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International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts

Tanith Lee's Werewolves Within: Reversals of Gothic Traditions

Author(s): Lillian M. Heldreth
Source: Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts, Vol. 2, No. 1 (5) (Spring 1989), pp. 14-23
Published by: International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts
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Illustration by Randy Elliott

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Tanith Lee's Werewolves Within:
Reversals of Gothic Traditions

Lillian M. Heldreth

Tanith Lee's two longest werewolves stories, "Wolfland" and

Lycanthia, are no exception to her custom of reversing the images
of popular culture icons.
The twentieth-century image of the werewolf is largely de-
rived from Hollywood cinema: a man is involuntarily transmog-
rified into a crazed man-beast, which is consumed by an over-
whelming desire to rend that which it loves best ( Werewolf of
London, 1935; The Wolf Man, 1941). The wolf aspect of the were-
beast is always consistent with the wolf-phobia of mass culture -
wolves are creatures which lust for the kill, are dangerous to
any unarmed human being, and like rattlesnakes, must be
Such "bad press" may have arisen from the wolfs position as
principal natural predator of the Northern Hemisphere. Since
prehistoric times, wolves have been humanity's chief competi-
tors in big-game hunting, and ironically, our closest social ana-
logue. Modern scientific research reveals that none of the traits
popularly ascribed to werewolves are true of the living canis lu-
pus. Rather, wolves have a complex social organization. They do
not attack human beings unless they are rabid, do not kill injured
pack members but nuture them instead, and, to avoid over-
populating their range, practice deliberate population control-
through breeding dominance rituals. Unlike feral domestic dogs,
wolves do not kill for the joy of killing; what they take nourishes
the pack and the pups.
Lee, in both Lycanthia and "Wolfland," portrays werewolves
that not only depart from Hollywood and folkloric tradition, but
closely approximate the social and hunting patterns of natural
wolves; their transformations change them not into man-beasts,
but into true wolf shape. In altering the patterns of the werewolf
story, Lee endows it with a new and more positive mythos, a
more natural symbolism, and, in Lycanthia, a strong correspon-
dence to the Jungian shadow-archetype.
According to Leonard Heldreth and Walter Evans, the
Hollywood werewolf iconography represents the horrors of

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male, adolescent changes - the sprouting of hair, the increased
strength, the powerful impluses toward sex and violence. To
generalize: the werewolf phase stands for violent, overpowering
influences that the young male feels have taken possession of
him; these impulses are unmitigatedly evil, and must be sub-
dued - killed, in the werewolf films - before the young man de-
storys (rapes) someone he loves.
But for women, another myth employing wolf imagery is also
used: the malefic nursery tale, "Little Red Riding Hood." Often
closely identified with a rather crude Freudian symbolism, the
story is almost a parody of human female adolescence - "Don't
go out in woods with the big, bad male, dear," and as such it
mates well with the Hollywood male werewolf tradition.
In 1984 appeared a film reversing that tradition, Company of
Wolves, scripted by British novelist Angela Carter. In this Red
Riding Hood variant, the grandmother is an old busybody, fill-
ing her granddaughter's head with werewolf tales. The exces-
sively Freudian yarns (graphically screened, with one of the most
gruesome transformation scenes ever filmed) are intended to
keep young Rosalie chaste by instilling a pathological horror of
men and sex. But the fearless girl, when she meets the werewolf
in man-form, loves him; when he changes, she does also, and the
two, as wolves, not as beast-hybrids, run away into the forest to-
gether. Here, the acceptance of wolf status is blatantly an accep-
tance of sexuality, while the grandmother represents society's at-
tempts to supress female desire.
In "Wolfland," Tanith Lee takes the Red Riding Hood story in
a different direction. Like Carter, she makes her Red Riding
Hood figure, Lisel, a young girl just past puberty. Raised in po-
lite city society, Lisel receives a present and a summons from her
rusticated grandmother, whom she has never seen. "A swirling
cloak of scarlet velvet leaped like fire to Lisel's hands... [she] ex-
claimed with pleasure, embracing the cloak, picturing herself fly-
ing in it across the solid white river like a dangerous blood-red
rose" (100).
Here, the symbolism seems simply Freudian - sexuality, men-
strual blood, female physical maturation. But Lee has a more sin-
ister use for the word "dangerous."
When Lisel meets her grandmother, parallels with the older
story become apparent. Madame Anna is "a weird apparition of
improbable glamour. She appeared to be a little over fifty... but

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her nails were very long and discolored, as were her teeth...
Grandmother's eyes were not so reassuring" (106). Grandmother
eats only raw meat, no vegetables, no fruit, and no wine -
nothing that might have come from the basket carried by the
original Red Riding Hood.
Whereas in the original story the wolf eats the grandmother
and then impersonates her in order to devour Red Riding Hood,
in Lee's story the grandmother is a werewolf whose desire is to
empower her red-cloaked granddaughter.
For Madame Anna's husband, the lord of the Wolfland, was a
wife-abuser: "'Grandpere believed it was a man's pleasure to
beat his wife... he brought me peaches on our wedding night...
then he showed me the whip he had been hiding under the
fruit... You see what it is to be a woman, Lisel...the irrevocable
marriage vow that binds you forever to a monster... and... you
may die an agonizing death in childbed, just as your mother
did'" ( 109).
In a dream-sequence, Lisel observes her grandmother's former
life, the abusive husband threatening their newborn daughter,
the grandmother spiriting the baby away, and then accepting a
peasant woman's offer to help - if Anna eats the yellow flowers
that grow in the woods of Wolfland, she will gain the transmut-
ing power: "It comes from the spirit, the old
goddess left over from the beginning of things, before Christ
came to save us all"' (122). Eating the flowers, Anna beholds "A
glimpse of gold, two eyes like dots of lava seven feet in the air, a
grey jaw, hung breasts which have hair grown on them. . ." ( 124).
Thus the wolf-spirit of Lee's story, in contrast to the
Hollywood image, is female and empowering, rather than mas-
culine and overpowering. She gives to women the strength to
overcome the males who oppress them, the power to live indi-
vidual lives.
Lisel learns that Anna, transmogrified, killed the brutish hus-
band herself, and has lived well since, a powerful figure in the
neighborhood, accepted by the peasant women, who know the
story, and who, perhaps, may be werewolves themselves.
When Lisel has drunk wine made from the magic flowers, she
faces a choice - she may follow her grandmother out into the
evening forest, or she may disbelieve the whole thing. "A wolf
sang in the forest. [Lisel] lifted her head. She suddenly knew
frost and running... and a platinum moon... lovers with quicksil-

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ver eyes... A huge ballroom opened before her, and champagne
of air filled her mouth" (127).
Anna's dwarf-servant kisses the hem of Lisel's red cloak. The
girl absently pats his head, accepting his submission to her as
pack leader presumptive, and strides off, in her dangerous red
cloak, following her grandmother "away over the Wolfland"
(128) to freedom and power.
"Wolfland" is a rather simple reversal of Red Riding Hood,
told with Lee's usual flare and style. In it, the person offered ly-
canthropy is given a gift, rather than a curse, and accepting it,
gains a great deal.
Published a year later, the novel Lycanthia is much more com-
plex, a deeper exploration of the relationship between human be-
ings and wolves, between each human being and the beast with-
in himself, the Shadow.
According to wolf cinemetographer George Wilson, wolves
are an endangered species because human beings have made
them scapegoats for all of humanity's own viciousness and besti-
ality. The wolf is the unfortunate victim of our projections of our
own faults onto another. According to M. -L. von Franz,
"Projections [of the repressed Shadow] obscure our view of our
fellow men, spoiling its objectivity, thus spoiling all possibility of
genuine human relationships" (181).
R. D. Lawrence reports a conversation with an anonymous
Canadian government biologist that bears out Wilson's view:
'"Poachers, local hunters, destruction of habitat by mining and
exploration, imported hunters, severe winters, and the damned
bad conservation policies have made a mess of our big-game
popula ions. The government won't accept the blame for that
stuff, so we've just got to blame it all on the wolves...'" (230).
The scapegoating that began in prehistory is now institutional-
ized. Dangerous policy for the environment, it is also dangerous
policy for the collective human soul.
In Lycanthia, Lee was writing a story, not a defense of wolves,
but so closely does the story match what has happened and is
happening, it can stand as a kind of paradigm of human-
ecological misunderstanding, on both biological and symbolic
Lycanthia' s protaganist is a civilized man forced into confron-
tation with his wolf-shadow, and then offered an opportunity to
unite with the shadow in an alliance beneficial to himself and the

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The story opens with a mechanized image: Christian, like Lisel
of "Wolfland," heads for hitherto-unknown ancestral home.
"The train, running north under its hammerhead of smoke and
steam, had prematurely entered the land of winter, as if through
a great, pure, silent door." When it leaves him at the station, it
gives "...a lonely cry, calling farewell to him, heartlessly, over
his shoulder" (9).
Christian, a conservatory piano student and composer, repre-
sents the totally citified, civilized man. Believing that he cannot
recover from his tuberculosis, and wishing to terminate a rather
sick affair with the married cousin who cares for him, he goes to
the estate to die.
He is warned against, but seeks out a couple of outcasts, the
de Lagenays. A youth and a woman some few years his senior,
both beautiful, both seeming somewhat savage, inhabit a shack
on the border of Christian's estate. They are werewolves de-
scended from Christian's grandfather's rape of a country girl, as
the local werewolves have been since a medieval magician-
shapechanger was lord of the chateau; rape carries the were-
strain in this case. The wolf-goddess is also present, as the
weathered ornament of a local monument.
Deserted by his servants, Christian is invaded by the de
Lagenays, who insist on sharing the chateau where they have
surreptitiously lived during its closed seasons.
Lee emphasizes the werewolves' naturalness. Not civilized
and not truly savage, they, like Madame Anna, become wholly
wolf when they change: "It was so fluent, this transformation, so
hideously natural-yes, natural. There was no other word for
it... Their slender feet were real, their vaulted ribcages, the ava-
lanche of smoking pelt which covered them" (120).
Insofar as possible, Lee keeps the behavior of the de Lagenays,
and the pack they form when joined by Christian, like natural
wolf behavior. When Christian wins a fight with Luc, the young
man bares his throat in submission. So do real wolves behave,
with rituals for dominance-submission. Thus Christian has be-
come the pack's alpha male. But the true leader and most impor-
tant wolf/person is the woman, Gabrielle. "She, the courtesan of
both, remained obliquely yet essentially in control of both, just as
at other times her role was undoubtedly that of sister, or mother,
to either of them. Maybe the oldest social condition of the forest,

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the primeval condition of matriarchy, had reestablished itself
among the three of them" (158).
According to documented research, "The alpha female is actu-
ally the most prominent member of the pack. She is its real cen-
ter. She attracts varying numbers of juveniles and adults, prefera-
bly males, to herself and her offspring to maximize her hunting
and, ultimately, reproductive success. Although the tendency is
only slight, the wolf pack is one of the few polyandrous systems
known in mammals" (Zimen, 321). That is, although the alpha
male almost always sires the pups, the alpha female will copu-
late with other pack males, thus bonding ie other males to her-
self and her pups (320).
The werewolves of Lycanthia do not murder human beings, al-
though one murder is set up to be blamed on them. Evidence
from Canadian, Soviet, and American sources indicates that the
only clearly documented cases of wolves attacking humans have
been caused, without exception, by rabies. R. D. Lawrence quotes
Dr. C. H. D. Clarke, late of the Ontario's Ministry of Natural
Resources, that "...the Russian baron in his troika is folklore, but
the rabid wolf is grim fact" (78).
Lee's careful use of natural behaviors for her werewolves rein-
forces the archetypal pattern of the story. The over-civilized
Christian is almost incapable of taking any responsibility for
himself, or of caring for himself. He is a man who has denied
and repressed the vitality of his Shadow. According to von
Franz, "The shadow is not necessarily an opponent... If the shad-
ow figure contains valuable, vital forces, they ought to be assimi-
lated into actual experience and not repressed... This can require
a sacrifice just as heroic as the conquest of passion, but in an op-
posite sense" (183).
Ursula K. Le Guin, interpreting Jungian archtypes, explains
that "The shadow is the other side of our psyche... the werewolf,
the wolf, the bear... (Language, 63-64). Our instinct... is not blind.
The animal does not reason, but it sees. And it acts with certain-
ty; it acts 'rightly,' appropriately... It is the animal who knows
the way, the way home. It is the animal within us, the primitive,
the dark brother, the shadow soul, who is the guide" (67).
Wolves make an excellent archetypal shadow for Christian,
and for civilized humanity, because lupine social structure, with
its organized families, its shared nurturing of the young, its sys-
tematic cooperation, is more like human society than perhaps

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any other animal's. Lawrence maintains that wolves and hu-
mans are the two most social, and the two most adaptable, spe-
cies (202-203). And the shadow-imagery is reinforced by the hu-
man species' projection of its savagery onto the wolf species.
Christian's shadow-patterns can be further subdivided. Luc,
the beta male of the little pack, may be seen as Christian's
Shadow, while Gabrielle has qualities both of shadow and ani-
ma. Von Franz explains that "Whenever a man's logical mind is
incapable of discerning facts that are hidden in his unconscious,
the anima helps him dig them out... the anima takes on the role
of guide, or mediator, to the world within and to the Self" (193).
When Christian starts to grasp a superheated fire iron, Gabrielle
prevents him and reveals his motivation: '"How many mazurkas
of Chopin would you play with such a burn?... but that's what
you wish, isn't it, monsieur? To die, or to cripple yourself and to
what is in you. All fears end once they come true'" (147).
In Jungian theory, the animal-shadow represents instinctive
wisdom because animals are bound to the cycles of the seasons,
closely connected to the natural world. During his sojourn with
his werewolf cousins, Christian notices "the moon and its phas-
es, the changable position of the stars, the iron and silver planets
which wandered up and down" (159). He becomes easy with his
relatives in their wolf-form, following them into the woods. His
health improves. Healed in body and spirit, Christian seems to
accept the fact that Gabrielle and Luc are also mother and son -
as Le Guin says, "In the fairy tale, though there is no 'righ and
'wrong,' there is a different standard, which is perhaps best
called 'appropriateness' " (66-67). At least consciously, Christian
knows tliat for wolves, inbreeding is appropriate, as is
But on a much deeper level, he has not fully accepted his wild
cousins. "With the logic of his human condition, he forsaw de-
parture... some twilit morning, or some steel-still night, walking
away over some hill toward the whistle of a train. Because to re-
main inside a myth was not permissible" (162). The civilized
conventions are too much a part of Christian, for him to grasp
the power of the natural world, or to truly accept his own
When the first spring thaw lets the villagers attack the cha-
teau, Christian cannot defend his pack-mates, as the alpha male
must do. He has not gained access to the mystical power Luc

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and Gabrielle hope he will command. "In this modern era of the
train, the car, and gas lamp," Christian thinks, "how should any
of them assume a wolf-goddess could reassert her influence"
Instead, he watches the villagers, more savage than any wild
animals, torment Luc and Gabrielle in an attempt at exorcism;
then he crawls away, leaving them to die. Yet they, with their
natural resilience, survive, and Christian pays them one more
visit at their hovel, just before his departure. Casting him from
her pack, Gabrielle spits in his face.
Rationalizing away his responsibility for the de Lagenays'
pain, Christian thinks of the city, and the people who will care
for him there, and he coughs, reassuming his dependent role as
invalid. Composing music, he begins to create from his experi-
ence something artificial. "[Gabrielle's] song about the forest,
that simple ballad, transformed, elaborated, ornamented -
variations on a theme. Even the boughs and tines of the trees...
the rills of the wind and glaucous sun, became music" (219-220).
Having rejected his anima and his Shadow, and the whole nat-
ural world, he, like modern man, hurries away to the city. Le
Guin, in her introduction to Buffalo Gals and Other Animal
Presences , speaks to the human condition, to Christian's condi-
tion: "By climbing up into his own head and shutting out every
voice but his own, 'Civilized Man' has gone deaf. He can't hear
the wolf calling him brother-not Master, but brother" (11).
But not so civilized women, like Lee, Le Guin, and Angela
Carter, hear the wolves call them "Sister." In the company of
wolves, we might learn to live, human and animal balanced
within rather than on, the natural world.


Franz, M. -L. von. 'The Process of Individuation." Man and His Symbols, ed. Carl
G. Jung. New York: Dell Publishing Co., 1968.
Lawrence, R. D. In Praise of Wolves . New York: Henry Holt, 1986.
Lee, Tanith. Lvcanthia. New York: DAW Books, 1981

York: DAW Books, 1981.

Le Guin, Ursula K. Buffalo Gals and Other Primitive Presen
American Library, 1987.

Wood. New York: G. Putnam's Sons, 1979.

Wilson, George. Personal Interview. August 1977. (Material from the interview
that appeared in "The Marquette Wolves," The Marquette Magazine, Fall, 1987.)

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Zimen, Eric "A Wolf Pack Sociogram." Wolves of the World: Perspectives of
Behavior, Ecology, and Conservation, ed. Fred H. Harrington and Paul G
Pacquet. New York: Noyes Publications, 1982.

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