Showing posts with label wolves. Show all posts
Showing posts with label wolves. Show all posts

Saturday, 18 September 2010

Werewolf Literature and Native Wolves

A question was asked in one of the sessions at the She-Wolf conference that has got me thinking. In our panel on contemporary fantasy fiction, one delegate asked why so much of the current crop of werewolf fantasy is coming out of the US and Australia. Another delegate suggested that it was related to the fact that wolves (and other wild dogs) are native to these countries. This sparked some debate, as traditionally werewolf literature has been more common in countries where wolves are not native.

My own work is on European literature of the 12th-14th centuries, but also on 21st-century fiction, so I thought I'd give the question some thought. Feel free to comment!

Medieval werewolf literature (and by this I mean entertainment literature, rather than church texts) was generally produced in areas in which there were (are) no wolves. I remember once giving a paper on Marie de France's Bisclavret at a conference and being asked whether this text was influenced by the fact that folkloric belief and a 'fear of wolves'. It's hard to imagine the 12th-century aristocratic Marie, who was possibly residing at the Plantagenet court in England when she composed her poem, actually being frightened of wolves! Chances are she'd never so much as seen one.

However, medieval romance is a genre characterized by nostalgia. If we look, for example, at the 14th-century William of Palerne, the relationship between this generic nostalgia and the werewolf becomes apparent. Having been helped by the friendly werewolf to escape a forced marriage, William and Melior flee to the forest. Once there, they intend to live a rural and simple existence - Melior suggests that they survive by eating berries that they find. The werewolf and the forest form part of a rural idyll for which the lovers long.

Yet, as critics such as Corinne Saunders and Gillian Rudd have shown, the forest of 14th-century England (the country in which William of Palerne was produced) did not spread as far as has been previously believed. The forest had already been cut back, removed and urbanized in many areas. As is clear from romance texts, a fond folk-memory of the days when the entire country was covered by forest remained in the later Middle Ages - might we not also assume that this folk-memory also involved wolves? Though there were still some wolves left in Britain at the time when William of Palerne was produced, they were being hunted by the 'civilized' court. Thus a memory of wolves may also have been a 'memory' of a time when human beings lived in 'harmony' with nature, the forest and the wolves. Whether or not this 'harmony' ever actually existed is another question.

In medieval romance what we find is a nostalgic view of the 'olden days' - once upon a time, all this was forest and wolves/werewolves roamed free. And those of you familiar with Marie de France's Bisclavret will recognize that this is a fairly close approximation of the opening lines of the poem.

Jump forward to the 21st century...

Contemporary fantasy fiction also concerns itself with a certain type of nostalgia. However, the generic concerns are, in many respects, distinctly different to those of medieval romance. While a discomfort with urbanization and the destruction of 'nature' is apparent in both genres, this manifests itself in quite different ways.

Ecological concerns and the issue of how human beings impact on the natural world are common themes in contemporary urban fantasy. In Maggie Stiefvater's Shiver, the problem of hunting is raised, as the werewolf Sam is shot by Tom Culpeper - who believes he is simply hunting wolves. Werewolves are thus moved from the the 'once upon a time' world of the romantic forest, and into an arena in which the natural world comes into (often violent) confrontation with the urban.

One of the defining characteristics of contemporary urban fantasy is that it is set in the 'here and now'. It distinguishes itself from other types of fantasy fiction through its thoroughly 'realistic' setting in the modern world. Thus, it is harder to imagine a world in which werewolves might wander freely without running into problems of verisimilitude and believeability. It makes sense, therefore, that such fantasy takes place in a world in which there are already wolves - making it only a small imaginative leap to the existence of werewolves.

Both medieval romance and contemporary urban fantasy imagines a space in which werewolves could conceivably exist. Romance utilizes its generic tropes of nostalgia to conjure up a vast forest in which supernatural beings walk; urban fantasy depicts the 'realistic' world of the US/Australia, where people really do live alongside wolves or other wild dogs, before adding that some wolves may not be what they seem. By comparing the generic concerns and characteristics, it is clear that the former would be more common in areas where there are no wolves, whereas the latter (by necessity) is likely to be produced in areas where human beings live alongside native wild dogs.

That's my take on the problem. I'd love to hear other people's thoughts.