Philippa Milnes-Smith investigates a continuing phenomenon.
Wolves probably disappeared from England in the sixteenth century. There are traces still of their presence in place names such as Woolley, Woolmer, or ‘wolf-mere’ (the lake where wolves drank) and possibly Howl Moor in Yorkshire. But, although three hundred or so years have now passed, wolves are alive, well and positively thriving in contemporary children’s fiction. Nor am I referring only to picture books, but to fiction for more mature readers, particularly those who enjoy, if you’ll pardon the pun, a good meaty read.
Most children are likely to be introduced to the wolf when they’re quite young. There are enough versions of `Little Red Riding Hood’ and `The Three Little Pigs’ alone to fill the average school library. But the wolf is not something a child grows out of – rather it’s something he or she can grow into. The wolf provides an opportunity for writers to explore human nature and moral issues in a way children respond to from an early age and from which they can take even more meaning as they grow older. Even more importantly for children’s writers, the character of the wolf allows them to handle difficult subjects such as sexuality and violence in a way that is acceptable even to the most puritanical adult. But why the wolf?
Historically the wolf has been our major predator in Europe and therefore one of our great adversaries. While wolves, over the centuries, may have devoured relatively few human beings, they would have posed a constant threat to rural communities whose survival was often dependent on live-stock. The survival instincts we share with our ancestors and the predatory characteristics we share with the wolf still link us strongly to this history.
Joan Aiken’s classic story, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, takes us back into an imaginary past where wolves have come back into the country through a newly opened Channel Tunnel. They’re symbolic, of course. For Sylvia and Bonnie, the two children at the centre of the novel, the real predators are closer to home. These predators take the form of `responsible adults’. Led by the unforgettable Miss Slighcarp, the governess beside whom any wolf pales into insignificance, they’re all a child could wish for in terms of real villains. No child ever has a problem in understanding Miss Slighcarp’s greed, and rapaciousness – nor the implication of what happens once they combine with an adult’s position of authority and a veneer of `benevolence’.
Kathryn Cave’s William and the Wolves sees the wolf reintroduced to England in a rather different way. William is a boy going through the worst of sibling rivalry. Irritated by his sister Mary’s imaginary pet lamb and his mother’s claims that of course he never had an imagination like Mary, he retaliates by inventing his own imaginary pack of wolves (fresh from Siberia) whose role is ultimately, of course, to devour his sister’s lamb.
As the story progresses the wolves become more and more real – not only to Mary as William had planned – but also to himself as his feelings become more out of control:
`William found it difficult to remember the rest of that Friday properly. He never forgot it either, though, however hard he tried. Some things you never do forget.
The wolves in assembly for instance – chewing Mr Turner’s shoelaces… ambushing late arrivals in the senior cloakroom… sneaking along the curtain at the back of the platform while the Head made announcements… There was the howling that broke out when Miss Simms started to play `All Things Bright and Beautiful’, the menacing advance upon the piano… his own fatal moment of panic. There was the interview with the Head afterwards… the questions that had no answers.’
William and the Wolves is a funny book, but has a serious point to make about the intensity of children’s emotions and the difficulty of sibling relationships. The exploration of such negative emotions are vitally important for children. They do nurture feelings of resentment, hatred and revenge. They are selfish. They are destructive. William and the Wolves deals with all these issues without compromise. And yet it remains a warm, witty and appealing book which successfully represents the complexity of family life.
It’s also interesting how easily the wolf moves from predator to anarchist. Anarchy is certainly at work in William’s back garden and Willoughby Chase but perhaps comes more strongly to the fore in The House of Rats by Stephen Elboz. This spectacular book (rightly voted a children’s choice in 1992’s Smarties Awards) begins with the mysterious disappearance of the man who called himself `the master’. His disappearance signals the beginning of chaos in the House of Rats where, up to now, order has been the most important thing:
`How could he – the master – break our daily routine? This man who ran the big house to a published timetable? Who was known to dismiss a servant for a minute’s lateness? Who had a clock in every room – sometimes whole banks of them, their pendulums swinging in silent unison?’
As in Willoughby Chase the children at the centre of the book have more to fear from the people inside the house who are now intent on the struggle for power than the wolves who prowl incessantly outside. But unlike Willoughby Chase the very fabric of the house is actually overrun by wolves and destroyed by fire before a new future can be built. In this context it’s worth making an historical reference to Fenrir, the wolf-man of Scandinavian mythology. It was said that when the end of the world came, there would be a time of anarchy on earth and then Fenrir would finally devour the sun and the moon, plunging the earth into a bitter winter lasting three years. This in turn would be followed by the final great battles and the doom of the gods.
The image of the anarchist is not the only one we have inherited. Our bonds with the beliefs and traditions of the past, particularly Christian ones, are often stronger than we think. The idea of the `big bad wolf’, now a cosy euphemism for the animal so often portrayed as representing evil incarnate, probably began with the medieval bestiaries, the nearest equivalent to best-selling coffee table books in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Superficially they were books on animal behaviour but in fact they featured both real and imaginary animals whose purpose was to demonstrate the way of God, Man and the Devil. The wolf rather drew the short straw, taking on the full persona of the devil. It was portrayed as brutish and rapacious, with a voracious appetite for food and sex. It prowled in the dark, its eyes shining like seductive beacons in search of human souls. Such images of wolves can still be found in the marvellous ‘growlers; who haunt the terrifying world of Nigel Hinton’s Beaver Towers. C S Lewis, too, chose a wolf, called Maugrim, to accompany the White Witch in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, whose brutality is never far from the surface despite his smooth-talking forked tongue. Remember how he welcomes Edmund to the White Witch’s stronghold:
“`Come in! Come in! Fortunate favourite of the Queen – or else not so fortunate. “‘
Maugrim is a direct descendent from the medieval bestiary.
The nature of evil and whether it’s something that comes primarily from outside or within ourselves is an eternal debate, but evil is far easier for children to handle when it’s externalised. The big bad wolf is undoubtedly one of the most successful devices for presenting evil to children in this externalised way, even though its specifically Christian context may be missing in our increasingly secular society.
The wolf was not only a symbol of the Devil but also a symbol of the Devil in Man. The fact that legends of werewolves, exist wherever wolves themselves have existed indicates an early recognition that the image of the wolf held a less than complimentary mirror up to human nature. In the werewolf, the devil and animal deep within were seen to surface, creating a myth that’s gone from strength to strength. It’s also proved popular with a wider variety of writers than one might initially think. For example, the popular graphic novel character Wolverine (affectionately known as ‘Wolvie’ to its creators) leapt into a series of its own having been transformed from `wild man psycho butcher’ to `failed samurai’! Contrast this macho mass market approach to Tanith Lee’s story `Wolfland’ or Angela Carter’s ‘Wolf-Alice’, two of the stories to feature female werewolves, which use this image to explore the strength of the female psyche. Go back to the medieval Breton lays of Marie de France for the sympathetic courtly tale of Bisclavret in which a nobleman/werewolf is betrayed by his wife and compare this to the entertaining mix of horror, romance and comedy of the film An American Werewolf in London.
But for me the ultimate werewolf book has to be Gillian Cross’s Wolf. Of course it’s not literally a werewolf book but, if werewolf literally means ‘man-wolf’, it’s more than close enough.
Wolf is a disturbing but rewarding book. Underneath the fast-moving plot of a tense and realistic thriller lies an extraordinary exploration of the emotions of a 13-year-old girl about the father she’s never really known, the father who is also a killer. And from her childhood, from her subconscious comes the story of Red Riding Hood, now a terrifying reality:
… and the thing leaped out of the shadows – mouth open vast, black, slavering – its red eyes glaring and its hot, foul breath strong on her face – huge and grey, with the wolf legs kicking free of the human clothing – all animal, all beast – and no time to think of Nan or what to do or how to avoid the stained, curving, murderous teeth…’
This is a book about violence, about sexuality, about oedipal desires, about the disintegration of family and society – but none of that ever needs to be said overtly. Indeed, what do any children reading the book care about an intellectual analysis of this kind? All they know is the book is alive and real, keeps them turning the pages till the end, and keeps them thinking about the story long after the book is finished.
For anyone who would argue that this might not be material for a children’s book, now might be the time to remind them of the original Red Riding Hood. And it’s worth noting that some early versions of the story feature a werewolf rather an a wolf.
Lastly, I do want to make a formal apology to all wolves everywhere. They’ve been treated most unfairly. We have exploited animals in literature almost as shamelessly as we have in real life. Let’s hope at least we learn something from it about ourselves.
Philippa Milnes-Smith is Editorial Director for Puffin and Viking.
Details of books mentioned:
The Wolves of Willoughby Chase (1962), Joan Aiken, Cape, 0 224 60004 4,;E7.99; Red Fox, 0 09 997250 6, £2.99 pbk
William and the Wolves (1991), Kathryn Cave. Viking, 0 670 834874, £7.50; Puffin, 014 034516 7, £2.99 pbk
The House of Rats (1991), Stephen Elboz, Oxford, 019 271664 6, £7.95; 0 19 271727 8, £3.75 pbk
Beaver Towers (1983), Nigel Hinton, Hodder, 0 340 32105 9, £2.99 pbk
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1951), C S Lewis, HarperCollins, 0 00 183180 1, £6.95; Lions, 0 00 671663 6, £3.50 pbk
Wolverine (1987), Chris Claremont, Frank Miller and Josef Rubinstein, Marvel Books, 1 85400 015 2, £5.50
Wolf (1980), Gillian Cross, Oxford, 019 271633 6, £7.95; Puffin, 0 14 034826 3, £3.50 pbk
Tanith Lee’s story `Wolfland’ and Angela Carter’s ‘Wolf-Alice’ are both in The Bloody Chamber and other stories (1979), Penguin, 0 14 012837 9, £5.99 pbk
For background reading on wolves (and much else besides) we’d recommend:
Don’t Bet on the Prince (1986), ed. Jack Zipes, Gower, 0 566 05460 4, £7.95 pbk
Breaking the Magic Spell (1979), Jack Zipes, Heinemann Ed., now o/p
The Uses of Enchantment (1976), Bruno Bettelheim, Penguin, 0 14 013727 0, £8.99 pbk