The Disguised Wolf and Little Red Riding Hood, engraving by Gustave Doré, 1862.

Under the Wolf Skin

Back in the day when I was writing these earlier stories and all the world was new, I was writing what I knew, every bit of it. Writing chased the wolf away, the big bad wolf who nearly got me when I was a child. That’s how it began, anyway. Wolves and witches, everywhere. There are still witches. There will always be witches. What kind of fairy tale would it be without witches? Or bad fairies at the very least, and usually they are not the least. Usually they’re the ones you really need to watch out for. Much worse than witches, although both will curse you if you are not careful.

But wolves, that’s a different story. Fairies have their gold that turns to dead leaves when you leave them. Witches turn people into toads, and themselves into cats when the mood strikes them. All a wolf’s got, on the other hand, is a bed to hide in. A wolf is always a wolf, even if he is wearing grannie’s nightcap. We’ve been misled into thinking beasts can be beauties. Ask any witch, though, she’ll tell you. The only thing a wolf’s good for is his pelt. The witch I knew tried to tell me that, but I had to learn the hard way.

I suppose some people will say this is all very unfair to the wolf. He’s only being true to his nature. That’s true — he is being true to his nature, and if you know that much then you know that if grannie’s got bigger eyes than she used to, the best course of action is to shut the door and run. The wolf, true to his nature, will murder your chickens and drag off your sheep in the night. (Don’t be like Peter, though. Don’t claim you’ve seen a wolf if you haven’t, otherwise no one will believe you when the wolf makes his presence known. And he will. That’s the thing about wolves. They turn up, usually when you least expect them. On the other hand, if you do see a wolf, tell everyone. Tell anyone who will listen, and especially tell those who won’t.)

Back in the day when the world was new, I was still working this out. I had been misled just like you were. Wolves held a certain romance, a certain flair, an elan, with their thick coats and soulful eyes and long legs loping through the meadows. Surely something so beautiful, so majestic, won’t bite me. Surely it can be tamed, just a little, under my soothing hand. That’s what the stories of my time were telling me, and I believed them.

How many sheep have been lost to the dreaming shepherd? Wolves have big teeth — all the better to eat you with. And the sheep, and the chickens, and anything else to sate their endless hunger.

And what if there is a prince under that wolf’s skin? Run faster. There’s a reason the prince was turned into a beast by those witches. Wolves have their hunger. Witches have reason. They don’t just go around willy-nilly casting spells and laying down curses, and most often, their reasons are good ones. (Fairies have reasons for their curses, too, it’s just that we mortals can’t always understand them.) So if you think there’s a prince hiding under that skin, remember, some curses aren’t meant to be broken. (Some are, but that’s a different story.)

That’s the thing about stories. They shift and change with the times. The oldest stories never claimed wolves were princes. The oldest stories warned us against walking into the woods at night. We got braver, and we got more foolish. We thought we could tame the wild, and all the wolves within it. Well, I’ve been in the woods and I’ve seen the wolf, and I’ve got the scars to prove it. When I close my eyes, I can still see those enormous teeth coming at me. Stories might lead us to the wolf, but they can also help us escape him.

Run fast, run far, run like I did, and when in the dark night his memory looms, either pick up a book and hit him, or take up a pen and chase him back into those woods where he belongs.

[Header photo credit: “Little Red Riding Hood”, Gustave Doré, Märchen Nach Perrault Neu Erzählt von Moritz Hartmann by Charles Perrault and Moritz Hartmann, 1870.]