Friday, June 24, 2011

On "The Werewolf" by Basil Copper ***

Written in the 1970s, this basic introduction to all things werewolf--or at least, the history of the werewolf in legend, fact, and art--seems best to me in its second section, on fact. Werewolves--and vampires and elves and fairies and trolls and all things horrific and fantastic--have not held much interest for me, except in theory. And Copper's book seems to have confirmed that. The legends regarding the werewolf are moderately interesting, while the books and movies about the werewolf sound dreadful (as in dreadfully bad).

I would likely have been drawn a bit more to those other portions of the book, however, if Copper had spent more time analyzing and hypothesizing one what our fascination with the werewolf actually means. Instead, he tends mostly to focus on plot summaries of the best novels and stories and on giving his opinion with regard to how good or bad the works are. Given my lack of interest in the plots, I didn't find these sections terribly compelling.

The section on fact, however, was interesting precisely because Copper did spend some time hypothesizing, drawing parallels between legend and real life. In this section, various theories are espoused with regard to how people in the Middle Ages, for example, could have burned so many werewolves in the various witch hunts that occurred.

One theory is that the legend may have some roots in an obscure disease, a type of pophyria that makes people allergic to the sun. Such people break out into lesions in the light. Their teeth take on a yellowish hue, the urine is red, and for obvious reasons they prefer to come out at night, after sundown. Given their tortured appearance and their preference for the dark, such people might have been seen as witches.

Other diseases, of course, can be psychological, involving people who only think they are wolves--but who then act accordingly.

Copper also delves into stories regarding people raised by wolves. Such people--and there have been something like a hundred over the past few centuries--take on wolfish habits and are incable of learning to speak (going back to theories of language acquisition). Instead, they often walk on all fours and communicate in grunts. Discovered among the wolves, they have long matted hair, long nails, and sharpened teeth. The stories of such people really make one wonder about the extent to which we as humans are different from animals. If raised as a wolf, we are nothing but one, at base, is there any difference? I tend to think we have a spirit of sorts that allows for reason, a gift not inherent (at least not to the same extent) in animals, but what of these people raised among the animals?

But the most fascinating anecdote in the book, for me, is a long account of a man-eating wolf that held Lozere, France, in trepidation for several years beginning around 1764. Over the course of the next two years, the wolf would kill sixty people and injure many more. The wolf liked to prey most of women and children left alone, but it did a few times try to attack groups of children and even a group of men, learning quickly that such attempts were unwise. Villagers got together to hunt the wolf down without success. Louis XV got involved, sending in soldiers at various points, to no avail, and offering a bounty. The man who would eventually kill the beast, a local, would unfortunately not be able to claim the bounty, as the animal would be too greatly decomposed by the time it reached Paris to stand as evidence of his triumph. This, to me, seemed the most horrifying of the stories Copper recounted, something on the level of Jaws or a tale of a serial killer. Now this would make interesting literature or film!

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