Academic journal article Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts

The Changing Shape of a Shape-Shifter: The French-Canadian Loup-Garou

Academic journal article Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts

The Changing Shape of a Shape-Shifter: The French-Canadian Loup-Garou

Article excerpt

The Canadian fantastic finds its roots in a number of indigenous and immigrant oral traditions; an early manifestation of the literary fantastic in Canada appears in the loup-garou tales of Louis Frechette, Honore Beaugrand, and Pamphile Le May, and others, published at the end of the nineteenth and very beginning of the twentieth centuries. In contrast with the civility of the werewolf's French counterpart typified by Marie de France's late twelfth- century "Le Lai de Bisclavret," the French-Canadian loup-garou was a malevolent, destructive creature who could nonetheless be "cured"--converted back to full humanity--with surprising ease. Like its French literary precursor, the French-Canadian loup-garou evolved from an oral tradition of folktales; it also engaged central questions of civility versus barbarism, as well as sexuality and gender relations. Yet the French-Canadian werewolf developed in a completely new setting: that of colonizing a new world, including interacting with what Old World discourses termed "savage" peoples and their lore about the territory now being explored and inhabited by European newcomers.

In this "Middle Ground" (White) of the backwoods, fur traders and trappers (voyageurs and coureurs des bois), clearers and settlers (defricheurs and habitants) and lumbermen developed lore which adapted stories brought across the Atlantic from France to the New World setting, sometimes infusing them with aspects of indigenous knowledge and stories. The lore of these new arrivals and their descendants, already viewed as "anciens Canadiens" in the period of modernization occurring in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, was in turn exploited by writers like Frechette, Beaugrand and Le May who revived these oral traditions in their ongoing construction of a French- Canadian national culture and identity, sometimes appropriating them in the service of quite different ideological aims.

In his path breaking doctoral dissertation, published as En quite du roman gothique quebecois (1837-1860) (In Quest of the Quebec Gothic Novel, 1985), Michel Lord helps inaugurate the study of the literary fantastic in Quebec. He outlines a tri-fold set of goals for any endeavor in the developing field of Quebec literary studies:

1. to find out if the works in question can be linked to any particular tradition and to discuss what that tradition is (9);

2. to determine those works' specific qualities and originality (9), and;

3. to ask why the author(s) chose that specific expression of the imaginary and discuss its potential meanings (9).

These are precisely the goals of this essay on the literary werewolf tales published in Quebec in the late nineteenth century. First, I will tie the French-Canadian literary werewolf tale to the development of fantastic literature in Quebec and to the tradition of the literary werewolf in France/Europe. Next, I will discuss the unique aspects of this sub-genre, in particular its evolution from an oral tradition of the werewolf in France and French Canada, but also contrasting it with current popular images of the monster. Finally, drawing on the ethnographical work of Carolyn Podruchny on the loup-garou in French- Canadian folklore and Carolyn Walker Bynum's theorization of the werewolf as a figure of change, I will examine the reasons why the werewolf appealed to the French-Canadian imagination at this particular historical juncture and speculate upon its meanings for the construction of a modern French-Canadian identity.

I. Traditions

1. The Fantastic in Quebec

The literary fantastic is tied to the very birth of what will much later be referred to as la litterature quebecoise; Lord identifies the colony's first novels, both published in 1837, as possessing a number of traits in common with the waning European genre of the Gothic, a form steeped in the fantastic and the supernatural even when ostensibly marvelous events are logically explained. …

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