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FOG! Exclusive: Read an Excerpt From ‘The Life Fantastic: Myth, History, Pop and Folklore in the Making of Western Culture’

From editor, literary critic and screenwriter Noa Menhaim comesThe Life Fantastic: Myth, History, Pop and Folklore in the Making of Western Culture, a witty and magical collection of essays that investigates western culture through the broadest spectrum of literature, media and popular phenomenon.

Explore the sprawling network of culture to discover the incredible ways in which ideas connect to shape the world we see today.

These mind-blowing essays dig down to the roots of stories, myths and literary genres, travelling from art to politics to history to folklore, and from high to popular culture and back again. Through an intricate web of sidenotes, embark on a voyage of discovery from the unluckiest book ever made to Viking horned helmets to the sex life of vampires …. or from mermaids frolicking in the margins to the ancient Amazons to the power of Amazon and on to Utopia and Atlantis …

This is western culture as you’ve never seen it before.

And thanks to our friends at Watkins Publishing comes this exclusive excerpt from the book, discussing werewolves.
*   *   *

People’s perspectives on werewolves differ in relation to how the wolf is perceived or represented in their culture. Roman mythology attributes many positive qualities to the wolf, after all legend has it that the city of Rome itself was founded by Romulus and Remus, two brothers who suckled from the breasts of Lupe, the she-wolf. Not all werewolves are described as evil incarnate. At times, the evil one in the story is the human. For example, Bisclavret confesses to his wife that he turns into a wolf for three nights every month and he can only become a man again when he puts on his human clothes. His treacherous wife duly sentences him to the life of a wild animal in the forests by hiding his clothes. When King Arthur happens to cross paths with him, he is impressed by the wolf ’s polite demeanor and brings him to his court. Bisclavret’s wife then appears in the palace and when the mild-mannered wolf attacks her and rips off her nose, the king realizes there might be something behind this. He interrogates the woman and she admits her crime. Bisclavret receives his clothes back and is restored to his human shape.

We know very little about Marie de France who wrote this story (the name suggesting she wrote her stories in England) in the twelfth century; but it is one of the earliest versions of the werewolf legend in writing, with the author referring to wolf-men and the tales about them as common knowledge. “It hasn’t happened lately, but then every once in a while some men were transformed into werewolves and went into the forests where they spent their lives doing mischief. They would eat anybody they happened to meet.”

The Enlightenment’s powerful spotlight eventually cast belief in werewolves into the darkest margins of culture where it took refuge among folklore; there, within the confines of legend, it was allowed to roam only within the cage of the imagination.

In an early version of the tale that we recognize today as the story of Little Red Riding Hood, the wolf – probably a latterday descendant of Lycaeon – persuades the heroine to eat her grandmother’s flesh. The wolf claims that Grandmother’s ear is a dumpling and her teeth are grains of rice, while her blood is nothing but wine. In addition to being a rather terrifying parody of the Catholic Eucharist, this version also carries sinister sexual overtones. The wolf asks the girl to perform a slow striptease: “Get undressed, my child and come to bed with me,” he coaxes. “Where should I put my apron?” she asks. “Throw it into the fire. You won’t need it anymore,” the wolf replies. And she gets the same answer about her bodice, her dress, her petticoat, her shoes and stockings – “Throw them into the fire, my child. You won’t need them anymore.” Finally, she joins him in bed and exclaims, “Oh, Grandmother, how hairy you are!”  In Charles Perrault’s Tales of Mother Goose, first published in 1697, the girl similarly takes off her clothes before getting into bed with the wolf. A moralizing writer, Perrault does not trust his readers to draw their own conclusions and spells out his point, “Children, especially attractive, well-bred young ladies, should never talk to strangers, for if they should do so, they may well provide dinner for a wolf. I say ‘wolf,’ but there are various kinds of wolves. There are also those who are charming, quiet, polite, unassuming, complacent, and sweet, who pursue young women at home and in the streets.” So, in contrast with Lycaeon, who turns inside out, here the wolf represents the human. In the Grimm brothers’ 1812 version, there is a human inside the wolf, longing to come out. Or rather, two human beings – two women, Little Red Riding Hood and her grandmother – and they are finally set free by the hunter.

The Life Fantastic: Myth, History, Pop and Folklore in the Making
of Western Culture arrives in stores and e-tailers on July 14th, 2022

 

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