Well, it all started here when Alex Bledsoe talked about what he really thought about the vampires in the Twilight series. As always, Alex delivered a very thoughtful post, not just on the Twilight series, but on the subject of vampires as a whole. Then in my wanderings, I came across this post by James Long at his blog, Speculative Horizons, where he wrote about a Twilight fan’s rant regarding the movie, The Wolfman. Obviously, the young lady felt the werewolves weren’t realistic, because they didn’t present the cuddly team Jacob werewolf look of Twilight, among other issues.
While I’ve never read the Twilight series nor seen the movies, I did get to see Wolfman last night. The movie conveyed the essence of the werewolf theme beautifully, and no, the werewolves portrayed in Wolfman were not beautiful wolf-like creatures. They were beasts and loners. Murderers.
You see, expectations regarding the vampire, what a vampire is and does, are quite universal. Whether your vampire is lurking with Count Dracula, Edward Cullen, or Baron Rudolfo Vladimir Zginski, the vampire is about sex. This treatment goes far beyond Stoker’s Dracula, back into the Eastern European legends of the vampire (see the most excellent The Darkling: A Treatise on Slavic Vampirism by Jan Louis Perkowski). The werewolf, on the other hand, wasn’t a seductive creature at all, but a murderer, pure and simple.
While doing research for my third novel, I scoured the Internet and books for clues as to the nature of a werewolf. In doing so, I stumbled across an essay, “The Name of the Beast: A Consideration of the Historical Werwulf,” by Robert Dunbar. This is an excellent starting point for anyone’s research into the history of the werewolf. Of course, it was apparent in the essay, as most of us already know, that the consistent theme in werewolf lore is that of transformation, of allowing the beast within a man to show his face to the world.
Men who claimed to be werewolves during the Middle Ages exulted in their murderous passions. From the introduction of the werewolf in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the werewolf is portrayed as a violent creature spawned to replicate the soul of a destructive man.
According to Metamorphoses, the god Jove took human form to visit the king of Arcadia, a man named Lycaon. While the devout prayed, Lycaon made sport of the event and devised tests to assure himself that Jove was, in fact, a god. First Lycaon tried to murder Jove in his sleep. When this tactic failed, Lycaon ordered that the throat “of one that laye in hostage there, which was an Epyrote: / And part of him he did to rost [roast], and part he did to stewe.”* Then Lycaon served Jove this cannibalistic dinner to see if Jove could tell the difference between the flesh of men and the flesh of animals. Somehow, in Lycaon’s mind, this would prove whether Jove was a god pretending to be a man or a man pretending to be a god.
Needless to say Jove was a god pretending to be a man, and he realized what Lycaon had done. Less than delighted with the whole affair, Jove destroyed Lycaon’s house and condemned him to become “a ravening Wolfe: whose shape expressly drawes / To that the which he was before.”* Jove declares that Lycaon’s “cruell heart in outward shape doth well it selfe bewraye [reveal].”*
Jove transformed Lycaon into a wolf so that his physical body would reflect his murderous soul. So you see, at the very start, the werewolf was not a nice guy, not in his heart, and Jove made sure the world saw Lycaon in his true form.
Enter the werewolf. A violent, capricious beast, unable to mask the horror within himself. His human nature must reconcile himself to the violence he commits on others when he loses control. His life is a constant war of conscience. Yet the werewolves in Meyer’s Twilight series seem to embrace their inner nature and have learned to tame and manipulate it.
Personally, (and this is certainly my opinion, nothing more) I enjoy stories that show the werewolf battling his inner nature to suppress the violence within himself rather than tales that have him glibly running about in a convivial pack atmosphere. Somehow, this bland acceptance of his nature emasculates the werewolf into a teenage boy, who postures and preens in imitation of men. There is no depth to such a creature, in my mind.
A man who recognizes his capacity for violence, such as Lawrence and his father Sir John, do in Wolfman, must then decide whether to exult in that murderous nature or destroy it, though it may mean his own death. Well. There, oh yes, there we have conflict. To overcome such discord of the soul is what separates the man from the boy.
So when you strip it all away, it comes down to expectations. Young adult genres will have milder versions of the werewolf for their younger readers, but adults generally prefer the Wolfman version. Neither version is good or bad, it simply boils down to personal preference.
So how do you like your werewolves served? How do you see the themes of transformation in werewolf lore? And if you write dark fantasy or horror, how do you enjoy exploiting the themes of transformation in your work?
*Nims, John Frederick, ed. Ovid’s Metamorphoses: The Arthur Golding Translation 1567. Philadelphia: Paul Dry Books, 2000.