Wolves have been prowling through human storytelling from the very beginning, scaring and enticing us, standing for the ferocity of the natural world and for the wildness we sense inside ourselves. Sometimes our stories are about metaphorical wolves, and sometimes the wolves are very literal. Here are ten wolf books that are important to me:
The Wolves in the Walls by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean
There are wolves in the walls of Lucy’s house and if they come out it will be all over. Gaiman’s text is both playful and incantatory, just as McKean’s illustrations are equal parts silliness and menace. In my house this is one of our favourite picture books ever, but we still sometimes find it a bit too scary. Halfway through the book the wolves do come out of the walls, but it turns out that even when a wolf is eating your jam and wearing your socks, it isn’t really all over…
Clever Polly and the Stupid Wolf by Catherine Storr
Every time the wolf turns up wanting to eat Polly, she outwits him and sends him away with an empty stomach. These are funny, reassuring tales for young children, with their slapstick comedy and the cheerful ease with which Polly always beats the poor old wolf. And yet he keeps coming back, and he really does want to eat her up. I can’t help wondering what will happen if she lets her guard down one day.
The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken
Aiken’s Dickensian melodrama introduced me to the concept of alternate history: it’s set in ‘a period of English history that never happened’, a 19th century in which James III is on the throne and wolves have flooded into Britain through a newly-constructed Channel Tunnel. These wolves are bloodthirsty killers who will ambush trains and hunt down children, but they pale in comparison to the human wickedness of Miss Slighcarp, the cruel governess who wants to cheat Bonnie out of her inheritance.
Erik The Viking by Terry Jones
Another favourite in my house. Erik and his men encounter many different creatures, but one of their most memorable adventures is on Wolf Mountain. To survive Wolf Mountain, you must obey the Law of the Wolves, and most believe this means ruthless killing and insatiable hunger. But in truth, as the Great Grey Wolf tells Erik, each wolf is ‘bound to the other by invisible bonds so strong that nothing can separate us. Each of us lives and dies for his comrades. That is the Law of the Wolves.’
The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling
The wolves who adopt Mowgli and raise him according to the Law of the Jungle are the archetypal pack, ferociously loyal to their kin. They are the family of Mowgli’s childhood: ‘He grew up with the cubs, though they, of course, were grown wolves almost before he was a child, and Father Wolf taught him his business, and the meaning of things in the Jungle… every rustle in the grass, every breath of the warm night air, every note of the owls above his head, every scratch of a bat’s claws as it roosted for a while in a tree, and every splash of every little fish jumping in a pool’.
Wolf Brother by Michelle Paver
Six thousand years ago, Torak’s father is killed by a demon-possessed bear. With the help of his wolf-cub companion, Torak must travel to the Mountain of the World Spirit to rid the forest of the demon. Paver’s Stone Age adventure is especially good at placing us inside unfamiliar ways of seeing the world — both the shamanic magic of the ancient humans, and the sharp senses of the wolf itself.
The Wolf Wilder by Katherine Rundell
in Tsarist Russia, aristocrats make wolves into pets, then get rid of them when they become troublesome. Feodora and her mother teach these domesticated wolves to fend for themselves in the wild. Some of the books in my list see wolves as terrifying predators, while others see them as far preferable to humans. In The Wolf Wilder both are true, the fierce simplicity of the wolves contrasting with the arrogant menace of the Tsar’s army.
The Cry of the Wolf by Melvin Burgess
Everyone knows wolves died out in England hundreds of years ago — but in The Cry of the Wolf everyone is wrong. Wild wolf packs have been living secretly in the English landscape for centuries. Now they are being driven towards true extinction by a killer known as the Hunter, while a boy called Ben tries to protect the last surviving cub. This tough, vivid book was Burgess’s first novel. It was runner-up for the Carnegie Medal in 1990, but it was just beaten to the prize by…
Wolf by Gillian Cross
Like The Cry of the Wolf, Cross’s novel is a gripping story about a child encountering the brutal realities of a world beyond childhood. Cassy, brought up by her grandmother, is sent to live in a squat with her cloud-cuckoo-lander mother Goldie, who is obsessed with creating a play about wolves: ‘The way we think about wolves is twisted up with the way we think about ourselves.’ Cassy begins to have disturbing dreams of herself as Little Red Riding Hood, and to suspect that the truly dangerous wolf may be her absent father, about whom she knows nothing; that, as Angela Carter once wrote, ‘the worst wolves are hairy on the inside’.
Animal poems by Ted Hughes
The human habit of making wolves into symbols might destroy the reality of the animal itself. ‘Eyes / Have worn him away’, Hughes writes in ‘Wolfwatching’, of an animal diminished by life in a zoo. ‘He’s a tarot-card, and he knows it’. But another poem, ‘Wolf’, gives us a creature beyond symbolism:
The Iron Wolf, The Iron Wolf
Stands on the world with jagged fur.
The rusty moon rolls through the sky.
The iron river cannot stir.
The iron wind leaks out a cry
Caught in the barbed and iron wood.
The Iron Wolf runs over the snow
Looking for a speck of blood.
Only the Iron Wolf shall know
The iron of his fate.
He lifts his nose and moans,
Licks the world clean as a plate
And leaves his own bones.
Wolfstongue is published by Little Island Books, and available to purchase from all good booksellers.