24.5.11

BEASTS AND RUMOURS OF BEASTS

Jay M. Smith. Monsters of the Gevaudan: The Making of a Beast. Harvard University Press, 2011

It is the aftermath of a world war and a strange rumour is abroad that preternatural forces are at work in the land. This is not, however the USA after the 'Second World War' and we are not dealing with flying saucers. This is France in the aftermath of its defeat in the true First World War, the Seven Years War of 1756-1763, and the rumour is a much more concrete and deadly one.

From July 1764 until October 1765 France was gripped by stories of depredations by a "terrible beast" in the Gevaudan region of the Massif Central in which many people, mainly women and children were slaughtered. In reality these attacks were probably the result of the actions of a number of wolves, but in the popular imagination they became the world of a single ur-beast, a kind of universal predator of preternatural power and cunning, perhaps, some hinted darkly, of a loup-garou a werewolf, a beast in at least part time human shape. Or as the local bishop kindly suggested, a punishment for the sins of the people, particularly immodest young women. The beast becomes a symbol of the voracious devouring power of wild nature red in tooth and claw.

History professor Jay Smith tells this story in detail for the first time in the English language, using numerous contemporaneous sources and places it firmly in the context of the times. Much of it seems surprisingly modern: competition between the nascent media searching for sensation, the lure of the exotic (many accounts suggested that the animal was a hyena somehow imported from Africa), local nobles and notables looking to recover the honour lost in the disastrous war, struggles between the centre and periphery, the beginnings of the cult of celebrity as a young boy and a housewife become national heroes for fighting off the beast.

The story portrayed here is one which exists on edge of tragedy and farce. There is the utter horror of the beasts attacks, which involved several cases in which women and children were decapitated, and the farce of the various attempts by military leaders and "great hunters" to track down the beast, which always got away. The means of tracking it down became bizarre, including leaving the bodies of the victims out or even children (allegedly protected by soldiers) as live bait. This, and the arrogant attitude of incomers did little to inspire confidence the locals' confidence, and as the beast remained at large the various hunters, including the one who was attributed with finally killing it, exaggerated its size, strength, powers and general otherness.

In the penultimate chapter Smith examines how the beast has come down through writers and folklorists to the modern day, where various sensational theories about the beast have proposed including a trained hyena or a trained wolf-dog hybrid under the control of a psychopath, or perhaps a human killer or some sort of prehistoric survival. Anything but the reality of a pack of wolves. Among those opposing that latter idea are not just cryptozoologists but environmentalists seeking to return the wolf to France, and wish to portray it as basically a nice big doggy which wouldn't harm anyone, let alone eat little children for breakfast.

The wolves are actually coming on their own, across the Italian Alps, so it can only be a matter of time before stories start appearing in the Daily Mail and Daily Express that they are padding through the Chunnel into Britain, no doubt under the control of Romanian gypsies or asylum seekers.

This book is an excellent example of how minute and detailed history can tell a human story as dramatic as any novel. -- Peter Rogerson


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