Monday, October 26, 2015
The Wolf-Leader by Alexandre Dumas
Faustian folklore of the French forests
The Wolf-Leader, a novel by Alexandre Dumas, was originally published in 1857 under the French title of Le Meneur de Loups. In the lengthy but entertaining introduction, Dumas explains that the novel is based on folktales he grew up hearing in his hometown of Villers-Cotterêts. This particular tale was told to him by a gamekeeper who often took him hunting as a young man. The novel contains elements of horror, fantasy, and science fiction, yet it times is also quite comic. Though deservedly not as well-known as classics like The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo, The Wolf-Leader is nevertheless a lively, enjoyable, and engaging read.
The story takes place in the vicinity of Villers-Cotterêts around 1780. Thibault, a maker of sabots (wooden shoes) lives in a hut in the woods outside of town. One day the local baron, the Lord of Vez, passes through his yard while on a hunt, and the two have an encounter. Thibault makes some smart aleck remarks, and the baron beats him for his insolence. Soon after, Thibault tries to poach a deer, and for that he is whipped. Incensed at his ill treatment, Thibault vows that he will take his revenge upon the Lord of Vez. As if on cue, a wolf suddenly appears, and not just any wolf. This wolf, who walks on his hind legs and talks, turns out to be the devil’s emissary in lupine form. The sabot maker and the wolf strike a deal. Thibault is promised remarkable powers by which he may wreak his vengeance, but what the wolf gets in return is not made explicitly clear until well after the deal has been made.
Dumas crams a lot of witty, bantering dialogue into the novel and there are some funny slapstick moments too. As the story progresses it becomes more and more of a horror novel, with macabre scenes that would have been scary to a nineteenth-century audience. The Wolf-Leader has been described as a werewolf novel, but it’s really more complicated than that. For today’s readers, who have seen a lot of werewolves on film, Thibault is not that kind of werewolf. What’s frightening about the story is not a monstrous creature but rather the Faustian pact the Thibault makes with the devil. Nevertheless, there’s a surprising amount of violence in the novel, and randy hints at sexual shenanigans as well. A big part of the fun of this novel is the fact that the hero you’re rooting for is not a good guy, much like H. G. Wells’s The Invisible Man or Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. It’s easy to put yourself in Thibault’s place and wonder what you might do with such power if you were in his place.
Thibault makes a brief statement in the book about the inequality of the class hierarchy. His evil doings are a rebellion against the system that puts the Lord of Vez above him, based on birth alone. In other words, Thibault is sick and tired of being put down by The Man. Dumas doesn’t really follow through with this rebellious tone, however. Overall, the book offers a message of being happy with what you have rather than being swallowed up by envy, hatred, and anger.
The Wolf-Leader is not the greatest work Dumas ever wrote, but it is a good strong effort that doesn’t disappoint. Folktales and fantasy usually aren’t my thing, but I enjoyed this fun and fantastic tale. It strongest asset is its author’s sense of humor. If anyone can make chills, thrills, and laughter work together, it’s Dumas.
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