There is a reason why walking in the woods at night sets off some deep-seated and prehistoric fear in many of us. Today, there is not much to fear other than rare snakes and the odd wild cattle, but there is a reason for our fear of the wilderness, which lies more in fact, than in tales of werewolves and gremlins. Up until the last few hundred years, wolves were a common sight in England, and it was not just the threat they posed to humans that made them so terrifying. People living in rural Britain farming livestock were reliant upon the wellbeing of these animals – the death of just one cow could mean a loss of profit which would have fed the family for a week or so. Therefore, it was not just the fear of being mauled to death that made the wolf so terrifying, but the fear of not knowing where your next meal would come from, or whether all the work you had put into tending for your cattle that year would be for nothing.
The portrayal of wolves in folklore across the world is a mixed bag – in Scottish folklore, the wolf is portrayed as a gullible creature; in Roman culture they were praised as symbols of maternity; and in Norse mythology they were revered as chaotic beasts. This shows that the nature and character of wolves have fascinated people across the world for centuries. One famous tale in Scottish folklore about the wolf pairs it with the fox and portrays the fox as a more cunning and clever creature. After the wolf and fox have stolen some ‘crowdie’, which either refers to cheese or porridge, the wolf eats more of the crowdie than the fox. In an act of revenge, the fox tricks the wolf into lying down on some ice and resting his tail over the reflection of the moon, which the fox had said looked like cheese. Once the wolf had been lying there for a long enough time for his tail to freeze to the ice, the fox alerted the farmer of the land, causing the wolf to run and leave half of his tail behind, therefore making it less bushy than foxes’ tails.
Due to the influence of Roman and Norse culture in the development of British folklore, I believe it is important to mention these cultures’ beliefs surrounding the creatures, too. The mythical founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus, were said to have been raised by a she-wolf who found them on the banks of the River Tiber. The pair were meant to be executed, as their mother had conceived them with the god Mars despite being a Vestal Virgin, and the king had ordered their death as her punishment. However, a servant took pity on them and delivered them to the banks of the river. Therefore, the Romans saw wolves as a symbol of maternity.
The most famous wolf in Norse mythology is Fenrir, the son of Loki. Prophecies foretold that he would bring great destruction, so he was trapped in a puzzle consisting of six impossible things: the beard of a woman, the sound of a cat’s tread, the roots of a mountain, the sinews of a bear (we know now that bears have extremely short sinews, but they were thought not to exist contemporaneously), the breath of a fish, and the saliva of a bird. Fenrir cannot break free until the wolves that chase the moon and the sun across the sky finally catch them and the earth is plunged into darkness. This will be Ragnarök, and Fenrir will fight and consume Odin, resulting in the end of the world. Here the wolf is presented as a bad omen, representing the end of all things and having an infectious tendency to destroy.
Therefore, there were clear roots for Britons’ fear of the wolf, which they tried to console through mythology. However, this did not stop them from hunting and killing wolves to their extinction. There are many conflicting tales as to how the last wolf in Britain was killed. One well-known version is set in South Cumbria, beginning with a man called Sir Edgar Harrington, who owned a large amount of land around Cartmel Forest in the fourteenth century. He had made a vow to kill every wolf on his property. When there was only one wolf left, in order to finally eradicate wolves from his land, he promised that whoever slayed this wolf could marry his niece, Lady Adela. An eager group of men set out to hunt the beast, but the chase went on for so long that eventually there were only two men left – Sir John Delisle and a man called Layburne. They pursued the wolf back to its lair, and in a desperate attempt to escape the wolf jumped into a ravine. Only Delisle pursued it into the ravine, and there he found Lady Adela being pursued by the wolf. He heroically killed the wolf, when Sir Harrington showed up, and in a twist of events it was revealed that Delisle was also Harrington’s long-lost son, John Harrington. Not only this, but the Prior of Cartmel was also passing by on his way to collect water form a holy well and agreed to marry the newly named John Harrington and Adela on the spot. The story goes that they lived long, happy lives and were buried in Cartmel Priory with wolves on their tombs to commemorate the slaying. Some of this tale may lie in truth, as there is a death recorded of a John Harrington in 1347, and on his grave, there is a half-man, half-wolf carving. Nevertheless, this epic shows the tenacity of individuals, whether they were really competing for fairy-tale princesses or dutifully eradicating the bane of Britain’s rural populace.
Despite knowing how fearful these people were of wolves and the threat they posed to their livelihoods, one cannot help but feel sad at the extinction of such a revered creature. The story of the last wolf seems to be more of a culling of sport, where the characters kill the vicious creature for honour or personal gain rather than for the survival of the people. There are currently plans to reintroduce wolves into the Highlands of Scotland, but understandably, there is a lot of controversy surrounding this choice. Some argue that they would be a helpful way of keeping the deer population under control, thus increasing Scotland’s biodiversity; however, the idea of a wolf lurking once again in Britain’s wilderness sets some people on edge. One must wonder, is this a rebirth of our age-old fear of the wolf?
Written by Megan Crutchley
Chainey, D, and W Winsham. 2021. Treasury of Folklore: Woodlands and Forests. London: B T Batsford Ltd.
Flemming, Emily C. 2018. Cove: The were-wolf, British Folklore and the Colour White. Unknown Unknown. Accessed January 31, 2022. https://editions.covecollective.org/edition/were-wolf/were-wolf-british-folklore-and-colour-white.
Kendall, Paul. Unknown. Trees For Life: Mythology and Folklore of the Wolf. Unknwon Unknown. Accessed Janurary 31, 2022. https://treesforlife.org.uk/into-the-forest/trees-plants-animals/mammals/wolf/.