Monday, August 10, 2009

Shapeshifters, Werewolves and Animal Legends

Werewolf stories are popular in literature both medieval and modern. Was the tale of Little Red Riding Hood an early version of the werewolf idea? Did the wolf eat grandma or did grandma become a wolf? Did you know that Alexandre Dumas (Three Musketeers and the Man in the Iron Mask) wrote a werewolf novel as well?

The Wolf Leader

Written in 1857, The Wolf Leader is set in the French town of Villers-Cotterets. Thibault, the shoe-maker, is beaten by the Lord of Vez’s games keeper because he interrupted the Lord’s hunting. Beaten, bloodied and hurt, Thibault encounters a large wolf that walks on two legs instead of four. The wolf offers Thibault his vengeance. The wolf said Thibault may wish harm on any person as long as he promises to exchange a hair. To seal the bargain, they swap rings and Thibault learns he may command the local wolves. The tale continues as Thibault takes his vengeance on the games keeper and Lord Vez, both die and two of Thibault’s hairs become long and red. The tale is intriguing as Thibault, a simple man before the bargain, becomes addicted to his own vengeance and scorned by those who once called him friend. Check it out if you want to find out what happened.

Modern Werewolves

Some scholars suggest that Robert Louis Stevenson wrote about werewolves in his Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. While Dr. Jekyll does not necessarily become a werewolf, the subtext that he transforms out of his own control and is more subject to his animal instincts is a large part of the mythos. The early half of the 20th century saw an explosion of werewolf stories in Weird Tales, Strange Tales and other areas. The werewolf qualified as a monster tale every bit as much as a speculative fiction story. While a sexual component is very implicit in most tales of the werewolves, movies tend to focus on their other animal instincts such as hunting and killing.

In the latter half of the 20th century and early 21st century, werewolves transformed again, becoming popular not only for their shape-shifting but their potential as romantic leads. Go to any modern bookstore and you’ll find reams of material on werewolves, werewolf curses, werewolf love and werewolf types. That men and women become wolves is common to most werewolf tales, what is not common is how the werewolves become werewolves, can they have young, do they retain their human thoughts, are they man and beast sharing the body and the soul? What sets the modern werewolf apart from his more chaotic ancestors?

Werewolf Stories: Romantic Leads

Werewolf leading men are charismatic, powerful and highly sexual creatures. In Patricia Briggs Mercedes Thompson series, her wolves come in all shapes and sizes. What makes them powerful is not necessarily their looks: the most powerful werewolf in all of North America, the Marrok, looks like a teenager. But it is their force of personality, their mastery of their savage nature and their ability to defend what it is theirs.

Most werewolves in the Mercedes Thompson series are transformed after being savaged. It is not a mere bite that does it, the victim must be savaged unto death. If the change takes, it will heal them and they will become a werewolf at the next moon. If it doesn’t, they die. Also, not all werewolves that transform survive their first few changes. If the man cannot master the beast, the alphas will kill them to reduce the threat. Exceptions include Charles, the Marrok’s son who was born a werewolf of two werewolf parents, but his mother died because she used magic to prevent her shifting for the nine months it took to bring Charles into the world. That is another key difference for Brigg’s wolves, mating with humans is possible, but female werewolves terminate their pregnancies when they shapeshift and when male werewolves mate with human women, they have a higher percentage of still born and miscarried babies. The children who do actually survive birth are human.

Women of the Otherworld

In Kelly Armstrong’s delightful Women of the Otherworld series, we meet Elena Michaels in the book Bitten. Elena is the only female werewolf and she is a member of the North American pack. She was bitten by her then boyfriend Clayton Danvers. Clayton is a wild werewolf, bitten at the age of six and adopted into the pack by the current Alpha Jeremy Danvers. Clayton, unlike most of his brethren is more wolf than man and is very comfortable with that aspect. He bit Elena because he wanted a mate. That she survived the terrible and brutal transformations and gradually gained control is something of a miracle.

Most werewolves in Armstrong’s world are hereditary. The gene is passed from father to son. Pack law required male offspring to be taken in and severed from their human mothers. Daughters were abandoned because they typically didn’t become werewolves. Modern pack law is changing since the werewolves rejoined the other supernatural beings. Not all Werewolves are a part of the Pack, these Mutts (some include genetic children of bitten werewolves) are left alone under Jeremy’s rule unless they hunt humans and become mankillers. Those mutts are put down as soon as the Pack can find them.

In the tale Broken, Elena gave birth to twins with her mate Clay. Both boy and girl are werewolves, breaking all previously believed thoughts on the werewolf genes. Elena can also shapeshift while pregnant without terminating the pregnancy, but her pregnancy was accelerated, most likely due to here werewolf metabolism.

Shapeshifters Remain Popular

Becoming in touch with our animal sides helps werewolf stories and shape shifting legends remain popular.

What are your favorite werewolf stories?

Author's Note: Written originally for my SciFi Today blog, I have since just let that lapse. The content remains my own and it fits here perfectly.

3 comments:

  1. Hi :)
    Thanks for the fun blog post on werewolves.
    I haven't read Dumas' Wolf Leader. I've read all the other books you reference though.
    You didn't mention Teen Wolf though :)
    Silver Bullet - Stephen King
    Otherworld stories by Kelly Armstrong
    Sookie Books by Charlaine Harris
    Mercy Thompson books by Patricia Briggs
    :)
    Love and best wishes,
    @RKCHarron

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  2. I've enjoyed the werewolves in Kim Harrison's Rachel Morgan Series.

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  3. Sabrina, I nearly forgot all about Kim Harrison's shapeshifters and weres. D'oh. I just don't think about them with the vampires and witches in the Hollows. Of course, there are werewolves in the Harry Dresden books too and I forget them half the time too :/

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