This week, I had to say goodbye to a dear companion, but this isn’t really a personal blog, so rather than eulogize Jordi directly, I thought I would talk about just a little of the history of the faithful hound in the Middle Ages.
Dogs are often viewed as symbolic of loyalty, which is why they appear at the feet of knights on their tomb effigies. There have long been stories of dogs who linger on their master’s graves, or, nowadays, who wait fruitlessly at the train station for masters who do not come home. Hereward the Wake, the famous hero of Ely who fought against the soldiers of William the Conqueror, until he drained the fens so the Wake could no longer escape, was said to have had such a hound.
This kind of loyalty can also be turned against the hero. According to some sources, Scotland’s King Robert the Bruce possessed a devoted mastiff who had to be left behind at the manor when Bruce was on the run from the English in the highlands. Some clever Englishman got the idea of taking the dog with them, and using it to track him down, knowing that the dog would pursue its master with great delight until they could be reunited, but a Scottish sympathizer let the dog go rather than see this love subverted.
In France during the 13th century, a cult rose up around the grave of a greyhound venerated as Saint Guinefort when certain miracles were said to occur at the site. The dog had been martyred by its own master when it defended a child from a wolf, only to be taken by its bloody mouth for the aggressor. The knight who owned and slew the dog grieved mightily over his error, and buried the dog with great solemnity. Naturally, the Catholic Church did not approve of a canine saint (no matter how many people then and now believe in the divine nature of the dog), and repeatedly tried to discourage its veneration.
The fact that a character even owns a dog, or that dogs love him, is often used by contemporary authors to show that someone is worthy. If such a creature loves, it is thought, then the master must be worthy. I suppose I am guilty of this myself, with the relationship between the exiled Prince Thomas and his deerhound Cerberus in Elisha Magus. When the dog accepts Elisha, too, he uses this as evidence that he is worthy of trust.
Elisha held out his hand to be sniffed. Gravely, Cerberus pushed his wet nose against Elisha’s fingers, then gave him a single, long slurp, and lay down at his master’s side.
Casting a quick look at the dog, the prisoner turned as quickly away, his eyes shining. “What have you done to my dog?” he whispered, his voice cracking. “You’ve cast some accursed spell on him.”
At that, Elisha laughed, shaking his head. He had gotten a fright from that knife brandished against him, but, try as he might, he couldn’t see the danger now. Here was a man loyal to his king, seeking justice as he saw it, heartsick because his dog seemed to have deserted him. Letting go his irritation, Elisha said, “It’s nearly impossible to cast a spell on a being with willpower of its own. All I did was try to help him, to make him comfortable, nothing more. If that’s a spell, I believe it’s commonly known as kindness.”
Cerberus returns in Elisha Rex, as, alas, my own dog cannot. But his spirit is echoed there, one of a long line of faithful hounds.