The Questing Beast

Intro

Monsters and myths have been a part of the human world for millennia. From tales of shape shifting ancestors to water beasts living in the uncharted sections of maps, cryptids have been present for about as long as we have! Today’s beast is an incredible monster from Arthurian legend. Making its first documented appearance in the 13th century, the Questing Beast has grown and developed in a plethora of ways since then. So, let’s get ready to meet, The Questing Beast!

As I said previously, the beast was first documented in the 13th century. It was published in three notable texts, namely; Prelesvaus, the Post-Vulgate-Cycle and Prose Tristan. Throughout these accounts, the beast makes very little impact on the story and often is forgotten soon after its appearance. However, there are four main distinguishable building blocks as to what makes up this beast in legend:

  1. The beast is a girl – this can be assumed since in all stories the creature gives birth. Unless of course there’s a sea horse situation happening so who am I to gender guess here.
  2. She makes a barking sound – hence the name the Questing beast. You see in old English, questen meant ‘to bark’ as well as ‘to hunt’. Her other name, the Beast Glatisant literally can be translated to the barking beast. The barking sound however always seemed to be emitted from inside of her as opposed to being made directly by her. Often it was assumed that the young in her belly were responsible for making the baying sounds.
  3. She is multi-formed – in the accounts of the beast, she changes form quite considerably, which we will dissect more as the poddy continues.
  4. And above all, she is symbolic and offers some metaphor to her beholder.

Ok so as mentioned above, once her message is understood, the beast is quickly forgotten from the story. It isn’t until Le Morte d-Arthur that the Beast takes on a more prominent role. The beast is further developed in Edmund Spencer’s The Faerie Queene and John Milton’s Paradise Island.

Due to the malleability of the creature, it has been difficult to trace it outside of medieval literature. It has been linked to creatures such as the Chimera, the Scylla, and the beast of the apocalypse.

Arthurian Legend

So, you must be wondering, why in hells name are we talking about a creature that is only represented in fairy tales and clearly isn’t real? Well, my friends, I am going to say something that I will probably say hundreds of times through this podcast, where there is smoke, there is a fire. Plus, I totally have an explanation of what the beast is so if you want to hear that stick around ‘til the big reveal!

But anyway, back to why this is real. Allow me to delve incredibly briefly into the history of King Arthur. Now it is agreed by many historians that Arthur was not a literal historical figure, but more a character. He appeared as the great British leader who led the troupes through the brutal Anglo-Saxon wars documented to have taken place between the 4th and 11th century. This was said to happen upon the Roman army’s departure from Brittan. When Rome cut its ties with the Brits, it left the country vulnerable and ripe for the pickings. Hence, when the Saxons caught wind of this fruitful country being abandoned by their protectors, it wasn’t long until they descended, and the war ensued.

It was during this time that a legendary leader rose to defend the British people, leading them through countless battles and eventual victory against the Saxons. According to Geoffrey of Monmouth’s 12th-century Historia Regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain), Arthur went on to establish a vast empire once the Saxons were defeated.

Now due to the fact that there is no one canonical version of Arthur’s escapades, it becomes difficult to say that he was an actual historical figure. However, the war definitely happened over a vast period, so who’s to say that there wasn’t a fearless leader defending the Brits to their victory? Was he called Arthur? Who knows! Was he a monarch? Unsure. However, I do believe there was a significant figure prevalent in the British forces who helped the people rise against their aggressors for one section of the Anglo-Saxon war.

However, King Arthur and his validity is a subject for a whole other podcast. But now that we’ve briefly touched on the mysterious king, let’s get back to my monster!

The First Accounts Of The Questing Beast

Perlesvaus

The first account we will be talking about comes from the old French Arthurian romance known as Perlesvaus. This book was based on the life of Sir Percival and his quest for – and failure to acquire – the Holy Grail. In this book, the account and recollection of the beast are vastly different to those in later tales. Also, I must just mention now that this story is a tad grizzly, so, ye be warned.

The encounter of the questing beast occurs in a trippy as fuck setting. Sir Percival is making his way through a forest when he happens upon an opening housing a glade. In the centre of the glade stands a magnificent red cross. To one side of the cross stands a majestic white knight, to the other side, a fair maiden.

As Percival takes this scene in, he hears a peculiar sound, like thirty hounds barking on the hunt. The sound grows louder and suddenly, a curious animal runs into the glade. She appears “as white as fallen snow, bigger than a hare, but smaller than a fox… she looked gentle and very beautiful, with eyes like two emeralds.”

As you will see when we discuss the beast further this description is INCREDIBLY different to the more commonly known one. – alola nine tales.

Percival notices that the creature looks incredibly distressed. Initially, it runs to the white knight, but is shunned by the man. The beast then makes her way to the maiden, who, like the knight, turns her back abruptly on the creature. In one final effort, the beast runs towards Percival. The knight was ready to welcome her with open arms, but as he does, he is scorned by the white knight.

Realizing that it has no other options, the creature turns toward the cross and lays herself down at its foot. Now brace yourselves because the next part is the gruesome bit.

The snow white little animal then proceeds to give birth to twelve, fully grown hunting hounds. All vastly uglier than their mother. Suddenly, the dogs descend on the questing beast, ripping her body limb from limb. The dogs however can neither consume the flesh of the beast, nor move her body away from the cross. Once they have savagely dismembered the beast, the dogs take off as a pack into the blackness of the forest.

This is where things get freaking trippy once more. After the dogs are done ripping up their mom, the white knight and maiden go to the creature’s body. Each takes a piece of the animal’s flesh and places it into their cup. They then gather some of the pooled blood from around the beast and worship at the cross. Once this bizarre ritual is completed, they too turn into the blackness of the woods and bugger off.

Finally, almost as though suffering from FOMO, Percival does the same. He takes a piece of the beast’s flesh and places it into his cup. He then collects a portion of spilled blood and proceeds to worship at the foot of the cross.

Percival then makes his way to his uncle’s house, also known as the Hermit King. He proceeds to regale his encounter of the Questing Beast with his uncle, who processes the whole thing.

Upon hearing the tale, the Hermit King explains to Percival that the encounter was clearly symbolic of the story of Christ. The Beast represents Jesus, and the twelve hounds represent the 12 tribes of Israel who betrayed their God on the cross. The savage slaughter of the beast represents the Crucifixion and even though they tried, they could not remove Jesus from his true place – next to the cross.

It is worth noting that during the time of writing, the Medieval people were incredible anti-Semitic, so this little story sounds very propaganda-ey if you ask me.

His Uncle goes on to tell Perceval that this encounter was God’s way of telling him that even though he had failed dismally on his quest for the Holy Grail, that the lord still loved him.

And that, in a nutshell, is the first encounter of the questing beast. Personally, I believe that this one was truly a story – not an actually encounter with a bizarre nine tails looking cryptid. But it is worth mentioning to give you all of the facts of the beast. The full scope if you will.

The Questing Beast In The Post-Vulgate Cycle

The post-vulgate cycle is a collection of Arthurian romances, published during the 13th century. In this account, we are introduced to the beast in a completely different form. Furthermore, this time round, King Arthur himself experiences the beast in one passage, namely the Suite du Merlin. However, the beast appears in this text a second time. This time it is recanted as a murderous fiend by an old hermit man to Knight Yvain in the Quest del Saint Grail.

In the first encounter, King Arthur has been roaming the countryside, out on the hunt with his men and hounds in tow. His horse began to tire, and so, as to not kill the beast, Arthur stopped by a stream to allow his horse to both rest and drink.

As he sat beneath the shade of a tree, taking in the afternoon breeze, he heard the baying and barks of what sounded like a pack of thirty hunting dogs keen on their prey. Arthur didn’t think too much of this. He assumed they were his own hounds he had brought along for the hunt. However, as the barking grew louder, Arthur suddenly realized that the sound most certainly wasn’t coming from his dogs. Into the clearing lurched a gigantic beast “as strange of body as of conformation and as strange inside as out”. Arthur goes on to describe the creature thusly: “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 marvellous on the outside, it is even more marvellous on the inside. For I can hear and recognize quite clearly that it has, in its body, living hounds who are barking.”

As you can see, there is not much mention of what the beast actually looks like. All that is shared really is that it is large. Arthur seems to be more amused by the barking noises coming from within the creature.

As the beast settles itself by the stream, it bends down to take a drink of water. It is at this time Arthur notices that the barking ceases whilst the beast drinks. The beast then makes its way back into the forest and Arthur is left in awe.

Soon after, none other than Sir Perceval bursts onto the scene. He then proceeds to discuss the beast with Arthur, telling him that it is his family’s quest to pursue and capture the creature. Namely, King Pellinore and his sons are responsible for the capture of The Questing Beast.

King Arthur is amused by this tale, and asks Perceval to further explain his attachment to the creature. “It is fated to die at the hand of a man of my line” Perceval shares, “but he must be the best knight to come from our kindred and the kingdom. Now, as things stand, they consider me the best knight of our land and of all our country. I’ve said this not to brag, but to learn the truth about myself.”

Perceval goes on to tell Arthur how his horse has died upon pursuit of the beast, and that he hopes for brotherly aid from Arthur. However, when Arthur shares his want to pursue the beast as well, and denies Perceval his horse, Perceval becomes upset – not recognizing who Arthur is. He proceeds to tell the king that he is being ignoble and uncourteous to try and take away the familial quest from Perceval’s family. Perceval then goes on to mount Arthurs horse, and the king challenges him. Perceval then replies “you will not have far to ride… if you want to find me, for I always stay in this forest in order to follow the beast…” Arthur then dismisses the knight and the Suite Del Merlin continues.

The next encounter of the beast in the Post-Vulgate Cycle comes about in the Quest del Saint Grail. The best is recalled by an old hermit man to Sir Yvain. Yvain has become obsessed with the creature and has begun to pursue it in order to find out where the barking sound comes from. He has no other intention than that and vows to leave the creature alone once the barking noises are explained. The hermit then proceeds to warn Sir Yvain against this pursuit, and shares what happened to his sons, stating that the creature he seeks is a “beast of the devil”. The hermit’s sons were too perplexed by the barking sounds emitted by the creature and had also proceeded to track and capture the beast.

One day, the hermit’s sons had found the animal in a large body of water. The oldest of the five had struck the creature through its left thigh because he was unable to strike it any where else. The beast let out a cry of anguish, and in response to her cry “there came out of the water a man blacker than pitch, with eyes as red as live coals, who took the lance with which the beast had been stricken”, and then proceeded to kill all five of the hermit’s sons. The man then receded into the water once more, leaving the hermit to bury his slain kin.

Yvain is undeterred by the tale the hermit offers and insists on going after the animal. However, it isn’t long until he meets Perceval, who goes on to tell Yvain that he is a fool for wishing to pursue the beast. He shares how he has been hunting the animal for twelve years, and even with the help of all of his hunting dogs, was unable to best the creature.

Perceval then takes off once more, praying that God will give him better luck in his quest for the beast than his father before him. Perceval then comes across the pagan knight, Palamedes. Palamedes goes on to tell Perceval “you should [not] concern yourself with such a great thing as this… keep to your great quest for the Holy Grail, for you may be sure that if I find out that you’re hunting this beast again, we’ll have a fight’”.

Then, both Palamedes, Perceval and the beast bugger off for fifty chapters.

The story of the beast picks up again where we find sir Galahad travelling through the abandoned woods. Galahad spies the beast being chased by some twenty hounds. Upon seeing the creature, he muses to himself that he should pursue her,“Now it will be wrong of me if I fail at least to accomplish this adventure, since so many good men have labored at it and not been able to do anything”.

However, as he turns to follow the creature, he sees sir Palamedes and Sir Perceval chasing after the beast as well. Once the three recognize one another, they join forces and vow to follow the beast for as long as they humanely can.

The next day, the trio come across the bodies of the majority of hunting dogs who were initially pursuing the beast. Eventually, they find the beast who appears to be weary and out of breath. It is drinking from a lake, whilst the few remaining hounds encircle the bank.

Palamedes was intent on killing the beast, and as such ran his horse into the water, lance drawn. He manages to spear the creature, literally running his lance through both sides of its abdomen. However, that’s when all hell broke loose in the waters. Flames began to shoot out of the lake’s surface and the water boiled furiously. The beast then sank to her demise, never to appear in the Post-Vulgate Cycle again.

Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur

So far we have discussed the beast in its form in two of the three original French tales. However, the first appearance of the creature in English literature comes in the form of Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur. The appearance of the creature is incredibly similar to the tales shared in the Post-Vulgate Cycle as well as the Prose Tristan. However, it is in this version we learn of the origin of the beast.

Appearing once more in the Suite du Merlin saga, Arthur is sleeping beneath a tree when he befalls a terrible nightmare. He dreams that Mordred – his son – is overthrowing his kingdom and slaying him. Suddenly, he is awoken to the sight of an enormous creature. It is here that we go on to discover what the creature looks like.

It had the head and neck of a serpent, the body of a leopard, the hind quarters of a lion and the hooves of a hart.

Once more, Arthur marvelled at the baying sounds coming from within the beast’s belly. He is once more confronted by Sir Perceval, who proceeds to steal his horse again, and then Arthur goes about his business.

However, Arthur now seeks to know more about the creature, and is told about the story of its origin by none other than Merlin.

There was once a princess in a land far yonder, who lusted after her brother. However, the boy would have none of it and blatantly refused her advances. This leaves the sister utterly distraught. Drawn to her sadness, a devil appears. Upon finding out the cause of the girl’s misery, he opts to strike a deal with her. If she should sleep with the devil, he will enchant her brother, causing the boy to fall madly in love with her, giving her everything she had ever dreamed.

So, blinded by her disturbing incestuous infatuation, the girl readily agrees. However, once the deed is done, the devil decides to put one final twist in the tale.

He influences the princess to claim that her brother had raped her. Outraged at the news of this, the king decrees his son to be put to death at once. He starves his best hunting hounds for a week, and will throw his treacherous son to the dogs.

However, as he walked to his death, the son made one final statement. He cursed his sister and vowed the child she bore in her belly would be born a hideous beast. He vowed too that the child would make the same snarling, howling sounds the dogs who were about to kill him made. Then he died.

As legend would have it, the brother’s curse rang true, and when she delivered her baby, the princess shuddered at the hideous, baying monster that emerged from her womb.

Now the origin of the beast is fascinating, because it ties back to a part of the story involving Arthur’s son, Mordred. Mordred was conceived when Arthur had illicit relations with Morgause. After their debauchery, Morgause fell pregnant with Mordred. Then the pair found out that they were, in fact, half siblings. So as you can see, Arthur and Morgause tie in very closely to the origins of the beast.

Ok so now that we have the history out of the way, let’s get into the bones of the creature.

Why it is legit: Malory based his version of Le Morte d’Arthur closely to information derived from William of Malmesbury’s Gesta Regum Anglorum which details the reigns of English kings between the years 449 and 1120.

J.A. Giles quotes archbishop Ussher’s thoughts on William in his editor’s preface: “William of Malmesbury… is the chief of our historians’”

Now, William’s recant of the serving monarchs of England is held in good stead as far as legitimacy goes. And one of the kings he described during this time was Arthur.

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