The wolf has been a potent image in myth, folklore, and fairy tales throughout history, and one would expect that to be particularly true of the Middle Ages, when so many of our legends and tales had their beginnings. Aleksander Pluskowski presents a detailed study of the wolf image in the early Middle Ages, tracing its development from Pagan sources through the period of the conversion to Christianity.
His focus is almost exclusively on northern Europe, specifically Scandinavia, England and Scotland, which form a distinct cultural complex during this period. (Ireland, because of constraints of time and space, to which the whole universe is subject, is left out.) Beginning his study on the geography and ecology of the wolf, Pluskowski moves from the actual wolf in the landscape to the concept of the wolf as an aspect of “wildness” and its links to warriors, predators, and outlaws, taking examples from literature and art.
He also examines the concept of “wilderness” as it was understood throughout this era and in various locations — the foresta of early medieval England, essentially a game reserve for the nobility, does not hold the same connotation as the Scottish Highlands or the interior of the Scandinavian peninsula.
Some of the most interesting tidbits involve the transmutation of the wolf from a Pagan viewpoint as exemplified in the Eddas and Volsungasaga, with a strong relationship to Odin as the god of war and of the dead, into Christian mythology. It seems self-evident that Christianity, with its emphasis on Christ as the shepherd, as embodied in the clergy, and the faithful as his flock, would make of the wolf a symbol of the Adversary, although as it turns out, this is far from being consistent — the wolf is as likely to be the butt of a joke as something to be feared.
This is not a book for the general reader. It is, quite plainly, a scholarly work, and Pluskowski’s approach is thoroughly academic. Consequently, readability is not a strong point, not so much because of Pluskowski’s style, but because of the wealth of examples cited, particularly those from non-literary sources. It is one of the more regrettable facts of modern publishing that illustrations are frightfully expensive. The impact this has on a book such as Wolves in the Wilderness is obvious: while Pluskowski’s research has been thorough and his narrative is amply supported, the listings of examples, particularly those from early Norse and Pictish stone carvings, English and Continental manuscript illuminations, and artifacts from all areas, don’t help us at all because we can’t see what they look like.
The literary references, happily, are not so hard to track down in most cases, deriving largely from Volsungasaga, the works of Marie de France, the Eddas, and the hagiography of St. Edmund, all of which are easily available, and all of which are easy to quote.
I would also have been very happy to see more reference to the wolf as an image in medieval French, German, Italian, and especially Polish and Russian sources. Pluskowski justifies the limited scope of his study on the grounds of developing a framework for the general study he readily admits is needed. Given the range and number of his sources, I’m frankly puzzled at this, but it’s his book. Within his self-imposed limitations, however, Pluskowski has delivered a reference that sparks a desire to do some research on one’s own.
(The Boydell Press, 2006)