Saturday, February 9, 2008
Questions about Wolves
(This breathtakingly ominous illustration is The Big Bad Wolf by the Colorado artist Graham Francoise, whose work you can view on this blog.)
Andrew's comment in response to my post about Cerberus has me thinking more about wolves and about the folklore of the wolf. It is almost difficult to come up with a folkloric figure so controversial and so pervasive as the wolf. So let me do three things in this post today: a challenge to you, a question, and finally, a poem to catch the edge of the mind and get everyone thinking about wolves.
First, the challenge:
I want to ask for writing or art having to do with the folklore of the wolf. Whether it's Little Red Riding Hood or the decimation of the Arctic or Fenris chained by the gods, send your best unpublished paintings, photography, fiction, poetry, lyrics, essays to firstname.lastname@example.org - and spread the word. I will put together a formal call for submissions shortly. In the event that we receive enough submissions of quality focused on wolf folklore, we will put out a special issue of Dante's Heart devoted to the subject. This would be exciting! I'm especially interested in finding out where we are, here at the near start of the 21st century, in looking at wolves as potent, alarming, or attractive creatures, figures, and symbols. What does the wolf mean to us today, and what do past stories or art about wolves mean to us today? This is our challenge to you: send us your answers!
I want to do a little research into the relationship of dog to wolf in ancient Greece - especially as related to Cerberus. So I toss out this inquiry: what do our readers know? What did the wolf mean to ancient Greece? Post your answers below, and I will bring what I find out back to the blog as I can.
A few instances I can think of: Herodotus telling us that among the Black Sea peoples, there are medicine men who at each full moon take on the form of a wolf and dig up fresh graves. (In this way Herodotus emphasizes the wildness of those "barbarian" tribes.) Another: the dark hounds that come at the crossroads by the dark of the moon with Hecate.
To whet one's appetite for material on wolves, here is a poem by Cole Swensen, a poet I admire greatly, from Such Rich Hour:
Beyond our aesthetic pleasure at the beauty of the poem and our intellectual pleasure at the challenge it poises to our assumptions about how to read a poem, what visceral, emotional reaction does the situation described within the poem provoke in us? Horror? Wonder? Fear? A Greenpeace advocate's outrage at the villainies ascribed to an animal? Queasiness?
One needs almost a moment of silence after hearing such a poem.
Consider the pathos and folklore of the starving, ravenous wolf. Those who are children of the 80s may remember the attack of the starving wolves in The Wilderness Family; those who know their Tolkien may remember how the hobbits told a story from their grandfathers that had acquired almost folkloric status: the white wolves crossing the Brandywine River to attack their Shire homes during the Long Winter when the river froze over. Possibly Tolkien's story is a remnant of the British memory of the Great Snow or the Great Frost. The Great Frosts were repeated bad winters during the Little Ice Age when the Thames would freeze over and the poor would die in their unheated hovels and the wolves would howl in their hunger right outside the streets of London itself. That was before factories and foundries heated up the world.
I should note here that my own childhood memory of wolves and of wolf stories is contradictory: one, the more noble and sorrowful portrait of the wolf in Never Cry Wolf, a creature vanishing, and two, the raw terror of myself as a child watching the green eyes in the dark of that terrible wolf in The Neverending Story. How is our culture today conflicted over wolves?