Last night, after a particularly busy day, I went outside to watch the stars. As I sat in the cool evening with only myself for company, I became aware of a distant sound, a haunting call that echoed faintly between the mountains. “Ah”, I thought with satisfaction, “The wolves have returned.”
My small town, located on the west coast of British Columbia, is surrounded on all sides by vast rainforests. We’re used to living in close proximity with nature. Deer eat my tulips, raccoons live in our attic, and black bears ramble through our streets almost every night during autumn — I have a ravaged, punctured ‘animal proof’ trash can to prove it.* However, the wolves rarely come into our community. They sing from the mountain tops when the summer comes. Late at night, when there’s no traffic, I can catch their faint howling on the still air.
The sound, while beautiful, once struck fear into the hearts of medieval folk, and I understand their reaction. Those notes hold a primal quality. It reminds us, no matter how distant we believe ourselves to be from brute nature, that we remain a part of the natural world, and perhaps we are not as high on the food chain as we’d like to think. To those living in medieval Europe, the wolf had no practical uses; unlike deer or boar, it could not be eaten, and its hide was notoriously difficult to tan. However, wolves posed a constant threat to the security of home and livestock. The wolf was reputed to devour human flesh, and those haunting notes were a reminded to all who heard them that people were food to be eaten. The terrifying concept of being devoured, often forgotten in today’s urban world, was ever-present in the medieval mind.
When it came to procreation, the wolf represented something more lascivious, too. Thomas Aquinas said that “in sexual intercourse, man becomes a brute animal”. The copulation of beasts is “loud and noisy,” said Albert the Great, while human coupling is “discrete, rational, prudent and bashful”. ** Placed against this ideal, the wolf was reputed for its insatiable lust. The wolf took what it wished, loved freely, and rejected any restrictions to its passion. Its carnal desires followed no rules. In a society which functioned on the constant suppression of desire, where man had been set apart from the animals by his reason and intellect, the wolf provided a poignant example of rampant sexuality.
The werewolf, then, represented the struggle between reason and impulse. Every transformation was the victory of mad desire over reason; what a horrifying thought to people who poured every resource into reaching a Heavenly ideal by rejecting earthly sin. It’s easy to see why the female werewolf is rare in medieval lore, for she was truly a terrifying beast to consider: an aberration of unrestrained female lust, an insatiable nymph with a savage hunger for the flesh of reasonable men. If that most rational creature in God’s creation, mankind, could barely contain his passion and took to the fields in the guise of a wolf, how much more untamable must the woman be who joins him?
Or, even worse, rejects him?
I’m thrilled to say that my short story, “A Woman of Wolves Born”, appears in the anthology Wolf-Girls: Dark Tales of Teeth, Claws and Lycogyny, but it was originally written as a companion piece to my first novel, The Tattooed Wolf. I wanted to play with a powerful female character in a medieval world. I wondered, how can a woman remain true to herself in a place that so desperately strives to restrict her? It’s a question that can be applied to women in many cultures and in many eras, but for me, the werewolf became the perfect symbol of an intelligent being trapped between two ideals: the role placed upon her by society and the freedom to be herself. For me, werewolves are not hungry monsters consumed with lust and blood; they’re creatures who have managed to straddle two worlds and have embraced their role in nature.
As I sat on my porch last night and listened to the wolves sing, my heart longed to be with them. That wild song, once responsible for making good medieval men tremble in fear like rabbits, spoke of dark glades and deep ravines far from the influence of church or state. I raised my voice, cupped my hands around my lips, and howled. At first, my voice wavered, but my notes grew stronger with each ardent breath.
And unbounded by rules or ceremony or silly old notions of sin, the distant wolves howled back.
*Here, air quotes are necessary. I’ve watched the bears tip over my trash can, then bounce on it until the top pops off. The manufacturer wasn’t specific about what kind of animal, I suppose, but it certainly isn’t bears.
** Really, Albert? I bet you weren’t exactly a hit with the ladies, were you…