Shape Shifting and Spatial Shifting – Part 2

[adjective][species] is pleased to present part 2 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

The first part is available here

Chapter 2 – The Wolves Reinvigorate the Human Body: Wagner, The Wehr-Wolf and The Wolf’s Body.

G.W.M. Reynold’s 1846-7 serial, Wagner, the Wehr-Wolf, stands as one of the better known pieces of werewolf fiction from the nineteenth century, however, it does bear some flaws. David Copper criticises its “repetition and wearisome use of adjective and hyperbole” (118), yet such stylistic defects may arise from the fact that “Reynold’s fiction primarily targeted a lower- and middle –class readership” (Easley & Scott 65). On the subject of werewolves, despite boasting of them in the title, Wagner’s lycanthropic excursions are scarce in a work of seventy-seven chapters, yet this should not discourage analysis as what remains has been well received by other critics. Wagner is “a fine example” (Marvin 59) of how writers of werewolf fiction in the nineteenth century grew in desire to detail “the graphic metamorphoses of the human” (59), a trend that found “part of the thrill or horror of the weird and the grotesque” (59). Reynolds’s fiction conforms to this trend, as his werewolf serial is fascinated by breaking down the boundaries between the human and lupine body, and then detailing the sensational actions that arise. Wagner introduces the werewolf’s “cycle of monthly metamorphosis… as early as 1847”( Du Coudray 78), though now a concept integral to the werewolf myth, was then “very underdeveloped prior to the 1940’s” (78). This monthly shape-shifting is notable more so, because “Reynold’s depiction of the werewolf in its human form as a white, bourgeois male suggested that lycanthropy could not always be safely confined to an externalised Other… it implied that the affliction might also emanate from within” (53). This chapter shall analyse how Wagner expands the potential ability of werewolves to contest spatial borders by violating the most important border of all – the very body of the human being. Unlike Sutherland Menzies’ Hugues, Reynold’s Wagner does not keep human and wolf separate in his depiction of the werewolf; there is no costume. Instead, the wolf penetrates the human body and resides inside it, creating a hybrid body that trespass against spatial boundaries by dissolving the border between the human and the wolf. This hybridity revitalises the human body, and grants Wagner access to a lupine body which Reynold’s constructs as an essential means for spatial transgression. Using it, Wagner rampages across the countryside and even escapes from prison; the building that should stand as the impervious material emblem of human spatial discipline, for locking up the transgressive individual should prevent that individual from doing so.

In order to imbue the werewolf with the wolf’s transgressive potential, Reynold’s begins the narrative by constructing the wolf’s body as the locus of transgression. Wagner begins the narrative as a feeble figure, an “old man sat in his little cottage on the verge of the Black Forest” (Wagner 5). His status as an old man who “numbered ninety years… was toothless… and his limbs were feeble” (5) undermines the notion that this human body has the potential to resist, especially when he is threatened by the predatory wolf, which he fears has already made his daughter Agnes the “prey of ravenous wolves” (5). Due to the wolf’s strength and man’s weakness, Wagner’s rural space is under threat of collapsing into a wild space by the presence of the wolves, which, constructs them as transgressive symbols that can make an impact on the human being’s organisation of the land. Though it is contested whether “animals do not have the capacity to transgress the imagined and materially constructed spatial orderings of human societies” (Philo & Wilbert 14-15), characterising the wolf as one that predates on humans counters this claim. Though “‘resistance’ is generally taken to entail the presence of conscious intentionality… a property of human agency” (15), the wolf can be seen to resist and transgress boundaries, without getting drawn into the issue of whether animals have agency or not, because its predation, regardless of whether it is conscious or not, is a disruption that fundamentally damages the supremacy of human spatial orders. Thus, when Wagner’s guest notes of his future fate that “the wolves from the forest would have entered [the cottage] and mangled your corpse” (Wagner 6), the wolf is clearly transgressive. The walls of Wagner’s home do not prevent entrance because of the weakness of his “helpless, wretched, deserted condition” (6), therefore implying that if the material boundaries are ramparts that entrench human spatial orders; they are defunct as they are unmanned. Therefore the wolf is able to penetrate the borders of human spaces because their strength is illusionary. Thus, Wagner lives in a space where the boundaries separating human and wolf are fluid, the precursor to the collapse of the very boundaries of the body, which then creates werewolves.

With the Black Forest firmly established as a problematic backwater where rural man’s proximity to wild creatures threatens his existence, the devil’s offer to make Wagner young again at the cost of becoming a werewolf appears to merely actualise fears of contamination arising from such a close proximity; thus werewolf is born of spatial transgression initiated by the wolf. Montague Summers writes that when werewolves “transform himself into the shape of some ravening beast of prey… this animal will be the most commonly met with in the district where the varlet inhabits” (22), clearly associating the nature of the shape shifter by the location. Taken in the context of Wagner, it is no surprise that Wagner becomes a wolf – as there is no other candidate that could take its place, or provide a body that allows him to be transgressive. The werewolf myth has been thought to have arisen from the conflict between humans struggling to maintain rural and urban domiciles from the intrusions of wolves from external, wild spaces. Baring-Gould writes of early reports of lycanthropy in Arcadia that “the natives… would consequently suffer very severely from the attacks and depredations of wolves” (8). Modern critics also suggest that werewolves arose from “exaggerated accounts of nocturnal attacks on Stone Age settlements by bands of fur-clad warriors masquerading as wolves” (Frost 4), or from prehistoric man’s attempts to “to look and feel like the wolf by wearing its pelt or its teeth” (Beresford 20). Regardless, it is this permeable boundary between humans and wolves that provides the opportunity for Wagner to become a werewolf, and embrace the wolf’s transgression for himself.

The devil’s promise to Wagner that “I will render thee young, handsome” (Wagner 6) at the cost of “the condition which must be imposed upon thee” (6) in other words “the destiny of the Wehr-Wolf” (6), indicates that the cost of renewed vitality, in which Wagner “must change his natural form for that of the savage animal” (6), comes from becoming a werewolf. The offer to become a werewolf demonstrates that allowing the wolf to penetrate the boundaries of the human body will allow Wagner to regain “the vigour of youth… rendering that stooping frame upright and strong… of endowing thee, in a word, with a fresh tenure of existence” (6). Thus, the werewolf in its very genesis demonstrates that one may seek to become a werewolf because by allowing the animal inside the human body, the subsequent union allows the newly made werewolf access to the wolf body, which generally, but in Wagner’s case explicitly, is the locus of transgressive potential. In acquiring access to the wolf’s body, Reynolds also demonstrates that the act of becoming a werewolf is a transgression against the boundaries of the human body itself.

The werewolf is transgressive because it breaks down the bodily boundaries between animal and human, which all other spatial borders have attempted to do so. Wagner’s revitalisation echoes the success of Edward Jenner’s earlier success of using cowpox as an effective means of smallpox vaccination, which, “by 1833 a discovery made in a rural backwater of provincial England had been spread across the globe” (Fulfort, Lee & Kitson 198), as it “penetrated the human body with matter derived from the bodies of beasts and, in so doing, it made people sick to make them well” (203). Whether by science or supernatural means, the potential werewolf has its body similarly penetrated, allowing the animal access into a place it previously could never reach, making him healthy and young, but leaving his “health dependent on the mark of the beast” (202). The transgression of the wolf into the human body, although by supernatural means, and its consequent vitality through hybridity reveals how the werewolf is symptomatic of how “the categorical boundary between human and animals, so fiercely defended as a tenant of modernity, has been seriously challenged, if not dismantled in places” (Franklin 3). With the wolf firmly established as the vitalising element of the werewolf and the physical body that is naturally transgressive, analysis shall now turn to investigating Wagner’s actions with the wolf shape that his body has now embraced.

Wagner’s transformation in chapter XII demonstrates how the traits of the physical, lupine body allow the werewolf to contest spatial boundaries more effectively than the stock animal. “No longer a man, but a monstrous wolf” (Wagner 23), the werewolf assumes the physical lupine body that possesses great speed, so that “tree – hedge – and isolated cottage appear but dim points in the landscape – a moment seen, the next left behind” (23). The wolfish abilities of speed and endurance are the essential source of transgression, as in the shape of a wolf, the werewolf at the very least has the ability of the natural animal to “lope along at about 8-9km/h for many hours with few pauses” (Marvin 16) and with a “top speed of 60 km/h in a short burst and about 39 km/h for a kilometre” (16). Able to move faster than a human, the werewolf subsequently free to invade, evade, and disrupt landed human interests across distances that cannot be matched by other human beings. Therefore, when “a cemetery stands in the monster’s way… he turns not aside” (Wagner 23) because his speed allows him to race “through the sacred enclosure, on – on he goes” (23) because none are fast enough to stop him. Wagner’s transgression (see fig.2) does not just cause terror, but even death, as “the monk who walked nearest the head of the coffin was thrown down… and his brains were dashed out” (23). Therefore the suggestion is that the werewolf indeed has power over others, especially those, like monks, who rely on the illusion of power in immaterial, religious borders such as sacred ground to secure their own existence.

(Fig. 2) George W.M. Reynolds, Wagner, The Wehr-Wolf (New York: Cosimo Classics, 2008) 29, Print.
(Fig. 2) George W.M. Reynolds, Wagner, The Wehr-Wolf (New York: Cosimo Classics, 2008) 29, Print.

The werewolf’s speed, derived from its lupine body is the key that bestows it mastery of the landscape. Its ability to range faster than a human means that the werewolf is free to trespass because it is always ahead of the human beings required to police the imaginary and material boundaries they have constructed. Thus, for the werewolf Wagner, to whom “the very hills appear to leap after each other” (23), if the purpose of a border is to prevent and regulate the movement of bodies into certain areas, the speed of the wolf prevents him being caught and made to conform to such regulations. If the violation of these boundaries cannot be prevented, it then is essential to the order’s integrity that the transgressors are caught and eliminated. Even when hounds are later set upon Wagner, despite being able to “overtake him” (23) and “fall upon him” (23), the supernatural creature has the strength to “toss them aside” (23) because “that Wehr-Wolf bears a charmed life” (23). Though the dogs appear as a fitting body able to apprehend the ranging wolf, for dogs are derived from domesticated wolves, used often to guard human interests, their inability to match the wolf despite bearing similar traits suggests that the werewolf is successful in its actions because it is difficult to apprehend.

Though Wagner is imprisoned during the course of the narrative, this occurs whilst he is a human, and therefore does not undermine the werewolf’s ability to escape punishment for its transgression. As a suspected werewolf, Wagner’s trial is one that draws the populace as it is a public demonstration of disciplinary power. As such, “the great square of the ducal palace… was crowded… and the windows were literally alive with human faces” (67), drawing the notion that the previously transgressive werewolf will be destroyed, and so executing the problematic body. However, the rashness of the Chief Judge’s desire to publically exorcise “a monstrous and ridiculous superstition – imported into our country from that cradle and nurse of preposterous legends, Germany” (67), allows the transformed Wagner to escape the jail, as the performance of justice removes the offender from the cell containing it, so all can see. Like Foucault’s Panopticon, the judiciary’s desire to reverse “the principle of the dungeon… to enclose, to deprive of light, to hide” does not, like the Panopticon preserve “only the first and eliminates the other two” (554). Rather removes all three principles, for in their desire to bring to light and see the werewolf, it also frees him. Thus “the door was opened, a horrible monster burst forth from the dungeon with a terrific howl” (Wagner 67) and consequently the Chief Judge is “hurled down and dashed violently against the rough, uneven masonry, by the mad careering of the Wehr-Wolf” (67). The werewolf demonstrates that if there is any weakness in the physical boundaries that discipline society’s spatial geographies, they are open to violation not just by external forces, but even by humans themselves, as they allow them to be violated by their own desire to reinforce their watertight nature.

In conclusion, Reynold’s Wagner, though often dealing with the werewolf in brief segments of the narrative, conveys how the werewolf firstly is a creature that transgresses the fundamental boundaries of bodies. The human body then becomes that of the werewolf, and has the ability to transgress as a wolf, yet it is also a revitalised human body. When disciplinary bodies attempt to punish the transgressions committed by the werewolf, in part because the spatial orders lack the power to enforce themselves, the desire to secure the borders by the performance of justice, literally and figuratively, opens the door for the werewolf to transgress further.

Before posting a comment, please read our Code of Conduct

2 thoughts on “Shape Shifting and Spatial Shifting – Part 2

  1. I don’t quite understand the Devil’s deal with Wagner. Did the Devil grant Wagner a younger, stronger human body but with the condition of transforming into a werewolf at each full moon? Or did Wagner remain in the condition of an old man except for a monthly transformation to the werewolf form?

    1. Hi Shining River!

      That’s okay! Academic writing styles don’t favour lengthy descriptions of plot, so there’s no need to worry. To clarify, yes, the Devil grants Wagner a younger, stronger human but with the condition that he will transform into a wolf each month. In that way you can see that his revitalisation is tainted by lycanthropy. Hopefully that answers your question.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.