The Wolf is a diverse, interesting character with a strong place in fantasy fiction.
|Researching this week’s newsletter I learned that there is no record of healthy wild wolves ever attacking or killing human beings. Our ancestors’ fear of the wolf has seen almost two million of these creatures killed since Europeans first settled in North America. In contrast to this common perception, Native Americans revere the wolf as a personification of their own treasured values, and consider them teachers rather than enemies. The wolf is a fascinating, mystical character with a well deserved place in the fantasy genre. Perhaps there’s a place for him in your next fantasy story.
Man’s fear of the wolf is the reason for the negative image these animals have received. Historically the wolf has an image of ferocity, cruelty and ravenous hunger. His strength, intelligence (viewed as cunning) and speed were considered abnormal. Eerie. Demonic. The wolf gradually came to symbolise evil and negativity became synonymous with his name. Wolves came to represent Night and Winter, Storm and Stress… and eventually he morphed into a dark, mysterious omen of Death.
Two of the world’s most famous and best loved fantasy stories cast the wolf in a villainous role. C S Lewis’ “Maugrim” is leader of the wolves that serve the White Witch in “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe”. In Tolkien’s “Rings” trilogy the Shire is attacked by wolves during a particularly harsh winter, while a pack of wolves called “Wargs” fight alongside the evil Orcs.
But not all fantasy fiction casts the wolf in a villainous role. Some fantasy writers have developed the wolf’s character in a more realistic way, using its intelligence and devotion to the pack to benefit the heroes in a story. George Martin’s series titled “A Song of Ice and Fire” features the Stark family, who use a wolf in their family crest. When they adopt some wolf cubs, each child learns of a shared link and personality traits to a specific cub. In Jane Curry’s “The Wolves of Aam” the title characters are the heroes in the story, while Robert Jordan’s wolves in his “Wheel of Time” series adhere to a strict code of honour, and are also extremely intelligent. In Lloyd Alexander’s “The Chronicles of Prydain” Brynach and Briavel are wolves working for good – to the extent that they liaise with human beings.
One of the most famous wolf legends is that of the twins, Romulus and Remus. They were cast into the wild at birth by their uncle, who proceeded to claim the throne for himself. After being suckled by a she-wolf the twins were raised by a peasant couple, Faustulus and Acca Larentia. Ultimately Romulus grew up, overthrew his uncle and founded Rome.
Wolves feature prominently in Nordic mythology. Whenever Odin, head of the gods, went into battle was accompanied by Freki and Geri – two enormous wolves. And the Nordic giantess Hyrrokin rides on an enormous grey wolf. Norse mythology claims the sight of a wolf, accompanied by a raven, means good fortune in battle; so the name “Wolfrafen” or “Wolfram” (meaning “wolf raven”) became a good name for a great and powerful warrior. Other popular Nordic names that seem to acknowledge the strength and power of the wolf include: Beowulf, Berthewolf, Ceowulf, Wulfstan and Wulfred.
The richest and greatest source and inspiration for stories featuring wolves can be found in Native American folklore. Native Americans have learned much from the wolf. During winter Native American people had to journey over frozen streams, rivers and lakes, and they discovered the hard packed ice was less resistant than the snow covering the land. Observing their teacher the wolf they learned the best way to move through heavy snow was to travel in single file, saving time and energy by stepping in the same footprints. The Navajo people consider the wolf the leader of all hunting animals, while Native Americans consider the wolf a skilled, relentless and dependable creature, because wolves hunt in co-operative packs.
Wolves are one of the common sacred spirit animals that also act as a guard. Zuni mythology tells of the animals that guard the cardinal directions; mountain lions protect the north, the Badger the south, the bear guards the west and the wolf takes care of the east. The Nuu-chah-nulth, a tribe on the north western coast, honours the wolf and tell of a connection between the wolf and the killer whale. The story tells of the time a killer whale was beached. Upon its death its spirit transformed itself into a wolf, and this is the rather romantic explanation for the wolf’s black and white markings – similar to the markings of the killer whale.
I shall end this newsletter with a legend featuring the patron saint of animals, Francis of Assisi. A wolf was threatening villagers living in Gubbio in Italy. Saint Francis intervened, and came to an arrangement with the wolf, whereby the villagers would feed the wolf and let him wander through Gubbio without fear of retribution. In turn the wolf agreed he would not harm anyone – man or animal – living in Gubbio. It is said that man sees his own bestial nature in the wolf, and that longing to control the beast within him is the reasoning behind this medieval legend. Because man and wolf share the same instincts for survival, the same bond with their fellowship and the same intelligence this example of compassion for the wolf shows a desire for self-forgiveness.