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Essay: The Story of the Werewolf

The literary werewolf is something of an orphan. Unlike the other great monsters of the Western traditions, there is no seminal work to cast its grand shadow over the form: no Dracula, no Frankenstein, no book–that–started–it–all. Books have been written, some of them very good, but none has acquired the stature in the public imagination that the werewolf's supernatural cousins enjoy. While this can be freeing for a writer, having no towering parent to measure up to, it has its down sides too.

Compare the werewolf's lost condition, for example, with the aristocracy that the vampire enjoys. In the nineteenth century, folk tales and less successful works such as Varney the Vampire or John Polidori's The Vampyre gave the vampire some currency in the collective unconscious — not unlike the position of the werewolf today, kept alive by a scattering of different stories with no leader of the pack to keep them in line. With the birth of Dracula, though, we were given a patriarch, who set the pattern for every vampire thereafter. This may sound oppressive, condemning his descendants to mere imitation, but in fact the genre has flourished on its heritage. The elements of a vampire can be varied, but there are enough props — garlic, daylight, stakes, mirrors, crosses, mists, animals, coffins, slaves, mesmerism, the list goes on — that anyone handling the genre has plenty to, no pun intended, get their teeth into. As a result, the vampire stories of today are rich, diverse and, most importantly, they couldn't be about anything but vampires. Take any good vampire tale and imagine how it would read if you substituted the vampire for, say, Frankenstein's monster or an ancient mummy. It just wouldn't work. The popular panoply of vampiric attributes is absolutely essential, and writers always weave them thoroughly into the fabric of the story.

The werewolf is a more loose–woven entity, and as a result, may come unravelled. I've sat through werewolf movies which would work just as well if the monster was an alien, a super–robot, a loose spirit, or any other scary beast with the power of disguise. Written stories, lacking the benefits and demands of a special–effects department, don't degenerate into your straight–up action story quite so often, but they have another difficulty. The obvious parallel to use when telling the tale is the inner beast, and that's what a lot of writers decide to dwell upon. The inner beast by itself, though, is a limited subject. Either we embrace our dark side and learn to live with it, or we conquer it and drive out those who wish to embrace theirs; without other strands in the plot, there's not that much to say about it. The other elements of the werewolf are often vague; sometimes we have pentangles and wolfbane, but they don't loom large in our psyches. The definite ones are silver bullets and full moon — and that's it. Not enough by themselves to build a tradition.

The best werewolf tale is probably Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Hyde doesn't grow fangs or howl at the moon, but as an animalistic alter ego who possesses his subject and controls his actions, he has everything but the fur. Now there's a story that has a panoply like the vampire's — science, trespass on God's domain, irreversible decisions, selfhood, addiction, social constraints — and, as a result, we're still playing with the idea. Alas for the werewolf, though, because Mr Hyde has picked up his cane and marched firmly out of lycanthropic territory into his own separate domain, leaving our poor beast once again masterless.

In citing Stevenson's novella as the best werewolf story, I'm slighting various authors, Angela Carter and Saki (H.H. Munro) in particular, but there's a reason why. Angela Carter's magnificent fairy–tales (filmed by Neil Jordan as The Company of Wolves, which I'd recommend to anyone interested in the genre) form a bewitching study of the psycho–sexual implications of the myth. There is also Saki, brilliant, urbane, disturbing, whose satires return several times to the theme of wolves or werewolves as the perfect image for the vicious, primeval rapacity that underlies the brittle surface of his world, most notably his short story Gabriel–Ernest. The reason I don't propose them as leaders in the field of werewolf stories is that their works don't hold quite the same position that Mary Shelley's or Bram Stoker's offspring do. For one thing, it's generally imperfect books that start off a trend: other writers and filmmakers get inspired with thoughts of what they could do to improve on the original. Saki and Carter are too good to fiddle around with — they stand alone, and elaborating on them seems rather pointless. Besides this, they have both managed the trick we sometimes witness in non–mainstream writing: an author writes a story, in a certain genre, and produces something so well–crafted and intelligent that people end up not thinking of it as a member of that genre at all, but rather as a literary work, which happens to include elements of a particular genre but, as it were, rises above them. Write a good enough genre story, and it doesn't get considered genre. It's a self–perpetuating trend, because if all the best works get officially sublimated out of, say, the horror category, then what's left are the less advanced works, and any author who writes another good horror story will be likewise sublimated out of a kind of critical courtesy, so as not to confound him with the works that have officially failed to transcend their genre and remain just plain horror, romance, or whatever. With all the best examples labelled as something else, a genre's reputation sinks, ambitious and innovative writers start to avoid it, and it remains publicly perceived as trashy, even when there's no artistic reason why it should be.

More recently, fantasy authors have tried to tackle the myth, but it's not as easy as it seems. All genres have their pitfalls, and one of fantasy's pitfalls is the Mary Sue character: the wish–fulfilment girl who is impossibly special and uniquely talented (and about whom there is much entertaining material to be found on the Internet, for those who are interested). This doubtful girl can easily rear her pretty head with the werewolf tale if the writer isn't careful. Naming no names, the werewolf dreamgirl, let's call her Furry Sue, is usually wild in the glamorous sense, meaning bold, strong and direct, but the less appealing aspects of wildness don't always get a look–in. She may have a 'wolf–like' understanding of dominance, but she never savages someone weaker than herself just to make their relative status clear. She may be feral, a foundling, but she never masturbates publicly or shows a self–enclosed lack of awareness of others' existence. Like Tarzan, she is one of nature's winners, and her sojourn in the forest functions more as an internship than a walk on the wild side. As such, she's a generalised empowerment fantasy in wolf's clothing rather than a sign of serious thought about the myth, more a hyena feeding off the kill than a leader who can take the pack in a different direction. She can have her moments of fun, but she's not what the genre needs.

Some recent novels have avoided this trap, with involving and thoughtful results. Alice Hoffman's Second Nature renders a wild man in Hoffman's beautiful, lyrical prose. He is, indeed, a creature of nature — but nature being what it is, this includes being fearful, starving, isolated; his experiences in the frozen outdoors are real, graphic, and have a permanent bearing on his life that go beyond simply being a glamorous beginning. The consistently intelligent Gillian Bradshaw's The Wolf Hunt, a retelling of Marie de France's medieval lay Bisclavret, has a protagonist whose lyncanthropy is, interestingly, less a representation of his wild side than an extension of his introversion, part of a closely–guarded inner life rather than a sign of his darkness or specialness. Both are admirable works that show impressive integrity of thought and feeling, as well as being most enjoyable. However, students of lycanthropy do not seem to be aware of them, and it's primarily because of my own research that I'm able to cite them, though I'd certainly recommend them to anyone interested in good fiction with a lycanthropic flavour.

So, the works of Carter and Saki stand as literary fictions rather than werewolf yarns and have not spawned imitators; the more contemporary Hoffman and Bradshaw have loyal readers but, again, are not much copied as mythologists; Furry Sue nibbles at the edges but has as little impact here as she has elsewhere. It's impossible to say for sure why some books take on their own momentum and others don't, but for whatever reason, these ones don't form part of the collective unconscious, and no one is tinkering with them very much. There are other classic werewolf stories, such as Guy Endore's The Werewolf of Paris, that just aren't widely known. This leaves Stevenson, whose two–footed werewolf is now dancing to his own tune, and that's about it. No figurehead monster in the werewolf canon.

I think there are two main reasons for this literary vacuum. One of them is that the werewolf, almost uniquely, came into contemporary nightmares not via a novel but via a movie. George Waggner's The Wolf Man is a great film, and established just about everything we understand the werewolf to be. It created its own traditions, some of which (such as the pentangle in the victim's hand) we simply forgot about, others of which we have enshrined. Werewolfism being transferred by a bite, for example, is not something we find in the medieval folk tales, but everyone believes it now. So why should Waggner's descendants not be flourishing like Stoker's?

Films tend to found less complex mythic traditions than books, not because they're a lesser art form, but mostly because they're shorter: there simply isn't space to put in the complications and details that adaptations thrive on. Films that succeed in creating their own followings, such as The Wicker Man (no monsters there, but an array of beliefs and details), often work by implying a great deal of culture or history happening off–screen: they have to circumvent the time limits, and I can't think of a werewolf movie that's managed this difficult trick. It's also possible that the visual strengths make it harder to diverge from what you've seen. If you have to imagine what everything looks like, you're more likely to end up in a different place from the original creator than if it's there on the screen in front of you.

The biggest hindrance of the genre, though, is already present in The Wolf Man, and continues today. Leaving aside the lesser action–movie beasties, what do the greatest movie werewolves of our era have in common? They all, ultimately, belong to a different category from the one to which they owe their birth. Larry Talbot (The Wolf Man), Leon (Curse of the Werewolf), David Kessler (An American Werewolf in London), Ginger Fitzgerald (Ginger Snaps): interesting protagonists who labour under a fatal flaw that ultimately brings their downfall. In other words, tragic heroes. The werewolf has had to take refuge as a sub–section of a mightier genre in order to get his story told. While all these stories are fine works in themselves, they bind the werewolf to one inescapable narrative: somehow or other, he has to fall. It leaves the plot limited space for maneuver. There are a few decent werewolves who do lead a more varied life, but they tend to be exceptions that prove the rule. I'll always put in a word for Howling VI: The Freaks, as neat and atmospheric a B–movie as you'll find, for example, and the hero of that manages not to end up gunned down by his father–figure: he walks off into a rather melancholic sunrise, having defeated his enemy, saved his friend and renounced the girl. However, it's obscure, plus it's the fifth sequel to a movie where the werewolf does get shot —and the first Howling film is considered a major contribution to the genre. It would seem that if you're a movie werewolf and want to be taken seriously, then there's no way out: it's the silver bullet for you, fuzzy.

We can't blame the movies, though. There have been some excellent films made, and if they follow a similar plot pattern, well, there are only three/six/eight plots in the world, depending on whom you talk to. The real reason why the werewolf is such a stray has to do with history.

Frankenstein came to light in the late eighteenth century, Dracula in the nineteenth. While culture has changed since then, they're only a handful of generations back. The stories were written about a world we can visualise easily enough, if not exactly recognise; they were written as novels, a form we all know and love; the idea of a literary tradition was established well enough that plenty of information has been preserved about their authors; most importantly, perhaps, they were written in modern English, and as fiction. In other words, they're accessible. We only have to reach back a dozen decades or so, and there the stories lie, within our grasp.

The werewolf is old. Animal cults stretch back into pre–history, tens of millennia ago: the earliest evidence comes from bear–cult altars estimated to have been built in about 75,000 B.C. Cave–paintings of leopard men have been dated as early as 6000 B.C. The first written tale involving an animal–man character is the Epic of Gilgamesh, with its feral Enkidu, which dates back to 2000 B.C. That's four thousand years, forty times the distance between us and the seminal vampire. The imagination simply can't keep hold on such vast, unimaginable differences.

The idea of a man being able to work magic and transform himself into a beast is common to just about every culture. Were–crocodile and were–leopard beliefs exist in Africa, for instance: we have werewolves because wolves were the dominant predator in Europe. There's a difference, though, between these pre–Christian hunters and what has become our monster. Enkidu, first called on to hinder and later to help the hero Gilgamesh; berserker (bear–shirt) soldiers wearing the skins of wolves to give themselves wolvish ferocity; the hero of the thirteenth–century Völsungsaga becoming a werewolf as part of his warrior training; Native American trackers appealing to wolf–spirits for their skills in following a trail: all of these werewolves are unlike our stalking demons. What they are are soldiers and huntsmen, members of a community temporarily withdrawing from it and making an effort to take on some of the qualities of the wolf, in order to serve a socially useful purpose. Responsible, public–spirited werewolves, in fact.

We still have that concept in a specific subset of our popular culture — Batman, anyone? Or Spiderman? Comics are keeping the hero–lycanthrope alive. They occupy a very different place in our heads, though — and a man who turned himself into a wolf for the benefit of society would very likely come across as a superhero type, rather than trigger the word "werewolf" in our memories. Wolverine the X–man doesn't have much in common with Larry Talbot. The most lycanthropic comic book hero I can think of is the Incredible Hulk — uncontrollable rages leading to a more animal state — but he's still a virtuous protagonist, which means people don't generally associate him with the werewolf tradition (unless, like me, they've spent too long in the library). There are, I've discovered, various other, less well known, werewolf–superhero comic characters, but, as with Spiderman and Batman, they belong to the ancient model: their powers make them better able to achieve their generally legitimate goals. This is not what most people think of when they think of werewolves: the werewolf as we understand him cannot have a social conscience, beyond feeling guilty for the things his animal side does. The mainstream image is of a great hairy brute that leaps out and eats you up. He's an unqualified threat to order and safety, both his own and others'. He's also suffering from an affliction that is, of itself, demonic: not a natural condition, nor a learned skill, but a curse, something that can only have come from an evil source. These ideas are medieval ones, and they stem from the witch trials.

The witch trials — which were not, in fact, limited to the Middle Ages, but burned just as fiercely through the supposedly enlightened Renaissance — were the children of the first Inquisition, intended to root out heresies that threatened the security of the Catholic church. The witch as understood then wasn't the black–hatted spell–caster that we understand her to be: a better word would be "Satanist" — someone who had given their entire selves over to the Devil (either voluntarily or because he forced them) and who gained the ability to invoke him and do his destructive works in exchange. Werewolf trials are a more obscure subject, and there were fewer "werewolves" than "witches" condemned, but, bizarre as it seems now, people did go to the stake and worse because a court found them guilty of this crime. It was uncommon at the beginning of the witch trials — in fact, in the early Middle Ages it was considered heretical to believe in werewolves at all —but the accusations gained in frequency as they carried on. This is presumably in part due to the fact that interrogators knew in advance what they expected to hear, and tended to ask their suspects yes–or–no questions — an eminently practical system when we consider how capable of speech a racked victim was likely to be. Each new case will have added to the edifice of belief — not superstition, but theological belief, held by some of the finest minds of the day — that surrounded witches and werewolves; each new confession will have bolstered it.

The reality behind such cases is by now lost to us. Werewolves who confessed generally did so under torture; what they would have said if they hadn't been tormented can only be guessed at. The trial record of Peter Stubbe, a man convicted in 1589, who conjured the Devil who granted him the power to disguise himself as a wolf, leaving him free to rape and murder without fear of detection, for instance, declares quite straight–faced that "being apprehended, he was shortly after put to the rack in the town of Bedbur, but fearing the torture, he voluntarily confessed his whole life". Some of the evidence of werewolfery is, by contemporary standards, ridiculous —one source (Henri Boguet's Discours de Sorciers, written from 1590–1611, if anyone's interested) tells of:

. . .three wolves that were seen on the 18th of July, 1603, in the district of Douvres and Jeurre about half an hour after a hailstorm had very strangely ruined all the fruit of that country. These wolves had no tails; and, moreover, as they ran through herds of cows and goats they touched none of them except one little kid, which one of them carried a little distance away without doing it any harm at all. It is apparent from this that these were not natural wolves, but were rather witches who had helped to cause the hailstorm, and had come to witness the damage which they had caused.

It sounds like tenuous logic to modern ears: we, after all, no longer believe the Devil walks among us, and are more inclined to blame God if our livelihood gets destroyed. This, though, was a scholarly discussion, written by a prominent judge who passed sentence on accused werewolves in his court: as reputable an authority as could be found. It's hard to be entirely critical of the locals who reported this news, too: any community that's just lost its entire crop may well be excused for being desperate to find reasons for such a disaster.

There are other explanations for the belief that our scientific age finds more credible. Pursuers who lost sight of the wolf they were chasing and happened upon a man may have seized this entirely innocent bystander under the impression that he had transformed; a man with a wounded leg happened upon by hunters who had just shot a wolf in the same place may have met the same fate. It should be remembered, though, that the most famous of the supposed werewolves who were convicted — Stubbe in 1589; the Gandillon family of the same year, who were convicted en masse after one of them, Pernette, attacked two little girls; Jacques Roulet of Angers in north France, who was caught one morning in 1598 still eating the body of a fifteen–year–old boy (and was imprisoned in an asylum, fortunately for him); Gilles Garnier, who preyed upon children and was convicted in 1573 — were, at least according to the available evidence, murderers. We would call them serial killers: predatory and sometimes sexual sadism were an essential part of their professed wolfishness. Food was scarce, poverty rife, and with cannibalism an ever–present fear, it is easy to see why werewolf paranoia came into being, especially in areas where real wolves preyed upon the harried villages' stock. There are cases too, such as Jean Grenier's, where a boy was discovered wandering in France who made a nuisance of himself by threatening and importuning local girls and talking about turning into a wolf, in which the accused did genuinely believe that he was a werewolf, and declared himself as such. They were not quite the romanticised victims of twentieth century folklore: their deeds, and their fates, were harsher.

Oddly enough, witch–burners did not, for the most part, believe that people could turn into wolves. That would imply the Devil had the power to work miracles. Theologically, it wasn't an allowable belief: it went against the notion that the Devil was weaker than God. Most theoreticians believed that werewolfism was a diabolical glamour, that Satan induced in both lycanthrope and victims the illusion that a transformation had taken place. (This was not considered to be any excuse: Boguet expresses the prevailing view when he remarks, "even if they were guilty in nothing but their damnable intention, they should still be thought worthy of death . . . such people never have this intention, except those who have first renounced God and Heaven.") Nowadays we talk of delusion, ergotism, temporal lobe seizures, rabies, and porphyria, and a wide variety of scientific explanations has been proffered, trying to find a rational explanation for this wildest of beliefs. There is also the phenomenon of lycanthropy proper, the mental illness which causes the sufferer to experience "transformations" and believe himself to be a werewolf, werecat or whatever animal has taken possession of his psyche. This, interestingly, was recognised as a mental illness before the Inquisition took off, and was considered a form of melancholia, to be treated medically rather than taken seriously. We seem to have come full circle on that belief. True crime writers with an interest in the occult sometimes lump all sexual sadists or cannibals under the werewolf label — a broad–brush approach that clouds the issue more than it illuminates it when carelessly applied. Even today, a little digging on the Internet turns up discussion boards for modern citizens who style themselves "werewolves". Some seem to be using the werewolf as a metaphor, in line with New Age spirituality; some describe violent rages or Attention Deficit Disorder and consider that these are mundane, incorrect interpretations of their natures, that the true reason for these furies or difficulties is their "were" side; some talk about "humans" as if the category excluded them. I feel entirely unqualified to proffer explanations; all I can say is that their position is an altogether safer one than it would have been four centuries ago.

Whether or not Inquisitors believed that men could become wolves, people suffered for it. Communities that saw their children disappear must have undergone agonies at the thought that a werewolf might be preying upon them, and the arrests, torture and burning alive of the convicted werewolves add their own details to the wider picture of one of the most horrible true stories in our collective history. If you look at the medieval folk tales, they seem to have a preferred traditional ending, just as fairy stories do. In place of "and they lived happily ever after", we find, recurring over and over, "he was reported to the judge, and subsequently burned."

In any case, this is the answer, the true parents of our foundling werewolf. He was conjured up by starved and plague–stricken citizens, and racked out of vagabonds and outcasts by the Inquisition. It's a darker and bloodier birth than any other creature in our history. Compare the werewolf's terrible inception to Bram Stoker's private nightmare of the three succubi (for which, incidentally, the Inquisition might well have laid its claws upon him if he'd been unfortunate enough to live under its shadow), or Mary Shelley's triumphant production of the best fireside spook–story for her party of friends, and we begin to see why the tradition remains a bare–bones one. If you invent at leisure for your own interest and enjoyment, you can create a detailed legend. If the question asked of you is a yes–or–no one posed by a hooded man with his hand on the lever, the urge to embroider is removed.

We re–invented the werewolf in the twentieth century. The germ of the idea was too far away and stank too strongly of the pyre to be taken into our popular culture. As a result, the traditional accoutrements of the werewolf, which might have spawned a tradition to rival Dracula's, are largely forgotten. The wolf belt or strap, made from the skin of a wolf or a hanged man, that can transform the wearer at will (which is what Stubbe claimed the Devil gave him); the magical ointment that also gives transformative power, day or night; the werewolf that, as in Marie de France's Bisclavret, cannot change back unless he has access to his clothing; the excommunicated wanderer cursed with werewolfism by a wrathful saint or priest: these strange and fruitful images no longer ring any bells. Shockingly enough, it has been suggested that the reason why the full moon, goddess of our tradition, originally featured in werewolf stories is an upsettingly simple one: in an age before street lights, you needed a bright moon in order to see the transformation take place. Nothing more.

We make of traditions what we can. Dogs fill me with a phobic terror; my friends will tell you that I'll hide behind them to avoid a Pekinese. When I sat in the safari park, though, gazing through the car window at the long–legged, white–ruffed pack of wolves that trotted to and fro outside, I felt no fear of them; nothing but an interested admiration for their beauty. Their eyes were clear and alert; their coats were thick; they were practically fluffy. Yet something about these creatures got people spooked, even before the trials, even aside from the fact that they were a lot more dangerous to a medieval villager than to me, safely ensconced in a vehicle. I remember being a child, thrilling to my father's stories of the ancient Greek superstition that if the wolf saw you before you saw it, you would be struck dumb.

The thing about wild beasts is that they aren't evil. It isn't evil that makes them dangerous, savage, and able, under the right circumstances, to rip apart those who cross their paths. That's just how wild beasts work. The history of the Inquisition fascinated me, so when I sat down to write my own version of the werewolf legend in my novel Bareback, I decided that witch and werewolf trials had to be part of the story. A witch–burner is a far more frightening creature than a canine. But at the same time, the black–and–white morality of the tales, the evil monster or the poor tragic hero, came to seem simplistic — and whenever you look at morality, simplistic thinking is dangerous. That's how people wind up on the rack. And in any situation where there is power at stake and people are frightened of each other, there are bound to be wrongs on both sides. We are, after all, animals; clever ones, but flesh and blood like all the rest. Rather than writing the traditional post–Inquisition fable of the bestial outsider that threatens society, I chose to write something different, something closer to the birthplace of the myth: the bestial society that threatens the outsider. After all, do we really need to look for the inner beast? If you want to find an animal, all you have to do is look down — there's one standing in your shoes.

Further Reading

A Lycanthropy Reader: Werewolves in Western culture, Charlotte F. Otten ed, Syracuse University Press, 1986.
Witchcraft, Lycanthropy, Drugs, and Disease, H. Sidky, American University Studies, Series XI, Anthropology and Sociology, Vol. 70, Peter Lang, 1997.
The Beast Within: a history of the werewolf, Adam Douglas, Chapmans, 1992.
Man Into Wolf: an anthropological interpretation of sadism, masochism and lycanthropy, Robert Eisler, Routledge and Keegan Paul, 1951.
Of Wolves and Men, Barry Holstun Lopez, Touchstone, Simon and Schuster, 1978.
Malleus Maleficarum, Jakob Sprenger, Heinrich Kramer, Henricus Institoris, Montague Summers (translator), Dover Publications, 1997.
The Trials of Werewolves in Franche–Comte in the Early Modern Period, Caroline Frances Oates (PhD thesis, held in Senate House Library in London, 1993).
Picking Up The Pieces, Paul Britton, Corgi, 2001 (a book on forensic psychological profiling, including a case history of a man affected with lycanthropy).

The Wolf Hunt, Gillian Bradshaw, Saint Martin's Press, 2002.
The Bloody Chamber, Angela Carter, Vintage, 1995.
The Werewolf of Paris, Guy Endore, Sphere, 1974.
The Epic of Gilgamesh, Andrew George (translator), Penguin, 2003.
Second Nature, Alice Hoffman, Picador, 1996.
The Lais of Marie de France, Keith Busby (introduction), Glyn S. Burgess (translator), Penguin, 1999.
The Complete Short Stories, Saki (H.H. Munro), Penguin, 2004.
The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Other Tales of Terror, Robert Louis Stevenson, Penguin, 2003.

Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Rouben Mamoulian, 1931.
The Wolf Man, George Waggner, 1941.
Curse of the Werewolf, Terence Fisher, 1961.
An American Werewolf in London, John Landis, 1981.
The Howling, Joe Dante, 1981.
Howling VI: The Freaks, 1991.
Ginger Snaps, John Fawcett, 2000.

Werewolf Legends from Germany: excellent collection of folk tales, including the story of Peter Stubbe.
African Were–Crocodile & Other Were–Animals: good introductory site.
Werewolves: The Myths & the Truths: another good introductory site.
Werewolves: a discussion page for self–professed 'werewolves'.
Mary Sue: a Wikipedia page with links to some entertaining Mary Sue articles.
Shape-Shifters: Art Inspired by Animal–Human Transformation Myths