Is it because wolves are one of the most widely distributed land mammals on earth – from tideline to tundra, desert to grassland – that they also roam so widely through our stories?
Or is it because of what we share as apex predators, both of us known to wander away from our families when we are young, mate for life, raise young collaboratively and, as Plato pointed out, sometimes kill our own kind?
To consider a wolf is to grapple with an animal that conjures both the familiar – our dogs; ourselves – and the foreign. The wolf will not be tamed, but neither is it likely to hunt us.
The animal looms far larger in our psyches than we likely do in its. But what exactly is the animal we have created in our stories and our minds? “Between the wolf in the tall grass and the wolf in the tall story there is a shimmering go-between,” wrote Vladimir Nabokov. “That go-between, that prism, is the art of literature.”
From fable to fairytale to wilderness adventure novel, the wolf has very often been cast as antagonist; a spectre of danger and the unknown. The very mention of “howling in the distance” has, like the creaking door, become a sort of atmospheric shorthand for looming threat or eerie uncertainty.
There is also, though, a well of wolf stories that nod to the trope of evil wolf before subverting it. Having written my first book, Wolfish, about the solo journey of one famous Oregon wolf alongside my own coming-of-age departure from home, I am fascinated by the biological reality of wolves, but also in dissecting what I have come to think of as the “cultural taxidermy” of our lupine symbols.
Each of the following 10 stories made me consider the wolf and our vision of it in an important new light. From fiction to non-fiction to poetry, they form their own sort of Nabokovian prism. They shimmer, they howl.
1. The Wolf by Nate Blakeslee
In tracing the reign of O-Six, a wolf mother renowned for her empathy and leadership in Yellowstone Park, Blakeslee pulls off a high-wire journalistic feat, unspooling moments of the wolf’s life as if from some hidden Go-Pro camera. He patched together these novelistic scenes after receiving more than 2,500 pages of notes from dedicated wolf-watchers and the result, rendered in high-definition prose, at times makes you feel you are inside a wolf’s skin. He describes O-Six seeing a car as “like anything else on the landscape that was neither predator nor prey – like a rock or a tree or even a bison. It wouldn’t harm her, and she couldn’t eat it; it was a nonentity.” Even now, years after first encountering this book, I sometimes see a car and think of this sentence – of how the car would appear if I were a wolf.
2. Wild Souls by Emma Marris
Should a wolf be prevented from breeding with a dog? Is a tracked, collared animal “wild”? Marris unspools these inquiries at the intersection of philosophy and ecology, tracing a few fascinating case studies around specific American wolves in the process. “If most wolves outside of National Parks die young because of human actions, I think it is legitimate to ask whether having wolves in the west is worth the cost to individual wolves,” she writes. This book is an elegant provocation.
3. Of Wolves and Men by Barry Lopez
Have I ever dog-eared a book as much as this one? It is not only an archival triumph detailing human perceptions of wolves through time and space, but also a heartfelt meditation on how we might live beside them into the future. Not until the epilogue does Lopez tell us that, during the time he was researching the book, he was raising two hybrid red wolves at his house. Come for the scenes of his observations, stay for his willingness to admit that: “Wolves don’t belong living with people … I would never do it again.”
4. The Last Wolf by Robert Winder
Winder’s book begins with the thesis that England became England after one Shropshire knight killed the last wolf in the countryside, paving the way for England’s sheep-fuelled agricultural revolution. I include this book not because of how it renders the wolf per se, but the world without the animal. I saw wolves everywhere in England after reading this, their ghostly presence in stone-walled pastures where, Winder reminds us, trees were felled to chase out wolves.
5. Once There Were Wolves by Charlotte McConaghy
This propulsive novel unfolds in the Scottish Highlands, where a young woman haunted by her past (the “symbolic wolves” of so many stories) has recently moved with her sister to help with a wolf reintroduction project. After interviewing so many biologists who have devoted careers to wolf recovery, I thrilled to see their care rendered in lush, novelistic detail: tracking a wolf, collaring her, following her life.
6. Wolf Centos by Simone Muench
A cento is an ancient poetic form that collages from preexisting texts. Every poem in this collection is titled “Wolf cento” and there are a constellation of voices from Gwendolyn Brooks to Wislawa Szymborska. Muench’s vision is singular, as are the “wolves” she conjures, that “strange animal with its miraculous elusiveness– / a step toward luck & a step toward ruin.”
7. The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories by Angela Carter
I’m fascinated by the wolves that appear in Carter’s canonical and macabre 1978 collection, in part because of how her depictions – at times macabre, at times slapstick – throw the dominant fairytale wolf into relief. Fear is tied to obsession and desire, Carter reminds us in The Company of Wolves, and so the trope of villainous wolf relies on the counterweight of innocent young girl. In Wolf Alice, because the young female protagonist has grown up among wolves, the forest exists as a place for her to “wander when she can”, the wolves not threat but “foster kindred”.
8. St Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves by Karen Russell
The wolves in the titular story of Russell’s short story collection are a pack of adolescent girls with werewolf parents, their families too human for the wolves and too wolfish for the humans. Sent to a reform school to be civilised by nuns, they are shown the “St Francis of Assisi slideshow, again and again,” then given bags of bread to go feed the ducks and not eat them. Though occupying a speculative realm, the story made me consider wildness and domesticity, and how narrow our expectations for a “wolf” can sometimes be.
9. What We Fed to the Manticore by Talia Lakshmi Kolluri
Each story in this astoundingly immersive collection takes the point of view of a different animal, and they unfold in locales all around the world. The wolf story, A Level of Tolerance, hit me like a spell, changing not only how I imagined the interior lives of wolves but my own animal self. When two people emerge from a car, the wolf narrator notices the smaller one looks “fragile … it stumbles in the snow after it emerges.” This is the hunter’s “pup”, a child moving through the world with “just the faint scent of something sweet”.
10. Wolf Totem by Jiang Rong
Wolves abound in this fable-like semi-autobiographical novel about a student from Beijing who goes to live on the Mongolian Steppe at the height of China’s cultural revolution. The sheep-herding Mongol nomads he encounters have both fear and respect for the canines. “Oh, I hunt them,” one older nomad tells him. “But not often. If we killed them off, the grassland would perish, and then how would we survive?” It’s an all too premonitory line.
This article by Erica Berry was first published by The Guardian on 29 March 2023. Lead Image: ‘To consider a wolf is to grapple with an animal that conjures both the familiar and the foreign.’ Photograph: Kena Betancur/AFP/Getty Images.
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