WolfWalkers: On Werewolves, Outlaws, and Reactionaries

The howling of wolves is one of the most evocative and unsettling sounds on earth, awakening something primordial in the human soul. Among the most intelligent and graceful of terrestrial animals, wolves have been an object of fear and fascination throughout history. While many early societies venerated wolves for their skill at hunting and ferocity in battle, as the world grew tame and domesticated the wolf became a hated vestige of wild nature, an outlaw whose ruthless elimination was necessary to the safety and progress of mankind. Eventually, some far-sighted men in the most advanced societies came to regret what had been lost during man’s millennia-old quest to tame the wilderness, and the wolf took on a new mystique, a symbol of the earthly paradise lost. This newfound appreciation for wild nature is reflected not only in environmental science and politics, but in our stories as well.

As the father of young children, I’m always looking for child-friendly films that explore the ancestral myths and lore of Europe while remaining entertaining for children and adults alike (bonus points if they eschew Disneyfication). WolfWalkers (2020), directed by Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart, is such a film. Set in 17th century Ireland, WolfWalkers is the third installment in Moore’s “Irish Folklore Trilogy.” Its animation style is perhaps the most unique aspect of the movie, with influences ranging from woodblock printing to Warhol painting to Celtic designs. Though the story itself is not particularly unique, the film offers a highly evocative portrayal of premodern Irish society, one still haunted by myth and magic even as the modern world tightens is grip. Indeed, with its supernatural overtones, lycanthropic themes, and setting amidst the autumnal forests of old Ireland, WolfWalkers is particularly appropriate viewing for Halloween and late fall.

WolfWalkers takes place in and around the Irish town of Kilkenny in 1650, during Oliver Cromwell’s brutal occupation of Ireland. The English Lord Protector of Ireland (voiced by Simon McBurney), in his Puritan zeal to tame the “savage” land, has ordered the townspeople to clear the surrounding forest for cultivation, but these efforts are frustrated by a particularly fierce and cunning wolf pack hiding in the woods. In order to eliminate the beasts, the Lord Protector summons master English hunter Bill Goodfellowe (Sean Bean), who arrives in Kilkenny with his adolescent daughter Robyn (Honor Kneafsey) in tow. Robyn, an aspiring wolf hunter herself, is accustomed to the freedom of her English upbringing and loathes the draconian law of Puritan-controlled Kilkenny, which requires that all children remain within the city walls and consigns Robyn to labor in the scullery all day. Longing to join her father in the forest and prove her value as a huntress, Robyn – accompanied by her falcon Merlin – sneaks out of town and encounters a young wolf.

This wolf, of course, is not what she seems to be, but rather a wolfwalker: in her waking hours she is a human child named Mebh Óg MacTíre (Eva Whittaker), and while asleep her spirit leaves her body and manifests as a wolf. Mebh and her mother command the local wolf pack. With their range drastically reduced by the encroachment of the townsfolk, Mebh plans to lead her fellow wolves away from civilization but refuses to leave without her mother, who has mysteriously vanished. This meeting of the two girls in the forest, and the mounting pressure placed on Robyn’s father by the Lord Protector to eliminate the wolf pack, set the stage for the story’s major conflict. I will avoid sharing further plot details; while the ending may not exactly surprise anyone, it is worthwhile seeing the story unfold without any foreknowledge. The movie is, unfortunately, only available on AppleTV+, but it is worth signing up for a week of free membership to see.

The Lords of the Forest

From a folkloric perspective, the most interesting aspect of the movie is its treatment of the wolf’s mythic role in the European consciousness. Unlike most “werewolf” tales, the titular wolfwalker does not undergo a gruesome, painful transformation into a bloodthirsty beast as a result of some misdeed or curse. While the wolfwalker sleeps, her spirit leaves the body and manifests itself as a wolf; she retains her mental faculties and speech (understandable by other wolves and animals), and any injuries sustained as a wolf are mirrored on her human body. This unusual depiction of lycanthropy was inspired by medieval Irish accounts concerning the werewolves of Ossory, who were descended from a legendary warrior named Laignech Fáelad. In some stories related to this werewolf clan, the warriors left their human bodies behind when turning into wolves, leaving them vulnerable in their absence. 

The wolfwalkers in the film are obviously, in part, a symbol of pre-Christian Ireland. This is made clear in the stark contrast between the werewolves’ sylvan domain, beautifully drawn in vibrant green and autumnal hues and abounding in wildlife, and the gray and oppressive atmosphere of the Lord Protector’s Kilkenny. The appearance and personality of the child wolfwalker, Mebh, also reflects this difference: against the dour black and white smocks and linen caps worn by the women of the village, Mebh is clad in forest green, her long, red hair adorned with wildflowers. Symbolizing her greater proximity to nature, she retains wolfish characteristics even in her human form, sometimes running on all fours and baring her sharp teeth. She is also notable for her playfulness, ferocity, and loyalty to her family and pack, expressing contempt for the cowardly “townies” destroying her home. Her name is also significant: MacTire is the Gaelic word for “wolf,” while Mebh is the name of a famous warrior queen of pre-Christian Ireland. This is a fitting namesake for a girl who combines the magical qualities of ancient Ireland with the warrior spirit of its greatest queen.

The evolution of Robyn, daughter of the English huntsman, also supports this theme. She is a tomboy who longs for the freedom of her childhood, when she and her friends could roam at will through the English countryside and she could join her father in the hunt. When Robyn describes her early years to Mebh, the latter comments that in its freedom “it sounds like the forest;” indeed, it is notable that this is a memory of an England before Cromwell, before the Puritanical restrictions imposed by the Protectorate in its religious fanaticism, before men such as the Lord Protector transformed vibrant towns and their surrounding forests into drab and regimented barracks. Still, while loathing the drudgery and confinement of her new home, Robyn has nevertheless absorbed the dominant culture’s fear of the wild unknown, and wishes to follow in her father’s footsteps as a wolf hunter. However, her contact with the wild nature of the Irish forest – and particularly with Mebh’s wolf pack – changes this attitude. The moment towards the end of the film when she decisively rejects the illegitimate authority of the Lord Protector’s reign, she removes her head covering and reveals her long, golden hair. By allowing her suppressed connection with the magical and supernatural indwelling in the land to reawaken, Robyn is transformed from a mere parrot of the dominant culture into a true warrior.

Some critics have lauded the “feminist” sensibilities in this film, but they seem to miss the point. It is true that the female protagonists are the strongest characters in the story and that Robyn rejects the drudgery of the castle scullery in favor of the wild forest; but this isn’t due to some modern feminist quest for “liberation” from traditional gender roles but rather an inherent nobility that rejects the pettiness and drudgery of town living under Puritan rule. Mebh and Robyn are portrayed as heirs of the warrior queens and legendary women of European myth and history – Ireland’s Queen Mebh, Britain’s Boudicca, France’s Joan of Arc – rather than the embodiment of any contemporary feminist ideal.

Indeed, the connection of wolves with the warrior ethos is notable throughout the film. In embracing their archaic nature, both Mebh and Robyn (and later Robyn’s father) reject the petty cruelty, small-mindedness, and bloodthirsty aggression of the townsmen. As opposed to the soldiers who march continually in and out of Kilkenny on their way to quell Irish rebellions – always shown in lockstep, faceless, robotic – and many of whom, in the end, flee the forest in fear, the wolfwalkers and their allies embrace the spirit of the genuine knight: pride, independence, chivalry, and loyalty to one’s clan.

The link between wolves, werewolves in particular, and the warrior band is a perennial feature of Indo-Aryan myth. Early humans could not help but notice the similarity between their own nomadic hunting lifestyle and the wolves’ social structure. Some clans claimed descent from wolves, revering them as creators and helpers (many cultures regarded them as man’s first instructors in hunting) and seeking to access their supernatural powers (1). Moreover, the wolf’s hierarchical and pack-oriented social organization mirrors the warrior Männerbund common to Indo-Aryan societies. In the ancient Irish society in which WolfWalkers is rooted, wolves were associated with fianna, warrior bands of young men who lived in the wilderness and were believed to have a special connection with the supernatural. In ancient Germany, warrior initiates would drink mead to enter an ecstatic state and don the head and hide of a wolf, symbolically transforming them into a fearsome pack hunter (2). Norse berserkers, who rejected human garb and lived predatory lives in the wild, were styled as wolves and described as “wolf-skinned;” the Vikings drank wolf’s blood to take the animal’s spirit into battle and saw wolves as battle companions (3). In Iran, young warrior bands called mairya roamed the countryside and were described by the prophet Zoroaster as “two-footed wolves” (4).

Thus, while an object of fear to the people of the towns, wolves have been revered by warriors throughout history for their independence, ferocity, and loyalty to the pack. Like other predators – the bear, the cougar, the lion, the hawk – they are the aristocrats of the natural world, lords of their domain: as Oswald Spengler observed, “The animal of prey is the highest form of mobile life. It implies a maximum of freedom from others and for oneself, of self-responsibility, of independence, and an extreme necessity where that self can hold its own only by fighting and winning and destroying” (5). It is true that, like the human aristocrat or lord, the predator’s power derives in part from physical strength; however, it is not mere brutality that makes it noble. Apex predators play a key role in the economy of nature, cleansing the ecosystem of the sick and dying and unfit, making way for new life and maintaining natural balance. By preventing the spread of sickness and overpopulation, predators in a sense act as healers of the ecosystem; and in human societies, rulers have often had divinely bestowed healing powers attributed to them (“the King’s touch”). It is interesting that the wolfwalkers of the film also possess the power to heal, not only wolves and humans but other animals as well.

Thus, in the film, werewolves are no longer the bloodthirsty and cursed creatures depicted in earlier legends, but rather higher beings, aristocrats of the natural world, retaining a human mind and endowed with supernatural healing abilities, while also possessing – both in human and lupine form – superior strength, heightened senses, and an attunement to their surroundings and the greater natural world. They are part beast, part god, and exist beyond the pettiness, weakness, and fear of the mass man. Of course, the wolf, like the warrior and the aristocrat, is not admired or beloved of all: to those who wish to live safe and settled lives, the wolf is a symbol of wildness and darkness, just as the aristocrat is feared and despised by those who fear exploitation at his hands and envy his superiority.

The Wolf as Outlaw

Like all predators whose range overlaps with ours, the wolf has probably always been regarded as a threat to mankind. However, with the advent of intensive agriculture, animal husbandry, and large human settlements, this healthy fear turned into a drive for extermination. Wolves and outlaws were associated in medieval law and custom – bounties were placed upon both, and the criminal was said to bear a “wolf’s head” that placed him outside the protection of the law. In time, the wolf would be be systematically eradicated throughout the West: England in 1500, Scotland in 1684, Ireland in 1770, France in 1927, and the lower 48 states of the U.S. in 1945 (6).

In WolfWalkers, the major spokesman for this wolf-hatred is the Lord Protector, the Puritan governor of Ireland. The Lord Protector has made it his mission to eliminate the wolf packs in the forests surrounding Kilkenny. This will allow the forest to be cleared for agriculture, thereby securing his legitimacy and preventing further rebellion. Moreover, he firmly believes that it is God’s will that the savage Irish wilderness be tamed.

The Lord Protector is certainly an unlikable bastard and a representative of what is worst in Puritanism; however, he is not a mere stock villain. He is sincere in his faith and believes he is acting for God and for the welfare of the people he rules (7). As opposed to his soldiers, he has the courage and faith necessary to walk into the wolves’ den and retains his dignity to the last. In this respect, the Lord Protector is similar to Lady Eboshi of Princess Mononoke: while she is the antagonist of the film due to her desire to eliminate the wolves and supernatural beings from the forest, she acts not for self-aggrandizement but for the good of her people. Our sympathies in both films are meant to be on the side of the wolves, of course, but we must acknowledge that individuals like Lady Eboshi and the Lord Protector made advanced civilization possible, as much as we may disapprove of their methods and fanaticism.

As with the assertions of feminism, some film critics have observed that WolfWalkers imbues Irish legend with a “modern sensibility” due to its environmental themes. However, though the story is doubtlessly in favor of wild nature, it is a mistake to associate it with contemporary environmentalism, which is embraced primarily by urban leftists and associated with global warming and “environmental justice.” Liberals and leftists were actually extremely critical of early efforts at wildlife and wilderness preservation, regarding it as an elite preoccupation that detracted attention from the class and racial struggle. Predator animals, in particular, were regarded with little sympathy even by early wilderness organizations, some of which held that predator populations should be “repressed” as forms of life that “no longer have a place in our advancing civilization” (8).

People did, of course, eventually come to realize the critical role of predators in the ecosystem, and the wolf’s status has improved over time. In 1985, after their elimination from the lower 48 states, the U.S. Forest and Wildlife Service mandated the reintroduction of 66 Canadian gray wolves into Yellowstone. There are now around 18,000 wolves in the U.S., primarily in Alaska (9). Naturally, there has been resistance from ranchers and state governments. Wolves have been delisted from the Endangered Species Act, allowing far more active measures to reduce their population. Nevertheless, by all appearances the wolf has lost its stigma as a hated symbol of wildness and danger.

Or has it? As with most other truly wild things, the majority of modern environmentalists – at least those of the left – prefer the sanitized version of the wolf: distant, harmless, and pretty. They have become aesthetic artifacts, whose reality would terrify the small men of the cities (and rightly so). In many ways, the ranchers who hate wolves and wish to eliminate them have a greater appreciation of their power than the average urban college backpacker. Though they think of themselves as being on the side of “nature” against the evil capitalist oppressor, modern leftists are in fact the heirs of the Lord Protector and his peasant mob, reliant upon corporate capitalism and technological advances to attain their egalitarian utopia, striving to make the world “safe” and “pure” – i.e., cleansed of all vestiges of tradition and transcendent values, and particularly of natural hierarchy and beauty.

In the film, modernity’s war against the beautiful and noble is made particularly clear in the contrast between the town under the Lord Protector’s rule and the forest outside. The style of Kilkenny – blocky and flat, with hard edges and drab colors – was inspired by 16th and 17th century woodblock painting, much like the wolf bounty posters seen throughout the film. The townsfolk and soldiers are little better, clad in gray and white and generally looking miserable. Kilkenny is an exemplar of regimented, joyless Puritan society: see the side-by-side depiction of Robyn washing dishes, mopping floors, and preparing meals in the scullery and her father working alongside the faceless and robotic soldiers in town. All the town dwellers seem to lead regimented, mechanical, and fundamentally ugly lives under the domination of such values, justified by the adage that “work is prayer.” This is in strong contrast to the magic of the forest, which is drawn with rounded figures and colorful shapes, abounding in wildlife and occupied by a wolfwalker whose blazing red hair is ornamented with flowers.

In a world such as this, the wolf – like all who would oppose the dismal tide of modernity – remains an outlaw.

The Reactionary Outlaw

The wolf is a consummate predator, a warrior and aristocrat of nature. It is a symbol of natural order, opposed to all attempts to suppress, control, and eradicate the laws of predation and natural hierarchy in favor of equality and totalitarian technological control. It is a symbol of wildness, of natural integrity, of hardness, of all beautiful things threatened by the fear and greed of the many. It is an outlaw from modern civilization, and a reactionary one at that, identified with an earlier hierarchical and warlike stage of human society. In this way, it is akin to other warrior peoples that have been subdued by the tide of modernity and overcome by the numerical superiority of their inferiors. The werewolf, as envisioned in WolfWalkers, is a symbol of the union of feral and godlike that characterizes the genuine aristocrat. Being set during the time of the English Civil War, when genuine nobility and kingship were defeated by the Puritan rabble and their fanatical, proto-liberal ideology, the wolves are akin to the aristocrats who were forced into exile in that age.

There is a long history of men of reactionary temperament, standing for the ancient ways and principles of tradition and order, who found themselves outlaws in the face of a corrupt and usurping enemy. The most famous, of course, is Robin Hood, who as the legend developed opposed the venal and corrupt Sheriff of Nottingham out of loyalty to his rightful King Richard. Additionally, there is an interesting connection between pirates of the Golden Age and the Jacobite supporters of the exiled Stuarts; these pirate bands would allegedly drink toasts to the health of the rightful king and adopted Jacobite symbols (Blackbeard’s flagship, for instance, was christened the Queen Anne’s Revenge). Following the Confederacy’s defeat in the Civil War, the James-Younger Gang carried on the struggle through robbery and guerrilla warfare. Additionally, the aptly named Operation Werwolf was founded as an insurgency by German partisans against Allied occupation at the end of WWII.

Why would an outlaw support the party of restoration, order, and hierarchy? In one sense it might simply be an opportunistic pose, since the outlaw is already an enemy of the reigning order and will naturally associate himself with powers opposed to it. The better question might be, why would a reactionary become an outlaw? The simplest reason is that a feeling of alienation from the present order may lead to a violent rebellion against it, sometimes taking the form of piracy, banditry, or sabotage, in an effort to resist the homogenizing repression of the enemy and bring about restoration of the true order. In an age of demagogues, tyrants, and mob rule, all restorationists and reactionaries are necessarily outlaws, and are treated as such by the powers that be.

In the world of WolfWalkers, it is still possible for the wolf pack to retreat in the face of the Lord Protector’s onslaught, to remove itself to more pristine forests. For the modern reactionary, this is no longer possible. There are at present no safe havens. This makes active resistance all the more vital, in whatever manner is best to you: strengthen yourself and your family, preserve the knowledge and ways of your ancestors; defend the wilderness against human contamination, both for its own sake and for its spiritual and physical importance to mankind; oppose the demographic disasters facing us; and above all, extricate yourself from their system. Even if it seems hopeless, there are actions that can be taken to defend the principles of the true Right against the corrosive effects of modernity. As Savitri Devi writes,

“On the individual scale, or at least “restricted,” there remains to preserve, insofar as it is still possible, the beauty of the world: human, animal, vegetable, inanimate; all beauty; to obstinately and efficiently preserve élite minorities; dedicatedly to defend them at all costs—all noble minorities, whether they be those of the Aryans of Europe, Asia, or America, conscious of the excellence of their common race; or of those splendid large felines threatened by extinction; or of those noble trees threatened by the atrocity of being uprooted by bulldozers in order to install, on their nourishing soil, invading multitudes of mammals with two legs, less beautiful and less innocent than they. It remains to take care and resist; and to aid all beautiful minorities attacked by the agents of chaos; to resist, even if that should delay only a few decades the disappearance of the last aristocrats among men, animals, or trees.” (10)

Most of us are lone wolves in search of a pack. We may have a community of sorts in our shared ideology and reading material, but without forming a genuine Männerbund on the personal and local level, all our efforts will come to naught. This is the great lesson the wolf teaches us, and the message of WolfWalkers: the pack is supreme. As Kipling observed,

Now this is the law of the jungle
As old and as true as the sky,
And the wolf that shall keep it may prosper,
But the wolf that shall break it must die.
As the creeper that gidles the tree truck,
The law runneth forward and back;
For the strength of the pack is the wofl,
And the strength of the wolf is the pack.

Of course, in honoring our ancestors we need to respect the men who made civilization possible and permitted the growth of our cultures – founders, pioneers, settlers, explorers. But we also need to recognize the nature out of which they emerged, in cooperation and opposition to which we have become who we are. This is particularly important in this day and age, when we have become so separated from reality in our daily lives and our ways of thinking as to be unrecognizable to men of yesteryear. We must recover some of what we have lost, and this means recognizing and cultivating the wildness within us.

When my children watch this film, I have to say, I’m happy that they identify with the wolves.

  1. Rebecca Grambo and Daniel Cox, Wolf: Legend, Enemy, Icon (Buffalo NY: Firefly Books, 2008).
  2. Shan Winn, Heaven, Heroes, and Happiness: The Indo-European Roots of Western Ideology (Lanham, NY: University Press of America, 1995), 111.
  3. Morris West, Indo-European Poetry and Myth (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 450.
  4. Winn, 110.
  5. Oswald Spengler, Man and Technics: A Contribution to a Philosophy of Life, trans. Charles Atkinson.
  6. Grambo and Cox.
  7. While neopagans might laud this film as anti-Christian, that is an oversimplification. Despite latter-day assertions, Christianity was not the first ideology to advocate the suppression and eradication of predators and wild nature. We see the same ideology advanced in ancient Greece and Rome. While not always put into practice, Christianity demands a respect for the natural world as God’s creation, a factor continually present in Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox theology. This changed with Protestantism and particularly Puritanism, which effected a revolution in Christian thought and politics that would ultimately lead to individualism, liberal democracy, capitalism, and the industrial revolution. The Lord Protector represents proto-modernist Puritanism, which is far more defined by anthropocentrism and an adversarial attitude towards inner and outer nature than medieval Christianity. It is telling that this movie is set in 1650, a time of particularly brutal Puritan domination, rather than any other Christian period of Irish history. Indeed, regarding the Lord Protector’s efforts to clear the forest, an Irish peasant complains that “Saint Patrick made a deal with the old pagans and you’re breaking it.” While historically dubious, this indicates that Christianity itself is not the cause of these attitudes, but rather a particular anthropocentric attitude, present throughout history but gaining more power in the modern era due changing ideologies, population increase, and technological growth.
  8. Jonathan Peter Spiro, Defending the Master Race: Conservation, Eugenics, and the Legacy of Madison Grant (Burlington VT: University of Vermont Press, 2009).
  9. Grambo and Cox.
  10. Savitri Devi, “Incurable Decadence,” Ch. 11 of Memories and Reflections of an Aryan Woman, trans. R.G. Fowler.

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