Griffin

Griffin

CreaturesBackground Essay Author: Kara L. McShane
Griffins are described in the bestiary tradition as fierce, hostile to horses, and originating in mountainous places, though they are given no moral or spiritual meaning (Clark 127).  These elements of the griffin are absent from their depictions in medieval Arthuriana.  Gryffins are used as a heraldic device in the Awntyrs of Arthur, where Gawain bears three gold griffins on his shield: "Gawayn was gaily grathed in grene, / With his griffons of golde engreled full gay" (ll. 508-9). Griffins are a convenient choice here for alliterative purposes, though they may also suggest the strength and grandeur of Gawain in this text.
 
Yet these strange hybrids may also foretell destruction, as in the Post-Vulgate Merlin Continuation, Arthur has a dream after he sires Mordred in which a great dragon and many griffins fly over the kingdom of Logres and wreak havoc (4.167).  When he wakes, Arthur hunts, and while chasing a stag, he hears a great barking and encounters the Questing Beast (4.168).  Here, these creatures appear as the precursor to a yet more hybrid creature, the Questing Beast.  One possible interpretation for the griffins is that they are monstrous, meant to suggest that something (in this case, Arthur's actions) is not right.  In a more direct allegory, one might interpret them as representing one side of the war that Arthur will eventually fight against Mordred. 
Bibliography

For more information about the version of works cited, see the Critical Bibliography for this project.