What is a Wolf? A text on the relationship between writing and animals – Fergus Doyle

Fergus Doyle is currently studying a masters in Literature and Modernity at the University of Edinburgh. He is interested in subjects prefixed by ‘post’, such as postmodernism, post-humanism and post-truth.


Image credit: Per Harold Olsen/NTNU via Flickr

What is a Wolf? A text on the relationship between writing and animals

It is on long winter nights such as these, when the moon is full and the snow lies fresh fallen on the ground, that one’s thoughts begin to turn to wolves. The fairy tales always speak of them hunting on nights like these… and “if you stray from the path for one instant, the wolves will eat you”.[1] But for people like ourselves, Western Europeans of the twenty-first century, a wolf is a difficult thing to imagine. They have been completely “co-opted into the family and into the spectacle”;[2] those which inhabit the former are Canis Lupus’ close cousins, Canis Lupus Familiarus (quite literally the household wolf), the domestic dog, while those which remain as Canis Lupus are so alienated from modern life that we cannot imagine them in their natural habitats without picturing the Big Bad Wolf, or else with the bars of a zoo enclosure framing the image. And yet their spectre still haunts our cultural imagination, even if the wolf no longer exists as Derrida’s cat, “that is truly a little cat”,[3] exists. So the question that must be asked is this: what is a wolf? How does it exist – how can it exist – in the modern world?

The Christian world has no love for a Wolf. They were, after all, the apex predators of Europe for many centuries, and once humans began to hunt their prey, the wolves began to hunt theirs. According to Vladimir Heptner, in the 1980s “2 mature and 6 young wolves destroyed during 8 months […] 6 horses, 1 foal, 5 cows, 150 sheep and goats, 3 pigs and many domestic geese, ducks and hens”.[4] Given the sheer amount of destruction one small pack could cause, one can easily see why wolves became one of the most feared animals in Europe, and we can see how this fear fed into the stories that people told to each other.

Walter Benjamin tells us that the story must contain “overtly or covertly, something useful”[5] drawn from “[e]xperience which is passed on from mouth to mouth”[6] over many years. The story in its oral form, he says, is constantly evolving and constantly retains something relevant to its audience across this time. As such, given the relationship between the Europeans of the pre-Industrial era and wolves, one can see what “practical advice”[7] is being related in stories such as the precursors to ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ and ‘Peter and the Wolf’: in this case, according to Valerius Geist, it was “not to enter the forests containing wolves and be on the lookout for such”.[8] Similarly, one can see where a proverb such as ‘to keep the wolf from the door’ might come from, or why you should never trust ‘a wolf in sheep’s clothing’ or someone with ‘a wolfish grin’. Simply that as wolves were the greatest non-human danger that humans faced, they became the embodiment of that which is evil.

Then three things happened in the nineteenth century which were to cement this idea in the European cultural imagination. As the industrial revolution began to spread across the continent, people began to migrate from rural areas where wolves were a regular danger to the cities, where wolves only existed within the safe confines of zoos. Then, in 1812, the first edition of Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm’s Children’s and Household Tales was published, containing Little Red Riding Hood’ and ‘The Wolf and the Seven Young Kids’, both of which contain a murderous wolf. Although these stories were created through oral tradition, in transcribing, editing and publishing them, the brothers Grimm curtailed “that slow piling up, one on top of the other, of thin transparent layers”[9] of narrative which first created them. As such, the finished text is like a fossil or an insect trapped in amber.

It shows us what these fairy tales were like at the end of the eighteenth century, giving us an insight into the contemporary fears and the advice of the storyteller in how to confront these challenges. It also cements the idea of the wolf being the most dangerous creature of the forest, cunning and evil; the opposite, however, was true. Over the hundred years following the publication of the Grimm’s Tales, the lupine population of Central and Northern Europe was wiped out, and their numbers in the East fell drastically. Therefore, by the time of the First World War very few of those who knew the wolf to be something so terrifying would ever have encountered one in the wild, and their position as apex predator had been comfortably superseded by humans. Humanity has reduced the wolf to an abstract; no longer is it a real threat, a specific wolf about to kill one’s specific sheep, but has been “homogenized […] by means of violence and wilful ignorance, within the category of”[10] wolf.

So now the “Wolf” is only a metaphor or allegory for something vicious, carnivorous and predatory. In her text Love of the Wolf, Hélène Cixous uses this image of the “wolf” as a foundation for her wolf. She makes a delineation between this wolf and the “real” wolf: “It’s not the race of wolves that we love, it’s not the wolf. It’s about a wolf, a certain wolf”.[11] It is possible to read this as Cixous discussing our love for individual wolves rather than wolves collectively. However, in saying that it is not the “race” of wolves that we love it could be read that we love metaphorical wolves, “a certain wolf”[12] being a certain type of wolf, a human wolf.

This is also the basis of three of the stories in Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber that deal with the idea of the “Wolf”; of these, ‘The Company of Wolves’ is probably the most useful to study. The function of the wolf in ‘The Company of Wolves’ is very different to that in ‘Little Red Riding Hood’. He is not pure wolf, but a werewolf, another kind of human wolf. In the original, the wolf is the danger; aside from being a general representation of the dangers of the forest, it does not have any complex metaphorical significance. However, in ‘The Company of Wolves’ the wolf is something else entirely. Indeed, he is not completely a wolf, but a lycanthrope. This highlights the metaphorical nature of the wolf in modern writing; as a hybrid, one can impose many significations onto him. The first, and most obvious, is the association between the image of the wolf, the “carnivore incarnate”[13] which pounces on girls,[14] and the image of the predatory male who eats the grandmother but beds the girl. The carnivorous violence of the wolf is translated in the man as sexuality; he is presented as “a very handsome young”[15] man, a “fine fellow” compared to “the rustic clowns of her native village”;[16] in the grandmother’s last moments she still takes note that his genitals are “huge. Ah! huge”[17] and that he is “naked as a stone” when “approaching her bed”.[18]

In the original tales there is no hint of this sexual attraction, most likely, if we refer to Benjamin’s theory, because it is not relevant to the moral or message that was intended to be imparted at the end. It also begins a complete dislocation of the idea of the wolf from its original; rather than being dangerous, something to avoid, the wolf in Carter becomes something sexually attractive when transposed onto the image of the man. Cixous explains this in her text as the feeling of “[t]o have almost been eaten yet not to have been eaten: that is the triumph of life”;[19]pleasure is derived from coming so close to the danger, and yet to have been spared by it, to be the chosen one of the wolf, which is seen to happen at the end of the story. Interestingly, this discussion also highlights how ‘The Company of Wolves’ is evidently a modern story rather than one of the oral tradition which it is based on that should, according to Benjamin, “preclude psychological analysis”.[20] Just as the wolf is no longer a fairy-tale wolf, the story itself has long ceased to be a fairy tale.

The wolf’s lycanthropy also forces him to undergo the “social monstering of the mutant”,[21] a process of exclusion grounded in his “otherness”. Although he is not “wholly other[22] as other animals are, in having some traditionally animal attributes he crosses “the limit between Man with a capital M and Animal with a capital A”[23] in the eyes of the society which he inhabits. A good example of this in Derridian terms is how werewolves are universally unashamed of their nakedness, and how nakedness always precludes a transformation. This is first introduced in the opening section of ‘The Company of Wolves’, which finishes: “if you spy a naked man among the pines, you must run as if the Devil were after you”.[24] This goes to further blur the lines between ‘animal’ and ‘human’; aside from his lycanthropy, the attributes of the man – cunning, libidinous, carnivorous – are, in general, found in normal, non-lupine humans.

And yet once Carter reminds the reader that he is a wolf “hairy on the inside”[25] one associates these qualities with the wolf in him rather than the human without. This is further reinforced at the end of the text when the girl and the wolf have their “savage marriage ceremony”.[26] As she burns her clothes and sleeps “between the paws of the tender wolf”[27] one could say she has embraced the wolf in her as well and renounced a portion of her humanity, despite the fact it is never overtly stated in the text. This, however, is implicit; for Cixous, it seems as though the wolf is “neither feminine nor masculine”,[28] something definitely found in all of us. This is further reinforced in the threat “eat me up, my love, or else I’m going to eat you up”,[29] if the wolf cannot act like a wolf, then the lamb might have to for him.

If the wolf-man is a sexually attractive figure, then what is attractive to him? As said above, the pleasure derived from being the recipient of the wolf’s love is self-evident, it is the pleasure of the unmanifested fear, but what benefit does the wolf take from loving his prey rather than feeding on it? And what is his prey, is it the one that he loves? Both texts suggest that the wolf will love the lamb; Cixous refers to the “the love the wolf feels for the lamb”[30] several times in the text, while Carter is more oblique. At the conclusion of the story she describes the girl as “immaculate flesh”[31] wearing a shawl “the colour of sacrifices”[32] which cannot help but invoke in the reader an image of the sacrificial lamb, even the lamb of Christ.

As such, this imagery creates a sense of binaries in the two people in this love affair; the first is the wolf, carnivorous, violent, traditionally ‘evil’, who loves the lamb, the innocent, passive symbol of peace. For both, the love is a renunciation of their nature; Cixous makes clear that the wolf “sacrifices itself herself to us”,[33]  it sacrifices its nature, while there is another implied sacrifice taking place with the lamb willingly walking into the jaws of the wolf. Here, according to Cixous, is where the wolf’s love comes from: it could eat the lamb, but stops “at the boundary”;[34] the wolf of Carter displays a similar urge. When he is approaching her to eat her at the climax of the story, he threatens to eat her and she “burst out laughing; she knew she was nobody’s meat”.[35] Superficially, this laughter may seem like defiance, and the denial that she was anybody’s meat a statement of sexual independence. However, when seen through the eye of Cixous, we can read the laughter as one of relief, “the lamb’s laughter”,[36] and the denial that she is “meat” an admission of love for the wolf.

And there we have it; the modern wolf. Two centuries of abstraction, “cultural marginalisation”[37] and fear have transformed the grey wolf of Europe into the Big Bad Wolf, and from that into the metaphors of Carter and Cixous. To look at it logically, one would not recognise the wolf “that truly is a[38] wolf in these later versions; how did a feared predator transform into a metaphor of sexual and amorous desire? One thing is certain though; when Cixous writes that “this wolf is a real wolf”,[39] she is lying. A real wolf would never spare a lamb.


[1] Carter, Angela, ‘The Company of Wolves’, The Bloody Chamber (London: Vintage, 1995), pp. 110-118, p. 111

[2] John Berger, ‘Why Look at Animals’, in About Looking (London: Bloomsbury, 2009), p. 15

[3] Jacques Derrida, ‘The Animal That Therefore I Am’, in Critical Inquiry, Vol. 28, No. 2 (Winter, 2002), pp. 369-418, p. 375

[4] V. G. Heptner et al., Mammals of the Soviet Union, Vol. II, Part 1a, from <http://www.biodiversitylibrary.org/ia/mammalsofsov211998gept#page/1/mode/1up&gt; [Accessed on 16/12/2015], p. 265

[5] Walter Benjamin, ‘The Storyteller: Observations on the Work of Nicolai Leskov’, in Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings. Vol 3: 1935-1938 (Cambridge MA: Belknap Press, 2002), pp. 143-152, p. 145

[6] Benjamin, p. 144

[7] Benjamin, p. 145

[8] Valerius Geist, When Do Wolves Become Dangerous To Humans, from <http://www.vargfakta.se/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/Geist-when-do-wolves-become-dangerous-to-humans-pt-1.pdf&gt; [Accessed on 16/12/2015], p. 20

[9] Benjamin, p. 150

[10] Derrida, p. 416

[11] Hélène Cixous, ‘Love of the Wolf’, in Stigmata (London: Routledge, 1998), pp. 84-99, p. 90

[12] Cixous, p. 90

[13] Carter, p. 110

[14] Carter, p. 111

[15] Carter, p. 114

[16] Carter, p. 114

[17] Carter, p. 116

[18] Carter, p. 116

[19] Cixous, p. 94

[20] Benjamin, p. 149

[21] Bennett & Royle, p. 255

[22] Derrida, p. 380

[23] Derrida, p. 398

[24] Carter, p. 113

[25] Carter, p. 117

[26] Carter, p. 118

[27] Carter, p. 118

[28] Cixous, p. 96

[29] Cixous, p. 95

[30] Cixous, p. 93

[31] Carter, p. 118

[32] Carter, p. 117

[33] Cixous, p. 94

[34] Cixous, p. 94

[35] Carter, p. 118

[36] Cixous, p. 94

[37] Berger, p. 15

[38] Derrida, p. 375

[39] Cixous, p. 9421779437454_5e84f6b098_h

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