101. Lizzie Marshall compares stories about wolves

Lizzie Marshall recently completed her PhD ‘The Wolf in the Story’: Wolves as Outlaws and Speech-stealers in Old English Literature. Of course, there are wolves in Chinese children’s literature too! When we heard Lizzie was reading Shen Shixi’s novel Jackal and Wolf, we were keen to know how wolf stories compare. We were delighted she agreed to an interview! And that she has written a longer blog post about Jackal and Wolf on her website Words on Wolves. 

words on wolves

The Words on Wolves website is packed with information about wolves, including photos of wolves taken by Lizzie at the Scottish Deer Centre [image source: Words on Wolves]

Lizzie, please tell us a little about yourself. What would you like our readers to know about you?

I’ve recently finished my PhD at the University of St Andrews. My thesis was an analysis of the representation of wolves in Old English literature, with a particular focus on associations with the animal that had been culturally inherited by the Anglo-Saxons, and which may have informed the way wolves were imagined by them in their own literature.

I felt very unwilling to leave reading and writing about wolves behind after I had initially submitted my thesis (and I had a lot of spare time while in lockdown waiting for my viva exam!), and I had recently read Jiang Rong’s Wolf Totem (姜戎 《狼图腾》). There was so much to learn from that book about wolves, the persecution of them, and the importance of their conservation.


Covers of English editions of Wolf Totem, by Jiang Rong, tr. Howard Goldblatt

So, I started Words on Wolves. It’s now expanded to include a ‘lupine literature list’, with pages for non-fiction, fiction, children’s/YA fiction and films about wolves or which feature wolves heavily, as well as photos I took of the wolf pack at the Scottish Deer Centre in Fife. There’s been quite a lot of interest, which is fantastic. The more people know about what wolves are really like (and how literature sometimes doesn’t do them any favours!), the better.

Why wolves? Where did this interest come from? 

I hadn’t actually thought much about wolves at all until about four years ago, when I was beginning to think about my PhD thesis topic. I was interested in monsters and supernatural beings, but in Old English literature this is a very broad topic – far too big in scope for a PhD thesis. My MLitt advisor (who eventually became my PhD supervisor) suggested some reading material, and a few weeks later I went back to him with a list of ideas. As soon as I got to wolves, he stopped me and said that wolves in Old English literature hadn’t been examined in any great detail. And that was that!

About 18 months into my PhD study I became really obsessed! I found out that my funding body supported ‘student-led’ internships for doctoral candidates, meaning that you could design your own internship. I’d recently been to visit the Scottish Deer Centre to see wolves in person for the first time, and I started daydreaming about learning more about real wolves, not just the ones I was just studying on paper. Luckily, my internship application was accepted!

I spent 6 months part time with the Deer Centre wolves, and it had a very profound impact on me. They had such well-rounded personalities, each very different. The pack consisted of a mother and her two sons, and they were always finding new ways to keep the keepers on their toes! I was always so happy to see the pack, and they would come up to the edge of their enclosure whenever I arrived – I still tell myself that this was their own way of saying hello, and that they were pleased to see me too! I only heard one of the wolves howl once, very briefly, but that was magical. It’s such a cliché, but it really did send a shiver down my spine. But the most special moments were when our eyes met. When a wolf looks into your eyes it feels like they’re looking right into your soul; it’s a very odd feeling, but incredibly moving. Returning that look, you also feel like you can see something behind the wolf’s eyes. There’s a Nuxalk legend that somebody tried to transform all animals into men but only managed to make wolves’ eyes human, and it’s very easy to see how that came about – there seems to be so much going on underneath the amber surface of their eyes. Ever since I spent that time with those very special wolves, I’ve been utterly enamoured with the animal. I have so many wolf-related things around my house now! Not to mention all of the books about wolves that I’ve collected… and Words on Wolves is a great excuse to keep getting more!

On your website, you list over thirty children’s books (fiction) about wolves. Could you share some of your thoughts about the theme of wolves in children’s books? Are they different from wolves in adult stories? 

Children’s books are interesting because there are two ways they can go – the most obvious route is to tap into the fairy tale stereotypes about the ‘Big Bad Wolf’. But what’s great is that because these stereotypes are so well known, there’s also a lot of scope for turning them on their heads and creating an impact by doing so. I think the same sort of trend is happening with adult fiction about wolves – Jiang Rong’s Wolf Totem is a classic example of a ‘new’ perspective on wolves, but you can also find plenty of examples of stereotypical ‘evil’ wolves, like in the film The Grey.

So much of what we think we know about wolves (and animals in general) is ingrained from cultural stereotypes which we probably adhere to even without thinking. Even in documentaries – which are obviously supposed to be factual – when people encounter wolves the musical score for that scene will often create a sense of foreboding, even if the wolves are just being curious and sniffing around the film crew’s camp, for example. Wolves are dangerous, be careful or they’ll eat you! This is what we learn as children. In actuality, the risk of attack is incredibly low; cows are deadlier than wolves, but humans have a learned fear of wolves completely disproportionate to the actual threat that they pose. I think that fairy tale stereotypes play a big part in the perpetuation of this irrational fear of wolves, which is why it’s so important that we expose children to stories that aren’t just about Big Bad Wolves, and that when they do hear these stories (as they inevitably will), children can reflect critically and understand that these characters do not reflect real animals. An incident at the Deer Centre gives me hope that this is possible. A little girl and an elderly man came to see the wolf pack (I was observing the people watching the wolf pack there as much as I was watching the animals), and I heard him say ‘Look, it’s a Big Bad Wolf’, to which she responded, ‘Is it really bad?’. I don’t think he was expecting that!

It’s great to see a lot of stories now subverting these stereotypes. One of the most on-the-nose examples is Eugene Trivizas’s The Three Little Wolves and the Big Bad Pig, which is exactly what it sounds like – an inverted version of the ‘Three Little Pigs’ story. Others encourage empathy with wolves in more understated ways, such as Elona Malterre’s The Last Wolf of Ireland. Shen Shixi’s Jackal and Wolf is also a really good example of this. Putting the reader into the mind of an animal encourages a level of empathy that it’s arguably not possible to get otherwise. While this brings up a lot of questions perhaps on a more academic level, I think for children it’s important to be exposed to the world of animals seen through their eyes, particularly of large carnivores or otherwise misunderstood animals. Although we only get Flame’s (the jackal’s) perspective, rather than Sweetie’s (the wolf’s), we do see a very powerful subversion of stereotypes in Flame, who often muses that jackals and wolves are enemies and yet ends up taking care of the orphaned wolf pup. We’re frequently aligned with the characters in stories who are enemies with wolves, so that the wolves in the stories become our enemies too – just as they are in real life. But Flame doesn’t kill the enemy wolf pup, realising that although their species are in competition, that doesn’t mean that wolves are evil. I think humans could learn a lot from that.

Jackal and Wolf Chinese and English

Jackal and Wolf, by Shen Shixi, tr. Helen Wang – in Chinese and English editions [image source: Words and Pictures

Was there any particular sentence or passage in Jackal and Wolf that really stood out, or jumped off the page, for you? Could you tell us why?

 I think one of my favourite passages was this one:

… humans just cannot help themselves from associating the most vicious, most malicious and most ruthless things with the wolf. Hence the wolverine’s name. Little children are told stories about the ‘big, bad wolf’. And it gets worse! An aggressive person is called a ‘wolf’. ‘A wolf in sheep’s clothing’ is a person pretending to be something they are not. ‘A wolf at the door’ is a threatening visitor who has come to remove something you need. If you ‘let a wolf in the house’ you let the enemy into your life. The most poisonous flowers often have ‘wolf’ in their names: langdu (‘wolf-poison’) and wolfsbane. And what is the most dangerous mountain called? Wolf Mountain! All of these expressions give wolves a bad name. (pp. 213-214)

It’s such a neat explication on the way in which wolves have suffered at the hands of human ‘culture’. We presume that wolves are evil because this is what we are told in literature and language; we all know the story of Little Red Riding Hood, and we frequently hear about ‘wolf packs’ (groups of criminals) and ‘lone wolf terrorists’ in the news. Phrases like these confirm (even if subconsciously) that wolves are ‘bad’, and perpetuate the fear of wolves when they are repeated.

Interestingly, Flame is the one who makes this observation – we could learn a lot from the fact that these ‘mortal enemies’ learn to love each other. This passage encourages us to consider that our own hatred of wolves might be misplaced, based not in facts but in the stories we tell about wolves and the expressions we cast them in.

You talk about humans projecting on to wolves. In this respect, I wonder what you made of Flame (who’s a jackal rather than a wolf), who is female – a lot of the tension in the story revolves around motherhood, the mother-daughter relationship and finding a suitable mate. 

I found Flame very interesting as a character because she’s both very human-like and yet quite true to her animal form at the same time. Often she behaves in a naturalistic manner (which is frequently drawn attention to in the narrative), but then her relationship with Sweetie is cast as completely ‘unnatural’. It reminded me of the animal videos about unlikely animal friendships that often circulate on social media. These videos capture the behaviour of real animals and catch our attention precisely because their friendship is unexpected. So, it’s not completely unbelievable that a jackal and a wolf might befriend each other, under the right circumstances. Maybe we project too much of our ‘nature is red in tooth and claw’ view, searching for enmity between species when actually it’s just a case of each family trying to survive?

Wolves live in family groups headed up by the breeding pair, with the pack made up of their young, sometimes from multiple litters. Wolves within a pack are very close and have incredibly strong bonds, so in that regard Jackal and Wolf is certainly true to life – the relationship between Flame and Sweetie is centred around their unbreakable bond, even though it shouldn’t have come about. They’re so inseparable that Flame chooses Sweetie over a new mate, even though she knows it is illogical since she’s ‘raising the child of an enemy’ and not mating with this new jackal would mean she is not producing her own offspring. It’s quite apt, then, that this is one of the most pivotal points in Flame and Sweetie’s relationship, marking a point where they truly have become family. Flame also saves Sweetie when the wolf is trapped in a well (even though it’s the perfect opportunity to leave her to die without Flame having to commit the deed herself). Later, when Flame loses the use of one of her feet, Sweetie takes care of her and brings her food. In the end, Flame ultimately sacrifices herself for Sweetie and her cubs, even though it’s letting the ‘enemy’ win. Blood becomes thicker than water – it doesn’t matter that they don’t actually share blood, or even belong to the same species.

For me, there’s a lot humans can learn from animals, and especially from wolves – it’s perhaps not surprising that there are quite a few books about the lessons wolves can teach us, such as Mark Rowlands’s The Philosopher and the Wolf: Lessons from the Wild on Love, Death and Happiness. Or even just this quotation from Game of Thrones comes to mind:

When the snows fall and the white winds blow, the lone wolf dies, but the pack survives. Summer is the time for squabbles. In winter, we must protect one another, keep each other warm, share our strengths. So if you must hate, Arya, hate those who would truly do us harm. […] Sansa is your sister. You may be as different as the sun and the moon, but the same blood flows through both your hearts. You need her, as she needs you…

I feel that this is an equally apt description of the relationship between Flame and Sweetie – they survive because of each other (Sweetie would have died without her mother as a pup, and Flame would have died without Sweetie when she became injured), even though they are ultimately not the same. Family is everything for wolves, as it is for Flame and Sweetie; it’s the key to survival. I feel like we are often exposed to the opposite message today, that an ‘every man for himself’ attitude is the only way to reach the top. We might like to think that we’re so much cleverer than animals, but this kind of story makes you wonder…

You can follow Lizzie’s work on wolves on the links below:



1 thought on “101. Lizzie Marshall compares stories about wolves

  1. I love this topic! I’d like to mention a relevant study, Picturing the Wolf in Children’s Literature by Dr. Debra Mitts-Smith. The book “analyzes visual images of the wolf in children’s books published in Western Europe and North America from 1500 to the present.”

    One wolf story that was widely read in China during the 1980s was Ernest Thompson Seton’s “Lobo the King of Currumpaw”狼王洛波 http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/858646337 . I discovered with interest that there is a recent edition that packages Shen Shixi’s most famous work, The King of Wolf’s Dream, and Seton’s story in one volume for comparative reading. http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/953140123


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