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  • A Knight is Changed into a Bear:Metamorphosis and Creativity in the Roman de Perceforest
  • Denyse Delcourt

The issue of metamorphosis has preoccupied theologians throughout the Middle Ages. What metamorphosis represented for Ovid–a protean world in which men, animals and nature are transformed into and continued each other–was completely at odds with one of the principal Christian beliefs: that man was created in God's likeness. Medieval writers and theologians could not simply dismiss their classical heritage of which Ovid was an integral part but they could not take his stories of transformation literally either.

In the City of God Saint Augustine discusses at length the theological questions raised by metamorphosis. Augustine does not categorically deny the possibility of metamorphosis of a man into an animal. It can certainly not occur in reality, according to him; however, it does occur in some immaterial reality or space located in the human mind, considered as a kind of theater for the expression of phantasms (Barkan 101; Harf-Lancner 210). It is here that demons can display their talents of illusionistes (from ludere, to play).1 This is exactly what they do when they stage metamorphoses that do not implicate God's own creature–a real human being–but rather what Augustine calls a phantasticus hominis ("phantom of a man"; 783).2 [End Page 369]

While advancing the idea of a phantom to which demons succeed in giving the appearance of a man changed into a beast Augustine implicitly compares the demons' creative activity to that of the artists, or more precisely, a certain category of artists who produce what Plato, in the Sophist, calls "phantastic" art (236a). "Phantastic" art, which Plato opposes to "icastic" art, is an art founded upon subterfuge, artifice and illusion. The products of this kind of art are called simulacra (Allen 123-5). But to ponder simulacra is like leaning over an abyss. Both Plato and Augustine experience what Gilles Deleuze describes as the "vertigo of the simulacrum," which manifests itself in their texts as a more and more tortuous dilemma as to what distinguishes fiction from reality (195).

Starting with Boethius, Ovid's metamorphoses came to be defined in the Middle Ages as mutatio moralis, fictiva or metaphorical as opposed to mutatio realis or literally real. These rhetorical disctinctions helped make Ovid's stories of transformations of a man into an animal less threatening to the Christian dogma (Mora-Lebrun 287-8). It also generated a hermeneutic frenzy of which the fourteenth-century Ovide moralisé is a prime example.3 However, while metamorphosis became the vehicle for metaphor in the Middle Ages, the line between metaphor and metamorphosis nevertheless remained very thin (Barkan 102).

In an article published in 1998, Dorothy Yamomoto discusses how the strict boundary-line between human beings and other species that theologians tried to establish in the Middle Ages never put an end to the debate about what it means to be a man. On the contrary, she writes, it encouraged it: "The abundance of stories of metamorphosis in the Middle Ages attests to the fascination of both theologians and writers of imaginative literature [for] the possibilities of approaching the borderline between men and animals, or even crossing it" (88).

In this essay, I will consider a passage from the late medieval Roman de Perceforest in which a knight called Estonné is changed into a bear as yet another manifestation of the liminality or space in-between humanity and animality. I intend to show how the character's metamorphosis elicits an interrogation not only of the porousness of the human/animal distinction, but also of art, identity, and human perceptions. Estonné's transformation gives rise to two artistic creations, which puzzle the hero and the reader alike. Metamorphosis and the creative process, I will argue, mirror one another. The bear that has become Estonné and the artistic creations it inspires–including [End Page 370] the episode in the Perceforest that recounts it–both invite and defy interpretation.

Several leading characters in the Perceforest are connected to animals either by way of metamorphosis, hybridity, or physical appearance. Estonné is changed into a bear, Le Tors into a nine-headed bull, Lyriope...


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