A few people have asked me this question recently. It is in relation to my forthcoming Arthurian novel from Abaddon Books, DARK NORTH, published (and available from all your favourite retailers, both online and off it) on March 15th.
It was the nickname given to Sir Lucan, a Knight of the Round Table, who was also Earl of Penharrow and Steward of King Arthur's Northern March.
The image above is Lucan's official insigna, worn by he and his household either - depending on the occasion - as a crimson wolf-head on a field of black, or a black wolf-head on a field of crimson. In times of extreme peril, such as war, Lucan dispensed with the wolf-head altogether; he and his knights would then wear pure black livery, Lucan occasionally - much to the fear and disdain of the rest of Arthur's nobility - donning a heavy cloak of black wolf-fur over the top.
Sir Lucan is one of the least well-known of King Arthur’s knights, and yet he was one of the longest serving. He joined the Round Table while it was in its infancy, when he was very young. He served Arthur for many decades, and was one of the last knights standing at the battle of Camlann, in which Arthur was killed. Though it has been airbrushed out of the modern record, Hollywood and romantic novelists preferring to credit every heroic deed to Arthur’s better-known knights, the original medieval chroniclers name Lucan as the knight who carried the dying king from the final battlefield and say that he was the one who returned Excalibur to the Lady of the Lake.
Sir Lucan was the younger brother of the more famous and infinitely more esteemed Sir Bedivere. Both were born of the much beloved Countess Gundolen, though they had different fathers. Bedivere was sired by Sir Pedrawd, a Welsh baron well known for his goodly ways, while Lucan was the son of Duke Corneus, one of Uther Pendragon’s northern marcher-barons, and a much darker figure in the Arthurian mythos.
Sir Lucan was offered the butlership of Camelot at least once. The position of Butler in medieval society was far different from that we know today. In effect, it would have made him a form of under-steward, a very senior position in the hierarchy of the Royal Court. However, Lucan is so rarely mentioned in Round Table stories focussing on events at Camelot that it is generally assumed he refused the honour. No-one knows why this might have been. It has been suggested that Lucan’s barbarous upbringing might have made him feel unsuited for the sophisticated climes of the Royal Court. Certainly it’s the case that comments attributed to Lucan in the Noble Tragedie suggest that he was more content to be a soldier than an administrator.
Sir Lucan, depicted right in the embrasure of a northern cathedral, is often portrayed as a fearsome figure, a great warrior as befitted his survival through the carnage at Camlann, but also a powerful and ruthless marcher-lord in the fashion of his father. His nickname, the ‘Black Wolf of the North’, more than hints at a severe side to his character. However, both Arthur and Merlin liked Lucan a great deal, which suggests that, though Lucan had a fierce reputation, he never strayed too far from the path of righteousness. In addition, Sir Bedivere was especially fond of his half-brother; though Bedivere regarded Lucan as one of the deadliest warriors at the Round Table, his attitude to him is often that of an understanding parent with a difficult child.
What of Lucan and Trelawna? Even by the standards of the Arthurian mythos, Trelawna was regarded as an exceptional beauty; “the ultimate prize of man and rake,” as Sir Gawaine described her in one of his drunken moments, and as “the faerie child”, in the jealous words of Morgana, Arthur’s sister. Lucan was married to her for many years, and there was clearly affection between them, but it was a bond based on blood. Lucan had killed Trelawna’s father in single combat – which would be a big issue today, but was not uncommon in medieval martial society. It meant that Lucan was honour-bound to take Trelawna under his protection, which he duly did. Lucan and Trelawna were roughly the same age, and, as Merlin commented “a good match”. But as so often was proved to be the case, Merlin was no expert in matters of the heart.
Lucan’s quest is almost never referred to in the annals of the Knights of the Round Table. This is because it was deemed to be inherently ignoble, even though it ultimately proved to be one of the most difficult and challenging that any of Arthur’s knights would undertake. Lucan is in so many ways a human figure – certainly compared to the clean-cut paladins we normally associate with Camelot. His quest was based on that most common of emotions – vengeance, not the all-important chivalry. His half-brother, Bedivere, warned him beforehand that he would never be forgiven for undertaking such a task. Characteristically, Lucan ignored this wise advice, and so passed out of history and legend into rumour.
If you want to know more, I guess you'll just have to read the book.