Urban Fantasy Archetypes: Fictional Werewolves and Other Man-Animal Mixes

moon on lakeThis blog is the third installment of examining the changing meaning of story tropes in urban fantasy.

Like the vampire archetype, the werebeast comes from ancient lore and spans across different cultures. Historically, werewolf stories date back to 440 BC with tales of Herodotus, and then later around 1 AD when Ovid talks about King Lycaeon angering Zeus who exacts his revenge by turning the monarch into a wolf. This story is also where the word lycanthropy comes from.

A few other changelings are from old legends as well, such as the selkies of Scottish and Irish culture. These creatures are seal-human mixes but  lack the vicious connotation found in werewolf legends. In addition, cat people come from other ancient myths such as the were-jaguar of Mesoamerica, and weretigers from India. In the legends, these creatures are connected to witchcraft or sorcery and some myths portray them as great warriors or protectors of the indigenous people.

Old Werewolf Archetypes

However, the werewolf rules on top in old legend and urban fantasy as the king of the changeling beasts. Perhaps this beast’s dominance in tales is because European culture, where most of the stories come from, dominates the entertainment world.After all, wolves were known for killing men in Europe for as late as the 1700s. The popularity also may be because the wolf, more so than then panther or tiger, is a more familiar beast that embodies similar traits of power, predator, beauty, grace, and speed. It is a forest-related spirit, with the woods being a place of danger in traditional fairy tales. Finally, we can often see wolf traits in domesticated dogs. Therefore the werewolf legend of a friend turning into a killing machine is not unlike a pet going made and attacking you.

In older tales and most Hollywood cinema, the werewolf lacks control and, although smart, he does not retain his human sensibilities. The animal acts more reactionary and driven by basic instincts, usually hunger and protection. The authors often show the cursed individual, usually a male, as an unremarkable “anyone” person, sometimes overwhelmed with problems where modern sensibilities doesn’t allow him to react as viciously as he might want to. The wolf’s nature frees him of polite society, allowing the aggression to come out. Jack Nicholson’s Wolf (1994) and The Wolfman (2010) with Benicio Del Toro certainly embodied this. In the end, society must lock up or kill the cursed man to save humanity from his unacceptable animal behavior.

Modern Beast Tales

The writers of urban fantasy literature has expanded the “were” capabilities to several different characters. Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake series features all kinds of animal-man mixes, including wererats, hyenas, and cats, many of which must band together for survival. The Sookie Stackhouse series features changeling foxes and tigers, along with the run-of-the-mill wolves. Finally, Patricia Briggs’ Mercy Thompson stories focus on a werewolf society and how a skin walker (human who can turn into a coyote) fits into that restricted world.  These are just a few examples of excellent urban fantasy series that feature were-animals.

However, the characters of the were-animal have evolved. This person’s ability is not a part of witchcraft or a curse. Like the vampire, the condition is an infection, transferred by bite. Some fiction shows this infection as a “gift” because it offers longer life and stronger powers. The person lives in society and finds ways to deal with his/her furry side when necessary. After the transformation into the beast, the person retains his human intelligence although it must fight to control the animal’s aggression. Morality is still compromised in that the killing instinct is always present. Modern beasts must fight to control their animal counterpart or become a more dangerous split personality. The weres form into packs for survival and often take on aggression-oriented jobs because, even as humans, they are more powerful and survive attacks better than normal humans.

Meanings in the Modern Were Archetype

The beast in recent literature represents the ideological shift from feeling powerless in society to becoming empowered and having more  control. The wolf rarely backs down from a fight, which has great appeal for people who must endure small dominance contests daily, such as who is the superstar in the office or putting up with unfriendly waiters in restaurants. In addition, as machines take over modern life, more people feel a lack of control as they are relegated to being just an number or a cog in the world. In addition, the animal portion is beautiful, even if the human is not, so it speaks to an inner glory and sense of being superior to those around you. For those who feel out of control on their lives, the act of evolving into a more powerful, beautiful, and long-lived person looks very attractive, despite the occasional hairiness.

The social aspect comes in as well because, even while cursed or diseased, the were-animal has a place or a pack where it  is accepted, even with all its faults. The rules in a pack are clearly delineated so that each member knows their role and what is expected of them. This factor is opposite what most people feel in modern society. The powerful concept of total acceptance is a subtle but compelling feature for readers that may feel marginalized by modern society. Given all these perks, gaining extra fur occasionally does not seem like such a bad deal.

Jean closeup

My own “evil” wolf.

The next installment will feature ghosts and phantoms.

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