Dr. Michael Delahoyde
Washington State University

Werewolves in Literature


Werewolves rank as one of the most persistently successful monsters, but they fare pretty poorly in literature. The 1941 Universal film, The Wolf Man is really the central “text” for this monster. James Twitchell claims that werewolves are traditionally not sufficiently anthropocentric to arouse more than stark terror, while the animal itself is too distant from our experiences (Twitchell 210). Although initially vilified because either they occupied an ecological niche we wanted for ourselves, or because they simply went after the animals we wanted to butcher ourselves, wolves have, in this monster, come to represent the “animal” in the afflicted humans. “England was wolfless by 1530, Wales by 1576, Scotland by about 1740” (Twitchell 205); so psychological lycanthropy declined in western culture long ago.

Ovid’s Metamorphoses:

The story of Lycaon is the very first metamorphosis — or transformation — among the many dozens in Ovid’s encyclopedic collection of classical myths. Jove (or Jupiter) is on a rampage in the Olympian council of gods, insisting that “the entire human race must be destroyed” (227). Having heard “Scandalous rumours concerning the state of the times” (228), Jove disguised himself as a human and roamed the earth. Lycaon, determined to find out if this traveler is really a god, wants to try to kill him in his sleep, but instead,

he took a hostage …, slit the man’s throat with his sharp blade, cooked his limbs, still warm with life, boiling some and roasting others over the fire. Then he set this banquet on the table. No sooner had he done so, then I with my avenging flames brought the house down upon its household gods, gods worthy of such a master. Lycaon fled, terrified, until he reached the safety of the silent countryside. There he uttered howling noises, and his attempts to speak were all 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, and he now directed against the flocks his innate lust for killing. He had a mania, even yet, for shedding blood. (228)

Jove ends his case: “You would think men had sworn allegiance to crime” (228). The gods are ready to comply with his wishes, “Yet all were grieved at the thought of the destruction of the human race” (230). “They inquired who would bring offerings of incense to their altars, whether Jove meant to abandon the world to the plundering of wild beasts” (230). Jove promises “a new stock of men” (230).

“Arthur and Gorlagon”:

This 14th-century Latin story begins with allusions to the elaborate protocol of eating (234). Such rituals, however extreme, serve to maintain a human separation from beasts. The progression of the story repeatedly refers to, “as it chanced” (236, 237), further intrusions into dining scenes. Gorlagon tells the story of a king whose pet sapling is the same height as he. If anyone were to chop it down and hit someone else on the head with it, saying, “Be a wolf and have the understanding of a wolf,” that unfortunate would indeed become a wolf. The king is obsessively concerned about preserving the sapling, and would “partake of no food until he had visited it, even though he should fast until the evening” (238). But, “it is customary for a woman to wish to know everything” (238), so the queen nags the secret out of her husband, hacks down the tree, and bungles the incantation, saying accidentally, “have the understanding of a man” (239). She actually sets hounds on him (239).

The werewolf lives the life of a wolf for two years and eventually becomes the trusted dog of another king who “detected some signs of human understanding in him” (242). But, “it so often happens that the wife hates whom the husband loves” (243), and since this king’s wife is having an affair with a servant, which the wolf knows about, tensions are thick in the household. The truth comes out: “The sewer was flayed alive and hanged. The Queen was torn limb from limb by horses and thrown into balls of flame” (246).

Finally, the wolf-king’s wife is given to tormentors, “to be daily tortured and daily exhausted with punishments, and allowed … neither food nor drink” (248). The wolf transformation is reversed at last, and we end with our attention drawn to a mourning woman “holding before her in a dish a human head bespattered with blood” (249). This, of course, was Gorlagon’s own story, and the woman is the unfaithful woman (or one of the many). Let’s eat.

So, clear? Dogs loyal; wives not.

Marie de France’s The Lai of the Were-Wolf:

In Brittany is a baron and his “very worthy dame” — all fine but “For three whole days in every week her lord was absent from her side” (256). The husband must maintain a separate self for the success of the marriage, but she badgers him into telling her that he becomes Bisclavaret, running wild as a beast in the woods. And it’s important that he have access to his clothes. She cannot cope with this dark side of him, nor can she keep a secret, so she tells a knight, thereby betraying her husband. Bisclavaret becomes a loyal dog to another king, until one day, “He became as a mad dog in his hatred and malice. Breaking from his bonds he sprang at the lady’s face, and bit the nose from her visage” (260). The king is reminded that this is very unlike the wolf. Presented with his clothes, and offered some privacy, Bisclavaret transforms back into his human form. His former wife goes into exile with her noselessness.

Here and in the Arthurian story is the association of werewolfism with adulterous women; yet what the women do seems incidental. Causes are obscure: the curse is there notwithstanding the infidelities and betrayals. Who was responsible for the sapling in the Arthurian story? The women seem to remain true to the “sewers,” perhaps because marriages were political arrangements

Wagner, the Wehr-wolf:

This 1857 melodrama by George W.M. Reynolds features a Faustian pact between a German peasant and the devil as the origin of the transformation, and an exchange of wolfishness every seven years for wealth and immortality. So Wagner is nothing more than a beast really and never was an interesting character in his own right as was Varney the Vampire. But the enormous penny-dreadful text is online in its entirety, and I’d be glad to read someone’s scholarly review.

“The Other Side”:

Eric Stenbock’s 1893 story focuses on young loner Gabriel, living amid superstitious, hateful, small-minded townsfolk. From the woods on the opposite side of a brook one can hear wolves howling, and rumors of werewolves thrive. Interestingly, the story distinguishes between “the were-wolves and the wolf-men and the men-wolves” (270). (Wolf-men have wolf-heads; men-wolves have wolf-bodies — pretty creepy.) A blue flower attracts Gabriel to “the other side” and he witnesses a procession (not marauding beasts). Gabriel crosses back. Eventually wolf-woman Lilith seems to replicate Gabriel’s own domestic surroundings, minus religious icons, in a through-the-looking-glass episode. Gabriel later sees his wolf-body reflection in the brook (277). Another glimpse of “this side” shows the brutality — “‘Gabriel is skulking and hiding himself, he’s afraid to join the wolf hunt; why, he wouldn’t even kill a cat,’ for their one notion of excellence was slaughter” (278) — and the ignorance — “Their knowledge of other localities being so limited, that it did not even occur to them to suppose he might be living elsewhere than in the village” (278). In the end, religious ritualistic magic destroys the other side. “The ‘other side’ is harmless now — charred ashes only; but none dares to cross but Gabriel alone — for once a year for nine days a strange madness comes over him” (280).

Of course we’re supposed to assume initially that safety, civilization, propriety, and piety are on “our side.” But this side consists of brutality, murderousness, ignorance, and religious paraphernalia. What is horrible about the other side? Their alternative religion amounts to a procession, but they do nothing — no ravening beasts from hell. So who are the monsters?

Works Cited

Otten, Charlotte F., ed. A Lycanthropy Reader. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1986.

Monster Index