Wolf characters have always featured in our stories and abound in myths, legends, fables and folklore and fairytales.
Throughout history, we have used animals in our storytelling to educate and entertain. I go into this in more detail in Animals in Children’s Books.
Whilst researching ideas for my traditional story costume collection, I noticed certain animals feature as central characters in stories more often than others. Wolves are definitely one of the most common animals.
Wolves and Humans
While many of us will have seen a fox in the wild (we have a fox family living at the bottom of our garden), fewer of us will have seen a wolf in real life.
Perhaps you may have been lucky enough to see them in a wildlife park or zoo?
Wolves, like foxes, were originally found in most parts of the world and maybe this is why they so often feature in folklore.
The relationship between people and wolves, however, has often sadly been one of conflict and fear.
Over the centuries, due to loss of habitat and hunting, the wolf population fell significantly.
People viewed the wolf as a predator who hunted their livestock and this representation of the wolf as opponent to be feared is present in virtually all the traditional stories with wolf characters.
Think of the ominous phrases ‘to keep the wolves from the door’ and ‘to throw somebody to the wolves’.
I remember reading ‘The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aitkin when I was younger. I found myself immersed in a world where menacing wolves, largely unafraid of humans, inhabited the forests of England and lay in wait to attack. Terrifying!
Wolves appear in abundance in Aesop’s Fables and in a number of traditional fairytales. They remain one of the most common animals in children’s books.
Let’s take a closer look at wolf characters in stories.
Wolves in Aesop’s Fables
Animals in Aesop’s Fables and traditional fairytales are usually one-dimensional and stereotyped.
Yes, you guessed correctly (!), the wolf, almost always, represents wickedness, deceit and entrapment:
The Goat & The Wolf
The wolf spots the goat feeding on the edge of a steep cliff.
Pretending to be anxious about the goat’s safety, the wolf tells the goat to be careful not to fall and suggests it comes down to try the tasty grass where the wolf is.
The goat sees through the wolf’s cunning and says, ‘you are thinking of your own appetite not mine!’
The Wolves and the Sheep
A pack of wolves lurked near a pasture where sheep were grazing.
The sheep, up to now, grazed in safety, protected by the dogs. The dogs barked and saw off the wolves whenever the latter approached.
The wolves said to the sheep, ‘we would get along so well if it were not for the hostile dogs. Send the dogs away and you’ll see that we will become such good friends.’
The sheep were easily fooled and agreed.
They sent the dogs away and that night, the wolves enjoyed a very grand feast.
Wolves in Traditional Fairytales
2 well known tales feature wolves: 3 little pigs and Little Red Riding Hood. Both have catchy repetitive phrases and predatory wolf characters!
The 3 Little Pigs
The underlying message of this traditional tale is one of how hard work and taking time to do things properly pays off especially when there are wolves around!
The 3 little pigs leave their mother’s house to seek their own fortune. They each decide to build themselves a house.
The first and second little pig choose to build their houses out of straw and sticks respectively.
Whilst these materials were quick and easy to use, we soon discover, with the arrival of a hungry wolf, that the houses are not very strong.
‘Little pig, little pig, let me come in!’
To which the little pig replies
‘No, no, I won’t let you come in. Not by the hairs on my chinny chin chin.’
‘Well,’ said the wolf, ‘then I’ll huff and I’ll puff and I’ll blow your house in!’
With a huff and a puff, the wolf blows the houses down. The little pigs have to run for cover to the third little pig’s brick house. (While there are many versions, including the first 2 little pigs being eaten by the wolf, I always prefer the version where everybody survives!)
The third little pig who decided to construct a house properly finds this dedication rewarded. The wolf, unable to blow the brick house down, resorts to climbing down the chimney.
The little pigs outwit the wolf by placing a cooking pot inside, into which the wolf lands.
Little Red Riding Hood
The story starts with a little girl, ‘Little Red Riding Hood’, named because of the red cape she wears, setting off to visit her grandmother.
Her mother packs a picnic basket of food and warns Little Red Riding Hood not to stray from the path because there may be wolves lurking in the woods.
Unfortunately, however, Little Red Riding Hood does not heed her mother’s advice and strays from the path to pick flowers she sees on her way. Here she encounters a wolf but instead of eating her up, it enquires as to where she is going.
Armed with this information, the wolf quickly makes its way to Grandmother’s cottage where it gobbles poor unsuspecting Grandmother up. It puts on her mob cap and glasses to disguise itself and trick Little Red Riding Hood. When she finally arrives at the cottage, she notices something looks slightly different,
‘But Grandmother! What big ears you have!’
‘All the better to hear you with, my dear’
‘But Grandmother! What big eyes you have!’
‘All the better to hear you with, my dear’
But Grandmother! What big teeth you have!’
‘All the better to eat you with, my dear!’
Once again, as with virtually all fairytales, there are different versions of what happens next.
In some versions, everybody, apart from the Wolf, gets eaten up. In other versions, a Woodcutter, on hearing screams, comes to help. He saves Little Red Riding Hood, kills the Wolf and rescues Grandmother from the Wolf’s stomach, who luckily was swallowed whole!
Peter and the Wolf
I thought I’d give this wonderful piece of work a mention. It’s a combination of a folktale with a wolf, and storytelling through music.
Sergei Prokofiev wrote and composed ‘Peter and the Wolf’ in 1936 for a children’s theatre in Moscow.
It’s purpose was to serve as an introduction for children to music, which in my opinion, it does brilliantly.
Prokofiev has ingeniously matched the characters to instrument. This helps us imagine the scenes easily, as well as giving us an understanding of orchestral instruments.
The Story Characters:
- Peter (strings)
- Duck (oboe)
- Bird (flute)
- Cat (clarinet)
- Peter’s Grandfather (bassoon)
- The Hunters (timpani and bass drum)
- Wolf (horns)
Here’s the story of Peter and the Wolf.
And watch the performance of Peter and the Wolf here! So far in the above examples, the wolf is a fearsome and calculating predator.
Seeing that, however, wolves remain one of the most common animals in children’s books, I set about finding wolf stories with a different narrative.
Wolf Characters in Modern Children’s Books
After looking at fables, traditional fairytales and folktales in which wolves are, almost always, seen as the opponent, I wanted to share some positive stories which portray wolves in a less stereotyped way.
Here are some of my favourite books which show a different side to wolves:
5 of my Favourite Stories with Wolf Characters:
Written and illustrated by Sandra Dieckmann, published by Hodder Children’s Books
Fox and Wolf are great friends and spend all their time together.
They talk, laugh, swim and watch the stars together. But one day, Wolf is gone.
It deals with loss, the pain of grief and coping with death. It’s both beautifully and sensitively written with incredible illustrations.
There’s also a wonderful recording of Sandra reading ‘Waiting for Wolf’ on Youtube.
Written by Rachel Bright and illustrated by Jim Field, published by Hachette Children’s Group
This beautifully warm and uplifting story is written in wonderful rhyme with gorgeous atmospheric illustrations.
Wilf, the wolf cub, believes he can manage everything by himself. In short, he doesn’t want or need help from anybody.
One night, however, when he finds himself separated from his pack. All alone, he realises sometimes we do need others to help us.
The story looks at the importance of friendship, helping one other and being able to ask for help when we need it. I think we can safely say these are valuable lessons in life for us all!
Written by Ian Whybrow and illustrated by Tony Ross, published by Harper Collins Children’s Books
Little Wolf’s parents are displeased with their son, for the simple reason that Little Wolf is too well behaved.
And this is not how wolves should behave! They feel he needs to learn lessons in how to be bad.
In order to achieve this, his parents send him off to his Uncle Bigbad at Cunning College. Uncle Bigbad will teach Little Wolf how to behave appropriately, that’s to say, being both big and bad!
The story is told through a series of letters written by Little Wolf to his parents back home. Very funny and entertaining!
Written by Thierry Robberecht, illustrated by Gregoire Mabire, published by Ragged Bears.
One day, a book tumbles off a bookcase onto the floor. This causes the main character, a little black wolf, to fall out!
The wolf felt safe in his own story but on finding himself in an unfamiliar environment, he feels afraid. To make matters worse, the hungry family cat has spotted him.
Hurriedly the wolf tries to get back into his story.
Unfortunately he attempts to enter on the wrong page of the book, firstly too early and then too late and is pushed out by the other story characters for his poor timing.
On needing to escape the cat, the wolf frantically climbs the bookcase looking for a safe place to hide. On reaching the top shelf, he jumps from book to book, trying to find a story he can fit into. He finally finds a story which seems just perfect where he comes across a little girl dressed in red!
I like the description from goodreads of the book having a ‘story-starter ending’.
It feels exactly like that and that this is the beginning of a new adventure. What will happen in the new story with the little girl dressed in red, I wonder?!
Written by Myriam Dahman and Nicolas Digard, illustrated by Julia Sarda, published by Orchard Books.
The Wolf’s Secret is a beautifully sensitive and poetical story, dealing with love, loss, loneliness, trust and friendship. It has a definite modern folktale feel.
The illustrations are stunning, with a rich, autumnal colours, magical folksy feel and incredible attention to detail. The text and illustrations complement each other perfectly.
I would say this would be more suited to Key Stage 2 children due to the richness and, at times, dark feel to the language and illustrations.
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