Saturday, July 24, 2021

Do Wolves Eat People? revisited

 So, in the mini-essay on wargs (wolves) in MR. BAGGINS, part one of THE HISTORY OF THE HOBBIT (2007), I did a little mythbusting:

"Wolves do not, of course, eat people. But legend and folk-belief has maintained otherwise from time immemorial, from Aesop's fable of 'The Boy Who Cried Wolf' [sixth century BC] through fairy-stories like 'Little Red Riding Hood' [seventeenth century French] and 'Peter & the Wolf' to the modern day (Saki's 'Esme' and 'The Intruders', Willa Cather's My Antonia , Bram Stoker's Dracula, and any number of Jack London stories). Perhaps the most famous literary account of a wolf-attack prior to Tolkien's occurs in Defoe's Robinson Crusoe [1719] . . ."       page 216

". . . unlike wolves and eagles, bears really DO eat people -- a fact of which Shakespeare was well aware, hence his famous stage direction for one doomed character: 'Exit, pursued by a bear' (A Winter's Tale, Act III scene iii), followed by a gruesome off=stage mauling as the character is torn limb from limb. The largest land predators, bears maul people every year even today."   page 256

I have recently heard that I may well be in error. According to French Tolkien linguist Damien Bador, and quoted from a recent email with his permission:

There is one point where I need to mention that I believe you’re clearly mistaken. On several occasions, you take pains to stress that wolves only attack people in fairy tales, not in reality. As far as I’m aware, this is quite true for the American wolf, but not so much for the European (and Asian) one. Wolf attacks have been rather well documented in Western Europe since the XVIIth century at least and up to the early XXth century (in fact, France is probably the country with the best historical records, stretching from the 1300s up to 1920 and involving nearly 7600 fatal attacks, according to Wikipedia). In a large number of cases, this was linked to the wolf being rabid (which entirely removes its fear of humans), but there were also a large number of non-rabid wolf attacks recorded. Most victims were isolated children and women, especially during the summer, when people encroached upon the wolves’ territories during their pastoral or agricultural activities. What is probably the most well-known series of attacks involved the “Beast of Gévaudan” in mountains in Central France, which involved roughly a hundred fatal attacks from June 1764 to June 1767. While they might have been caused by several animals, most specialists still consider they were performed by wolves, or possibly wolf-dog hybrids (see the very detailed WP page in French on this topic:  

So, it seems that I may have overstated the case. 

Unless Americans are just less tasty than Europeans. 

Thanks to Damien for the corrective.

--John R.


Wurmbrand said...

It's a funny coincidence that I saw and read this posting the same day I started the Cather novel and read that passage for the first time. (By the way, My Antonia is very good so far. For some reason I found myself thinking that Arthur Machen might have liked it. I wonder if he ever read it.)

Dale Nelson

John D. Rateliff said...

Dear Wurm

Yes, Cather is very much a neglected writer, especially I think in her short novels. I'm curious about your finding that it evokes a Machen mood. Afraid I didn't note any similarity at the time, and it's been too long ago now (mid-80s) for me to remember it in enough detail.

--John R.

Wurmbrand said...

Oh, it's just a hunch -- that if Machen started the book he'd like it. I wish there were readily available to all interested persons (not something tucked away in an obscure collector's item book or journal) a list of literary works that Machen is known to have appreciated. Anyone who's read Hieroglyphics might remember his appreciation of Dickens's Pickwick, Rabelais's Gargantua and Pantagruel, and Cervantes's Don Quixote, but (I don't remember the reference now) do we think of Machen as someone who would have said that Life on the Mississippi was Twain's best book? But (somewhere) he did.

Dale Nelson

Paul W said...

I recall that section as the only part of The History of the Hobbit I was disappointed in. Of course wolves eat humans, and in all the places where humans and wolves interact. As the wikipedia ( article on the subject says, "The United States Fish and Wildlife Service concludes that wolves are very shy of humans but are opportunistic hunters and will attack humans if the opportunity arises and advise against "actions that encourage wolves to spend time near people.""

Just because wolf attacks are exceeding rare historically (but not unknown, even in North America there are documented historical predatory attacks) that doesn't mean they are not real. The mythology around wolf attacks sprang from a real danger when humans populations were smaller, more wide spread and wolf populations larger and more widespread.

M said...

I have to wonder if "wolves don't attack humans" isn't an artifact of Farley Mowat.