The true face of the wolf in folklore is very different to reality

By Annabel Barker: Literature Columnist

For many people, upon hearing the word ‘wolf’, an image of cunning and evil comes to mind. What does not help is the wolf’s role in many children’s tales. He eats a grandmother, whom he impersonates before attempting to make a meal of her granddaughter.

He targets three newly-independent piglets, or heads the White Witch’s secret police. Known for their sly demeanour, equipped with strong jaws, piercing teeth and sharp ears, wolves are depicted as exceptionally malevolent creatures, far beyond the ferocity of other predators. But there is hope yet for wolf lovers: for every “big bad” wolf, there are a growing number of “big good” counterparts.

Picture Books

Author and illustrator Jan Fearnley wrote three books featuring Mr Wolf, in which he makes pancakes, discovers an enormous turnip and throws a party for Baby Bear. Eugene Trivizas teamed up with illustrator Helen Oxenburyto produce the comically inverted tale, The Three Little Wolves and the Big Bad Pig, in which the pig attempts to destroy the wolves’ houses using a sledgehammer, pneumatic drill and dynamite, before learning the error of his ways and making friends with them. Matthew Cordell wrote and illustrated a nearly wordless book about a snowstorm-forged friendship, Wolf in the Snow.

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The girl returns the wolf to its pack, who return the favour by howling to let the girl’s parents know where to find their daughter. Katherena Vermette joined forces with illustrator Julie Flett to produce The Girl and the Wolf in which, when the little girl is lost in the woods, the wolf supports her rather than tries to harm her. He uses his acute sense of smell to locate where the girl came from.

Chapter Books

In Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book, Mowgli would not have survived if it were not for the Seeonee wolves who raised him. Katherine Rundell’s The Wolf Wilder features a girl and her mother who teach domestic wolves to be wild again, which is rewarded by fierce loyalty and companionship from the wolves. Michelle Paver’s bestselling series, Chronicles of Ancient Darkness, revolves around the brotherhood between Torak and an orphaned wolf cub, which forms when Torak rescues him from the flood that has killed his pack. Inspired by a true story of a young wolf’s survival and courage, Rosanne Parry conjured A Wolf Called Wander, which tells the tale of Swift, who has lost his family and must find a new place to call home.

They may frighten the residents of Willoughby Chase (in Joan Aiken’s novel), make music as Dracula’s children of the night, or attack Robinson Crusoe in the Pyrenees but, in fiction, wolves are in fact no worse than the next predator. Bears are just as likely to attack intruders and hunt for food, but most of us will have played with teddy bears as children, giving us a benevolent, cuddly image. Folklore tales of a man bitten by a wolf transforming into a ravenous creature at the full moon have not helped the perception. If the tables were turned and we had teddy wolves and ‘were-bears’, our associations might be quite different.

MACKAYAN: the big good wolf