi ferae in solitudine Orientis, et ab hominibus nonnumquam videntur, sive capiuntur. (Jerome, PL 26:770D, Commentary on Job 39)

Paraphrase: some editions have rhinoceros, others have monoceros, which in Latin should be understood as “unicorn.” These wild beasts live in the wilderness of the East and are never seen by people unless they are captured. He goes onto allegorize it: either it’s pride or it’s Christ.

Augustine also glosses it as “unicorn” in PL 34: 881, his annotations on Job.

One more, and then I have to run, from Gregory the Great, :
Rhinoceros iste, qui etiam monoceros in Graecis exemplaribus nominatur, tantae esse fortitudinis dicitur, ut nulla venantium virtute capiatur; sed sicut hi asserunt, qui describendis naturis animalium laboriosa investigatione sudaverunt, virgo ei puella proponitur, quae ad se venienti sinum aperit, in quo ille omni ferocitate postposita caput deponit, sicque ab eis a quibus capi quaeritur, repente velut inermis [Al., enervus] invenitur. Buxei quoque coloris esse describitur, qui etiam cum elephantis [Col.0590A] quando certamen aggreditur, eo cornu quod in nare singulariter gestat, ventrem adversantium ferire perhibetur, ut cum ea quae molliora sunt vulnerat, impugnantes se facile sternat. Potest ergo per hunc rhinocerotem, vel certe monocerotem, scilicet unicornem... (PL 76: 589D, Moralia)

Paraphrase: Rhinoceros called monoceros in Greek is said to be so strong that no hunter can take it by strength: then we get the capturing it through a virgin story, as it puts off all its ferocity. It’s the color of boxwood, fights with elephants, has a single horn on its nose, stabs the elephant in the belly, as that’s where the elephant is soft. And then there’s a bit on the name.

this here identifies the “re’em” as an Auroch!

By Karl Steel on 06/12/07 at 08:56 AM | Permanent link to this comment

if only they had a search feature, into which I could enter ‘unicorn’.

Jeffrey wrote this in an entry on “Erotic Animals” in the Encyclopedia of Sex and Gender:

The weasel is similarly said to copulate orally, though she gives birth through her ears (right for the boys, left for girls). Weasels, we are told, are a figure for those who allow wicked sayings to enter their minds and engender sin. The beautiful unicorn cannot be captured by hunters, but should a chaste maiden offer her lap he is happy to lay his head there; lest the image become suggestive, however, we are immediately told that the unicorn is Christ, the virgin is Mary, and there is (by implication) nothing sexual about this strange equine’s ardor for placing his long horn in maidenly laps. The Physiologus, like much early Christian writing, stresses the value of chastity and the dangers of desire. One of its animals is even most notable for its complete absence of amorous feeling. The elephant and his wife symbolize Adam and Eve, who before the snake led them into temptation never desired each other and possessed no knowledge of coitus. Elephants, Physiologus asserts, mate only out of necessity, and even then would not be able to copulate without the use of an aphrodisiac, mandrake root. Elephants are in this way the purest of animals and an inspiration to abstinence.

Yet it is hard not to wonder if the eroticism of animals like the viper, weasel, and unicorn can be displaced so easily through allegorization. Surely one of the appeals of the Physiologus is its narration of fellatio, hermaphroditism, and homosexuality among beasts—even as it transforms these stories into tidy Christian morals. Thus the fascinating story of the hyena, repeated almost obsessively in most medieval bestiaries. A creature of two natures, this desert-dwelling animal sometimes acts the part of a male and sometimes that of a female. According to Clement of Alexandria (d. ca. 215) and many later writers, the lewd hyena possesses the sexual organs of both genders and employs them promiscuously (Boswell, Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality 356). The hyena may simply, as the Latin Physiologus asserts, be a figure for the inconstant Jews, who once worshiped the true God but have now turned away. Perhaps the double-gendered beast is likewise simply a representation of the synagogue, metaphorically an unclean animal. But perhaps also the hyena as erotic animal grants something not otherwise available within circumscriptive systems of allegory and abnegation: a figure through which can be dreamt potentialities and desires not otherwise easy to express. Sexuality is what brings humans outside of themselves; it is the surrender to a loss of individuality. Animals as erotic symbols in the Middle Ages often represent the anxieties that accompany such potential loss, but they also convey a certain inventiveness, a certain promise of possibilities beyond the small limits of the merely human.

By Karl Steel on 06/12/07 at 09:20 AM | Permanent link to this comment

”...if only they had a search feature, into which I could enter ‘unicorn’...”

That’s cheating.  Though cheating cleverly.

Karl this is all v. interesting indeed.  I shall chew it, as cud.  Wonder if unicorns chew the cud.

Jerome’s “Sunt ferae in solitudine Orientis” ... that ‘ferus’ there just means undomesticated, I think; which is to say, not, you know, ‘ferocious’.  No?  The business with the elephant-stomach-stabbing is odd, though.

By Adam Roberts on 06/12/07 at 02:06 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Hyenas are genuinely kinky—the females are dominant and have male-like genitalia. Google hyena + testosterone.

I have read that pygmies hunt elephants by lying in wait in pits and stabbing them in the belly from below. Can’t find evidence on the net, though pygmies are definitely elephant hunters. There’s an interesting-looking JSTOR piece I can’t get to.

By John Emerson on 06/12/07 at 02:22 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Found it:

While most hunters use guns, the pygmies use broad, sharp spears with a thick shaft. The pygmy chooses the elephant that he wants to hunt and it is usually a young animal out on the edge of the herd. They study their prey, following them wherever they go, until they know the elephant’s habits and personality (Armand, 106). They literally roll around and get covered in fresh elephant dung. They do this until the smell of man is eliminated and is replaced by the smell of elephant, which takes 2 to 3 days (Armand, 105). After they have come to know the habits and patterns of their prey, the go in for the kill by waiting until the elephant is getting sleepy. The pygmy silently glides through the forest between the legs of the sleepy animal. The elephant’s sense of hearing is acute when he is asleep and the slight move of a branch could mean the pygmies death if he is heard. The pygmy, when he is ready, thrusts the spear into the belly of the elephant. He must be careful to move out of the way at the right moment so that he himself does not get caught and trampled to death. He must withdraw his spear and run away from the herd quickly from the elephant’s huge feet. Unfortunately this way of hunting the elephant inflicts lots of pain and suffering on the elephant because it takes several days for the elephant to die (Armand, 106). In actuality, this is the beginning of the hunt for the pygmy because he must continue to follow the elephant until he dies. He has to follow the trail of blood left by the wounded elephant.


Original source probably Denis Armand, “On Safari. The Story of My Life”. Collins Clear- Type Press, London & Glasgow, 1963.

By John Emerson on 06/12/07 at 02:27 PM | Permanent link to this comment

J. Emerson: thrilling and horrifying reference.


I’m supported by this: I tend to translate “ferus” as wild beast (I just did a search for ‘sunt multae ferae’ to elevate my hunch to a truth and came across this delightful exercise: #5, about not being able to walk in the woods because of the many wild beasts, makes me chuckle. For some reason).

Now, I’m uncertain whether or not a “ferus” is necessarily “ferox.” Certainly a unicorn’s ferocious towards elephants, and it certainly does a good job at threatening children, and, iirc, most “ferae” that I’ve encountered in my reading (and not thank the fsm in woods) are serpents, lions, leopards, bears, boars, and occasionally dragons, you know, animals of no uncertain danger. I’m inclined to think, however, that a “ferus” is nowhere near as bad as a “bellua,” but I’ve done nothing like a systematic study of the distinctions (nor even cracked a dictionary, for that matter).

Thanks so much for giving me an impetus to fill in some gaps in my teratologic knowledge. I know my students will ask me about unicorns someday. Now I have the answers.

By Karl Steel on 06/12/07 at 02:59 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I should add that Havelok doesn’t have any animal episodes, but Isumbras and Havelok are both heroes who have to work themselves up the socio-economic ladder.  Plus Havelok has a mysterious light which emits from his mouths as he sleeps and continously growing birth mark.  Gotta love that.  Isumbras and Havelok are both ripping good yarns.

By Dr. Virago on 06/12/07 at 04:24 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Oh, that *is* a hilarious slender lance in the bestiary illustration I linked to, isn’t it?

By Dr. Virago on 06/12/07 at 04:27 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Now, I’m uncertain whether or not a “ferus” is necessarily “ferox.”

Egg on my face? I was just rereading a footnote I wrote 6 months ago, and I ran across my reference to the Dictionary of Medieval Latin from British Sources, s.v. “ferus,” where the word generally refers to cervids kept in hunting preserves.

By Karl Steel on 07/03/07 at 02:50 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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