When I’m asked about my PhD research, I’m faced with a choice. I can say that I analyse an anonymous and relatively unknown French romance, Guillaume de Palerne (c. 1191-1220), and that I look at how the key narrative themes (transformation, recognition, doubling and correspondence) reflect the production and reception of medieval literature. Outside a university setting, this explanation generally prompts a short response, and the conversation moves on.
However, I can also say that I study a text featuring a werewolf called Alphonse and a hero who mimics shape-shifting by disguising himself as a bear. This statement often triggers a more engaged reaction, which is usually followed by comments about werewolves and shape-shifting in modern popular culture, particularly in the Twilight saga and Game of Thrones. These contrasting explanations and their responses highlight a problem I face whilst working on a medieval text in which there are elements that have been popularised more recently through Fantasy films, books, and TV series. Should I exploit these links in order to make my work sound more ‘trendy’? Or, should my approach to exploring and disseminating my research be purely ‘academic’?
Although I have always favoured the latter option, particularly as I’m not a fan of Fantasy, I have recently begun to reconsider these questions. Whilst I have ruled out exploring links between ‘my’ werewolf and the werewolf in Twilight, due to the contrasting depictions of these lycanthropes, elements of GoT do appear to be connected to the notion of shape-shifting manipulated in Guillaume. In particular, characters in GoT who possess the ability to enter the minds of animals, known as ‘wargs’, remind me of the medieval theory of illusory metamorphosis that I explore in my research.
In the Middle Ages, stories about shape-shifting humans challenged the Christian belief that only God could alter his creations, and were explained by theologians as examples of illusory metamorphosis. In The City of God, Saint Augustine stated that man does not alter his physical form, but rather dreams that he has transformed. He argued that man’s ‘phantom’ (phantasticum hominis) presents itself to others in the form of an animal when the ‘real’ individual is asleep. To me, scenes in GoT play with elements of this Augustinian belief, as characters such as Bran Stark are seen to possess the mind of an animal and ‘become’ the creature. The ‘wargs’ enter a comatose state while their consciousness moves into an animal’s body and controls its actions. Although this shape-shifting is depicted as ‘real’ within the fantastical world, it does not alter the physical form of the human who ‘becomes’ an animal. Therefore, it could be argued that it presents us with a form of illusory metamorphosis.The idea of metamorphosis as not entirely ‘real’ is found in Guillaume, in which the eponymous hero changes shape into an animal by donning first a bearskin and then a deerskin. Although the poet is ambiguous as to the permanence of these transformations, he nevertheless echoes Augustine’s theory by insisting that Guillaume’s human form remains unaltered underneath the disguises. In contrast, the other shape-shifter in Guillaume (the werewolf Alphonse) is physically transformed into an animal, described as a ‘great wolf’ (v. 86), and is unable to return to his human state at will. However, this werewolf acts in a human manner throughout the text, leading scholars to note that although ‘Alphonse appears to be acting like a wolf from time to time, […] it is obvious that he never becomes one. It is just an illusion’.
These comments, along with my own analysis of transformation in Guillaume, suggest a possible line of enquiry that explores links between this text and GoT through the notion of illusory metamorphosis, which would open up further scope for studying parallels between GoT and medieval literature. Given that critics recognise the influence of medieval romance on Fantasy, this analysis would not be without academic grounding. It could also provide a way of exploring Guillaume in a manner that makes it more accessible to an audience not usually familiar with medieval literature. In fact, Guillaume is cited on the wikipedia page that explains the development of Fantasy from medieval literature to the present day, showing the potential relevance of this discussion.
However, at present I am concerned that in seeking to popularise Guillaume by aligning it with a TV series like GoT, this approach could shift the focus away from the text itself, and ultimately alter the ‘academic’ nature of my research. So, for the time being, I’ll stick with the more traditional angle for explaining what I do, and will instead develop ways to champion my research that don’t rely on using popular culture to validate it.
 Guillaume de Palerne: Roman du XIIIe siècle, ed. by Alexandre Micha (Geneva: Droz, 1990).
 Saint Augustine, The City of God Against the Pagans, trans. by Eva Matthews Sanford and William McAllen Green, 7 Vols. (London: William Heinemann, 1965), V, pp. 424-25 (XVIII, part XVIII).
 Leslie A. Sconduto Metamorphoses of the werewolf: A literary study from antiquity through the Renaissance (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2008), p. 121.
 See also numerous comments in The Cambridge Companion to Fantasy Literature, ed. by Edward James and Farah Mendlesohn (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012).