Of all wild stories, the ones involving wolves seem somehow the wildest, for the wolf is an animal who carries our love and fear of wilderness in equal measure. A wide range of wolf mythology can be found around the world wherever wolves have roamed: in some tales they are depicted as culture heroes and loyal companions to the gods; in others they are devilish, destructive figures, enemies of the gods and humankind alike, agents of primal chaos.
The tradition of the wolf as warrior-hero is older than recorded history, writes Barry Lopez in his magnificent book Of Wolves and Men:
"The legend of Romulus and Remus and other wolf children point up another ancient image, that of the benevolent wolf-mother. The deaths of those taken for werewolves and burned alive in the Middle Ages represent yet another, focusing negative feelings about the wolf.
"I have written about the wolf as a symbol of twilight; other writers have suggested, and I agree with them, that the wolf is a symbol reflecting two human alternatives at war: instinctual urges and rational behavior. In Hesitant Wolf and Scrupulous Fox, Karen Kennerly says the wolf is the creature who is most like us in fable. 'Out of phase with himself,' she says, 'he is defeated alternately by hubris and naivete. He becomes the irreconcilability between instinct and rational thought.' His attempts to live a rational life is defeated by his urge to behave basely. Thus, the human and bestial natures. The central conflict between man's good and evil natures is revealed in his twin images of the wolf as a ravening killer and as nurturing mother. The former was the werewolf; the latter the mother to children, like Romulus and Remus, who found nations."
The wolves of myth, of course, are human creations, and have little to do with the actual lives of wolves living in the wild -- a subject that has been studied extensively by scientists of many different stripes in modern times, and about which there is much we still don't know, or fully understand. Wolf packs are complex, sophisticated systems -- and it seems that every time wolf scholars assert theories about precisely how they work, new data arises to shatter those theories. In a world where we like to map and track and pin knowledge down into cold, hard facts, the wolves elude us, slipping back into dark, starless night of mystery.
This makes them irresistible creatures for writers of "wild stories," and the howling of wolves can be found in many good (and not-so-good) works of fantasy fiction.
One of my favorite wolf stories is The Wolf Wilder by Katherine Rundell. It's an absolutely splendid novel, which I'll let the author describe herself:
"The Wolf Wilder is a fairy tale of sorts; in it, two children ride wolves across Russia in the snow. Much of fiction writing involves finding new ways to talk about old desires, and mine is a litany of all the things I dreamt of as a child: snow, knife, skis, wolf, boy. My source-text was the glorious Russian fairy tale, The Tale of Ivan Tsarevich, the Firebird and the Grey Wolf. In it Ivan Tsarevich, the son of a Tsar, is sent to catch a firebird that is eating his father's apples. He comes to a crossroads where a choice is set out: 'Whoever goes to the right shall die. Whoever goes along the middle way will have his horse devoured by the grey wolf.' Ivan takes the middle road and, in the blunt diction of fairy tales, the grey wolf does indeed eat his horse, then suggests that Ivan ride on his own back to glory, instead.
"What I remember most clearly is one line. 'The grey wolf said, 'Get on my back and hang on tightly': and the wolf carried him off 'just as if he were on a swan's back.' That line reverberates with desire, both childlike and adult. It captures the doubleness of innocence and experience in fairy tales -- as Carol Ann Duffy writes in her poem 'Little Red Cap': What little girl doesn't dearly love a wolf?
"Shape-shifting wolves have always had cultural bite. The very first transformation scene in Ovid is also one of the earliest fictional accounts of lycanthropy, and was always the story in the Metamorphoses that I, as an unpleasant child, loved most. King Lycaon murders a hostage sent from Epirus, cooks his limbs 'still warm with life, boiling some and roasting others over the fire,' and serves it to Zeus as a feast that doubles as a taunt. In vengeance, Zeus strikes his palace with lightning and sends Lycaon out into the wild. 'There he uttered howling noises, and his attempts to speak were in vain. His clothes changed into bristling hairs, his arms to legs, and he became a wolf. His own savage nature showed in his rabid jaws.' Transformation, in Ovid, is a kind of truth-telling.
"Wolves offer a straightforward kind of truth, too. In Charles Perrault's 1697 version of Little Red Riding Hood; girls who get into bed with strange men don't survive. The wolf, for Perrault, is an entirely unsubtle stand-in for human lust. Angela Carter took Perrault's stories and inverted them; the result was The Bloody Chamber. Carter's world transforms the tradition of captured, passive girls; instead, it is delicious and dangerous: all dirt and diamonds, dust on mirrors, girls with architectural cheekbones and red cloaks. The young women in her tales are their own fairy godmothers. Her Red Riding Hood, faced with a wolf in the bed, 'burst out laughing; she knew she was nobody's meat.' Elsewhere, Carter wrote: "I really do believe that a fiction absolutely self-conscious of itself as a different form of human experience than reality (that is, not a logbook of events) can help to transform reality itself. 'Fairy tales remind us that we are so very hungry; the human appetite for other humans is insatiable, and Carter embraces hunger. A little bit of something wild does you good.' "
(I recommend reading Rundell's article, "The Greatest Literary Wolves," in full.)
My other favorite wolf story of recent years is Sarah Hall's finely-crafted novel The Wolf Border, about the re-introduction of wolves on a vast estate on the border of Cumbria and Scotland. This is a contemporary, largely Realist story with one slight fantasy element: in Hall's fictional world, the Scottish Referendum of 2014 has ended with Scottish independence. I admit that it took me a while to warm to the novel's protogonist, zoologist Rachael Caine, a damaged and damaging character -- but that, it turns out, is the point of the book. Rachael's emotional journey, paired with the saga of her wolves, is beautifully rendered, and I loved this book without reservation by the last page and journey's end.
Unlike the wolves of fantasy, Hall's wolves are never more or less than animals, fulfilling naturalist Henry Beston's vision that "the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours, they move finished and complete, gifted with the extension of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings: they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth."
This is not to disparage the wolves of fantasy literature, whose stories satisfy in a wholly different way: they are metaphorical tales exploring our relationship with the wild (for good or ill), and they work on us the way myths and fairy tales work on us: indirectly, symbolically, poetically, and below the level of conscious thought.
"Fantasy," explains Ursula Le Guin, "is a different approach to reality, an alternative technique for apprehending and coping with existence. It is not antirational, but pararational; not realistic but surrealistic, a heightening of reality. In Freud's terminology, it employs primary, not secondary process thinking. It employs archetypes, which, as Jung warned us, are dangerous things. Fantasy is nearer to poetry, to mysticism, and to insanity than naturalistic fiction is. It is a wilderness, and those who go there should not feel too safe....It is a journey into the subconscious mind, just as psychoanalysis is. Like pyschoanalysis, it can be dangerous; and it will change you."
The best wolves in fantasy are the ones that haunt your dreams when the book is done: Nighteyes in the Farseer books of Robin Hobb; the feral wizard-wolf at the heart of The Book of Atrix Wolfe by Patricia A. McKillp; the motorcycle-riding shapeshifters in The Evil Wizard Smallbone by Delia Sherman; the wild wolf-raised heroine of The Firekeeper Saga by Jane Lindskold; the mysterious Stephen, raised by wolves, in Alice Hoffman's darkly romantic Second Nature; the deliciously sinister Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken; or the frightening yet alluring beasts in Angela Carter's "The Company of Wolves" (and the movie made from it).
A list of good "wolf fantasy" would also surely have to include: Julie of the Wolves by Jean Craighead George (winner of the Newbery Medal); Wolf by Gillian Cross (winner of the Carnegie Medal, based on Little Red Riding Hood); Children of the Wolf by Jane Yolen (based on a real-life "feral children" tale), A Companion to Wolves by Sarah Monette & Elizabeth Bear; Cry Wolf by Patricia Briggs; and The Sight by David Clement-Davies (told from a wolf pack's point of view).
For an excellent nonfiction volume on wolves and re-wilding, I highly recommend Wolf Nation: The Life, Death, and Return of Wild American Wolves by the always-wonderful Brenda Peterson, as well as Brenda's true-story book for children: Lobos: A Wolf Family Returns to the Wild. For wolves in myth and folklore, try Wolf by Garry Marvin, which is part of Reaktion Books' marvelous Animal series; and, of course, Clarissa Pinkola Estés' Women Who Run With the Wolves, a good read for folk tales about wolves (and other animals) connected to the "wild woman" archetype.
(Please feel free to recommend your own favourite wolf books in the Comments below.)
Barry Lopez points out that benevolent wolves are more common in modern literature than they were in ancient myth and legend:
"I think, somehow, that looking for the wolf-mother [or -father, or steadfast companion] is the stage we are at now in history. If we go back to the time of Lycaon and follow the development of the wolf image through the Dark and Middle Ages to the present, the overriding impression is that of a sinister creature. But [now], whether out of guilt or because we have reached such a level of civilization as to allow us the thought, we are looking for a new wolf. We seem eager to be corrected, to know how wrong our ideas about wolves have been, how complex the creature really is, how ultimately unfathomable. What we are looking for, I think, is a way to return mystery to the animals, and distance and selfhood, and thereby dignity.
"Almost like errant children, we seem to want forgiveness from the wolves. And I think that takes great courage.
"It may be reasonable to expect most people to dismiss the notion of a nurturing wolf as a naive person's referent," Lopez adds, "but that doesn't seem wise to me. When, from the prisons of our cities, we look out to the wilderness, when we reach intellectually for such abstractions as the privilege of leading a life free from nonsensical conventions, or one without guilt or subterfuge -- in short, a life of integrity -- I think we can turn to wolves. We do sense in them courage, stamina, and a straightforwardness of living; we do sense that they are somehow correct in the universe and we are still at odds with it.
"As our sense of sharing the planet with other creatures grows -- and perhaps that is ultimately the goal of natural history -- the deep contemplation of wolves may be seen as part of an attempt to nurture the humbler belief that there is more to the world than mankind."
Perhaps that is the ultimate goal of Mythic Arts as well.
Pictures: The art above is: "Wolf Warrior" by Susan Seddon Boulet, a leaping wolf on gold by Jackie Morris, "Pope Trixie & the Wolves" by Tricia Cline, "Papa Wolf & Tree" by Tricia Cline, "Exile of the Wolf" by Tricia Cline, "Ivan Tsarevich Riding the Gray Wolf" by Viktor Vasnetsov, "Ivan & the Wolf" by Ivan Bilibin, "Little Red Riding Hood" by Gustave Doré, "Little Red Riding Hood "by Adrienne Segur, a grey wolf photographed by Cole Young, "Wolf Thoughts" by Jackie Morris, "Zar" by Igor Oleinikov, "Papa Wolf Sings to the Acolytes" by Tricia Cline, "The Dreamcatcher" by Susan Seddon Boulet, "Wolf" by Kirill Chelushkin, "What to do with all this love?" by Chiara Baustista,"Wolf Bloy" by Danielle Barlow, "Tales of the Firebird" by Gennady Spirin, bedside reading, and "Little Evie in the Wildwood" by Catherin Hyde.
Words: The passages by Barry Lopez are from his ground-breaking book Of Wolves and Men (Scribners, 1978); the passage by Katherine Rundell is from her article "The Greatest Literary Wolves" (The Telegraph, September 2015). Both are recommended. All rights to the art and text above are reserved by the artists and authors.
Related posts: A skulk of foxes, Following the bear, The folklore of rabbits & hares, and The sacred pig.