Wolves in Beowulf and Other Old English Texts
Welcome to the Medieval Herald Dr Marshall! To begin with, can you please provide an overview of your book?
Thank you for having me!
Wolves in Beowulf and Other Old English Texts is a two-part exploration of wolves in early medieval literature in England. In the first part, I trace two lupine cultural associations known in classical and early medieval Europe, as well as the evidence that both were known in early medieval England. One is the association of wolves with outlaws, whereby outcast criminals were often described as wolf-like or depicted as the companions of wolves in their wilderness haunts. The other is a classical superstition which goes back at least as far as Virgil (if not further), according to which the wolf had the power to steal a human’s speech if they saw the person before the person saw them.
The second part of the book comprises three chapters in which I examine one Anglo-Latin and three Old English texts in terms of these associations: Wulf and Eadwacer (the wolf-outlaw association), the passiones Eadmundi by Abbo and Ælfric (the speech-stealing wolf superstition), and Beowulf (both the wolf-outlaw association and the speech-stealing wolf superstition).
This is a really fascinating study and topic, how did you decide to pursue it?
I remember taking a fantastic course during my time as an undergraduate about Thing Theory and non-human animals in Old English literature, which really sparked my interest in the natural world in early medieval culture. When it came to choosing a topic for a full-length study, I was keen to find some way to incorporate animals. On the advice of the brilliant Chris Jones, I began looking into wolves – and there was so much to find! I still feel like there is much more to be gained from this topic, and that I’ve barely scratched the surface of the intrigue that wolves in medieval literature and culture can offer.
Has medieval literature always been an area of interest to you?
My first experience of early medieval literature was when I was about 17. I remember going to a previously un-investigated section of my hometown library to seek out a copy of Beowulf. I found Seamus Heaney’s translation and I checked it out. The reason I had gone looking was because I had become extremely interested in Lord of the Rings(in no small part thanks to my parents religiously watching and rewatching the extended films throughout my childhood, and my dad encouraging me to read the books after I expressed an interest). For some reason the idea that Tolkien had drawn inspiration from early medieval culture (particularly for the Rohirrim) really struck a chord. I began reading up on the topic, which led me to that copy of Heaney’s Beowulf. I also ended up trying to teach myself a little Old English. Even my teachers thought that was a bit odd.
Do you think the wolf-human relationship is depicted more positively in modern literature and film?
Yes and no. I think there’s much wider a range of depictions. There are still some really terrible offenders – one that always comes to mind is the 2011 film The Grey – but I do think that even the more positive depictions are sometimes marred by stereotypes. I’m often particularly disappointed by the way in which wolves are portrayed in documentaries. For example, footage of non-habituated wolves (which pose very little danger to humans) simply expressing curiosity around people is often shown to a dramatic soundtrack designed to heighten the tension of the scene. That certainly makes good television, but it perpetuates stereotypes that wolves always pose a significant threat to human life which, I would argue, factual programming should be attempting to dispel. I think all modern literature, film, and documentaries could definitely do much more to alleviate some of the harm done by previous negative and stereotypical cultural representations of the ‘Big Bad Wolf’.
Why do you think wolves carried such meaning for the inhabitants of early medieval England?
Of the three top predators native to England, only wolves survived by the early medieval period. Bears had disappeared long before, and although there’s debate about when exactly lynx became locally extinct from the British Isles, they appear to have survived only in Scotland by the early medieval period (where they also soon died out).
For those living in early medieval England, wolves were a competitor for deer, a nuisance when it came to sheep herding, and a potential threat to human life. Where people shared the landscape with them, wolves were probably quite difficult to ignore, even if only because their haunting howls carried into settlements. Wolf howling is a sound unlike any other and highly emotionally provocative, whether it creates a thrill, provokes fear, incites excitement, or sends a shiver down your spine.
There are cultural reasons as well, in particular the inherited tales which were passed down to the inhabitants of early medieval England, such as the wolf-outlaw association or the speech-stealing wolf superstition which I look at in Wolves in Beowulf. However, one of the most influential and widespread will have been the wolf’s depiction in the Bible (especially the New Testament) and in exegetical material. I imagine that having an animal which represented the devil on your doorstep probably heightened emotions about them just as much as hearing their howling did.
Your cover is great! Can you tell us about the idea behind it?
I spent some time searching for different manuscript depictions of wolves. Unfortunately, as far as I’m aware, there are no illustrations of the animal in any surviving early medieval English manuscripts. However, there are many wonderful illuminations from outside of both that specific period and of England.
The image that eventually became part of the book cover is a detail from a French manuscript of Richard de Fournival’s Bestiaire d’amour (1278-1325), which depicts the speech-stealing wolf superstition. The man on the left has seen the wolf first, so is unbothered by him (the wolf who was seen first was said to lose his ferocity and retreat, as is depicted here). The man on the right, however, has not been so lucky: he has been seen by the wolf first and has lost his voice (hence his troubled expression)! I think the designers did a fantastic job incorporating the original image from the illumination into the cover.
ELIZABETH MARSHALL gained her PhD from the University of St Andrews, receiving awards for both her thesis and for her work researching the cultural and sociological issues related to top predator reintroduction to Britain.