Work from other eras is inevitably read in the light of the present, but teleological thinking can push us one step further: into treating stories from other, earlier contexts as primarily serving to pave the way for work today; as if authors before major contemporary literary trends were writing in anticipation of us, instead of reflecting the interests and readerships of their own respective moments. Marketing campaigns exploit teleological thinking by labelling older work that uses aspects of a now-popular trope as “proto-” or “early” examples of the same—but while this approach might help to sell copies, it can also unduly restrict our understanding of a given text.
One of Alexandre Dumas’s lesser-known works, The Wolf Leader (Le Meneur de loups, 1857; English translation by Alfred Allinson, 1904), was reprinted in 2020 with a foreword by Jonathan Maberry, in which he calls the text “a novel about a werewolf.” This is technically true, but also misleading, because the lycanthrope here hails from a different body of mythology than most contemporary readers would recognize as belonging to werewolf lore. There is no transference of werewolf-hood by bite, nothing about the moon and its seasons, no wolf-state that lacks the powers of human speech and composure; and, most critically of all, Dumas’s “werewolf” has far more magic than its contemporary equivalents. Yes, one character expressly calls our protagonist a “werewolf”—but she has also just finished calling him a wizard and a sorcerer, too. Dumas then explains that “werewolf” is “one of the most terrible epithets that can be given to a man in our forest lands.” Something else is very much afoot in this tale.
Indeed, if this reprint had come out in the 1950s, it would probably have been promoted as a “Deal with the Devil” story instead, because the massive black wolf at the tale’s centre is a servant of Satan, and belongs to a long symbolic history of canines being used to represent death, the afterlife, and Christian ideas of a battle for the fate of one’s soul. “Deal with the Devil” stories fell widely out of SFF favour by the eighties, after serving for a long spell as the butt of jokes about being the most common contents of publisher queues, but werewolves—initially leaping into mainstream media through a spate of 1930s and 40s books and films—only gained further popularity in the wake of Remus Lupin and franchises like that inaugurated by Twilight (2005). Today, a range of supernatural romances and urban fantasies—including trope subversions like Leigh Harlen’s raucous Queens of Noise (2021), about a queer-punk band of werecoyotes—make use of current, widely accepted aspects of werewolf lore, and the hunger for more such texts is real.
Promoting The Wolf Leader in light of this trend is only logical, then; and yet, Dumas’s text has far more in common with the Brothers Grimm, along with Dickensian anxieties about the folly of aspiring outside one’s proper station, than with anything even approximating The Werewolf of Paris (1933) or The Wolf Man (1941). This book advances powerful commentary around hunting, fallibility, and the slippery nature of literary biography, making it a rich read (and, as Maberry notes in the foreword, one that rewards return)—but on its own merits, and not because of loose associations with a character-type that has itself undergone a rather striking transformation in more recent decades.
A good tenth of Dumas’s story, after all, is a frame narrative—and a remarkable one, because sections are lifted straight from Dumas’s My Memoirs, Vol. 1: 1802-21 (1852-6), which was published just a few years prior. As with The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy (1759-67), a substantial portion of these memoirs follow his father’s stories instead of his own, but one such anecdote plainly inspired Dumas, because an account of how his father humoured a guardsman’s nightmare shows up differently in The Wolf Leader than it does in the memoir. Nor does Dumas try to hide his new tale’s provenance in the frame-narrative! Rather, he tells readers directly that if they have read his memoir they will already be familiar with some of this story’s names.
In that memoir, the guardsman, Mocquet, has been “nightmared” by chest pains, and believes that Mother Durand is behind this sorcery. He intends to seek his revenge by killing her; and so, Dumas’s father, humouring the peasants’ beliefs in witchcraft, contrives some errands that will keep Mocquet out of the region until his simple case of poor digestion (and far too much wine) runs its course, allowing the guardsman to believe that he’s vanquished sorcery by other means.
Critically, though, this anecdote introduces us to a phonetic slip that creates brilliant possibilities. Although the French for a fallow deer is “une bête fauve”, Mocquet has a particular vernacular that has him insist on saying “une bête fausse”—a “false beast” (or, in the English translation of The Wolf Leader, a “wily” beast), a term he doubles down on, when pressed by Dumas’s father:
“I mean a beast that only walks by night, one that is deceitful—in short, a false beast.”
It was such a logical definition that there was nothing further to be said; so my father did not answer, and Mocquet triumphantly continued to call fallow deer false beasts. (Memoirs)
This bit of wordplay also enters into The Wolf Leader, but the incident is recounted with two key differences: first, Mocquet identifies Mother Durand as the past mistress of Thibault, “the wolf-leader” of our coming tale; and second, Dumas’s father has Mocquet vow not to speak of wolf-and-devil superstitions with his son, our narrator and author, until Dumas is at least fifteen.
The import of the former change is obvious: It allows Dumas to weave fiction into the authoritative tapestry of pre-existing biography. The latter, though, undermines the reliability of this tale anew, because in the introduction, Dumas explains how Mocquet told him this tale when he was finally old enough, and how Dumas then kept it in a “drawer” of memory for years, before “opening” it again not three days prior to his attempt to write it out. Or, as Dumas playfully notes:
I say my tale; I ought perhaps to call it Mocquet’s tale—but, upon my word! When you have been sitting on an egg for thirty-eight years, you may be excused for coming to believe at last that you’ve laid it yourself!
Although Dumas’s father was only ever humouring peasant lore when he accepted the premise of Mocquet’s claim of witchcraft, Dumas openly admits that the text before us is trading on his memory of old rural tales—with all the blurring of truth and authorial identity that comes from any given story being so exchanged. Dumas is similarly plainspoken about why he has chosen Thibault, a shoemaker, and not some grand local noble, as the heroic centre of his story, for:
as soon as I decided to make the forest the scene of the events I am about to record, I was obliged to choose one of the actual inhabitants of this forest as hero.
In this way, the provenance not just of the story ahead, but also of Dumas’s whole approach to wolf-lore, is established as the result of a guardsman’s distinctly humourous vernacular phrase for a fallow deer, and of a body of witchcraft superstitions among the peasant-class.
Dumas’s main tale then follows Thibault, a poor man whose father “had committed a fault” by having his son “educated above his position” in a time when class mobility was low. This left the son “melancholy and sad of heart … [from] a little grain of envy … towards all such of his neighbors as had been more favored by fortune than himself.” Though Thibault tries to ply a sensible trade, events conspire to join the fact of his poverty with that of the local baron’s cruelty; and, upon hearing no answer from God, he turns his pleas to the Devil—who answers in the form of a wolf.
Like most deals with the Devil, the stakes seem low at first, but Thibault’s hunger for revenge and riches lands him deeper and deeper in a moral trespass marked by flaming locks upon his head and a pack of wolves who come to do his bidding. His actions also cause great harm to those around him; and after his second deal, by which he takes the place of the minion who first contracted with him, he finally grasps the terrible consequence of his transgression.
Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure (1895) will later side more fully with people given education without opportunity, by portraying them as unjust victims of a broken system, but in the 1850s a more common mode of response (practised by Dickens, too, in his teacher- and solicitor-characters especially) was to set blame upon the individual for the morality-warping spectacle of class-climbing. The Wolf Leader is of a piece with this latter tradition—although in a striking way, because Dumas extensively extols the delights of hunting and “fishing” (or rather, draining a pond and driving fish through a sluice) without any deep reflection on whether such violent obsessions also have the mark of moral failure upon them. Conversely, the book is unwavering in its treatment of Thibault’s quest for “more” as sin, and even has him admit as much himself, for:
“Cursed be the day!” cried Thibault. “When I first wished for anything beyond what God chooses to put within the reach of a poor workman! Cursed be the day when the black wolf gave me the power to do evil, for the ill that I have done, instead of adding to my happiness, has destroyed it forever!”
This representation of the status quo as unfortunate, but not nearly as morally transgressive as those who try to escape it, also illustrates a profound difference between how Dumas uses the lycanthrope, and how werewolf lore more commonly emerged in the twentieth century. In the latter, werewolves served as a cipher for suppressed, often sexual desires, which in shapeshifter tales are allowed to play out in the “dreams” (i.e. in the vague memories of one’s actions while transformed) of anyone bitten or born into the condition. In The Wolf Leader, Thibault’s desires for riches and revenge are overt, and are what lead him to agree to two deals with a Satanic minion. Moreover, only the second deal sees him swapped into wolf form (with full human consciousness) —and even then, his transformation is designed simply to gain more of the Devil’s powers, until spiritual remorse earns him divine intervention.
So, perhaps a reprint of Alexandre Dumas’s The Wolf Leader isn’t as on-trend as its promotion as a “werewolf novel” might contend. Rather, this is a highly moralistic tale, not unlike many by the Brothers Grimm—if also rich in humour, wordplay, and pointed reflections about how we craft useful claims of authority for the stories that we tell. And even though Dumas’s story involves a tremendous amount of glorification of killing for sport (think: the horrific dying rabbit in the supposedly lighthearted satire, 1939’s The Rules of the Game), the regional specificity of details here bring a whole other context and era to life through some truly arresting turns of phrase. The Wolf Leader is a worthwhile read, then—not because it has the word “werewolf” in it, but because its contents reveal a more fluid approach to storytelling in general: an approach that not only reflects a different role for shapeshifters in SFF, but also a different way of trapping the central, slippery orality of regional folklore within something that seeks even vaguely to resemble a singular tale.