The two main Arthurian Legends presented here, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and Erec and Enide, both depend upon the hunt at some point for the impetus to action, deepening of characterization, and inferred meaning. The characterization of Arthur's favorite Hunting dog Cabal (a.k.a. Cavall, Cafall), of Tristan's Husdent (a.k.a. Hiudan, Utant), and that of the boar Twrch Trwyth have been collapsed together under one heading, drawn mainly from the legends Culhwch and Olwen and Tristan and Isolde. Each heading following this introduction includes a brief summary/context of the legend; Links are provided to text excerpts, manuscripts (MSS) and related visual artwork.
I encourage you to take a look at the Bibliography at the end of this page; all material used on the project have been sited, and can be found, if not at your local bookstore, at your local library and via interlibrary loan. Also provided is an Index for texts and images.
The Arthurian Hunt
The Hunt in Arthurian Literature is not merely a game for the merry idle or brutally inclined. The chase is a conquest, a quest for love, honor, identity, the satiation unadulterated blood-lust, and even death. The Huntsman has been portrayed as both a master of wisdom and art, of stealth and assurance, and at times, as simply a "sneaky bastard." The Hunt itself precipitates adventure, heralds troubles and passions, and launches listeners and readers into a wild ride of run-hide-fight, and "the finding" at the end of it all. This is certainly the case in The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnell (ca.1450), when Arthur happens upon the Summerday Man and a vendettic challenge in the midst of a hunt. Not only is the Hunt the impetus for action, the Hunted often leads the chase, acting as a guide who perhaps at the expense of his life leads his pursuer to a new kingdom, a new life or a fresh trial. The prey is lured, and is a lure. In Constance Hieatt's retelling of The Joy of the Court (a.k.a. Erec and Enide), upon hearing tell of the appearance of the great White Stag in the Forest of Dean, King Arthur declares, " 'Never have I heard of such a stag,' said the king, 'But this I know: his appearance must be a sign that a great adventure awaits one of us here.' " In Sir Thomas Malory's Morte d'Arthur (ca. 1470), it is after Arthur has run his horse into the ground in pursuit of a hart, that, in a state halfway between deep thought and dreaming, he meets Merlin, who predicts his death at the hand of Mordred, and sets off a chain of events that will eventually culminate in the Hunt for the Holy Grail. Here we see as well that death is not held exclusively for the prey. The huntsman's horse may fall from under him, or his favorite dog killed in pursuit. The hunter may find that he is successful, has routed and taken his prey, or the prey may turn hunter and take the life of his pursuer. The Hunter becomes the Hunted.
Entrapment, the stalking of a prey vs "coursing," adds a devious and disquieting element to the story. In T.H. White's Once and Future King, the entrapment of the unicorn by Agravain, Gareth, Gaheris, and Gawain, is both a pitiful demonstration of betrayal and innocence-lost, and, in Agravaine's case, a psychopathic nightmare. In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Gawain becomes the prey of a master Huntsman, who is nothing what he seems. Gawain had let down his guard and allowed himself to recline while his host coursed the hills and the sun lengthened on the walls. In Erec and Enide, Erec set himself up for trouble by sleeping in, arising too late to follow Arthur on the Hunt for the White Stag.
At times the hunt never ends, but perpetuates itself in a string of delightful or maddening events that refuse to cease, even after death. Such is the case in Matthew Arnold's (1822-1878) Tristram and Iseult, where, after the death of Tristram, a strange Huntsman suspended from the arras peers into the gloom to wonder at the mystery of time and passing. In this same poem, the widowed Iseult of Brittany, ends the drama by telling her children of another kind of hunt: that of Merlin for Vivian, and how Merlin became the prey instead.
The Hunt is also a cultural gauge. The transformation of Arthurian legend from chanson de geste to romance is paralleled by a shift in the hunting motif. The Hunt of Twrch Trwyth in Culhwch and Olwen, bears the aura of Total War and an uncanny resemblance to a eulogistic list of combat casualties, both man and beast. It is a brutal and tiring affair, compared to the Hunt in Erec and Enide which is truly the "Joie de la Cort," complete with pavilions and all the trappings of a rather jolly pomp and circumstance. And yet the Hunt is halfway between courtliness and war, figuring as a moral and physical substitute for battle in times of peace. The hunting manuals that come to us from Medieval Europe provide a wealth of culture and history to this favorite and complex pastime. A main theme is persistently "the avoidance of idleness" (as was to the misfortune of Gawain and Erec, as well as Arthur in Chretien's Yvian and Chaucer's Troilus). King Modus of Les Livres du Roy Modus et de la Royne Ratio (both a manual of method and of allegory) immediately announces to his readers that he despises, above all, idleness. Gaston Phoebus's Livre du chasse declares that the hardworking huntsman is more likely to gain Paradise. This of course, implies exhaustion. But exhaustion is not the same as "idleness," it is a legitimate need that demands a reward. As in the Hunt for the Grail in Arthurian literature, achieving the Grail or the hart is not so much point as the hunt itself-- and the delicious taste of a "hunter's repose."
Further MS and Visual Art
Arthur on the Hunt, and Folio 55 from Les Livres Du Roy Modus et de la Royne Ratio. See the month of December (cropped above) from Les Tres Riches Heures de Duc de Berry (A.D.1412-16), a wee bit of smashing hunt scenery from the Bayeux Tapestry, and Pieter Bruegel the Elder's 1565 Hunters in the Snow. From Livre de chasse, ca. 1440, by Gaston Phoebus, Count of Foix, an illustration of How a Good Huntsman Hunts the Reindeer and On Catching the Wild Boar in His Wallow. An Elizabethan Royal Hunt scene from a sixteenth century engraving.
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