Shape Shifting and Spatial Shifting – Part 1

[adjective][species] is pleased to present part 1 of 3 in a series of guest posts by Televassi comprising a dissertation titled Shape Shifting and Spatial Shifting: How the Hybrid Body Allows the Werewolf to Transgress and Resist Disciplinary Spatial Orderings of the World in Three Nineteenth Century Werewolf Tales. Citations are be available here

Televassi is a bit of a newcomer to the fandom, however in his time here he’s been amazed by the friendly and creative nature of the people that make it up. Apart from being a writer, he also enjoys rock climbing and scuba diving, and has a keen interest in Celtic and Germanic cultures. You can find this torc wearing wolf on twitter as @Televassi, and find more of his writing and art on FA and Weasyl. He’s always happy to meet new people, so don’t be afraid to say hi!

Fig. 1. Anon, “The Werewolf of Anarchy,” (Punch, 105, 23 December 1893,) 290, Print.
Fig. 1. Anon, “The Werewolf of Anarchy,” (Punch, 105, 23 December 1893,) 290, Print.


Werewolves are prevalent, recurring figures in literature. Their “sheer pervasiveness… speaks of their continued popularity and psychological importance” (Stypczynski 186). The werewolf’s history of literary appearances is long, for “werewolves are insinuated into European literary history from their earliest appearances in the Near Eastern Epic of Gilgamesh, Petronius’ Satyricon, and Ovid’s Metamorphoses” (15), continuing “through the Middle Ages, in the works of Gerald of Wales and Marie de France… to subtly inhabit the early modern period” (15), before appearing in fiction written during the nineteenth century and onwards into the present day.

Despite this, academic analysis of the werewolf has been scarce. Most publications reprint folkloric or theological texts rather than new critical analysis. Brent Stypczynski summarises the critical field in five points; the shape-shifter as theological impossibility or monster; the medieval ‘sympathetic werewolf’ phenomenon; political postcolonial allegory; shape-shifting as insanity; or the werewolf as social allegory (6). All these approaches attempt to read the werewolf as emblematic primarily of one theme, narrowing their possible meanings in favour of one conclusive definition. This is a mistake, as Judith Halberstam argues in her book, Skin Shows, that “the success… of any given monstrous embodiment depends upon its ability to be multidimensional in terms of horror it produces” (110). This dissertation aims to explore new avenues as to what the werewolf can be, so that the nineteenth century texts are not read only as well-documented expressions of “fears of working class unrest, social change, Darwinism, imperialism, women’s liberation, and sexual freedom” (Easley & Scott xv). Recent criticism by authors such as Chantal Bourgault Du Coudray and Brent Stypczynski has built on such approaches by beginning to interpret the werewolf as a positive, if not desirable creature, and therefore signalling that new criticism should investigate this trend. This dissertation will analyse Hugues, The Wer-Wolf (1838) by Sutherland Menzies; Wagner, the Wehr-Wolf (1846-7) by George W.M. Reynolds; and The Were-wolf of Grendelwold (1882) by F. Scarlett Potter, and argue that each werewolf uses his lycanthropy to resist and transgress against rigid spatial orderings imposed upon the landscape and human society. Thus, this dissertation will expand upon previous critical interpretations, situating itself among modern criticism beginning to view the werewolf as a positive, even desirable figure. However, this does not depart from the traditional definition of the werewolf; it rather argues that its desirability still lies in its traditional definition.

A werewolf is a man or woman who, either voluntarily or involuntarily, is supernaturally transformed into the shape of a wolf and endowed with all the physical characteristics of that animal. (Frost 6)

Frost’s definition appears straightforward, however the notion of the werewolf, in its most extreme, as “one of the most terrible and depraved of all bond-slaves of Satan” (Summers 123), is complicated by its voluntary nature, indicating it can desirable. Frost’s later qualification that the werewolf exhibits animal traits, such as “cunning craftiness, swiftness of movement, bestial ferocity and unbridled cruelty” (6) allows one to hypothesise that such traits superior to the human body are what is desired. Frost does not however explore this possibility, as his assertion of cruelty colours the cunning, swiftness and ferocity as equally condemnable because they allow the werewolf “to gratify the taste for human flesh” (Baring-Gould 5). By suspending an anthropocentric, moral dynamic that sees such traits as negative because they harm human beings, it is possible to reveal how the werewolf’s animal qualities are tools that allow resistance and transgression of social-spatial locations.

Pursuing such a reading is possible because criticism in the twenty-first century has begun to gesture towards positive interpretations of the werewolf. Chantal Bourgault Du Coudray notes that the werewolf embodies “the possibilities of integrating the antagonistic aspects of the werewolf’s identity” (141), to the point that in modern fantasy fiction the werewolf “survives, develops ethical frameworks and achieves spiritual fulfilment” (149). Brent Stypczynski supports such a positive view, finding that “the modern werewolf begins to discuss issues as diverse as conservation, time travel, hidden societies, adaption of one’s skills, and teaching history” (182). Neither is this positive modern interpretation a reinterpretation, for Leslie Sconduto’s analysis of werewolf literature from the twelfth century indicates it is rather a rediscovery, as “all texts portray the creature [werewolf] as a victim and a hero” (3). However, these analyses neglect interpretation of the supernatural werewolf’s body, which this dissertation proposes is a means to freedom. In order to pursue such a reading of the werewolf’s access to a positive animal body, this dissertation combines literary criticism with the field of animal studies.

Criticism in animal studies is generally concerned with decentring the anthropocentric conception of animals in culture. This applies to the rationale of discovering superior, positive traits in the werewolf’s animal body, as human classifications of animal inferiority must be removed in order to do so. Otherwise, the werewolf’s physical traits such as strength, speed and ferocity continue to be seen as negative because they harm human interests – the exact reason that attests to their ability to transgress and resist spatial orders. Our view of animals displays “our own investment in the idea of an authentic nature, a natural order of things, for which the animal is the ideal icon” (Baker 180). Randy Malamud agrees with this view, as “we are interested in animals, by and large, in terms of what they can do for us… so their own freedom and integrity are diametrically opposed to our ability to do with them what we will” (18). The issue that emerges is the notion that animals are defined in our culture by “the ‘place’ which a particular animal, a given species of animal or even non-human animals in general can be said to possess human classifications or orderings of the world” (Philo &Wilbert 5). In order to revise a utilitarian, anthropocentric approach to animals, Malamud’s call for “a natural history of animals; animals as we’re not seeing them” (18) is an intriguing proposal, though it is apt to question whether literary animals can ever be seen outside of a cultural gaze, including the supernatural werewolf. Regardless, animals are judged in terms of their place in the natural order with relation to what they can do for us, or how they harm our own efforts to order the world, which explains why the fictional werewolf’s physical traits are overlooked as sources of freedom because they are tools that harm human interests by resisting spatial order. Thus, the werewolf resists the concept that:

Each identified thing has its own ‘proper place’ relative to all other things, and can be neatly identified, delimited and positions relevant to a conceptual space so as to be separate from, and not overlapping with, other things (Philo & Wilbert 6).

Understanding that such spatially determined notions are only “human classifications or orderings of the world” (5) is crucial to understanding the werewolf body as a positive figure. It is reasonable to suggest that humans also spatially construct places that apply to human beings as well, not just animals, and therefore culture can become repressive or oppressive. Regardless of the anthropocentric perception that “the animal can not think in other than the most rudimentary ways… has no sense of time or space…unable to plan future actions apart from the boundaries imposed by the immediate situation” (Sanders & Arluke 379), animals nonetheless “destabilise, transgress or even resist our human orderings, including spatial ones” (Philo & Wilbert 5). The werewolf can transgress too, as his animal shape bestows animal traits that allow the individual to resist his spatially assigned place in society in ways a human cannot, by embracing the threatening potential of the wolf’s pelt, howl, claws, teeth, and speed.

Chapter 1: The Wolf’s Shape as Escape in Sutherland Menzies’ Hugues, the Wer-Wolf

First published in 1838 in the Court and Ladies Magazine, a publication for women focused on light reading, fashion, and society (Easley & Scott 1), Hugues, the Wer-Wolf has appeared fleetingly in critical discourse. Whilst “Menzies could claim to be the poor man’s Walter Scott in his use of dialect and rural locations… the lycanthropic goings-on are described in such a limp manner… and despite its interest remains a only a marginal essay in the genre” (Copper 116). As a text about werewolves, its flaw is that the central character is not a real werewolf. Instead the ‘metamorphosis’ is achieved by the discovery of a werewolf costume that the protagonist uses to perform his werewolfery. The idea of using clothing to become a werewolf does not undermine the narrative’s werewolf status, as the belief that one could become a werewolf by either wearing a magical wolf-skin or by wearing a girdle of wolf fur are common themes in folklore. Instead, Hugues’ costumed performance demonstrates a desire to be the animal. This is because the physical appearance of the wolf, along with the semblance of claws, teeth and other non-threatening attributes such as the ability to eat carrion, are embraced because the threat the wolf offers allows him to escape the oppressive conditions of his previously ‘pure’ human existence. It is reasonable to read Hugues’ animal performance as liberating, because modern instances of wild animals entering human, urban spaces, reminds “people of the permeable boundaries between themselves and animals, between nature and culture, and even between national and international spaces” (Sanders 251). Hugues’ adoption of the wolf shape serves to clothe him with the transgressive freedom of movement a ‘wild’ nonhuman animal attains.

Before Hugues dons his werewolf apparel, it is important to understand the geographical structure of the narrative, as it is the oppression by these spatial boundaries that causes him to rebel. The landscape of Hugues is divided between nature and culture, particularly stressing the control of the forest which Hugues lives in. Menzies’ descriptive choices imply a language of control and limitation, for the woods are described in such fortified terms as “impervious covert” (Hugues 2) and “sylvan fastnesses” (3), the latter noted in a footnote as meaning stronghold, which therefore characterise the forest as a fixed, policed space. Existing on the “confines of that extensive forest-tract” (2), the Hugues family is restricted within the forest, signalling their spatially determined otherness as the text indicates no neutral ground between nature and society. Thus the narrative’s creation of a landscape where everything “has its own ‘proper place’ relative to all other things, and can be neatly identified, delimited and positioned relevant to a conceptual space” (Philo & Wilbert 5) is a construction with profound consequences for those within it.

“The class into which we place a species determines the treatment an individual animal will receive” (Lerner & Kalof 580) also affects humans, for the class the Hugues family are placed into has negative consequences for their welfare. The Hugues’ existence in the forest is no naturalistic idyll, for they are “wretched outcasts” (Hugues 3) preventing any possibility to interpret their existence as one that is wilful, thus, the spatial order they are defined by is oppressive of individual liberty and harmful to their wellbeing. The boundary that forces them to live an “a lone and miserable habitation” (3) is one that is socially constructed, as Menzies somewhat ironically writes that the former quote is possible because they are “under the protection of the ancient forest laws” (3), thus securing the notion that their spatial status is cultural. Social convention prevents their exit, not an impassable landscape, for they are ostracised for fear that they belong “to the accursed race of werewolves” (3). Thus the Hugues’ exile implies that “the werewolf… created through essential boundary transgressions: between the human and the animal, the civilised and the bestial, the domesticated and the wild” (Marvin 48) can be contained by placing it in wilderness areas, as these areas have no interest to man. Though this does not separate the werewolf’s issue of the wolf in the man, it places the hybrid in wilderness that is of no interest to humans, therefore making it obey the spatial order. Due to this designation, the family is “refused work” (Hugues 3) and does not have “a single friend among the adjacent homesteads” (3), therefore maintaining their outcast status by forcing them to live “a secluded and precarious existence” (3). This prevents them from moving across the border that divides human society from the forest, and the Hugues family contained therein. The implication is that Hugues’ inability to resist his spatial definition lies in his humanity, as any human plea “met brutal denials at all hands… accompanied by taunts and menace… dogs were let loose upon him to rend his limbs” (9).

It therefore appears counter-intuitive that Hugues embraces, and actualises the claims of werewolfism against him in order to resist his spatial isolation, as it was the very thing that caused his family’s exile. However unlike his human self, animals can “destabilise, transgress or even resist our human orderings, including spatial ones” (Philo & Wilbert 5), so when Hughes gives his impassioned desire to become a wolf, he signals that the animal shape can become desirable because it offers a means of resistance when all human modes of complaint are denied.

‘Oh, would I might be a werewolf… I could then requite them for all the foul wrong done to me… I would be able to terrify and torment those… who have persecuted out family even to extermination… I should at least find carrion to devour, and not die thus horribly’ (Hugues 11).

Hugues identifies that the physical body of the wolf with the ability to revenge himself and his dead parents and sister, for the image of the wolf provokes terror in those who behold it. Exceeding revenge, Hugues draws upon the wolf’s natural eating habits in order to allow himself to sustain himself, signalling that the animal becomes something that improves his life. Moreover, Menzies signals the wolf is able to transgress spatial boundaries, as “wolves had… emerged from their forest lairs, and, entering the cemetery by a breach in its walls, goaded by famine, had actually disinterred the dead” (4) demonstrating how animals can permeate the boundaries constructed by human beings.

When Hugues dons the costume, “he felt his very teeth on edge with an avidity for biting; he experienced an inconceivable desire to run: he set himself to howl as though he has practised wer-wolfery all his life, and became to thoroughly invest himself with the guise and attributes of his novel vocation” (13). These actions signal an attempt to emotionally connect through performance with two aspects that can be found threatening about the wolf; the howl which holds “a long held fear that it might signal attack on them [humans] or their livestock” (Marvin 24), and the jaw “that has a crushing power of 1,500 lb/in (double that of the largest domestic dog” (18). Armed and clothed as a wolf, Hugues is able to trespass against the boundaries that have oppressed him because his performance of the wolf enables him to create the illusion of possessing such abilities. Though it is an act; “performing an animal identity provides a way out of human norms that have become unduly restrictive” (Carlson 195), because Hugues’ performance of the wolf evokes fear that prevents people from exposing his illusion. Thus, Hugues is able to move by “howling in a frightful manner, and traversing meadows, fallows, plains, and marshes, like a shadow” (Hugues 13). However, Hugues’ performance does not only allow him to move across the boundaries he could not cross as a human, but also disrupt them by constructing his own rival spatial order.

As he roams Hugues encounters Willieblud, the Ashford flesher driving a cart full of meat for the market. Starving, Hugues’ wolfish guise allows him to steal food, as the flesher’s fear of the werewolf makes him passive, allowing Hugues to take control of the situation; “he howled in a plaintive tone, and, rushing forward, seized the horse by the bit” (13-14). Seizing the horse controls the freedom of the flesher to move across the land, allowing the previously oppressed Hugues to reverse the spatial order, all done under the guise of the wolf, as his human hands are hidden underneath “gloves in the form of paws” (12). Moreover, now that Hugues has literally taken the reigns of the situation, he uses his wolfish guise to voice the complaints he was unable to make as a human; “‘I hunger; throw me two pounds of meat if thou would’st have me live’” (14). Despite being disguised in a costume that lacks any real wolfish aspect, the fear of the werewolf transforms it into something more threatening than “a dyed sheepskin… a mask with an elongated muzzle, and furnished with formidable rows of yellow horse-teeth” (12). Hugues’ transgression expresses a deeper fear than that of the wolf alone. As “clothing is something which can also be seen to differentiate humans from other, nonhuman animals” (Hurn 110), the act of wearing the skin of the wolf is not just an example of how “clothes also represent powerful means for subversion…expressions of resistance” (110). It indicates that the narrative’s two undesirables, the wolf and the outcast, have joined together in the wilderness they were exiled in, and return to plague society anew, attacking the purebred human’s once secure spatial order of the world in a way he is powerless to resist. Hugues is the herald of this, as his human speech conveys the demand enabled by the hybrid whole, that of meat to eat, secured by the wolfish threat of violence upon the weak human body.

‘I would rather have raw meat than eat of thy flesh, plump as thou art. Throw me… what I crave, and… be ready with the like portion each time thou settest out for Canterbury market; or, failing thereof, I tear thee limb from limb.’ (Hugues 14)

Hugues, the werewolf, has now clearly changed the spatial order he once suffered under, to the point where his predations become a regular occurrence, regulating the spatial freedoms of the flesher, who would once have been the social superior preventing Hugues from doing so. Mirroring the wolf’s natural behaviour to construct a territory “for their own subsistence” (Marvin 23), the werewolf has similarly set up his own territory, a rival spatial order that man is now forced to submit to. It also grants him greater access into social circles, as he can for example claim the hand of a woman in marriage. Dressed as a werewolf, he is able to demand that “‘tis thy niece I would have speech with, in all courtesy and honour… which if thou not permittest… I will rend thee both do death” (Hugues 17). The werewolf combines human speech with the threatening physicality of the wolf in order to gain physical access to women, thereby opening up the prospect of marrying into society and inserting himself deeper into social spheres. This is evidenced by the fact that once granted, “the wolf had done her no injury whatsoever… acting with in every respect like a loyal suitor, rather than a sanguinary wer-wolf” (18). By forcefully initiating his courtship under the threatening guise of the wolf, Willieblud is powerless to stop the werewolf forcing himself into the pool of eligible bachelors and thereby court his daughter, for Willieblud is counselled that “slay a wer-wolf thou canst not… for his hide is proof against spear or arrow, though vulnerable to the cutting” (18).

After a brief episode whereby Willieblud cuts off the werewolf’s paw, mirroring medieval methods of exposing a werewolf, his plan is thwarted, as his daughter now loves Hugues. Stating that “If Willieblud should raise his cleaver to slay thee [Hugues], he shall first strike though his kinswoman’s body” (20), Branda indicates that Hugues’ courtship, instigated by his werewolfism, has secured a place in her heart, and by her legitimacy in society, a place for him in society to. As a consequence of cutting off Hugues’ hand, Willieblud is driven mad by the severed hand and dies, allowing Hugues to marry “Branda, sole heiress to the stock and chattels of the late unhappy flesher of Ashford” (22). Thus the suspected werewolf, once ostracised and contained in the wilderness, has now ultimately used his wolfish aspect to move out from his exile and secure his position in society, and confirm the place of his lineage through his acquisition of a wife – all of which, he gained access too by his performance of werewolfery.

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4 thoughts on “Shape Shifting and Spatial Shifting – Part 1

  1. From the introduction, I understand that this essay is a dissertation, that is, a scholarly expository essay. Reading into it with that in mind, it soon became apparent that I needed to devote a greater than usual amount of attention. That’s not a bad thing, just a little unusual for furry interest literature, and I hope other readers will make the same effort. Once I got into “Chapter 1”, the description of the story, the idea of resisting spatial orders began to make sense. As a work of early nineteenth century fiction, it appears to still have something of interest for this twenty-first century reader. Hugues had a choice between being respected or being feared, chose to be feared, yet still got to marry the heiress. Of course, that only happens in fairy tales

    1. Yes, academic writing sadly isn’t the most readable of writing styles. However, I’m glad you stuck with it and managed to see where the argument was going.

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