We’re in the middle of a werewolf craze. In addition to the recently released movie, The Twilight Saga: Eclipse, the beasties have been gracing the big- and small-screen for decades. But while many may know about the supernatural creatures’ cinematic origins, fewer may know that they had their beginnings in English literature. Here, we’ll explore the literary origins of the modern werewolf and its evolution throughout the years.
Tales Of Frightening And Romantic Night Life
Although modern-day lycanthropy (the act or condition of being a werewolf) may have made its cinematic debut in the 1931 German film, Friederich Klein’s Der Wolfsgarten (The Wolf’s Garden), the concept of werewolves is far from new. In fact, it can be traced back to English literature, specifically to English poets and novelists of the 18th and 19th centuries. This literary werewolf tradition is most notably represented by William Blake’s “The Ghost Of Abel Koëlla” and Horace Walpole’s The Wolf Man. In addition to serving as the inspiration for many filmmakers, including German director F.W. Murnau and American director James Whale, the literary origins of the modern day wolfman are a testament to the enduring popularity of these creatures among readers, filmmakers, and television show producers.
The Rise Of Romanticism
Romanticism, or the appreciation of nature, the arts, and all things romantic, stemmed from two major literary movements: the German Sturm und Drang movement and the French Revolution. In general, romanticism valued experience, emotion, and individual freedom, in opposition to the ordered rationalism of the Enlightenment. While romanticism was mostly defined by literature and the arts, it also influenced architecture, music, and philosophy. This opposition between the rational and the romantic is what led to the flourishing of German Romanticism in the first place, as well as to the invention of the literary wolf. As romanticism took hold in England, Ireland, and Scotland, as well as Germany, the werewolf as we know it was born.
The British Romantic movement can be traced back to the English poet and writer William Wordsworth, who published his seminal work, The Prelude, in the early part of the 19th century. This work exemplifies the Romantic movement in its focus on experience and how one interprets that experience subjectively. In particular, the Prelude explores the author’s personal struggles with religion and his search for meaning. It is considered one of the masterworks of Romanticism. A direct descendant of The Prelude is William Blake’s poetry collection, Songs Of Innocence, which was published posthumously in 1803, several years after Blake’s death. The collection focuses on the innocence of children and is considered by some to be Blake’s finest work.
The German Romanticism
The German Romantic movement was largely influenced by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who published his seminal work, Faust, in 1808. Like Blake’s Songs Of Innocence, Goethe’s Faust is a collection of poetry and is considered a masterpiece of German Romanticism. Another major figure in German Romanticism was William Wordsworth’s brother, John. Like John, Wordsworth’s other brother, William, was also a poet and is credited with discovering how to cultivate friendship with the natural world. Their collaborative effort, the “Brothers’ Wartime Poem”, which is featured in John’s 1816 collection, Return From France, deals with the stresses of war, loss, and death. It’s an ode to friendship and to living one’s life to the fullest during challenging times:
So long, farewell!
We must be brief; because the night is near — The shades of evening are creeping upon us — and like a rising wind, I feel a sensation in my chest that tells me it is time to go.
The evening bell will soon be ringing — The village church bells will soon be ringing — and I know that my brothers’ voices will meet me as I walk.
The peasants are awakening — The dogs are barking — it is time to go, to go, to go!
The sun will soon be setting — The moon is rising — and I know that my path will lead me home to my brothers.
(William Blake, “The Ghost Of Abel Koëlla”)
In The Midst Of A Lycanthropic Outbreak
While Blake and Wordsworth were instrumental in bringing about the literary werewolf, it was the Romantic poets of the French Revolution who laid the groundwork for the beast as we know it. In 1793, the Revolution led to the establishment of the First French Republic. During this time, due in large part to the efforts of pioneering biologist Étienne Dominique Eugène Lametz, the werewolf as we know it made its first cinematic appearance in Louis-Francois Seguin’s 1902 film adaptation of Horace Walpole’s The Wolf Man. Since then, the cinematic iteration of the werewolf has appeared in numerous films and television shows, most recently in 2014’s The Legend Of Bogart’s Ghost.
The American Romanticism
It was during the height of the 19th century that the United States grappled with its own identity crisis, one that was similar to the German, French, and British Romanticisms in that it called for a reconsideration of traditional values. American Romanticism can be attributed to a confluence of factors, including Romantic writers and poets who were inspired by European Romanticism as well as the ideals of the French and American revolutions, leading to a revitalization of national sentiment. This is most notably exemplified in the writings of William Wordsworth, who was joined by his sister-in-law, Dorothy Wordsworth, in a joint effort to revolutionize how poetry was represented in literature. Their landmark work, The Prelude, was published in 1805 and is often referred to as the “birth certificate” of American Romanticism. It was in The Prelude where the Wordsworths first introduced the concept of nature, as a force that shaped humanity:
The mind is itself a natural phenomenon,
(William Wordsworth, “The Prelude”)
Lycanthropy And Transylvanian Gothic
As the 19th century gave way to the 20th, we find the literary werewolf undergoing a massive evolution. The first half of the 20th century was marked by scientific discoveries that shattered traditional notions of gender and sexuality, leading to the rise of the homosexual movement and the birth of modern-day transgenderism. These social revolutions were accompanied by a renewed interest in the occult and the supernatural. This gave rise to another significant wave of interest in the werewolf.
The Second World War
The Second World War, which began in 1939 and concluded in 1945, saw a massive wave of paranormal activity that can be attributed to the conflict and the stress it caused people—both combatants and civilians. The most prominent figurehead of this wave is undoubtedly H.P. Lovecraft, who was inspired by the Gothic novels of the 19th century to pen stories about strange things happening in the shadows of society. Through his stories, such as “The Dunwich Horror” and “The Thing From Beyond”, as well as his collaborations with other writers, such as Henry Arthur Jones, he helped to bring the literary werewolf back from the brink of extinction.
Modern-Day Wolves: Vampires, Ghosts, And Goblins
It was the 1950s before the cultural phenomena of the baby boomer and the hippie generation led to a sea-change in how society viewed the literary werewolf. During this time, the monsters of Gothic literature were replaced by a new breed of creatures that would star in their own movies and be the subject of many popular novels and short stories: the vampire. The first film to feature a vampire as the main antagonist was Terence Fisher’s Vampires Don’t Eat Chocolate (1959). However, it wasn’t until the early 1970s that the vampire made its presence felt onscreen through the work of Italian director Lucio Fulci, whose 1972 film, The Last House On The Left, arguably laid the groundwork for the slasher film. Since then, the vampire, more than any other creature, has become synonymous with the literary werewolf, both in terms of influence and in popularity.