A friend of mine recently got pregnant, and told me she’s been having nightmares about wolves eating her baby and making her buy another child. It made me stop and think about wolves, and the power they have over our imaginations . . . largely a power that results from story.
I don’t think I’ve ever lived in an area where there were wolves; they were never an actual problem, but still, wolves loom large. They are themselves, but they are also a human-made metaphor for things that worry us greatly.
In “Little Red Riding Hood,” the wolf was a predator who ate little girls, as well as grandmothers. There was a moral to the story: don’t talk to strangers, or if you are sick in bed, don’t forget to lock the door.
The wolf as sexual predator was common in pop culture during the first half of the 20th century. Young women would call a problem male a “wolf.” Whistles at attractive young women were called “wolf whistles.” In cartoons, a male character when catching sight of a pretty girl would transform into a wolf . . . eyes bulging, two fingers in the mouth whistling.
Wolves didn’t have to be sexual predators, though. In “The Three Little Pigs,” the wolf was a force of nature . . . huffing and puffing houses down in an attempt to eat the pigs. In this story, the motive is spelled out: the wolf is hungry. So, it’s almost easy to sympathize with the wolf, but the moral of this story is that there are right ways and wrong ways to get a meal, and sliding down the chimney will land a wolf in hot water, not in front of the dining table.
In “The Three Little Pigs,” the wolf is always defeated. Sometimes he’s killed, and sometimes he’s given such a bad experience he gives up and runs away.
In “Little Red Riding Hood,” the wolf is also defeated, but not by the main characters. A woodsman comes and kills the beast. Sometimes Little Red Riding Hood and her grandmother survive, sometimes they don’t.
James Thurber wrote a very short story where Little Red did have agency . . . she pulled a gun out of her basket and shot the wolf dead.
It’s interesting how modern writers take an ancient terror, and transform it into something that can be defeated. Wolves get shot by little girls, who are not as trusting as they used to be. Werewolves turn into sexy beasts. Vampires have backstories as simple accountants, doing their best in their jobs.
Some say the witch started out as a wise woman, got a bad reputation when the patriarchy breezed in, and then was reclaimed in the 20th century as a wise woman again. Terry Pratchett’s witches, who embody the Maiden, the Mother and the Crone, portray a complex kind of every-woman, women who are both steeped in the practicality of their everyday lives, but also touched by magic. They aren’t evil. Well, except for Black Aliss, who went a bit strange at the end of her life.
I suppose that in the 20th and 21st century, we conquered a lot of terrors. Lights brighten the night and make it safer to travel. Smallpox, consumption, scarlet fever are all stories from a book for the most part. Shotguns and helicopters control the wolf population. So our monsters are allowed to transform, to redeem their reputations and be heroes in their own right.
But not all terrors have been conquered. The burning sun, fire in the forest, the fever of a novel coronavirus . . . our beasts and boogeymen in fiction now fight with us side-by-side, with the final result as uncertain for all of us.