In the Company of Wolves

20 Jul

The wolf has always been a creature of legend and romance, of all animals one of the most invoked, celebrated and feared. In the Dark Ages, kings offered rewards, or pardons for wrongdoings, to those who collected sacks of wolves’ tongues. January, the leanest and harshest time of year, was known as ‘wolf-month’. Saxons and Danes used the word ‘wolf’ as part of the personal names of warriors and leaders, such as Aethelwulf or Cynewulf. A wolf was associated with St Edmund, the 10th century East Anglian king and martyr, who was for long the unofficial patron saint of the English. It was said to have guarded his head and helped monks and the king’s followers to find it. Despite this, the wolf was usually reviled by church scribes, carvers and illuminators. It is depicted as a sly and slinking beast, and as a symbol of evil and sin. But its fierceness and prowess was also acknowledged. Medieval lords took the wolf as their emblem in heraldry, while outlaws and renegades might be likened to wolves, and relish the comparison. As fairy tales began to be fashioned out of traditional and courtly fabric from the 18th century onwards, the wolf’s loping form was seldom far away. Little Red Riding Hood was by no means the only tale to feature a Big Bad Wolf. Wolves, along with ruined abbeys or castles, saturnine villains, immurement, phantoms, graveyards, decay and wronged heroines, were also very much part of the macabre landscape of the Gothic novel in the early 19th century. To begin with, wolves were also traditionally given the role of villains in fantasy literature; examples include J R R Tolkien’s White Wolves, who terrorised the Shire during an exceptionally cold winter, and the Wargs that are in league with the Orcs, in addition to Maugrim of C S Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. More recently, however, wolves have increasingly been given the role of heroes in fantasy fiction. Any journey into the fictional realm of the wolf therefore invokes no little trepidation, as well as excitement, in the heart of any reader.

One of the early examples of a more positive portrayal of wolves is The Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander, in which there are two wolf characters, Brynach and Briavel, who are on the ‘good side’ and communicate with humans. More and better, however, was soon to come. In the Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan, wolves are portrayed as highly intelligent animals having a strict code of honour, with whom some non-lupine characters can communicate using a visual-mental system which is the usual method of communication between wolves. Jordan’s Wolfbrothers, including one of his main heroes Perrin Aybara, can be recognised by their golden, wolflike eyes and their heightened senses, which are more akin to those of a predatory animal’s than a human’s. They also have the ability, perhaps through their unique lupine heritage, to enter the World of Dreams. In the Song of Ice and Fire series by George R R Martin, the main noble house of the series, the Starks, have a direwolf as their family symbol. In the beginning of A Game of Thrones the five Stark children and their bastard half-brother Jon Snow find six direwolf pups near their dead mother. The Stark children take the pups as pets and build strong bonds with them, almost so much so that their fates seem to mirror one another. In the Farseer trilogy by Robin Hobb once again we find humans and wolves communing, this time by means of the ancient ‘Beast-magic’ known as the Wit. Hobb’s creation of the wolf Nighteyes, companion to her hero FitzChivalry Farseer, is both endearing and original, as well as one of her most memorable characters.

In The Wheel of Time, A Song of Ice and Fire and the Farseer trilogy, wolves are very much depicted in a positive manner but even in modern fantasy fiction they do not always appear as ‘one of the good guys’. Guy Gavriel Kay, an author influenced by Tolkien more than most, drew upon the more sinister aspect of the wolf in his creation of the villainous Galadan, Wolflord of the Andain demi-gods and chief lieutenant of the dark god Rakoth Maugrim (whose name also contains an echo of C S Lewis’s lupine villain mentioned above). A prowling, possessed timber wolf stalks and attacks several of the main protagonists in Stephen King’s apocalyptic novel Desperation. The Pellinor saga by Alison Croggon features a pack of wolves who voluntarily serve the necromancer Inka-Reb, and depicts the faerie queen Ardina assuming the form of a wolf. In writing her story, Croggon and others have drawn on a grand old tradition, for tales of transformation from human to wolf form are as old as storytelling itself. All over the world tales have been told of human beings cursed with the horrifying affliction of changing under the full moon into wolf-men and destroying those they love the most. However, it is on the whole increasingly rare to find negative portrayals of wolves (or werewolves for that matter) in the realm of fantasy fiction.

Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight saga, for example, features a Native American tribe who shape shift into a pack of giant wolves to defend themselves from their vampiric enemies. The theme of werewolves at odds with their stablemates in the horror pantheon – vampires – is a recurring one in the worlds of True Blood, The Vampire Diaries, Being Human and Underworld. Perhaps the earliest and certainly one of the best portrayals of this ‘race war’, however, is The World of Darkness’s game world of Werewolf: The Apocalypse (now sadly superseded by the very much inferior Werewolf: The Forsaken). WtA features a bold reinvention of the classic werewolf theme with lycanthropes re-cast as shapeshifting eco-warriors locked in a two-front war against both the spiritual desolation of urban civilization and supernatural forces of corruption that seek to bring about the Apocalypse. Great stuff! As a fan of anime and manga, I should also give a special mention to Wolf’s Rain, a post-apocalyptic series about wolves using spells to appear as humans and the myth about a long journey in search of their paradise before the end of the world. William Horwood, the master of the anthropomorphic fantasy in the form of classics such as The Duncton Chronicles and The Stonor Eagles, also added to the genre with his epic Wolves of Time saga. Perhaps the best example, however, of the evolution of the wolf in the fantasy genre appears in another graphic novel series: Fables.

Bill Willingham’s excellent series re-imagines the classic characters from fairy tales and folklore as a group of real people from hundreds of scattered worlds – collectively called the Homelands – who arrived in our world long ago as refugees fleeing the invading armies of a  merciless conqueror known as The Adversary. Once here they formed a clandestine community in New York City known as Fabletown – a tiny, secretive neighbourhood taking up only one modest city block along a small side alley named Bullfinch Street. Strong spells of misdirection have been laid all over the place but, if you were to stroll down Bullfinch Street by accident, you would notice nothing unusual about its residents. The people who live in Fabletown are far from normal, however, and in most cases look no older now than they did when they first arrived there, hundreds of years ago. More importantly, they all bear more than a passing resemblance to many popular characters from world mythology, folklore and fairy tales. Fables who are unable to blend in with human society (such as monsters and anthropomorphic animals) live at ‘The Farm’, Fabletown’s annex in the wild reaches of Upstate New York. The Farm is run with a loose hand by Rose Red, the wild child sister of Snow White, who was once deputy mayor of Fabletown and now lives in Wolf Manor with her husband Bigby (once known as The Big Bad Wolf but now able to take irascible human form). Notorious from tales such as Little Red Riding Hood, The Three Litte Pigs and Peter and the Wolf, Bigby has a shady past but is now very much a reformed, indeed a heroic character. Much like the wolf throughout fantasy fiction these days!

27 Responses to “In the Company of Wolves”

  1. Gneiss Moon July 20, 2012 at 6:09 am #

    Comprehensive wolf study ! I love the Company of Wolves, very darkly rich and dreamily atmospheric. Recent Red RH was a lovely joke – not at all frightening – it needed an edge ! I will make note of all your mentions, great work !

  2. clientsi July 20, 2012 at 6:25 am #

    Incredibly thorough research and presentation, I truly enjoyed it. I found your blog after you followed mine and I have to say I am seriously pleased with your subject matter and style. This post was of particular interest to me considering I have been working on a series of poems/short stories about a werewolf and the wolf pack he roams with on his special nights. I’ve only posted a few of the excerpts but I have a lot more material that is in progress (actually everything is in progress, posted or not!). I’m rather new to blogging but am so happy to be writing regularly again after years of absence. If you are ever interested in checking out these few short posts I’ve listed them here:

    Thanks again for the research, I’ve read the Game Of Thrones, a lot of The Wheel of Time and played a good amount of Werewolf set in the WOD, but now I’ve got more literature to seek out in my attempt to grow closer to one of my favorite themes.

  3. makemydayproductiondesign July 20, 2012 at 8:58 am #

    Hey, thanks for checking out my blog! This was a really interesting read and I’ll be sure to check out more of your stuff.

    For more takes on wolves and fairytales you should check out The Book of Lost Things by John Connolly which features the sinister Worse Than Wolves. I also love The Company of Wolves for it’s blurring of man’s animalistic nature with that of a wolf. I played on that idea in my own animated take on Red Riding Hood which you can check out here if you’re interested:

  4. lexy3587 July 20, 2012 at 12:32 pm #

    Great post! Another good example of the positive version of a wolf character is in the Belgariad series with the shape shifting Belgarath (aka ‘the old wolf’), and the ghostly wolf that is his dead wife.

  5. sassyfrasscircus July 20, 2012 at 1:06 pm #

    This is great! Thanks for writing. 🙂

  6. mlatimerridley July 20, 2012 at 2:19 pm #

    I love wolves!! Really great post! Quite in-depth, I thought I knew a bit about them, but I definitely know more now! Thanks a million!

  7. celticsprite July 20, 2012 at 3:19 pm #

    Awesome review kind Ash! Regarding it’s Celtic symbolism…Wolves are also cited in Irish Mythology. “Airitech” was a mysterious creature whose three daughters were werewolf like creatures.- The Irish Gaelic word for wolf is Mac Tire meaning literally the Son of the Country(side) and association with human transformation linger, and whilst some consider this is imported there are many references in Irish mythology to lycanthropes and changing to other animal forms, let’s recall that The Morrígan was said to take on the form of a red-furred wolf, particularly in her battle with the hero Cú Chulainn.
    Keep up the sacred flame ☼

  8. Candace Gauger July 21, 2012 at 12:03 am #

    I find this post very amusing and informative. I’ve been trying to give wolves, as well as werewolves and other were creatures, a different light other than what is mainstream in my book “Black Friday” and the others which will follow it in the series.

  9. Folding Mirror Poetry July 21, 2012 at 10:36 am #

    Thanks for the great post. When I set up my writing site I chose a wolf logo, and have been trying to create a fairer image for wolves in my writing since: focusing on the wolves’ caring, fun-loving and intelligence traits, rather than the more dominant predatory side that is usually seen in fantasy stories and nature programmes. I’ve blogged about this post on my website:

  10. Nathan July 21, 2012 at 4:48 pm #

    I still don’t understand why the first version of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe that I read changed Maugrim’s name to “Fenris Ulf.”

    • ashsilverlock July 22, 2012 at 9:11 pm #

      Yes, I’d like to know the answer to that too!

  11. mirrortac July 23, 2012 at 12:04 pm #

    Very comprehensive and interesting read! The nite-wolves in my book The Wizard’s Sword, I’m afraid, assume the dark side, but ironically, the erfin people used the wolf as their emblem when they were warriors in a past time.

  12. simon7banks July 25, 2012 at 7:33 pm #

    Poem about wolves reflecting both views (and to be found in my poetry blog


    Cry in the night
    A wavering yearning wail

    The pack all know their part
    The smell of sickening deer
    Bloods their comradeship
    Torn flesh is life

    Wolf dreams the voices in the leaves
    The running of a long-lost mate
    The tumbling play of cubs and then
    Midwinter snowlock, icy breath

    Fairytale devil
    Hiding in homely things
    Better to eat you, dear
    Ravenous, clever

    A chalice for our wish to kill
    For rape and for rebellion
    To turn the world right upside down,
    Of chaos, and the homeland’s milk
    Of law and lace for all time spilt

    Wolves ride our dreams
    In each dark wood
    A half-remembered beast
    Down each sharp slope
    They wait, or wander like the wind
    To fall on anywhere they wish;
    The fearful grope
    Of climber on the alp falls short
    Because the wolf waits just beyond
    But at his fall the wolf will stand
    And soon have sport

    A child is missing
    Sheep are torn
    A travelling brother never comes
    Folk knew the wolf must be the cause

    So hunted it with dog and gun
    Until one lonely wolf was left
    Searching for any of its kind
    Into a trap and hung to rot

    So who had killed the lost child now?
    Some human wolves must roam the night
    And must be burnt to break the curse

    To wolves the random rage of men
    Is like a maddened hurricane
    That picks this up and sets this down
    Safety and death in hands of clown

    That wail again: no devils of dream
    Unearthly through the forest stream,
    But wolfpack hunting in the night
    And not a tiger burning bright.

    Copyright Simon Banks 2012

  13. kateshrewsday July 26, 2012 at 8:53 pm #

    Wolves: wonderful creatures, steeped in folklore: “Such sweet music they make,” as the Count once observed.

  14. gingerdolly August 14, 2012 at 5:29 pm #

    Wonderful post. I was a little shocked to realise how many of the books you referenced I’d actually read, given I’ve never mentally placed myself in the woflie camp. I’m going to sing out for the William Horwood books, the Wolves of Time, though – such a wonderful and often underrated (and under read) author. I also love Fables and as a teen adored David Eddings Belgariad / Mallorean. Thank you!

  15. windhound November 15, 2012 at 9:09 am #

    Having lived with many dogs over the years and watched them shape-shift into mini or not so mini wolves, I am definitely a wolf fan. This is a great tribute to wolves in fiction and I will be hunting for the work of Bill Willingham, a bit like a wolf that senses an interesting prey. Thank you too for finding and following.

  16. Len February 28, 2013 at 2:57 pm #

    You have accumulated a wealth of knowledge here. Thank you for following The Kraken’s Wake. I hope you can take something away that you enjoy.


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