The Werewolf And The Nineteenth-Century EcoGothic

The Werewolf And The Nineteenth-Century EcoGothic
© Credits: The Rick Baker / Licence: CC BY-SA 3.0

This article utilises an EcoGothic perspective to interrogate how werewolves influence these settings, specifically examining tales published during the long nineteenth-century because this era underwent significant environmental changes, such as the Industrial Revolution, the introduction of new plants and animals, and the extinction of native species. Authors utilised werewolves, and in particular the short story form, to examine the impact these changes had. This article postulates that werewolf literature is representative of a nostalgia for a bygone age as a direct reaction to Industrialisation; that werewolf literature is the most apt genre to demonstrate a conflict between the human world and the natural environment because of its hybrid state; that werewolves prefer nature in both their animal and human forms, indicating an affinity for this landscape; that nature returns this preferential treatment through subtly influencing the narrative and by claiming back human settlements; and that this harking back to a purer “natural” landscape prefigures our own ecological outlook.

The nineteenth-century United Kingdom saw a dramatic shift in the landscape; the Industrial Revolution triggered an influx of people from rural to urban areas, which caused disruption to native plants and animals, leading to some becoming extinct. Alongside these environmental changes, the Victorian period experienced numerous social changes, one of the most discussed in relation to werewolf literature being the fear of the “animal within” due to Charles Robert Darwin’s seminal texts ‘On the Origin of Species’ (1859) and ‘The Descent of Man’ (1871); humans shifting into lupine form has clear links to personal atavism, social decline and a backlash against industrialisation. These social and environmental changes gave rise to varied literary representations of werewolves, which has led Andrew Barger to argue that the “transformation of the werewolf in literature made its greatest strides in the nineteenth-century when the monster leapt from poetry to the short story” (2013).

Traditionally, werewolf literature is a mode of horror that relies on the permanence of the natural world, such as the forest or, more recently, the moon, while exploring mankind’s relationship with nature and the outdoors. However, the changing United Kingdom environment affected werewolf literature in many ways and inspired authors as diverse as Catherine Ann Crowe, Joseph Rudyard Kipling and George William MacArthur Reynolds. This article focuses on how the devolution of the natural environment is reflected in the literature of the era. By utilising an overarching EcoGothic perspective, this article postulates that most nineteenth-century werewolf short stories are set back in the Middle Ages as a reaction against the industrialisation of the land; that the Gothic ecology in these tales enacts the conflicts inherent within the relationship between the human world and natural environment. Also, that the natural landscape subtly influences the narrative, protecting the werewolves from the increasing threats posed by the human race, while the werewolves, although being hybrid creatures that could establish a balance between the two worlds, instead prioritise a return to nature that rejects industrialisation and society more generally, prefiguring our own ecological outlook.

As Andrew Anselmo Smith and William Hughes note, Gothic fiction — with its focus on ancient castles, dense forests, wide open expanses of the American frontier, and global disaster narratives — is the most appropriate genre for studying ecocriticism and the relationship between humans and the landscape, because it channels social anxieties into a specifically fearful tale that rose as one of the most influential genres over the nineteenth-century. Andrew Anselmo Smith and William Hughes argue that to achieve this distinction from other genres, EcoGothic criticism critiques Romanticism’s ideology that nature can be considered as natural, rather than cultural; discusses issues surrounding the naming of the environment and the implicit controlling of nature within this act; debates the meanings humans place on the landscape in an attempt to tame nature and the wilderness; while also engaging with other theoretical paradigms, such as class, gender and national identities (2013).

Thus, EcoGothic criticism helps to make sense of nature for the writer and the reader by examining how the landscape acts as its own character to subtly influence narrative, characters’ actions and the reader’s response, in order to reflect or challenge human interaction with the environment. EcoGothic criticism has been applied to traditional Gothic texts, such as ‘The Castle of Otranto’ (1764) and ‘The Mysteries of Udolpho’ (1794), to modern disaster films, such as ‘The Happening’ (2008) and ‘2012’ (2009), and this article will apply the theory to nineteenth-century werewolf short stories. Werewolves are an effective rhetorical device for examining ecological issues because they have a long folkloric history that demonstrates them evolving with their changing environments.

As a forerunner to werewolves, wolves in Western folklore and fables were depicted as stereotypically treacherous, conniving and aggressive males who used the natural forest environment as a cover for their predatory behaviour. For instance, Aesop’s Fables’ ‘The Sow and the Wolf’ (c.600 BCE) depicts a wolf preying on a sow who is in labour, thus using her vulnerable and isolated position against her (1993); Charles Perrault’s ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ (1697) has the deceptive wolf take the shortest route through the woods to grandma’s house, while ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ (1989) takes the roundabout way, amusing “herself by gathering nuts, running after the butterflies, and making nosegays of the wild flowers” — the natural environment distracts her to the benefit of the wolf; and the Brothers Grimm’s ‘The Wolf and Seven Young Kids’ (1812) has the wolf mimic another animal’s form in order to eat the mother goat’s children, before falling asleep in the supposedly safe meadow — though the mother goat finds him and puts stones in his stomach (1855). In these tales, wolves retain their deceptive traits in order to prey upon other animals and humans, while their relationship with the environment evolves from utilising woods to their own advantage, to having nature used against them.

This ambivalent though somewhat simpler relationship of animals with nature changes dramatically in the nineteenth-century because of the radical environmental and social impact that humans had on the landscape of the United Kingdom. With the Industrial Revolution came an increase in people moving from rural villages to urban cities, which led to overcrowding, an increase in the spread of disease and dirtier air. Furthermore, the agricultural landscape in the United Kingdom became more homogenous as wetlands were drained and heaths were limed, and native plant diversity dwindled while numerous alien plant species were introduced. Following on from the centuries-long extinction of the grey wolf, several other native animals, such as wild horses, polecats and pine martins, were all but exterminated to reduce the risk to humans and livestock (Weddle 2002). All of these factors generated a nostalgia for a bygone age; a rural United Kingdom past that symbolised a purer, greener and simpler landscape where wolves roamed freely.

Echoing this nostalgia, the explosion of werewolf literature in the nineteenth century indicates a lamentation that the native British wolf had died out, specifically as the scientific rhetoric surrounding wolves evolved over the course of the century. The wolf as a destructive and demonised figure in both scientific and literary discourse gave way to an attempt to understand the wolf as an important species to the United Kingdom’s natural history. The children’s writer and basket-weaver, Thomas Miller, wrote his novel ‘The British Wolf-Hunters: A Tale of England in the Olden Time’ in 1859. This book, published in London and New York, specifically begins with the history of the extinction of the wolf, a description of the by-gone landscape, and Thomas Miller’s desire to educate — through entertainment — British youngsters, which all emphasise the desire to not forget the United Kingdom’s past that ran throughout the Victorian period.

Almost two decades later, the ornithologist and naturalist, James Edmund Harting, published the article ‘The Extinct British Wolf’ (1878) in The Popular Science — the world’s oldest review magazine — in which he noted that “the interest which attaches to the history of extinct British animals can only be equalled by the regret which must be felt, by all true naturalists, at their disappearance beyond recall from our fauna.” Indeed, the book’s blurb continues to note that: “hundreds of organisms, both animal and vegetable, must have succumbed to the progress of cultivation and the spread of population, which have now attained such a pitch that one has to travel a considerable distance from London in order to find a bit of undisturbed land.” Thus, the scientific understanding of wolves and the popular public perception of them became more intertwined over the nineteenth-century, strengthening the regret and nostalgia for the native species, which fed into the rise of werewolf fiction as a reaction against industrialisation.

The wolf, therefore, taps into a larger context of reactionary nostalgic literature, but it is the werewolf that is the most adjustable creature with which to discuss the environmental changes of the United Kingdom, specifically because it is a hybrid form: being both human and animal it interacts with both rural and urban landscapes. This harking back to a former era is evidenced not only by the folklore and fables that went before, but it reemerged in many early nineteenth-century werewolf short stories, such as Richard Thomson’s ‘The Wehr-Wolf: A Legend of the Limousin’ (1828), Leitch Ritchie’s ‘The Man Wolf’ (1831) and James Sutherland Menzies’ ‘Hugues, the Wer-Wolf: A Kentish Legend of the Middle Ages’ (1838).

In conclusion, as the nineteenth-century United Kingdom began to take note of its dramatically transformed landscape it began a resurgence of tales of different transformations, reimagining werewolves that in the popular imagination dwelt within the purer, heavily forested medieval past. It is in the true EcoGothic style that these landscapes can be considered lycanthropic themselves; not only do they produce and shelter the werewolves in these tales, but as the landscape itself is transformed by mankind, writers fancy they can perceive its growing hostility and resentment towards us.

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