There have been ample opportunities over the past few years for explorations of the religious, cultural and artistic valence of the vampire, but it’s beginning to seem as if werewolves are every bit as worthy of our attention. We’ve learned a lot about them of late: in the CW Network’s The Vampire Diaries, HBO’s True Blood and the continued revelations in the Twilight films.
We know, for example, that werewolves are shape-shifters, much like vampires, though they are their sworn, almost genetically-determined enemy. But recently we’ve learned that they can also make treaties and commit themselves to truces, fragile though they inevitably are. Vampires and werewolves can have common enemies (like witches), articulate common purpose (survival, most obviously), or strive heroically and movingly against their natural antipathies. Their relationship looks a lot like the dance between capitalists and communists in the waning years of Soviet power. “Trust but verify” is their watchword.
And now this mysterious figure has come out of our collective dream-world once again, hard on the trail of a no-longer-little Red Riding Hood in Catherine Hardwicke’s Red Riding Hood, released earlier this month.
We may think we know her story pretty well, but that’s not necessarily true—not least because it’s not a single story and, like most folklore, every age imagines it anew. This mystifying maiden’s tale was told with charming elegance and great insight by Catherine Orenstein in Little Red Riding Hood Uncloaked: Sex, Morality, and the Evolution of a Fairy Tale (Basic Books, 2002).
This wonderful book is full of surprises, like the fact that the werewolf, along with the witch, was an especially prominent figure in the inquisitorial landscape created by Reformation and Counter-Reformation. Or the fact that in 1589, Stubbe Peeter of Bedpur, Germany, confessed (under torture and threat of imminent execution) to being the serial rapist of his own sister and daughter, a child murderer, a cannibal, and a werewolf who had sold his soul in a sort of Satanic contract. This was widely reported in all the new-print European tabloids of the day.
And then there’s the fact that the Brothers Grimm were not the original source. That honor belongs to Charles Perrault, whose jarring and highly sexualized tale was designed for a very adult audience. Our prejudice for seeing fairy tales as child’s play may be Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm’s doing, though even their tales seem a little, well, a little too grim for children at times.
Perrualt’s story, published in Paris in 1687, went something like this:
Once upon a time, there was a young village girl who was more beautiful than any girl anyone had ever seen. Desire clung to her like an aroma, harried her like a curse, and defined her like a recurrent dream. Her grandmother made her a small, red hood that rendered her even more enchanting. And that was what she was wearing on the day her mother sent her on her fabled errand: to bring cakes and butter to her reportedly-ill grandmother.
The girl met the wolf on the way, but he was afraid to kill her there, for fear of the armed woodcutters all around them in the forest. He proposed a race to her grandmother’s house and took the shorter road himself. He knocked, pretended to be the girl. The unsuspecting grandmother invited him in and he promptly devoured her, then took her place in bed. The girl soon arrived, was invited in when she knocked, and then the wolf invited her to join him in bed.
So she strips herself of every garment, including that storied red hood, and joins the wolf, naked as Eve before the apple. Then comes their surreal bedroom chit-chat: What big arms! What big legs! What big ears! What big eyes! What big teeth… the wolf devours her in a gulp.
The moral of that story runs a lot deeper than the childish caveat, “don’t talk to strangers.” This is a very adult cautionary tale, with an overtly sexualized undertone: anyone can be a wolf. As the story’s poetic afterword put it, “Wolves may lurk in every guise.” And then there is my personal favorite: “Now, as then, this simple truth—sweetest tongue has sharpest tooth!” (That’s Orenstein’s brilliant translation from the French).
We probably all remember what the Grimm brothers hung on the architecture of that strange tale. The red hood has become a red cap. The girl is invited by the wolf to gather a bouquet of flowers to take to her grandmother. And after the wolf has devoured both the grandmother and the girl, he falls into a noisy, snoring sleep. The noise attracts the woodman who, sensing that this is no matronly snore, bursts into the home and sees the wolf asleep. He cuts the wolf’s belly open while he snores on, saves the two Jonah-like women, and replaces them with Zeus-like stones. Then the wolf awakens, attempts to run away, but dies under the bizarre weight in his belly.
And there is, in fact, a second ending, and a second wolf. At an unspecified later date, the whole thing apparently happened again. Only this time Little Red Cap runs straight to her grandmother’s house and bolts the door. The wolf perches on the roof, looking for a way in. The grandmother takes the water in which she had boiled her sausages that morning, places it in a stone trough under the eaves, and when the wolf is attracted to the smell, he falls from his perch and drowns in the gravy. So the cruel devourer becomes the feast.
Later versions would add even stranger details. Like the one where the little girl is invited unwittingly to eat her grandmother’s flesh and drink her blood by the big, bad wolf (shades of the rumored accusations against Jews and Lutherans there). Later still, the wolf would become a more sympathetic character, as in the 1966 classic by Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs, “Li’l Red Riding Hood,” a song that described a red-clad girl looking so good—eyes, lips, and heart—that she is “everything a big bad wolf could want.” So the spooky fairy tale has now transformed into a sort of love-story.
The latest film version, Red Riding Hood, is thus a knowing participant in a very long folkloric tradition that takes us all the way back to Early Modern Europe. There are intriguing gestures toward each of the tales Orenstein rehearses, and they’ve even added a little vampire logic for good measure. These werewolves can pass their powers on with a bite, but only in the once-every-thirteen-year interval of a “blood moon.” And in their case, every generation of werewolf becomes stronger, not weaker.
The plot amounts to a fairly simple star-crossed lover’s story, but with a twist. The red-clad heroine has been matched in a most spirited way to a local woodcutter since childhood; the two dream of running away together, to escape the small town and its wooded environs.
But the girl has recently been betrothed to a well-to-do blacksmith in the town, so the lovers decide to leave. On the very day of their departure, the wolf strikes, killing Red’s sister. When the men go hunting for the wolf it strikes again. A church sponsored wolf-killer named Solomon (brilliantly played by Gary Oldman) arrives in town, and the Inquisitorial logic of the original myth becomes prominent.
The Inquisition comes looking for secrets, convinced that this wolf is living in this town. And everyone in town has secrets. Red’s mother, for example, had been secretly in love with a local blacksmith before she was married off to a woodsman. Her first child, the one who has just been murdered, was fathered by her lover, not her husband. And now this curse too has passed on to the next generation, as the girl with the brilliant red cloak made for her by a mysterious grandmother (beautifully played by Julie Christie) is secretly in love with a woodsman even as she is betrothed to a blacksmith.
The werewolf, it turns out, was her father. He killed his eldest daughter, and the man who sired her, in a rage. He killed the grandmother when she figured out his secret, and cooked her up in a stew. The resilient young lovers defeat him, but before dying, he bites his younger daughter’s lover, cursing him to be a werewolf in turn.
So the boy leaves her to save her, promising to return when he is more in control of his newfound powers. She waits for him in her grandmother’s house, well outside the protective barrier of the town. The film ends when the wolf returns at a full moon, with a casual nod of his head, and an erotic gleam in the red girl’s eye.
Naturally, we are trained by the myth to worry about Red. But as a student of religion, and myth, I still want to worry a bit more about the Wolf.
If the figure of the vampire is designed to explore the subtle, sexy edge between the living and the dead, then the werewolf, and his vast folkloric offshoots, is designed to explore a similarly subtle, and similarly sexy, edge: that between the animal world and the human one. These wolves—whether they’re hunting vampires or courting Red—are human beings who may all-too-easily be transformed into beasts.
And back again.
More often than not, with no real control over the matter.
There is a rich constellation of mythological images connected to playing with these edges. We might recall how, in the brief two-generation period of the heroes in Classical Greek mythology—Hercules’ and Odysseus’ generation—the main task before them was the clearing of the natural world of monsters; all the dangerous predatory elements that threatened humanity. In other words, the work of civilization could not proceed until the woods had been cleared of predators—wolves, and boars, and lions preeminently; animals that eat human flesh.
In that mythic universe, wolves symbolized everything that threatens the stable human order. The trouble is, with the thicket cleared, all we did was make more space for the real wolves: the men. Look at the Oxford English Dictionary if you’re in any doubt about that; under wolf we read “a man given to seducing women.”
Shifting our gaze from Greece to Rome, we may note that the mythic founders of that imperial city, the brothers Romulus and Remus, were nursed as infants by a she-wolf, thereby blurring the otherwise emphatic line between the world of wild nature and the human world of ordered city life. The twin founders of Rome inherited a kind of savage wildness with that strange mother’s milk, as their later fratricidal enmity shows us all-too-well.
It was as if the wolf had been introduced into the city, and thus, ever after, we would need to be on our guard against the terrifying transformation of a human being into a wild animal, a predator (and in his extremity, even a consumer of human flesh). Here’s the Dictionary again: “Any ravenous, cruel, or rapacious person or thing.”
The Stoic moral essayist, Seneca, drafted three long books “On Anger,” and he began with a most instructive description of a human face growing progressively and increasingly enraged. Stop, he says to us at the end of his long poetic description, and ask yourself what you are seeing now. No longer the face of man, this is the face of a wild beast. This was the central moral challenge for Stoicism, in fact—how to avoid horrific transformations like that.
This metamorphosis was not playful like Ovid’s god-inspired chicanery; it was terrifying, and all too human.
The wolves outside the city walls threaten the life of the city. The wolves hidden among us may threaten the city even more. These are powerful mythic tropes, both the Greek and Roman ones.
But the werewolf appears to be an Anglo-Saxon and Teutonic, rather than a Greco-Roman, myth. And what is most striking about these “werewolves” is that they are even more wolf-like than the wolves are. More predatory, more violent, more dangerous.
There’s some confusion about the etymology of ‘were-wolf’ which appears to derive from the linkage of the words for “man” (vir) and wolf. But we hear a vague echo of “true” (wahr) in the name as well. The werewolf as a man-wolf. The werewolf as a true wolf.
And the truest wolf of all is, precisely, a human being.
Isn’t this perhaps the telling linguistic and mythic insight that makes our current fascination with the wolf so poignant? We know that human beings may be wolves at the core, but we have yet to figure out how to domesticate the savage animal within.