Sunday, October 28, 2012

The Symbolism of Wolves

Wolves figure in many tales. I had always grown up thinking they were symbols of evil. I was terrified of wolves, mostly due to the fact that I saw part of a documentary were a little boy was killed by wolves. The dramatization, which didn't even show him being killed, deeply disturbed my young mind. But that aside, in most of the stories I heard about wolves (whether true or fairy tale), well, they were the bad guys.

I heard that in Russia, the wolves got so hungry they would attack sleighs at night. One sleigh would be traveling over the snow and they would hear the screams of the passengers in another on the cold air as it went down somewhere in the darkness ahead or behind them.

In the pioneer days of America, wolves attacked people, even surrounding their lonely cabins.

They hunt in packs, their eerie howls rising on all sides as they close in on their hapless victims.

They work at night, a time of darkness, when evil things prowl.

Then there are the classic tales of Little Red Riding Hood and The Three Little Pigs.

There are werewolf stories. Evil beasts who can change back and forth between wolf and man.

In The Story of Rolf and the Viking Bow, by Allen French, Hiarandi dreamed that he was attacked by wolves and his wife counseled him to take extra precautions but he did not really heed her words. She said to her son, "Dreams often come true, and wolves in dreams mean death." Hiarandi died that day when his foes attacked him in the same manner as the wolves of his dream.

In The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, all the encounters the characters have with them are bad.  In The Hobbit, Thorin and Company are surrounded by wolves who are then joined by goblins and barely escaped. In The Lord of the Rings, wolves surrounded the camp one night and Legolas shot one of them as it leaped towards them.

Granted, I heard a few where the wolves were the good guys, The Jungle Book chiefly. I suppose I dismissed the tale of Romulus and Remus being suckled by a she-wolf. It's a story were a wolf did a good deed, nursing abandoned babes so that they did not die. But still, they were bad men (that's how I wrote them off when I was younger). Romulus killed Remus after Remus made fun of the wall he was building. And from him, the Roman conquests began, later taking over the homelands of my Celtic ancestors.

It wasn't until last year though that my perception of wolves was challenged. In French class we were discussing a piece of literature featuring wolves. We got into a discussion of the symbolism of wolves. For me, they symbolized evil. For the professor, they symbolized good, for she was Italian, and for her the tale of the she-wolf was a good tale. The she-wolf saved the founder of Rome, which led to the Roman Empire.

That was when I realized that wolves as a symbol of evil didn't cover the entirety of the western world.

So, last week I took a poll. Here is what I asked participants: "answer the question with "good, evil, or neutral/neither." Go with your gut, I don't want your logical answer, I want your gut feeling based on the stories you've heard as a child. Question: Do wolves symbolize good or evil?"

Out of the 27 responses:
13 - evil
6 - good
6 - neither
2 - not really evil, but bad.

48% said evil, which is not quite half. Therefore many people think of wolves as symbolizing evil, however, other views are fairly prevalent also.

One of the responders succinctly explained her positive view of wolves, "I would say good, overall... kindof like Aslan, they're not safe but they're good. They are beautiful, wild, free, lonely, mysterious, like what the spirit of the forest would be if they were incarnated in animal form. Although the childhood stories I grew up with would portray them as evil." 
Another wrote, "Good - because they are strong, free and we owned a wolf and they are the most loyal ever----not evil except from movies portrayal- can be bad if you are a smaller critter looking to be eaten if don't run fast enough. I put them almost in the same place as the Bald Eagle-not quite because it cannot fly-

The Bald Eagle represents freedom for Americans, a sort of majestic freedom that is fierce.    

So, one's view of wolves can depend on various factors. Background: Celtic vs. Roman. And also: personal experiences, history, TV, novels, and folktales.


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