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Friday, 5 February 2010

Profile: The Big Bad Wolf

Name: In the old tales he is most often referred to simply as 'the wolf'. It was during the recording of Disney's famous 1933 song (which you can listen to further down) that he acquired the 'Big Bad'. He was originally going to be called 'The Big Old Wolf' but reportedly Walt decided 'The Big Bad Wolf' scanned better.

Age: Impossible to figure out—but here's what we do know: Fenir, one of the first bad wolves, can be found in Norse mythology (he's mentioned in the Poetic Edda which was compiled from oral sources in the 13th century). The wolf and werewolf are thought to have been popular figures in oral folk tales for centuries—The Grandmother, which was collected in 1870, is representative of this tradition. The wolf, as we are perhaps most familiar with him, appears in three distinct fairy tales in the European literary tradition:

Little Red Riding Hood: the first literary version, by Charles Perrault, was published in 1697. In this version the wolf gets exactly what he wants and we're warned of wolves 'who are charming, quiet, polite, unassuming, complacent, and sweet, who pursue young women at home and in the street' (or as Grandmother so succinctly puts it in the film The Company of Wolves 'The worst kind of wolf is hairy on the inside'). The Grimms included their version of the tale, Little Red Cap, in every edition of their Children's and Household Tales; you can read the 1812 version, or the final 1857 version online. It was the Grimms who introduced the woodsman and the nasty ending for the wolf.

The Wolf and the Seven Young Kids: first published by the Grimms in Children's and Household Tales in 1812, the tale includes a very similar fate for the wolf.

The Story of the Three Little Pigs: first collected by James Orchard Haliwell in The Nursery Rhymes of England in its first edition of 1842. This was the source for Joseph Jacob's more famous 1890 version.

Location: Wolf and werewolf tales were common throughout Europe, particularly in France, but not so much here in Britain where unfortunately we'd managed to exterminate wolves by the 17th century—we have lots of Last Wolf tales instead.

Relationship Status: You might think a wolf who went round either scoffing small pigs, baby goats, or young girls and/or their Grandmothers might find it hard to get a date—but that's not always the case—whether it's Red herself that takes a fancy to him, as in Angela Carter's 'The Company of Wolves' (from The Bloody Chamber) and Carol Ann Duffy's 'Little Red-Cap' (from The World's Wife); or Grandma, as in the original ending to Tex Avery's 1943 cartoon Red Hot Riding Hood (which was cut because it was thought to be too close to bestiality), and in this 1931 cartoon:

taken from the Internet Archive

Who's afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?

taken from the Internet Archive
As we've already seen not everybody, and although the wolf in the older tales is always bad there are a lot of reformed versions out there, from Bigby (sherrif, and son of the North Wind—from whom he inherited his Huff 'n Puff) in the unbelievably good Fables series; to the cross-dressing, rather lazy wolf in the Shrek films.

Some other places you'll find him lurking online:

An 1866 verse version of Little Red Riding Hood by Tom Hood, which includes the illustrations by Gustave Doré.

Little Red Riding Hood—A 1921 version with lovely illustrations by Jennie Harbour.

Roald Dahl's wonderful Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf

An illustrated copy of The Story of the Three Little Pigs, from 1904.

A Wolf's Lament, by M. Lynn Johnson— a great story that featured in Issue 8 of Cabinet Des Fées

The wolf in myths, legends and stories at Wolf Country.

A collection of Werewolf Legends from Germany, translated by D.L. Ashliman.

The Bad Wolf site, created by the BBC to accompany the 2005 series of Doctor Who throughout which the ominous sounding 'Bad Wolf' message was scattered.

Any more sitings of the wolf online? Feel free to add links using the comments function below.


The wolf image at the top of the post is a detail from an illustration by Gustave Doré.

8 comments:

  1. Love it! This is so comprehensive!

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  2. I loved 'The Company of Wolves', a great film. Perhaps the wolf has become more of an ambiguous, almost sympathetic character because he represents the wilderness we are so rapidly losing, and, deep down, our longing for it. He even made a brief appearance in 'The Fantastic Mr Fox' pretty much in that capacity.

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  3. I've been teaching the Angela Carter book this year. The class found her take on Litle Red Riding Hood very disturbing. It's the bestiality, of course, but also the sense of a larger transgression - the betrayal of the grandmother. Several of the tales seem to show humans preferring to become animals.

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  4. I agree the wolf has definitely become a more sympathetic character. Perhaps it's also because we no longer fear wolves as our ancestors did, and partly recognition of the ways we have wronged them. There is a blurring of boundaries that Angela Carter portrayed so well in her wolf (and other animal) tales. Who are the monsters - us or them? And if it's us is it preferable to become an animal than remain a monster? The Grandmother as wolf is disturbing, but what has remained with me most are the moments in which we see the tenderness of the wolves in her other two wolf tales. I much prefer the ending of 'The Company of Wolves' to Perrault's moralising, or the Grimms' need for a rescuer. Red chooses to be with the wolf and to become a wolf. The ending of the oral tale 'The Grandmother' I link to above is similarly satisfying in that Red is in control - although in that tale she'd rather not sleep with the wolf thank you very much!

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  5. I wrote a play about his relation with the little Red Riding Hood...a very personal adaptation...I am happy to discover your blog!
    Nice to meet you!
    :)

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  6. Thank you, lovely to meet you too.

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  7. i just had to... by HUNTER
    WHEN U R READING THIS DONT STOP OR SOMETHING BAD WILL HAPPEN! {SORRYABOUT THIS} THIS GIRL’S NAME IS SUMMER SHE’S 15 YEARS OLD & hasBLONDE HAIR ,MANY SCARS no NOSE OR EARS.. SHE IS DEAD. IF U DONT COPYTHIS JUST LIKE FROM THE RING, COPY N POST THIS ON 5 MORE SITES.. OR..SUMMER WILL APPEAR ONE DARK QUIET NIGHT WHEN UR NOT……………………… ……… ExPECTING IT BYYOUR BED WITH A KNIFE AND KILL U. THIS IS NO JOKE SOMETHING GOOD WILLHAPPEN TO U IF YOU POST THIS ON 5 MORE PAGES

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  8. In one of the original versions, of course which society has changed into a sanitary version, Red actually gets naked and into bed with the wolf.

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