L. Annette Binder’s Rise is a collection of fairy tales set in Colorado, except that the witch, lucky Hans, and the frog prince are all characters at the fringes of everyday life. The wolf appears from time to time in her stories.
My favorite nursery rhyme when I was little was Hoppe hoppe Reiter. It goes like this (from the German):
Bounce, bounce rider
If he falls he'll shout.
If he falls into the ditch
Then the ravens will eat him.
Bounce, bounce rider
If he falls he'll shout
If he falls into the swamp
Then he'll make a splash (drop child).
There are other stanzas I don’t remember, but the rider suffers terribly in each of them. He falls into a pond and nobody can find him. He falls against the rocks and breaks his legs. The hedge snails eat him or the flies. The snow drifts cover him and he forgets all the things he loved. (For a discussion of the rhyme and its variants, click here). And the best part was that I became the rider when my parents said the rhyme. They dropped me low when he fell down. They tickled me when he got bitten.
My father in particular relished the rider’s misfortunes. The world is full with shadows, he seemed to say, and in the shadows there are witches sometimes and there are wolves. You are four, you are five. You might fall down and the ravens will eat you, but I’m here and we’re together and I wasn’t afraid of these things. They made perfect sense.
Here’s a story from the Brothers Grimm: The mother goat had to leave her house for a while. She warned her seven little kids not to open the door while she was out because the wolf might come knocking. Be careful, she said, and watch for the wolf who has a rough voice and horrible black paws. The wolf came sniffing as soon as she left, but the seven little kids didn’t open the door because his voice was much too rough. So he ate some chalk to gentle his voice and he came back. Let me in, he said, but the kids said no because his feet were much too black. So he covered them with flour and he came back again and the kids opened the door this time, and he ate them all but the littlest who hid inside the clock.
The mother came home and saw her ruined house and all the blood, and only her littlest kid was there. She looked for her six lost babies. She wandered through all the fields, and she found the sated wolf sleeping beside a tree. Her youngest fetched some scissors and some thread, and the mother goat slashed open the wolf’s belly. Out came her babies one after the next. Bloodied but alive, all of them, and she put some big rocks inside the wolf’s empty belly while he slept. She sewed him up tight. When the wolf woke up from his sleep, his stomach rumbled from all the rocks. What’s wrong, he wondered. What are these rocks inside me, and he tripped and fell into a deep deep well. All the goats danced for joy then because the wolf was dead. Pulled beneath the water by his own greedy belly.
There’s more to the story, which you can read here, but the gist of it is this: The wolf will wait until your parents are away. He is out there watching and he is relentless and he will try to find his way inside. If you let him in, he will eat you. And if you survive his visit, it will only be through cunning or dumb luck.
My daughter is three and a half, and she picks the stories I read her. Sometimes she reaches for the fairy tales, and the version she has is peopled by bunnies. There’s a bunny wolf, but he doesn’t eat Red Riding Hood’s grandma. He huffs and puffs, but he doesn’t eat the piggies either and he doesn’t even try. There’s no giant at the top of the bean stalk, no blood of an Englishman. I want to edit them as I read, to give the wolf back his fangs, but I don’t. I read them as they are, and she likes them and she wants another and another.
As we sit reading them together in her room I think, You will not remember these in a year. They will leave no mark. Bruno Bettelheim theorized that dark fairy tales give young children an outlet for addressing their fears. I have no idea if he’s right about the symbolic value of fairy tales, but I know this: Defang the wolf from the start and the story loses all its power.
Saint Francis of Assisi tamed the terrible wolf of Gubbio by making the sign of the cross. It lay before him gentle as a lamb. It fed from the villagers’ hands. In another of the Grimms’ stories, the huntsman beats back the wolf with his bullets and his hanger. Hunters and saints. Guns and miracles. These are our only defenses when he comes.
A few years back I was listening to a speaker – I don’t remember who —and he criticized Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men because we don’t know why the villain Anton Chigurh is the way he is. The writing lacks empathy, the speaker suggested. We deserve to understand Chigurh and not just watch him as he kills. I wanted to raise my hand afterwards. I wanted to respond, but I stayed quiet. Here’s what I wanted to say: Chigurh is the wolf. You could write about why Chigurh became the wolf and that might make a compelling story, but that’s not the story McCarthy chose to tell. Chigurh is the wolf, and like a fairy tale, the story neither explains him nor celebrates him. It just shows him as he is.
Chigurh is a terrible mirror that shows all our shortcomings. Like the wolf, he is a measuring stick. “Somewhere out there is a true and living prophet of destruction and I dont want to confront him,” Sheriff Bell says of Chigurh. “I think a man would have to put his soul at hazard. And I wont do that.” And if, like Bell, we fail to stop him, the wolf will be there waiting. He’ll outlive us all. “He’s a ghost. But he’s out there,” Bell says near the end of the novel. “You wouldnt think it would be possible to just come and go thataway.”
There is a wolf-beast on Bray Road in southern Wisconsin. Locals insist they have seen him since the 1980’s. More sightings in Cannock Chase in Staffordshire, England. The Cajun werewolf in Louisiana. The Beast of Gévaudan in France killed 113 people, mostly women and children, in the province of Languedoc (see Jay M. Smith’s Monsters of the Gévaudan for a fascinating history of the beast and how people responded to it). The Ezo wolves of Hokkaidō have been extinct for over a hundred years, but people still see them. The gray wild dog in Burma. There are many more. We have seen them for centuries. They have taken our children when we weren’t looking. Cancer is a wolf, too. Sometimes it waits for years before it finds an opening. My father was a young man when he sang me Hoppe hoppe Reiter. Barely forty and he had so little time left, but we didn’t know it then.
The wolf of Gubbio died of old age. The villagers mourned its passing. It took dozens of hunters and the king’s own gun-bearer to kill the Beast of Gévaudan. Smith explains that its embalmed body was displayed in the royal court. The wolf is dead! the seven little kids say at the end of the Grimms’ story. The wolf is dead, and they dance around the well where he fell down. But the readers know the woods are dark and there will always be another.