On the Appeal of the Werewolf

I decided to write a blog specifically about werewolf literature because I was writing a novel about werewolves. Blogging seemed a good way both to keep my name out there, and to get a handle on what werewolves mean in the context of a story. Months before that, however, I had already decided that my first novel would be about lycanthropes. Being a storyteller, I will explain my fascination in a story. Perhaps a true story, perhaps a myth, perhaps historical fiction. Judge for yourself.

I'm not a zoologist, but I have read up on the subject of wolves. And in my opinion, wolves are fascinating. If you are what you eat, then wolves are blood and vigor. Wolves are omnivorous, but their main food source is the meat of other animals. They are predators. Hunters. Contrary to what you may think, however, predators are not invincible in the wild. To the contrary, prey animals will use whatever it takes to defend their lives and their children, and the chance of prey besting predator in a straight-up fight is not insignificant. Successful predators learn to hunt intelligently. Wolves have a number of way to better their chances on the hunt. Cooperation is a big one. They hang together in familial units, and work together to earn their meals. Guile is another. Wolves can hunt using decoys, divide and conquer strategies, and coordinated attacks.

It used to be assumed that wolves had a rigid and linear hierarchy of dominant and submissive wolves. zoologists now know that this is not the case. When not hunting, wolves are usually found hanging out. They play with each other, or lounge around relaxing. Sometimes they explore-- curiosity is a noted attribute. Sometimes they fight, but contrary to popular belief, though, wolves do not kill each other for status, at least not in healthy families. A wolf pack normally consists of an alpha male, alpha female, and their children. In general, the alpha pair lead the pack, the older children help keep the adolescents in line, and the whole group takes care of and discipline the pups. Within each rank, their are quarrels: siblings fighting each other for respect and attention, but in the end they pack is held together by the bonds of familial love. Wolves are expected to leave the pack and find mates of their own as they mature, but generally the pack is a stable if rambunctious organization.

It is not expected that the family will be permanent and unchanging, however. Like many predators, wolves stake out territories, and can be rather protective of them. They're known to drive off intruding wolves, and sometimes engage in feuds over territory. Eventually, young wolves will reach the point in their lives where they wants a space of their own. And this is nature's intent: young wolves will grow up and leave their parents, to make their own way in the world, and stake out their own territories. And eventually, they will find mates of their own, territories of their own, and there start a new family unit. This is how wolves spread across the world, eventually becoming one of it's most wide-ranging predators.

If parts of the sound familiar, it is because wolves and a lot like men. Let me tell you the tale of man:

Humans evolved from primates. Primates are omnivorous, but -- at least among extant specimens -- they favor plants as a food source. In the rainforests where they grew up, plants are everywhere, and much easier to catch than beasts. Which means that when humans finally left the African rainforests in search of new opportunities, they had to have found themselves in a bit of a bind. Outside the rainforests, the huge leafy trees that had sustained them were few. There were grasses and bushes, but not enough. Early man would have been struggling to keep himself fed. Until he met the wolf.

At the time, wolves were masters of the earth -- the fossil record shows that. Wolves had penetrated nearly every land biome north of the equator. Only the rainforests and the worst deserts were too much for them. And they lived not off the food that humans were used to, but off the food that was available: elk, deer, bison, wildebeests. Early man, struggling to find food, would have seen the wolves stalking, and chasing, and killing their prey. And he would have said "Ahhhh... now that's an idea!" And so he watched. And he mimicked, until he could do the same.

And man learned to hunt like the wolves: with speed, guile, and the cooperation of his fellow men. And they learned to be like the wolves: since men did not have killing teeth, he developed knives and spears -- the distant ancestors of modern tools and technology -- to compensate. And they organized themselves like wolves, in small familial units. Sometimes one family, sometimes several in a tribe, but always the same concept. Everyone worked together, so that everyone could eat. And they adopted real wolves into these families, thus creating the first domesticated dogs. Dogs are known today to be loyal, and with good reason: they were raised as part of the family.

And in the end, there was Homo sapiens. Man, the hunter and gatherer. Born to the apes, he had reached beyond his origins. He had fed himself and prospered by learning from the wolf. But not simply mimicking. He acted like a wolf, thought like a wolf, and in a sense had become the wolf. And what he had learned, he taught to his children, and them to their children, and their children's children, and all the way down the line of descent to you and me. Modern man. Descended from that first hunter-gatherer, with the body of an ape and the mind of a wolf. In the philosophical sense, he was a werewolf, and by descent from him so are we.

In literature, supernatural monsters rarely represent supernatural ideas. In fact, they almost always represent some aspect of humanity, some thing inside us incarnated. The werewolf is strange to us, foreign. But it is also familiar. For the werewolf is man, in a state of nature. If the writer sees humanity as inherently noble and righteous, the werewolf will represent that. If the writer sees humanity as conflicted and troubled, the werewolf will represent that. If the writer sees humanity as violent, loathsome, and uncontrollable, the werewolf will represent that. But never is the werewolf something from beyond. He is always something from within. Something that, underneath the fur and the sharp incisors, is distinctly human. Werewolves are fascinating purely and solely because humans are.

And what could possibly be more fascinating than a human being?

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