Werewolf Wednesday: Elliott O’Donnell on the Helpful Lycanthropes of France (1912)

Having covered British werewolves in chapter 6, Elliott O’Donnell devotes chapter 7 of his 1912 book Werwolves to French lycanthropes. We can hardly miss the distinct change of atmosphere as we hop over the channel: if O’Donnell’s Britain is a land haunted by ghostly werewolves, his France is a place in which werewolves are prone to saving rather than taking lives.

“In no country has the werewolf flourished as in France,” begins O’Donnell, before noting that French accounts of lycnathropy date back to the sixth century – although, characteristically, he fails to identify any documents of this vintage. The first account that he describes lacks any dates and concerns one Abbot Gilbert of the Arc Monastery on the banks of the Loire. O’Donnell relates how the abbot was accosted by “big wild cats” while travelling and received help in the unlikely form of a werewolf. The lycanthrope was injured in the fight, but received medical aid from the abbot and followed him back to the monastery:

Despite Gilbert’s protestations, for he was loath to be seen in such strange company, the werwolf accompanied him back to the monastery, where, upon hearing the Abbot’s story, it was enthusiastically welcomed and its wounds attended to. At dawn it was restored to its natural shape, and the monks, one and all, were startled out of their senses to find themselves in the presence of a stern and awesome dignitary of the Church, who immediately began to lecture the Abbot for his unseemly conduct the previous day, ordering him to undergo such penance as eventually, robbing him of half his size and all his self-importance, led to his resignation.

Next is a tale that opens with the line “André Bonivon, the hero of the other incident, was eminently a man of war” (it is unclear exactly what the “other incident” referred to may be). According to O’Donnell, Bonivon commanded a schooner called the Bonaventure that accosted Huguenots during the reign of Louis XIV. After a sailing mishap, Bonivon was saved from drowning by an unseen individual, and made a startling discovery when on dry land: “he extended his hand to grip that of his rescuer, when, to his dismay and terror, instead of a hand he grasped a huge hairy paw.” He then looks into his helper’s face and sees it to be “that of a werwolf”. The werewolf later turns back into his human form and reveals himself to be Roland Bertin, a Huguenot minister whose wife was killed by Bonivon’s men. As for how he became a werewolf, well…

“Bien!” the minister went on. “I am a werwolf—I was bewitched some years ago by the woman Grénier, Mère Grénier, who lives in the forest at the back of our village. As soon as it was dark I metamorphosed; then the ship ran ashore, and every one leaped overboard. I saw you drowning. I saved you.”

Despite the horrors that he has endured, however, Bertin maintains a good heart and so rescued the man who had wronged him. His benevolent nature rubs off, and Bonivon henceforth becomes a supporter of the Huguenots. Good luck funding any historical documents that acknowledge the existence of the characters in this supposedly true narrative, of course. If we were to be so bold as to speculate that O’Donnell simply made the whole story up, then it perhaps worth mentioning that he seems to have named the witch after Jean Grenier, an alleged lycanthrope covered in Sabine Baring-Gould’s Book of Werewolves.

O’Donnell then cites two texts containing benevolent werewolves: “the ‘Bisclaveret’ in Marie de France’s poem, composed in 1200 a.d.; and in the hero of ‘William and the Werwolf’ (translated from the French about 1350)”. Finally, he turns to lycanthropy of a more malevolent sort. The remaining story of the chapter is that of Beatrice Cellini, an innkeeper’s daughter who lived in the vicinity of Blois (again, no dates are given). Beatrice was courted by two men: Herbert Poyer (“a handsome youth”) and Henri Sangfeu (“an extremely plain youth”).

Beatrice chooses the better-looking of the two, and poor Henri becomes the subject of ridicule throughout the village. Driven to bitterness, he heads out into the middle of the forest to meet “an old woman known as Mère Maxim, who was said to be a witch, and, therefore, shunned by every one” (those who near her home return with “incoherent stories of the strange lights and terrible forms they had encountered, moving about amid the trees”).

The witch turns out to be more attractive than expected, with black hair, rosy cheeks, white teeth and a “decidedly chic” fashion sense. She gives Henri a kiss (“the first time a woman had ever suffered him to kiss her without violent protestations and avowals of disgust”) and then hands him two items to pass on to Beatrice as wedding presents on the eve of her marriage to Herbert: a belt, and a box of bonbons. The unsuspecting maiden accepts the gifts; then, when Henri returns to the witch, she reveals the terrible truth:

“By this time Beatrice—pretty Beatrice, vain and sensual Beatrice, the Beatrice you once loved and admired so much—will have worn the belt, will have eaten the sweets. She is now a werwolf. Every night at twelve o’clock she will creep out of bed and glide about the house and village in search of human prey, some bonny babe, or weak, defenceless woman, but always some one fat, tender, and juicy—some one like you.” And bending low over him, she bared her teeth, and dug her cruel nails deep into his flesh. A flame from the [125]wood fire suddenly shot up. It flickered oddly on the figure of Mère Maxim—so oddly that Henri received a shock. He realized with an awful thrill that the face into which he peered was no longer that of a human being; it was—but he could no longer think—he could only gaze.

So, another dubious collection of supposedly authentic werewolf narratives courtesy of Elliott O’Donnell. As a final note, some of this chapter was recycled – without attribution – by Daniel Farson in The Beaver Book of Horror, a 1977 volume aimed at children.

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