Looking for a few good werewolf reads this summer? Curtis Runstedler counts down the best of the best. From Remus Lupin to Bisclavret to the Gmork, there are werewolves here to terrify, surprise, thrill, and delight – and not only during the full moon!
1. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling
Naturally, Harry Potter takes the cake. There are many great Harry Potter books to choose from, but Deathly Hallows is a satisfying finale to the classic bildungsroman, and it also features all the werewolves. Professor Remus Lupin and Fenrir Greyback appear most prominently. Lupin is a good wizard who is a victim of a werewolf attack. His transformation pains him and drives him to a frenzied, irrational state. Fenrir Greyback, however, is the complete opposite. He ‘specialises in children’, preferring to attack young wizards and spread his lycanthropy, implying predatory and potentially paedophilic behaviour. Moreover, Greyback wants to infect as many wizards as he can, indicating that lycanthropy is seen as an infection or disease. Greyback’s shaggy, dishevelled, and monstrous appearance recalls the story of Lycaon, in which Lycaon becomes the monster that he always was on the inside. Greyback is monstrous both inside and out.
2. Bisclavret by Marie de France
Werewolves appear as central characters in the lais Bisclavret and Melion. Bisclavret is perhaps the better known of the two, featuring a sympathetic werewolf whose faithless wife discovers his secret and abandons him to the wilderness. He redeems his role in society through his relationship with the king, who recognises his humanness despite his bodily transformation. In the end, he bites off his wife’s nose and she in turn undergoes her own transformation. Melion also deals with the theme of infidelity. It tells of a knight whose lover transforms him into a wolf with a magical ring and then leaves him for a squire. Melion forms a pack with other wolves and preys upon the countryside. King Arthur arrives and saves the day, nurturing Melion’s rational aspects and enabling him to return to human form.
3. The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter
There is a vast melancholy in the canticles of the wolves, melancholy infinite as the forest, endless as these long nights of winter and yet that ghastly sadness, that mourning for their own, irremediable appetites, can never move the heart for not one phrase in it hints at the possibility of redemption.
Angela Carter explores the themes of sexuality and identity in her feminist collection of classic fairy tales. Dark, erotic, and richly aesthetic, Carter presents a world where wolves are not only outside, but they are also among us, living and breathing around us. The werewolves notably appear in the short stories The Company of Wolves and The Werewolf. In The Werewolf, which is Carter’s retelling of Little Red Riding Hood, the protagonist defends herself from the wolf, only to discover that the werewolf is her grandmother. The Company of Wolves is another variation on this familiar story, revising female narratives in fairy tales to present ideas such as unwanted marriages and monstrous sexuality and transformation of the individual.
4. Cabal by Clive Barker
Clive Barker also presents us with an exciting short story collection full of horror and intrigue. While his novella Cabal is the centrepiece, his short story Twilight at the Towers (not to be confused with the other Twilight) offers a compelling study of rage and transformation. While it is a werewolf story through and through, it is not until the end when the actual werewolves appear. Barker wants us to consider the monsters among us. Like Bisclavret, the monster is not always the werewolf, but often the society that condemns it. Barker plays around with the tropes of the werewolf as metaphor, implying that humanity is suppression and limiting, whereas the wolf is freedom.
5. The Neverending Story by Michael Ende
That’s why humans hate Fantastica and everything comes from here. They want to destroy it. And they don’t realize that by trying to destroy it they multiply the lies that keep flooding the human world. For these lies are nothing other than creatures of Fantastica who have ceased to be themselves and survive only as living corpses, poisoning the souls of men with their fetid smell. But humans don’t know it. Isn’t that a good joke?
Michael Ende’s novel The Neverending Story is a post-modern fantasy novel wherein a young warrior named Atreyu seeks to find the source of the Nothingness (the lack of imagination in the real world) that is eating away at Fantastia (a fantastic world of dreams). In the second half of the novel, the reader Bastian gets involved with the narrative and enters the story-within-the-story in a meta twist. The real treat of the novel, however, is the excellent villain known as The Gmork. The Gmork is an agent of the Nothing, a shapeless entity that drives the chaos behind the destruction of Fantasia, and his objective is to find and kill Atreyu. In one of the best scenes in the book, in which Atreyu and Gmork exchange dialogue, Ende depicts an intelligent, philosophical werewolf who is inherently evil, a harbinger of destruction and chaos, yet cunning and calculating as well.
6. The Silmarillion by J.R.R. Tolkien
Middle Earth is best known for its share of hobbits, Orcs, Elves, and the rare dragon, but werewolves inhabit its shadows as well. Werewolves are only briefly mentioned in The Lord of the Rings, but they appear more prominently in The Silmarillion, which further explores Tolkien’s world. Werewolves are inherently evil in Middle Earth, being evil or fallen spirits trapped in wolf form. Tolkien relates the stories of two werewolves: the first is Draugluin, the first werewolf, who is bred by Morgoth in the First Age. Sauron himself is called ‘the lord of the werewolves’, and is also known to transform into wolf form on occasion. Tolkien also describes Carcharoth, the greatest werewolf to ever live. Carcharoth consumes the Silmaril and the intense pain of his burning viscera drives him insane.
7. The Cycle of the Werewolf by Stephen King
No supernatural book list is complete without Stephen King. While he embraces many of the familiar conventions and tropes of werewolf lore (the silver bullet, full moon, etc) with this novel, King succeeds because he is such a gifted and entertaining storyteller. The dialogue, pacing, and atmosphere are great, and it includes gorgeous illustrations from Bernie Wrightson. It’s set in a small New England town where a werewolf starts killing people, and a boy tries to figure it out. There’s a certain tragedy to the werewolf since it was an accident. He had good intentions and it was an accident – he never meant to cause the harm that he did. There’s no reconciliation with his wolf form though – the werewolf is a character beyond rational negotiation, a creature of chaos.
8. Wolves and the Wilderness in the Middle Ages in the Middle Ages by Aleks Pluskowski
In this book, Aleks Pluskowski looks at the role of wolves in medieval society, examining them from a literary, historical, archaeological, and ecological perspective. Of course, werewolves play an important role in the text as well. Pluskowski considers the role of Bisclavret, as well as other medieval werewolves such as Alphouns (from the French romance Guillaume de Palerme) and Gorlagon (from the Latin Arthurian poem Arthur et Gorlagon), as well as the impact of the wolf in the Old Norse sagas and Scandinavian culture. It is a beautifully written, meticulously researched, and incredibly comprehensive academic work.
9. The Beast Within: Animals in the Middle Ages by Joyce Salisbury
Joyce Salisbury gives another interdisciplinary offering with The Beast Within, which further reassesses the ecological aspects of wolves and werewolves in medieval society. She argues that the perceptions of animals change through the medieval period. She also looks at the human-like role of certain animals in court, which echoes Bisclavret’s role in the court, reconsidering the relationship between humans and animals in the Middle Ages.
10. Metamorphosis and Identity by Caroline Walker Bynum
Caroline Walker Bynum’s classic text looks at transformation and how it constitutes identity and sense of meaning. Lycanthropes represent key examples of her interest in change in all its forms, creating an identity for themselves from the hybridity of man and wolf. The medieval division between society and the wilderness creates problems for the werewolf’s sense of belonging, and this book’s analysis provides a deeper understanding of the werewolf, giving voice to their often ignored or overlooked narrative.