The wolf has always been a creature of legend and romance, of all animals one of the most invoked, celebrated and feared. In the Dark Ages, kings offered rewards, or pardons for wrongdoings, to those who collected sacks of wolves’ tongues. January, the leanest and harshest time of year, was known as ‘wolf-month’. Saxons and Danes used the word ‘wolf’ as part of the personal names of warriors and leaders, such as Aethelwulf or Cynewulf. A wolf was associated with St Edmund, the 10th century East Anglian king and martyr, who was for long the unofficial patron saint of the English. It was said to have guarded his head and helped monks and the king’s followers to find it. Despite this, the wolf was usually reviled by church scribes, carvers and illuminators. It is depicted as a sly and slinking beast, and as a symbol of evil and sin. But its fierceness and prowess was also acknowledged. Medieval lords took the wolf as their emblem in heraldry, while outlaws and renegades might be likened to wolves, and relish the comparison. As fairy tales began to be fashioned out of traditional and courtly fabric from the 18th century onwards, the wolf’s loping form was seldom far away. Little Red Riding Hood was by no means the only tale to feature a Big Bad Wolf. Wolves, along with ruined abbeys or castles, saturnine villains, immurement, phantoms, graveyards, decay and wronged heroines, were also very much part of the macabre landscape of the Gothic novel in the early 19th century. To begin with, wolves were also traditionally given the role of villains in fantasy literature; examples include J R R Tolkien’s White Wolves, who terrorised the Shire during an exceptionally cold winter, and the Wargs that are in league with the Orcs, in addition to Maugrim of C S Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. More recently, however, wolves have increasingly been given the role of heroes in fantasy fiction. Any journey into the fictional realm of the wolf therefore invokes no little trepidation, as well as excitement, in the heart of any reader.
One of the early examples of a more positive portrayal of wolves is The Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander, in which there are two wolf characters, Brynach and Briavel, who are on the ‘good side’ and communicate with humans. More and better, however, was soon to come. In the Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan, wolves are portrayed as highly intelligent animals having a strict code of honour, with whom some non-lupine characters can communicate using a visual-mental system which is the usual method of communication between wolves. Jordan’s Wolfbrothers, including one of his main heroes Perrin Aybara, can be recognised by their golden, wolflike eyes and their heightened senses, which are more akin to those of a predatory animal’s than a human’s. They also have the ability, perhaps through their unique lupine heritage, to enter the World of Dreams. In the Song of Ice and Fire series by George R R Martin, the main noble house of the series, the Starks, have a direwolf as their family symbol. In the beginning of A Game of Thrones the five Stark children and their bastard half-brother Jon Snow find six direwolf pups near their dead mother. The Stark children take the pups as pets and build strong bonds with them, almost so much so that their fates seem to mirror one another. In the Farseer trilogy by Robin Hobb once again we find humans and wolves communing, this time by means of the ancient ‘Beast-magic’ known as the Wit. Hobb’s creation of the wolf Nighteyes, companion to her hero FitzChivalry Farseer, is both endearing and original, as well as one of her most memorable characters.
In The Wheel of Time, A Song of Ice and Fire and the Farseer trilogy, wolves are very much depicted in a positive manner but even in modern fantasy fiction they do not always appear as ‘one of the good guys’. Guy Gavriel Kay, an author influenced by Tolkien more than most, drew upon the more sinister aspect of the wolf in his creation of the villainous Galadan, Wolflord of the Andain demi-gods and chief lieutenant of the dark god Rakoth Maugrim (whose name also contains an echo of C S Lewis’s lupine villain mentioned above). A prowling, possessed timber wolf stalks and attacks several of the main protagonists in Stephen King’s apocalyptic novel Desperation. The Pellinor saga by Alison Croggon features a pack of wolves who voluntarily serve the necromancer Inka-Reb, and depicts the faerie queen Ardina assuming the form of a wolf. In writing her story, Croggon and others have drawn on a grand old tradition, for tales of transformation from human to wolf form are as old as storytelling itself. All over the world tales have been told of human beings cursed with the horrifying affliction of changing under the full moon into wolf-men and destroying those they love the most. However, it is on the whole increasingly rare to find negative portrayals of wolves (or werewolves for that matter) in the realm of fantasy fiction.
Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight saga, for example, features a Native American tribe who shape shift into a pack of giant wolves to defend themselves from their vampiric enemies. The theme of werewolves at odds with their stablemates in the horror pantheon – vampires – is a recurring one in the worlds of True Blood, The Vampire Diaries, Being Human and Underworld. Perhaps the earliest and certainly one of the best portrayals of this ‘race war’, however, is The World of Darkness’s game world of Werewolf: The Apocalypse (now sadly superseded by the very much inferior Werewolf: The Forsaken). WtA features a bold reinvention of the classic werewolf theme with lycanthropes re-cast as shapeshifting eco-warriors locked in a two-front war against both the spiritual desolation of urban civilization and supernatural forces of corruption that seek to bring about the Apocalypse. Great stuff! As a fan of anime and manga, I should also give a special mention to Wolf’s Rain, a post-apocalyptic series about wolves using spells to appear as humans and the myth about a long journey in search of their paradise before the end of the world. William Horwood, the master of the anthropomorphic fantasy in the form of classics such as The Duncton Chronicles and The Stonor Eagles, also added to the genre with his epic Wolves of Time saga. Perhaps the best example, however, of the evolution of the wolf in the fantasy genre appears in another graphic novel series: Fables.
Bill Willingham’s excellent series re-imagines the classic characters from fairy tales and folklore as a group of real people from hundreds of scattered worlds – collectively called the Homelands – who arrived in our world long ago as refugees fleeing the invading armies of a merciless conqueror known as The Adversary. Once here they formed a clandestine community in New York City known as Fabletown – a tiny, secretive neighbourhood taking up only one modest city block along a small side alley named Bullfinch Street. Strong spells of misdirection have been laid all over the place but, if you were to stroll down Bullfinch Street by accident, you would notice nothing unusual about its residents. The people who live in Fabletown are far from normal, however, and in most cases look no older now than they did when they first arrived there, hundreds of years ago. More importantly, they all bear more than a passing resemblance to many popular characters from world mythology, folklore and fairy tales. Fables who are unable to blend in with human society (such as monsters and anthropomorphic animals) live at ‘The Farm’, Fabletown’s annex in the wild reaches of Upstate New York. The Farm is run with a loose hand by Rose Red, the wild child sister of Snow White, who was once deputy mayor of Fabletown and now lives in Wolf Manor with her husband Bigby (once known as The Big Bad Wolf but now able to take irascible human form). Notorious from tales such as Little Red Riding Hood, The Three Litte Pigs and Peter and the Wolf, Bigby has a shady past but is now very much a reformed, indeed a heroic character. Much like the wolf throughout fantasy fiction these days!