EXPANDED NARRATIVE: Role of the Wolf in Contemporary Media

The wolf as a motif has had an extremely varied history in mythology; sometimes it is portrayed as a master hunter, sometimes as a loyal protector, sometimes as a villain. In more recent history, the wolf has definitely been a symbol of fear: along with Dracula and Frankenstein’s Monster, the Werewolf completes the triumvirate of classic horror film monsters that so terrified early cinema-goers. Yet I would argue that the role of the wolf, and in particular the mythological werewolf, has changed again and is presented in a very different light in contemporary film and literature.

I feel this is particularly true of media aimed at young adults and teenagers. In recent YA literature, the werewolf has, amazingly, become something of a romantic figure. This is something that has never gone before – although the stories of Count Dracula and vampires may have always contained an erotic undertone, stories of werewolves have generally been more straightforwardly violent and frightening. There have been occasional attempts to inject humour into the genre – such as the Michael J. Fox film Teen Wolf – but, on the whole, the transformation of a human into a wolf-like creature has been presented as horrific, and these characters as uniformly evil. However, in modern works such as Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series, the werewolf is not the villain, but is rather shown as a sympathetic character and a potential love interest for the protagonist. In other works, like Maggie Stiefvater’s The Wolves of Mercy Falls books and the BBC television series Being Human, the state of being a werewolf (or ‘lycanthropy’) is shown as being a painful affliction for the characters affected. It is something that they loathe about themselves and seek to control and overcome, because these characters are good people who do not wish to harm anyone while in their beast-like state. Their struggle to overcome the wolf part of them is presented in a poignant and poetic way, and may be intended as symbolic of man’s perpetual struggle with his more base nature.

Another example of the changing perception of the wolf in modern media is the character of Remus Lupin from J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. Infected with lycanthropy as a child, Lupin is nonetheless a heroic character, but is required to drink a magical potion every full moon to prevent himself from becoming violent and dangerous in his werewolf form. Rowling is quoted as stating that she intended for Lupin to be a metaphor for people infected by HIV, which would make this incarnation of the werewolf a symbol of the unfair prejudice society inflicts upon people whose condition is beyond their own control.

There is also the 2011 American TV series Teen Wolf, a very loose adaptation of the afore-mentioned 1980’s film, though largely omitting the film’s comedic elements. Here, werewolves as shown as being very similar to humans in that some are good and some are not, and it is in fact that werewolf hunters who are presented as the true villains due to their inability or refusal to make that distinction.

It is undeniable that, like vampires, werewolves (and, by extension, wolves themselves) have become much less threatening figures in contemporary media. I think the fact that, in these modern stories, it tends to be normal humans who are the villains speaks volumes about what we are afraid of now compared to our predecessors, who viewed the supernatural creatures as the danger and the humans as the heroes.


Meyer, S., 2005, Twilight

Stiefvater, M., 2009, Shiver

Rowling, J.K., 1999, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban


The wolf has been an important figure in the mythology of many cultures throughout history:

–          The Ancient Egyptian war deity Wepwawet, known as Opener of the Ways, was a jackal-headed god.

–          ‘The She-Wolf’ – in Ancient Roman mythology, Romulus and Remus were nursed by a female wolf after being abandoned. This idea of human children being raised by wolves has reoccurred in more modern literature and media, such as Mowgli in The Jungle Book and San in Princess Mononoke.

–          In Norse mythology, Odin (or Wodan) was said to wear the pelt of a wolf in battle.

–          In North American tradition, the wolf was a totemic animal and represented strong family ties, good communication, education, understanding and intelligence. The wolf was considered the most accomplished hunter of all the land animals, as well as the one with the strongest supernatural powers.

–          Also in Ancient Roman legend, Lycaon, King of Arcadia, was transformed into a wolf by Jupiter as punishment for serving him a meal of human flesh. This possibly gave rise to origins of werewolf stories.

–          Some of Aesop’s fables involve wolves, usually in an antagonistic role. In ‘The Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing’, the wolf tricks and devours lambs by wearing the shorn coat of a sheep, with the supposed message that ‘appearances are deceptive’. In ‘The Wolf and the Lamb’, the wolf attempts to convince the lamb that he has the right to eat him but, being unable to do so, eats him anyway. The message behind this fable is that ‘the tyrant will always find a pretext for his tyranny, and it is useless for the innocent to try by reasoning to get justice, when the oppressor is unjust’.

–          The wolf is a central character in the story of ‘Little Red Riding Hood’, which has undergone numerous revisions since its original telling as a piece of folklore. Originally a tale about a little girl outsmarting a wolf which means to eat her, it gradually became a cautionary tale about the dangers that can befall girls (and by extension, women) who do not take care to beware of strangers.

MOVING TOWARDS THE POSTMODERN: Modernism vs. Postmodernism

In terms of art style, the motto of modernism was ‘less is more’. However, the underlying philosophy of the art movement ran a lot deeper. Modernism was very much a rebellion against the 19th century aesthetic and culture, both of which drew heavily on what Modernists considered to be outmoded and thus redundant tradition. These artists examined all aspects of life afresh and took a never-before-seen approach to their work, and this is evident in art, architecture and literature from this period. They felt that clinging to outdated beliefs and constantly making reference to classical art of the past was inhibiting the progress of both art and culture as a whole, and so they sought to cast off all that had gone before and create something totally different and fitting for the new age. Unfortunately, the public at large was not prepared for this new and radical approach and often found modernist art strange or unsettling, or did not consider it ‘art’ at all, which led to many artists being unable to exhibit their work in galleries. Although exhibiting their art in other, less conventional ways suited their anti-status-quo philosophy, it meant a struggle to get widespread publicity. Some Modernists saw themselves as revolutionaries, while others – particularly Dadaists – were more nihilistic and aimed only to increase political consciousness rather than actually alter the politics of the time. On the whole, it was a hugely important art movement – which, in fact, encompasses many art movements, such as Bauhaus, Surrealism and Futurism – which was considered shocking and highly subversive at the time.

“It stressed freedom of expression, experimentation, radicalism and primitivism, and its disregard for conventional expectations often meant startling and alienating audiences with bizarre and unpredictable effects (e.g. surrealism in art, atonality in music, stream-of-consciousness literature).” (Mastin, 2008)

However, after World War II, Modernism began to be seen as having failed in its goal to revolutionise art and culture, in large part due to the fact that, by this time, it had actually become extremely mainstream. It redefined tradition and therefore became the new tradition, which went against its founding aim to enable progress. Postmodernism, then, was a reaction to the downfall of Modernism and was in many ways its opposite. Mies van der Rohe is credited with coining the Modernist motto of ‘less is more’ – in turn, Venturi declared that, for Postmodernists, ‘less is a bore’. Postmodern art set out to contradict Modernist art, particularly in terms of drawing on the past. Whilst Modernist artists rejected the part completely, one of the key characteristics of Postmodern art is the integration of past styles into highly contemporary works.

Postmodernism also has a highly complex underlying philosophy, which essentially sets out to question that which more traditional philosophical stances take for granted, such as the idea of a single objective reality or the universal validity of logic.

“Postmodernism as a philosophical movement is largely a reaction against the philosophical assumptions, values, and intellectual worldview of the modern period of Western (specifically European) history—i.e., the period from about the time of the scientific revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries to the mid-20th century. Indeed, many of the doctrines characteristically associated with postmodernism can fairly be described as the straightforward denial of the general philosophical viewpoints that were taken for granted during the 18th-century Enlightenment, though they were not unique to that period.” (Duignan, n.d.)

Works Cited

Duignan, B., n.d. Encyclopaedia Britannica. [Online]
Available at: http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/1077292/postmodernism

Mastin, L., 2008. The Basics of Philosophy. [Online]
Available at: http://www.philosophybasics.com/movements_modernism.html


Further Bibliography

Witcombe, C., n.d. Art History Resources. [Online]

Available at: http://arthistoryresources.net/modernism/roots.html 


In 1919, the Bauhaus school was formed in Germany by a group of artists and designers led by Walter Gropius. The aim of this new school was to “create a new guild of craftsmen, without the class distinctions which raise an arrogant barrier between craftsman and artist”. The Bauhaus and its approach to design had an important influence on many subsequent developments in art and especially areas such as architecture, interior design and typography.

In the Netherlands around the same time, there was the De Stijl movement, also known as neoplasticism. Work by De Stijl artists was highly abstracted and tended to use only primary colours plus black and white. It was also extremely geometric, using only straight lines, squares and rectangles in compositions and designs.

Both the Bauhaus and De Stijl were influenced by Russian Constructivism, which encouraged the use of art for social purposes. It had a major influence on architecture, fashion and graphic design.

There was also Modernism, which encompassed many things including scientific positivism, realism and formalism. It extolled principles such as (national) identity, unity, authority and certainty – it was greatly affected by developments in science and work from this period often had a minimalist appearance.

Modernism was followed by Postmodernism. If the motto of Modernism was ‘less is more’, Postmodernism’s was ‘less is a bore’.