Wolves, dogs, werewolves and stories

In a  break from marking I was intrigued to find this image come up for me on Twitter (from Kathleen McCallum on Twitter but it’s on @nickswarb if you follow me). I am unsure – party because I don’t read Arabic – whether they are werewolves (predatory shape-shifters) or Dogsheads, Cynocephali, whose everyday shape ( and, according to this picture at least, behaviour) are a bit, well, dog-like. Are they from travellers’ tales or horror stories?

I think it’s time to look at wolves again – partly for a session I hope to be doing in Solihull (that birthplace of the Warg, at least, in my mind) on the BA in Early Childhood Studies and for my MA (Childhood Studies) module on Children’s Imaginative Worlds.

I’ll start from BBC’s Atlantis, the latest (as I write) dog/werewolf transformation (Hunger Pangs, Ser 1, Ep 11/13; this link is current, but iPlayer won’t last, of course).  It’s a children’s programme, prime time Saturday evening Doctor Who/Merlin fare, with the requisite hair growth, (partial) nudity, crouching and of course the scary eyes followed by lycanthropic shadows. We are in TV Trope land; werewolf as humanoid dog-beast, more or less acceptable stuff for families- as is the now famous American Werewolf in London transformation or the Being Human transformation that is its more horrific descendant. This (partially successful) filming from a Manchester student, Katie Blagden, neatly illustrates the modern elements of transformation.

Peter Stubbe, to whom I have referred before, is perhaps less so, and certainly the animation on LOL Manuscripts is quite creepy. Similarly, there are some werewolf stories that are either Bowdlerised into family form (see Red Riding Hood, passim) or are just not really OK (perhaps) for young modern audiences – too scary, too bloody. This blog is interesting. Sabine Baring-Gould also has some that may well have been repeated in families, or maybe in other meetings in the past, although I find them quite disturbing; the Book of Werewolves is linked in my blog side-bar. Look at Ch VI:

Gilles Gamier had attacked a little maiden of ten or twelve years old, and had slain her with his teeth and claws; he had then drawn her into the wood, stripped her, gnawed the flesh from her legs and arms, and had enjoyed his meal so much, that, inspired with conjugal affection, he had brought some of the flesh home for his wife Apolline.

Enough. Modern audiences at least would not consider this appropriate for children.

The only point so far to think about is who is the audience for the tales of Peter Stubbe and Gilles Gamier? Surely not really the children; I suspect they will have gone to bed before granny gets these out.  But is this a 21st-Century judgement? Two other sources should be looked at here, however, one more recent and theoreical, the other somewhat oblique.

The first (and recommended to “my” MA students [I hate the possessive here; “my dog, my boots,” as C S Lewis puts it] this next semester) is from Zohar Shavit’s essay in Maria Tatar’s thoughtful collection The Classic Fairy Tales.  And yes, both “classic” and “fairy” can be debated.

Up to the seventeenth century children were an integral part of adult society, sharing clothing, lodging, games and work. Unity prevailed between children and adults in regard to all physical and psychic needs…

Shavit goes on to suggest that the growing concept of childhood distinguishes in practice between child and adult in a great many spheres. I would contend that one of these is in storytelling. Both Shavit and Zipes explore how stories such as Red Riding Hood (we’ve met her before, of course!) are altered for new or differently defined audiences, but we have, in M R James, a fictionalised account of the storytelling context from someone who continued that tradition with his own material. In An Evening’s Entertainment, James records past occasions of storytelling as part of his framing for a story – but in doing so also salutes, wistfully, its passing. The story begins:

Nothing is more common form in old-fashioned books than the description of the winter fireside, where the aged grandam narrates to the circle of children that hangs on her lips story after story of ghosts and fairies, and inspires her audience with a pleasing terror. But we are never allowed to know what the stories were. We hear, indeed, of sheeted spectres with saucer eyes, and — still more intriguing — of ‘Rawhead and Bloody Bones’ (an expression which the Oxford Dictionary traces back to 1550), but the context of these striking images eludes us.

and a parody of the enlightened household follows, with the worthy, pushy parent explaining levers to his child, before we move to the old Squire and his parlour and the even older granny:

How different the scene in a household to which the beams of Science have not yet penetrated! The Squire, exhausted by a long day after the partridges, and replete with food and drink, is snoring on one side of the fireplace. His old mother sits opposite to him knitting, and the children (Charles and Fanny, not Harry and Lucy: they would never have stood it) are gathered about her knee.

Grandmother: Now, my dears, you must be very good and quiet, or you’ll wake your father, and you know what’ll happen then.

And we are into James’ horrific story of human sacrifice, which concludes:

There! Off to bed you go this minute. What’s that, Fanny? A light in your room? The idea of such a thing! You get yourself undressed at once and say your prayers, and perhaps if your father doesn’t want me when he wakes up, I’ll come and say good-night to you. And you, Charles, if I hear anything of you frightening your little sister on the way up to your bed, I shall tell your father that very moment, and you know what happened to you the last time.

The door closes, and granny, after listening intently for a minute or two, resumes her knitting. The Squire still slumbers.

We have here a context that is to James’ audience both as part of their own mythologised past and the recogniseable context of James’ own delivery – the oral story.  But if we are to go back into Shavit’s reconstructed past, I think we have to ask:

When these stories were first told, were children present? And if so, were they the intended audience? 

I do not think we can be sure about the first question (hence all my “perhaps”), but we can be a tad clearer about the second: folk tales were for adults, too.