I have a confession to make—a deep, dark, secret. I like werewolf stories. I know that many consider them hackneyed, clichéd, and played out, but I still like them. Unfortunately, there is a certain characteristic of werewolves in fiction that sets my teeth on edge—alpha wolves and dominance.
In fantasy and horror fiction, the life of a werewolf is tough. Fights for dominance, aggressive contests, daily struggles to maintain a strict hierarchy—these are common challenges. Above all is the power of the alpha, the strongest wolf, the most dominant wolf, the wolf who may have special magic or psychic abilities with which he (it’s almost always he) can control his pack. Think of the Anita Blake series with its lupa, ulfric, and strict dominance hierarchy; the succession controversy in Annette Curtis Klause’s Blood and Chocolate; the “pack masters” of True Blood, and almost every episode of Teen Wolf.
Why are werewolves portrayed this way? Because they are partly wolves, twisted meldings of man and beast, base instincts run riot. As such, their interactions and pack structures are based upon wolves, and that’s how wolves act. Except, that’s not entirely true. In the last few decades, new studies of wolf packs in the wild have shown behaviours and dynamics that cause us to reevaluate this simplistic and antagonistic view of wolf behaviour and, by extension, the werewolf societies based upon it.
The Cultural Conception of Alpha Wolves
Studying wolves in the wild is difficult for many reasons, including their wide-ranging hunting habits, large territories, and inhospitable habitats. Indeed, in the mid-twentieth century, so little was known about wild wolf behaviour that the prevailing view of wolf packs was that they were aggregations of unrelated individuals that formed at the start of winter. As such, the first studies that attempted to classify and understand wolf behaviour replicated this circumstance in captivity, observing captive groups of unrelated wolves. It is from observations of these wolves that the “Greek alphabet” understanding of wolves arose. This is why the concept of alpha wolves, constant dominance fights and so on, with regard to both wolves and werewolves is not wrong. Where wolves are unnaturally confined and restricted with unrelated individuals, they will fight for dominance, with the strongest wolf rising to the top. In a fantasy context, this situation could be quite analogous to a pack of werewolves who have been “turned” or “made” and must stay in the pack for reasons of persecution, discovery, or resources. Think of the military pack in Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate series, or Teen Wolf, where werewolves gain additional strength from being among their own kind.
Wild Wolves – Family Groupings
However, the alpha concept is inaccurate when extrapolated beyond the circumstances of the captive-group studies of the mid-twentieth century and would not apply where werewolves are born, rather than made. Generally speaking, wild wolf packs result from a male and female meeting, mating, and producing a litter of pups. The breeding pair forms the nucleus of the pack. In the following years, the breeding pair produces a new litter, with the older siblings helping to care for the younger. In essence, your father is as much of an “alpha” as the male breeder in a wolf pack.
It is important to note that this “parental unit” formulation does not always hold true. In larger wolf packs, pups may be produced by daughters/granddaughters of the breeding pair. This is generally not due to parental or sibling incest, but by liaisons with visiting males, either from neighbouring packs or those who have dispersed from their original pack.
This is not to say that breeding wolves do not display dominance behaviour. Breeding males have been observed knocking their older pups to the ground, normally for less than 30 seconds. In one observation, this behaviour went on for over 6 minutes, with the younger wolf attempting to rise on various occasions and being prevented from doing so. It has been theorised that this behaviour was a kind of harassment in order to encourage the younger male to leave the pack.
Lone Wolves – More Common than Thought
What will happen to this wolf, once it leaves? In fiction, the concept of the lone wolf, or lone werewolf, is one filled with angst and drama. In Teen Wolf, they are less powerful; in the Parasol Protectorate, they are looked upon with scorn and derision; in True Blood, casting a wolf out of the pack is the worst punishment possible. Wolves are pack creatures, after all.
In reality, leaving the pack of the parents is commonplace. One study found that 30% of wolves in the area surveyed were not, at that time, attached to any pack. Wolves generally leave their pack of birth, or “disperse,” once they are between one and three years of age, with members of larger packs dispersing later. In many cases this dispersal leads to the formation of new packs. Where there is ample territory, a young wolf may go courting at a neighbouring pack, after which the new pair establishes their own territory nearby. Where there is more competition for resources, the “lone wolf” may head to the outskirts of current territories, there meeting a partner who has made the same journey. In still further cases, dispersed wolves may be “adopted” into another pack, a case which is generally more common where packs face high mortality.
Mending Broken Pieces
Of course, this happy family–based set of events is not terribly fruitful for fiction. Where is the angst, the drama, the disaster? The answer to that question lies in what happens when the normal course of events is disrupted, perhaps by the death of one or both breeding wolves (*cough* Teen Wolf *cough* Blood and Chocolate *cough* at least 75% of all werewolf fiction*). In the wild, this occurrence can spell disaster. In one study of red wolf (Canis rufus) packs, in just under 50% of cases, the loss of a single breeder led to the entire pack disbanding. Even where packs survived, future years saw a decrease in the number of pups. In a study of gray wolves (Canis lupus), just over 40% of packs disbanded following the death of a breeder.
Where the pack continues, the breeder must be replaced. Incest is uncommon in wolf packs, and so the surviving breeder taking one of their offspring as a mate is equally uncommon. Where the breeding male must be replaced, one may be recruited from outside the pack, either from a neighbouring pack or from those dispersed wolves who are seeking their own mates. In other cases, an unrelated helper wolf, who was adopted in earlier times, may step up. Even where only one breeder is lost, the surviving breeder may also not retain its breeding role. Interestingly, where a surviving breeder is replaced by another member of the pack, the original breeder is not necessarily required to disperse. While this does happen, various studies have observed cases of previous breeders remaining in the pack even when they are no longer in the position of breeder.
I don’t want to appear like I hate fun. Like I said, I like werewolf stories. But in many cases, I think an awareness of recent research into wolf pack dynamics could give even more fertile ground for werewolf fiction. The varying compositions and interactions of different packs, the coping strategies when a breeder is lost, the journey of a young wolf to establish their own territory—all of these give fruitful opportunity for drama and character interactions.
Of course, it would be unfair to say that all werewolf stories ignore the behaviour of their original animal models (although the accurate elements are quite often mixed in with what can be charitably called modern mythos). In Terry Pratchett's Discworld, Angua's fear of her brother is not due to some submissive animal instinct, but rather his very human megalomania. Carrie Vaughn's Kitty Norville series has parallels with a real-world wolf pack. Kelley Armstrong’s Elena Michaels is, at least at the start of the first story, a “lone wolf” by choice, and quite happy with it, thank you very much. Our initial impression of the Hale family in Teen Wolf is that they are a loving family who happen to turn into wolves occasionally, and a family dynamic is also present with the Twilight werewolves, at least in some ways.
I always feel like the beauty of fantasy is that the imagination can run free, hemmed in only by the strictures that the author puts upon herself. But I do feel that when basing the fantastic upon the real, an understanding of the complexities of the pattern-piece can make the result far more engaging, believable, and compelling.
Further Reading: The following articles and papers are freely available online for those who wish to learn more details of current and past research into wolf behaviour and pack dynamics:
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