Supernatural Elements in English Literature: the Werewolves

Supernatural Elements in English Literature: The Werewolves A werewolf, also known as a lycanthrope, is a mythological or folkloric human with the ability to transform into a wolf or an anthropomorphic wolf-like creature, either purposely or after being placed under a curse and/or lycanthropic affliction through a bite or scratch from a werewolf, or some other means. This transformation is often associated with the appearance of the full moon, as popularly noted by the medieval chronicler Gervase of Tilbury, and perhaps in earlier times among the ancient Greeks through the writings of Petronius.

In addition to the natural characteristics inherent to both wolves and humans, werewolves are often attributed strength and speed far beyond those of wolves or men. The werewolf is generally held as a European character, although its knowledge spread through the world in later times. Shape-shifters, similar to werewolves, are common in tales from all over the world, most notably amongst the Native Americans, though most of them involve animal forms other than wolves.

Werewolves are a frequent subject of modern fiction, although fictional werewolves have been attributed traits distinct from those of original folklore. For example, the ideas that werewolves are only vulnerable to silver bullets or pierced by silver weapons, or that they can cause others to become werewolves by biting or wounding them derive from works of modern fiction. Werewolves continue to endure in modern culture and fiction, with books, films and television shows cementing the werewolf’s stance as a dominant figure in horror.

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The very first transformation scene in werewolf literature was penned by the Roman poet, Ovid. Written in the 1st Century AD, the scene shows even the ancient writers knew what readers wanted to see: … There he uttered howling noises, and his attempts to speak were all in vain. His clothes changed into bristling hairs, his arms to legs, and he became a wolf. His own savage nature showed in his rabid jaws, and he now directed against the flocks his innate lust for killing. He had a mania, even yet, for shedding blood.

But though he was a wolf, he retained some traces of his original shape. The greyness of his hair was the same, his face showed the same violence, his eyes gleamed as before, and he presented the same picture of ferocity. From Lycaon’s name we get the word “Lycanthropy” or the state of being a werewolf. From mythology, the werewolf entered legend. In the works of Herodotus and Petronius, the werewolf goes from being a mortal cursed by a god to a shape-shifting witch or warlock with evil intentions. In Petronius’ The Satyricon is a segment sometimes called “Niceros’ Story.

Stories like “Niceros’ Story” were common well up to the feudal times. The werewolf was a man, transformed into the animal with all its vulnerabilities. Geraldis Cambrensis tells about two Irish folk cursed by an abbot, to be wolves for their ungodliness. After seven years penance as wolves, they were to change back into humans and return home. The Rawlinson Manuscript tells about “King Arthur and Gorgalon”. Gorgalon is another poor individual cursed to be a wolf. These medieval werewolves did not kill men or livestock, and could even speak the Name of God to prove their goodness.

They are victims of priests, witches and often their own sin. THE LITERARY WEREWOLF The Renaissance ushered in a new era, that of the literary werewolf. John Webster wrote of moral werewolves and vampires in his play The Duchess Of Malfi (1613), figurative creatures rather than literal ones. William Beckford, writing a century later during the Age of Reason, briefly mentions the lycanthrope in his arabesque tale Vathek (1787)as does Charles Maturin in his masterpiece, Melmoth The Wanderer (1820).

Other literary figures like Mrs. Crowe and Alexandre Dumas wrote works with werewolves central to the plot. Even the prolific and sanguine Penny Dreadfuls–semi-illiterate, often plaguaristic, newspapers sold for a penny a page–produced one lycanthrope: Wagner, The Wehr-Wolf (1846) by G. W. M. Reynolds. With the exception of Wagner, more often than not, the werewolf was used as a metaphor for the beastly sins of glutton, cruelty and avarice than as an actual creature. Despite works with Romantic tonalities like George

MacDonald’s “The Gray Wolf” and “The Romance of Photogen and Nycteris” as well as Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Ollala”, the majority of Victorians–perhaps the single period to produce the greatest werewolf classics–preferred the supernatural approach, in adventure stories like Rudyard Kipling’s “The Mark of the Beast”(1891), moral tales like Clemence Houseman’s “The Werewolf”(1896) and the masterpiece of vampirism, Dracula (1897) by Bram Stoker. More interesting to the lycanthrophile is the excised first chapter, published as “Dracula’s Guest” in 1914.

In this chapter–cut because of the novel’s length–Jonathan Harker leaves his carriage, which is taking him to Transylvania, and gets lost in a snowstorm. The graveyard he takes shelter in is inhabited by the undead. Only Dracula’s appearance as a great, red-eyed wolf, saves Harker, so that he can go onto Castle Dracula and the well-known events there. It is with Stoker and the other Victorians that lycanthrope returns to its true state as a supernatural creature, but retains some allusive qualities as a literary device.

The Twentieth Century brought many works about werewolves, more than in any preceding era. Early on these works resemble their Victorian counterparts in the works of writers like Algernon Blackwood and Eden Phillpotts, dealing largely with moral evil embraced in traditional ghost story techniques. It took a novel by New Yorker, Guy Endore (Harry Relis), to change the werewolf theme forever. Before Endore, the only werewolves to comment on social ills or the state of Mankind, were the allusive villains of Webster, evil men but not in actuality flesh-eating monsters.

Endore combine the “actual” werewolf and the “literary” werewolf to create a modern classic. During the years that Endure wrote The Werewolf Of Paris, the greatest explosion of entertainment writing in American history was taking place. During the 1920-50’s the Pulp magazines dominated popular entertainment. Titles like Weird Tales and Strange Stories produced hundreds of works about werewolves and other monsters. One writer who exemplified an imaginative use of the werewolf, was Robert E. Howard, the creator of Conan the Cimmerian.

One of his very first stories was the vignette “In the Forest of Villefere”(1925) which first introduces de Montour, a man who meets a werewolf and kills him in wolf form. By so doing, he assumes the curse from the last victim. When we meet him again in “Wolfshead”(1926) we get to see how the curse comes on him like a ghost, possessing him and turning him into a “wolf man”. De Montour was standing, legs braced, arms thrown back, fists clenched. The muscles bulged beneath his skin, his eyes widened and narrowed, the veins stood out upon his forehead as if in great physical effort.

As I looked, to my horror, out of nothing, a shapeless, nameless something took vague form! Like a shadow it moved upon de Montour. It was hovering about him! Good God, it was merging, becoming one with the man! It should be noted that Henry Hull had yet to appear as The Werewolf Of London and set Hollywood’s werewolf mould for all time. Across many stories, Howard sets down the idea that the wolf people, the harpies and other mythological creatures are ancient survivors of a time when man had yet to evolve from the trees. Contemporary with Howard was H.

Warner Munn who penned The Tales of the Werewolf Clan. Beginning with “The Werewolf of Ponkert”(1925) he creates a different image of the lycanthrope, not a man who becomes a wolf but another creature who only shares some of the wolf’s features: Munn’s work was inspired by a letter from H. P. Lovecraft published in Weird Tales. HPL asked “… why someone had not attempted a werewolf story narrated by the werewolf himself”. Munn tells the decline of a man who is selected against his will to join the wolf clan that is led by the fearsome Master, a vampire-like being who feeds on victims’ souls.

The sequel “The Werewolf’s Daughter”(1928) tells of the Werewolf of Ponkert’s daughter who is wrongfully prosecuted for his crimes. H. P. Lovecraft, whose fame lies with monsters on such a gigantic scale as to make the werewolf look trivial, himself used the werewolf in a collaborative story called “The Ghost-eater”(1923), in which the werewolf has been murdered but returns as a ghost, reliving over and over its revenge. He also used the lycanthrope in the poem, “The Howler”(1929).

MODERN WEREWOLVES With the coming of pulps like Astounding Science Fiction and Amazing Stories in the 1920’s, Science Fiction writers would eventually get around to explaining the werewolf in scientific terms, in magazines like John W. Campbell’s Unknown. Three of the most intriguing are “The Wolves of Darkness”(1932, Strange Tales) and the novel Darker Than You Think (1940, Unknown) by Jack Williamson and “There Shall Be No Darkness” (1950, Thrilling Wonder Stories) by James Blish.

Recent horror writers have used this same approach, playing fast and loose with the traditional werewolf but creating consistent, terrifying monsters. Whitley Strieber disposed with the shape-shifter altogether and gave us The Wolfen (1978), ancient wolf-like spirits who have been on the Earth longer than humans. Preying off the unwanted and derelict, the Wolfen are the top of the human food chain, taking the sick and the weak. The future of the werewolf is assured. The old lycanthrope has a few surprises left up his furry sleeve. ??

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