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 Whether it's Little Red Riding Hood or the decimation of the Arctic or Fenris chained by the gods, send your best unpublished paintings, photography, fiction, poetry, lyrics, essays to - and spread the word.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?


Andrew Hallam said...

A little note about dogs vs. wolves: I think the important difference is that the wildness of wolves marks them as either their own masters, or the slaves of their own ravenous, uncontrolled and uncontrollable appetites. Dogs, on the other hand, obey a master. Their appetites are thereby regimented and focused for other ends. Cerberus and Hecate's dogs are at the service of hell, Hades, and Hecate, though in their own way just as terrifying as the wolf stalking the edges of our collective unconscious. The moral here may be that dogs as domesticated animals are part of the cosmic order and its servants. They represent the civilized and civilization, which is their master. On the other hand, like Fenris, wolves stand outside the order, in its darkest aspect stalking its edges and eager to do violence to that order as Perrault's Wolf wishes to violate Little Red Riding Hood. In its more benevolent aspect, I wouldn't be surprised if the wolf is again the light-bringer who nevertheless stands outside the cosmic order, but is the light-bringer precisely because of he stands outside a kind of cosmic darkness that needs light. Or something.

Of course, we shouldn't forget Sauron. As usual, Tolkien blurs the line between the two. As one of Morgoth's servants early on in "The Silmarillion," Sauron could take the form of a terrifying werewolf. Thus, Sauron was as ravenous a wolf as we could hope for, while also being one of Morgoth's servile "dogs," only later being consumed by his appetite for power.

Anonymous said...

I made the wolf a parmour in my book - he was so interesting to explore. Wolves seem so mysterious to me, and seemingly always on the fringes of the world. Just glimpsed at the edge of the forest, or at night scavenging near a road or cabin. How is he perceived and loved? Or judged and feared?

Here's a little excerpt, if I may:

"Into the Belly of the Wolf"

Trees howl.
The wind shakes.
After all he is a wolf.
Why should he expect finer harbors than these?
Sweeter sounds? Sharper teeth?
The beast that's loved has more than he.

Love eludes him, Beauty betrays.
Once though, more than once, he believed her, loved her,
followed her into a forest.
Over and over, she appears between the trunks, an image
flickering on a screen.
Then losing her -

Forgotten for another,
recedes into shadow, the villain of a story, and forgotten
by all.

But his footsteps make deep impressions in the sand.
They weave around in great circles of indecision.
The sun reclaims the sky from another storm.
He walks away from it too.
Walks toward the Quarter,
Toward his home,
His hearth.
Following his footsteps
Retracing his path
And opening the wound again
To love.

How dark it is inside the wolf.
How lonely devotion finds him
Filling bottles with blood,
Oceans with tears,
And leaving him no other gift but a scar
To remind him of his destiny.

-from "The Sun", Lisa Stock

Dante's Heart said...


That last stanza is beautiful. Thanks for sharing that!

Is this a book that's already out, or one that's coming out?

Anonymous said...

It's available now! :)


mel said...

I and my family have always felt it something of a duty to keep the nothing away, my motivation being the image of that wolf, hiding in a cave just small enough to conceal him but reveal his eyes, somehow expanding into a darkness that would consume the world. And yet my brother has taken the wolf as a kind of personal symbol, for its independence and solitary life. And further still, for me there's something to the idea of such a lone wolf having a kind of benevolence and nobility, as nature condescending to silly humans or recognizing a fellow nobleness, an image of savage power waiting behind the personal restraint. Of course, that could just be my wanting to believe in a cuddly puppy hiding somewhere within the beast.

Dante's Heart said...

Dear readers,

We have re-opened this post for discussion on our message board! Come take a look.

The thread is meant to allow us to collect bits of folklore and fantasy around wolves - favorite bits of reading material, provocative quotations, notable artwork - even while we work to collect fresh new work for our special issue in the fall.

See you at the message board!