Werewolf Wednesday: “The Werewolf” by Eugene Field (1896)

EugeneField

Originally published in the Ladies’ Home Journal, Eugene Field’s “The Werewolf” sets its story of lycanthropy in the Anglo-Saxon era (specifically, during “the reign of Egbert the Saxon”, although it is unclear which King Egbert is referred to). It opens by establishing a love triangle: Alfred is in love with Yseult, but Yseult is in love with Harold. Filled with envy, Alfred taunts Harold by mentioning the latter’s cursed ancestor, Siegfried:

Harold’s grandsire, Siegfried the Teuton, had been a man of cruel violence. The legend said that a curse rested upon him, and that at certain times he was possessed of an evil spirit that wreaked its fury on mankind. But Siegfried had been dead full many years, and there was naught to mind the world of him save the legend and a cunning-wrought spear which he had from Brunehilde, the witch. This spear was such a weapon that it never lost its brightness, nor had its point been blunted. It hung in Harold’s chamber, and it was the marvel among weapons of that time.

As it happens, while the curse of Siegfried’s bloodline has been “slumbering a century”, Harold is indeed afflicted with it. He keeps this a secret from Yseult, but his rival notices his habit of going off on his own, ostensibly to hunt. “‘Tis passing strange,” says Alfred, “that ever and anon this gallant lover should quit our company and betake himself whither none knoweth. In sooth ‘t will be well to have an eye on old Siegfried’s grandson.”

Meanwhile, the land is terrorised by a werewolf:

Now, it befell in those times that the country round about was ravaged of a werewolf, a creature that was feared by all men howe’er so valorous. This werewolf was by day a man, but by night a wolf given to ravage and to slaughter, and having a charmed life against which no human agency availed aught. Wheresoever he went he attacked and devoured mankind, spreading terror and desolation round about, and the dream-readers said that the earth would not be freed from the werewolf until some man offered himself a voluntary sacrifice to the monster’s rage.

Alfred taunts Harold again, this time for failing to use his skills as a huntsman against the dreaded werewolf. Harold announces that he has to depart to Normandy on personal business and begs Yseult not to visit a feast of St. Aelfreda taking place in the forest while he’s away. By way of explanation, he describes a disturbing dream that he had in which he became the werewolf:

“A grizzled old man stood at my bedside and strove to pluck my soul from my bosom.
“‘What would’st thou?’ I cried.
“‘Thy soul is mine,’ he said, ‘thou shalt live out my curse. Give me thy soul — hold back thy hands — give me thy soul, I say.’
“‘Thy curse shall not be upon me,’ I cried. ‘What have I done that thy curse should rest upon me? Thou shalt not have my soul.’
“‘For my offence shalt thou suffer, and in my curse thou shalt endure hell — it is so decreed.’
“So spake the old man, and he strove with me, and he prevailed against me, and he plucked my soul from my bosom, and he said, ‘Go, search and kill’ — and — and lo, I was a wolf upon the moor.!

Harold describes the remainder of the dream, during which the natural world around him encouraged him to kill. First, the air (“The wind whispered to me; with its myriad voices it spake to me and said, ‘Go, search and kill’”), then waves of flame in a river (“they flashed around me and hissed, and what they said was, ‘Go, search and kill’”), then the inhabitants of a forest, both animal and plant:

“A forest lay before me with its gloomy thickets and its sombre shadows — with its ravens, its vampires, its serpents, its reptiles, and all its hideous brood of night. I darted among its thorns and crouched amid the leaves, the nettles, and the brambles. The owls hooted at me and the thorns pierced my flesh. ‘Go, search and kill,’ said everything. The hares sprang from my pathway; the other beasts ran bellowing away; every form of life shrieked in my ears — the curse was on me — I was the werewolf.

“On, on I went with the fleetness of the wind, and my soul groaned in its wolfish prison, and the winds and the waters and the trees bade me, ‘Go, search and kill, thou accursed brute; go, search and kill.’

Finally, Harold describes how he woke up just as the old man compelled him to attack a blind maiden. “Now, by’r Lady,” says Alfred, having heard all this; “I bethink me never to have seen a sorrier twain.” He dismisses these fears as nonsense and encourages Harold to let Yseult go to the feast. Harold relents – so long as Yseult takes the spear of Siegfried with her.

The following night, Yseult attends the feast, which – sure enough – is attacked by the werewolf. She throws the spear at the beast, which lets out “a cry of human agony” before falling dead from the wound, causing much celebration from the revellers. The mood changes, however, when she visits Harold’s house… and finds her beloved lying dead, a spear-wound in his chest.

Much as Jessie Douglas Kerruish would in her 1922 novel The Undying Monster, Eugene Field connects his literary werewolf to the Germanic myth of Siegfried. Field admittedly plays fast and loose with famous names: Alfred and Harold are clearly named after two of the best-known figures from Anglo-Saxon history as a rough shorthand for the period, while Yseult was presumably named after the Irish princess (better known as Iseult or Isolde) of Arthurian legend. However, the reference to Bruneholde clearly indicates that the story’s Siegfried is the Siegfried of legend.

That said, Field does appear to be confusing Siegfried (also known as Sigurd) with either his father Sigmund or his half-brother Sinfjotli. According to the Volsunga Saga, Sigmund and Sinfjotli would go into the woods together to commit murder and robbery; during one such trip, they entered a house that contained two men who were cursed to periodically become wolves for nine days in a row, being free to remove their wolf-skins only on the tenth day. The two robbers stole the wolf-skins for themselves and consequently became cursed with the same affliction, becoming wolves and being pursued by hunters. When the day came when they were free to change back, the two burnt their wolf-skins, escaping the curse. As can be seen, Field’s description of Siegfried as a cruel, violent man with a family curse of lycanthropy fits these characters far more than it fits the legendary Siegfried.

Field establishes a distinct set of rules for his lycanthrope. He indicates that the werewolf will transform every night, and introduces (but doesn’t stick with) the idea that the killing of a werewolf requires an act of self-sacrifice. The wound inflicted on the wolf being found on the lycanthrope’s human form was already a stock device by this point, while the detail of the werewolf being slain by his lover would become a convention in films (although, unlike the films, this story makes no indication that the werewolf could be killed only by his lover). The story also hints that the spear of Siegfried has supernatural properties and succeeds where a regular spear might have failed, making it a precursor to the more familiar silver bullet.

From a modern perspective, the strangest element of the story is the implication that the werewolf’s human and wolf forms are distinct (albeit connected) entities. Yseult kills the werewolf in the forest, so its body presumably remains there; yet Harold’s body is located in his house. Was Harold’s mind transferred to a wolf, or is the wolf some sort of projection? Or, perhaps, are we meant to infer that the wolf’s body was teleported to Harold’s house when it was out of Yseult’s sight? Whatever the answer, Eugene Field’s lycanthrope is clearly another of the nineteenth century’s intangible, quasi-spiritual werewolves, as distinct from the more materialistic and literal-minded breed of Hollywood.

As a final note, while he fills his story with deliberately antiquated dialogue, Eugene Field is in one respect ahead of his time. The exact spelling of “werewolf” was up in the air during the nineteenth centry: Sutherland Menzies gave us a wer-wolf in 1838; George W. M. Reynolds introduced his wehr-wolf in 1846; Clemence Housman wrote of a were-wolf in 1890; and as late as 1911, Elliott O’Donnell had his werwolves. Field, however, had his medieval characters speak of a werewolf.

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