Friday, 15 August 2014

Guest Post: Werewolves as Patriarchy

25 Ways To Kill A Werewolf

Guest post by Jo Thomas

As I’ve pointed out elsewhere, I consider werewolves one of the three fundamental monsters of horror fiction. In fact, I consider them the most used embodiment of the “monster within”, of what happens when one gives into one’s instincts and desires.

What we think of as werewolves is shaped by centuries of folklore and stories wrapping up together to form a totally mixed whole. There are plenty who lament the werewolf’s badass decay in paranormal romance and urban fantasy. I don’t especially wish sexy werewolves would disappear, but I wanted to show something of why we have werewolf mythology in the first place: lycanthropy is probably a twisted remembrance of warrior initiations.

There’s a fair chance that werewolves are the last remnants of rituals intended to make young men feel less human—more precisely, less subject to social mores—in order for them to commit some truly atrocious acts. The kind of acts that make certain Northern European tribes memorable to Romans like Tacitus, as it did for the Harii.

The Wikipedia article on the Harii only mentions the links between the warriors of that tribe and the warriors who serve Odin in Valhalla—and the later corruption into the Wild Hunt. There are also similarities with, and suggestions of carry-over into, the concept of the bear-shirts (berserkir) and wolf-coats (ulfhéðnar). Which, basically, may have spread the idea of shape-shifting into wolves around Europe, parts of Asia and possibly into the Americas. Depending on how far you think Viking influence spread.

In fact, if you check out some Germanic and Celtic hero stories and the chances are, you’ll fall over a warrior with a name that includes “hound” or “wolf” in fairly short order. If not, you’ll probably find a reference to someone who was turned into a wolf or dog for a somewhat confused reason that may have made sense before the story was written down by a Christian monk.

So, what have we got? Werewolf mythology comes from warrior rituals intended to make it easier to survive combat—or at least lessen the psychological damage of taking part in it. These warriors would have been the sports celebrities of their day (with added PTSD) and, just as today's celebrities, they would have been managed and controlled by higher status individuals who had either been through it themselves or could pay the warriors' salaries.

The warriors would be considered the best and the bravest of the youth, the most talented with their culture's preferred weapon(s) in hand. While there may have been women warriors, anyone who didn’t measure up—less strong or healthy, anyone who didn’t identify as the warrior ideal, anyone who didn't make the required number of kills—would have not been considered as good, as worthwhile. Generally, these people would have been men and, eventually, the outliers would be forgotten or given mythical status.

But, while they existed, these heroes would have been given or taken what they desired, regardless of what anyone unable to stand up to them wanted. Which is not to say that there wouldn’t have been genuinely nice guys (or girls). But… We are all aware of how difficult it is to resist, refuse, or otherwise turn down someone who has implied power, let alone physical ability.

What remains of bear-skin and wolf-coat references are all for male warriors, so it's possible to assume that all these wolf-warriors were male and so we could consider the seed of werewolves to be a result of male chauvinism, of a particular brand of male superiority. These are men who had gone beyond being human to being mystical animal-shape shifting warriors with special powers and were better than whatever other way of being was out there. If there were women bear-skins or wolf-coats, or even an equivalent, they are no longer described in the same terms.

Yes, I am apparently a card-carrying, man-hating feminist. I never set out to write 25 Ways to Kill A Werewolf as a woman fighting against patriarchy but there must be a lick of that there when the origins of werewolves are considered. And the fact that the men who choose to become werewolves in the world I built are usually in it for the perceived power it gives them fits with that, as well.

The irony is, of course, that werewolves didn’t become a Bad Thing because of being poster children for macho men. The seed of the werewolf idea became a Bad Thing because the men who went through these rituals were pagans and heathens who enacted the rituals in the name of demon-gods, not something the growing Christian Church(es) appreciated. Theoretically the practices died out, although it’s likely that a memory of them continued, becoming more twisted as time went by.

Although there’s an element of settlement and civilisation in there. The more sedentary communities are likely to admire the warrior class less, because warriors spoiling for a fight tend to ruin the sedentary bit—and that may be why werewolves became superstars of horror in more recent history. As the whole un-Christian practices débâcle becomes less important to Western culture, we became more convinced of our own civility and the wild behaviour of werewolves became more of a thrill.

I guess that means that werewolves got declawed by paranormal romance because the thrill had to be brought within more acceptable cultural norms. Although, arguably, the role of the male romantic lead is one of the most “alpha male” stereotypes going as they are there to dominate and show the heroine what she really wants, achieving a happy ending by proving that she really is feminine despite the (plot inspired) need to kick ass and take names.

The paranormal romance werewolf, then, is simply an extension of this: a man who shows all the signs of being physically strong and powerful, able to control the situation, able to sense what the heroine needs before she realises it. Despite his power and strength, he means the heroine no harm so he becomes the best prospective mate in the book—unless there's a vampire around, of course.

Which comes to my objections. Sure, it's nice to read a romance and have a guaranteed happy ending as a given—for certain values of happy or expected outcomes. But what happens if the werewolf does mean harm? What happens if the heroine doesn't want to be dominated? Well, 25 Ways To Kill A Werewolf happens, I guess.

Jo Thomas's 25 Ways to Kill a Werewolf is out from Fox Spirit Books in August 2014. For more information and to purchase the book, visit: http://www.foxspirit.co.uk/books/fantasy/25-ways-to-kill-a-werewolf/ or Amazon or Goodreads.

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