Pilgrimage to St. Guinefort’s Wood

Earlier, we wrote about Guinefort, the dog saint, the inspiration for the Welsh story of the hound, Gelert. Both dogs, having killed a serpent threatening the infant son of the lord of the castle, had been killed in anger just before said lord discovered his son safe beneath the cradle and the serpent dead.

Some of us make pilgrimages. For me, it is to Beautiful Joe Park, resting place of Marshall Saunders’ canine hero. Beautiful Joe was a real dog and he really lived in Meaford, Ontario. In addition to his cairn, the park boasts shrines to service dogs, including Sirius, the 9-11 rescue dog, and there is an annual garden party.

I’m heartened that author Erika Ritter is another pilgrim. She writes about her visit to the little town of Chatillon-sur-Charonne in France, in search of the woods and burial place of Guinefort, dog saint and children’s protector.

Here is an excerpt from her wonderful new book, The Dog by the Cradle, the Serpent Beneath, about the paradoxes of human-animal relationships.

“Not far to the northwest is … Chatillon-sur-Chalaronne. That’s the same Chalaronne River which, a few kilometres beyond the village, runs alongside the grove of trees where tens of generations of mothers gathered, to immerse their children in the water as part of a superstitious healing ritual.”

“Before coming here, I inured myself to the very real possibility that modern Chatillon-sur-Chalaronne might be a hideous strip of cheesy malls. Or perhaps a zone industrielle paved over the holy greyhound’s one-time burial place. At the very least, I was braced for souvenir shops hawking t-shirts declaring ‘J’ai Survecu le Bois de Guignefort.'”

“But St. Guinefort was nowhere to be seen in Chatillon-sur-Chalaronne, and nobody in town seemed to have any idea he was the heart and soul of the local tourist industry… In an overcrowded pizzeria, a kindly couple offered to share their table, and ultimately their fellowship with us. What were foreign tourists doing here in the off-season?”

“‘Nous cherchons le Bois de Guignefort,'” we answered.”

“‘Le bois de … quoi?'”

“Well, like, duh. C’est evident, n’est-ce pas? The holy greyhound?”

“For by no means the first time in my long, inglorious history of failing to locate dog-related markers, monuments and memorials, I experienced a sinking sensation. I ducked into a nearby stationer, thinking that, at this point, even to blunder upon a small souvenir greyhound would be better than nothing.”

“Inside Le Papier Rouge, a shelf of tourism books caught my eye. I went over to investigate – and came face to face with a glossy brown-and-off-white pamphlet entitled Saint Guignefort Legende, Archaeologie, Histoire.”

Good dog, Guinefort, I thought as I carried the monograph to the cash.”

“A Nancy Drew moment is what I prefer to call my surprising stumble upon a salient clue. The worst kind of Nancy Drew moment. I went into that shop looking for some sort of kitschy little dog figurine.”

From Ritter’s book. Read it.

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