Chapter 3: The Wolves of Savernake

Wolves of Savernake book cover

No, Gervase. What they have been frightened of is the idea of a wolf

The Wolves of Savernake (p. 226)

When I picked up Edward Marston’s The Wolves of Savernake, I hadn’t been planning to write anything about it. I presumed that it was going to be one of those novels with ‘wolf’ or ‘wolves’ in the title but which don’t actually have anything to do with the animal: one of the biggest frustrations about working on wolves in literature and culture is that these animals are so often used as metaphors for something or someone else – and they make for a nice image for a book cover – that it’s sometimes hard to tell whether a book or film is about wolves or not. However, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that my assumption was incorrect, and I quickly became excited to write about Savernake since this novel presents a perfect overlap between my interests in wolves and medieval England.

Savernake is the first in a series of crime / mystery novels set in early Norman England (i.e. post 1066 and the Battle of Hastings), with the main characters two men – Ralph and Gervase – who work for William the Conqueror as he compiles the Domesday Book. They travel to Bedwyn, the town next to Savernake Forest, based on accusations made by a local miller, Alric Longdon, who has written a letter telling them that Bedwyn Abbey’s claim to a piece of land is spurious. Gervase, a scholar, and Ralph, a soldier, are sent to investigate the claim, though when they arrive they learn that Alric has just died in Savernake forest, seemingly killed and partially eaten by a wolf. Later in the novel, another man falls victim to the wolf at the exact same spot. I won’t go any further into the details of the mystery, though there will be spoilers ahead so, if you’re intrigued, look away now!

When is a wolf not a wolf? When it’s a man…

Marston opens the novel with the infamous quotation about false sheep in the clothing of wolves from the New Testament: ‘Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves’ (Matthew 7:15). In hindsight, this is a pretty obvious clue about where the book is going and what or who is the “wolf of Savernake”. There are three potential contenders for the titular animal: first, a real wolf; second, a hermit who has lived apart from society for so long that he looks like an animal; third, a person dressed as a wolf. It is the latter who turns out to be the killer, in a particularly sneaky twist given that this opening epigraph pretty much gives you the answer to ‘whodunnit?’ straight away, except in the inverse: the culprit is a monk at the abbey who pretends to be a sheep (Christ’s followers are described as sheep according to biblical tradition), but who wears the clothing of a wolf. Very clever, and annoyingly so since this solution didn’t even occur to me.

Aside from my chagrin at not figuring this out, though, I could spend a long time talking about this biblical quotation and how it has negatively impacted real wolves by becoming such an ubiquitous phrase in the English vocabulary. Along with savagery, murderousness, bloodlust – the list goes on – we associate falseness and deceit with wolves even though it is hardly the case that wolves infiltrate flocks of sheep by wearing wool jumpers (incidentally, on an interesting side note, I’ve discovered that there’s a predatory behaviour called ‘aggressive mimicry’, by which the predator lures their prey by posing as the prey’s own prey, which is often compared to a ‘wolf in sheep’s clothing’. Funny, since this isn’t a lupine hunting tactic! As Flame observes in Shen Shixi’s Jackal and Wolf, ‘humans just cannot help themselves from associating the most vicious, most malicious and most ruthless things with the wolf’; Shixi, p. 213). As with so many wolf phrases and sayings, this is a demonstration of the power of language and literature to influence how people perceive and treat wolves in the real world, even though these associations do not translate onto real wolf behaviour.

Now embedded in the collective psyche of mankind, the fear of wolves that has been perpetuated by such cultural associations itself has gained an acute power, fear perpetuating fear so that fact is no longer relevant. A microcosm of this is seen in The Wolves of Savernake, after the ‘wolf’ has claimed two lives:

Bedwyn was drowned in a sea of hysteria. The first wave had come with the death of Alric Longdon, but this, it now appeared, had merely lapped at the communal fears of the town. When the news of Wulfgeat’s grisly end spread, it was a tidal surge that swept all before it. Every man, woman, and child gibbered helplessly as gushing water claimed then. Bedwyn was doomed. The whole community was at the mercy of some supernatural creature which could take its prey at will and with complete impunity. There was nowhere to hide. The wolf of Savernake would eat its way through the entire town (p. 208).

Notice the certainty of the language in this passage.  The fear is an unstoppable tsunami, the language quickly moving from ‘could’ to ‘would’: ‘the wolf of Savernake would eat its way through the entire town’. This reminds me of the oft-repeated (and, as research has shown, misinformed) assertion in anti-reintroduction polemics that wolves will decimate caribou herds in America, or they will ruthlessly slaughter an excess of animals (see Cerulli, 2016). Where wolves are present, these certitudes translate into all-or-nothing responses: we must wipe out every wolf in the area. But the only facts and certitudes in these cases are that the blood of wolves will be spilt, and it will not be because of scientific evidence.

However, killing wolves does not kill the fear of them, as Marston articulates in a passage describing the triumphant return of a soldier, Hugh de Brionne, who has been into the forest to kill the murderous beast once and for all:

       Ralph and Gervase reached the marketplace as the crowd was clustering around the dead wolf. Hugh de Brionne was savouring his moment of celebration and he gave them a mock bow when he saw them. Ralph was anxious to examine the wolf itself and forced his way through the press, but Gervase was more squeamish and lurked on the fringes. There was no pleasure for him in the sight of a mangled animal and he could not understand the bloodlust, which seemed to excite everyone else who was present. Ralph spoke with the lord of the manor of Chisbury, then left him to enjoy his sudden Prestige and made his way back to Gervase. He took his friend aside so that they could speak in private.

       ‘Let us go,’ he suggested. ‘I am out of place here.’

       ‘Why, Ralph?’

       ‘Because I am a heretic among believers.’

       Gervase grinned. ‘That is nothing new.’

       ‘Those who wanted a wolf have now found one.’

       ‘The animal has terrorised the whole town.’

       ‘No, Gervase. What they have been frightened of is the idea of a wolf. Hugh de Brionne has simply put flesh and blood on that idea by dumping a carcase in the marketplace.’ (p. 226)

Two things are evident here; the first; humans are not frightened by flesh-and-blood wolves but by the cultural images of them that humans have constructed. Powerful predators, they are just useful icons and metaphors for fears much bigger than the animals: of fear of the unknown, of what lurks in the darkness beyond the treeline, of things untameable and uncontrollable, of something more powerful than ourselves, of death. Second; empathy can still be felt even for animals who are potentially problematic, harmful, or simply just get in the way of human activities. Gervase says that ‘the animal has terrorised the whole town’, yet he takes no pleasure in seeing its lifeless, bloodied body. This visceral, unpleasant image raises the question of what – or who – is the most bloodthirsty predator on the planet? Another Savernake quotation is pertinent here; while Ralph examines the crime scene where the ‘wolf’ has murdered its victims Gervase hangs back, since ‘his own territory lay in the thickets of the law where the wolves walked on two legs and savaged their prey with charters’ (p. 228). This, I feel, is applicable not just to Gervases’s colleagues: the ‘wolves’ of this world are bipedal monsters called ‘humans’.

A man in wolf’s clothing

This is not to say that humans don’t – at least on a subconscious level – appreciate this hypocrisy or our own capacity for ‘wolfishness’. There’s medieval European tradition that associated wolves with criminals and outlaws, sometimes graverobbers specifically. The idea is that if someone does something that breaches human laws or standards for behaviour, particularly when they ‘prey’ on other people by stealing or murdering, then they are deemed no better than a wolf, who wantonly kill and ‘steal’ from people when they kill livestock (see Jones, 2010). If a person committed a crime like this – or was accused of doing so – they might flee from justice, traditionally (and perhaps, in reality) to uninhabited areas where they could hide, particularly woodland, a habitat preferred by wolves. However, a person seeking religious solitude might also seek refuge in the same environments, as is the case in Savernake, when Gervase comes across a Welsh hermit, a ‘monster’ who is ‘living as an animal in the forest’ (p. 274). While Gervase ‘respect[s] him for what he is doing’ (p. 274) Ralph is sceptical, calling him a ‘savage’:

       ‘What can that savage offer?’

       ‘A sharp pair of eyes in Savernake Forest.’

       ‘With a sharp set of teeth to match. You are deceived by him, Gervase. He is a wolf in sheep’s clothing.’ (p. 276)

The hermit lives in the forest alongside the wolves – and possibly wolf-like criminals and outlaws – so it’s not a completely misguided assumption (at least, according to the wolf/outlaw tradition) for Ralph to consider him a ‘wolf in sheep’s clothing’, a vicious wolf masquerading as something innocuous.

Yet while Ralph’s assumption does acknowledge mankind’s capacity for traits which we (wrongly and anthropomorphically) associate with wolves, the hermit is the victim of the same blanket fear and hatred to which the animals that he resembles are also subject. As Gervase’s opposing reaction shows, all that is needed is just to take the time to understand this unusual man, just as Gervase does; ‘he went through each detail of his encounter with the solitary creature in the forest and wished that he had learnt enough to comprehend the man’s universe’, even despite the fact that what he has learnt from ‘vague snatches of travellers’ tales’ is about ‘weird religions in distant lands’ which ‘put the fear of death into his young mind as they recounted the barbaric rites that involved’ (p. 277). In particular, Gervase remembers how:

one man had spoken of mysteries nearer home […] about the ancient religion of Wales when a mystic order of Druids flourished. Could the hermit of Savernake be the heir to such a culture? Had he been driven out of his native land by the spread of Christianity to seek a place where he could practise the old faith? Gervase cudgelled his brain to extract what meagre knowledge he had on the subject, but all that came was an unsatisfactory mixture of fact and conjecture (p. 277).

The default human reaction to the unknown is fear and ‘conjecture’, as Marston puts it here. Thus, just as this hermit who follows an unrecognizable religion is feared, his beliefs the subject of rumour and speculation based upon misunderstanding and misinformation, the wolves who live out in the forest alongside him are also misunderstood, fear of them likewise based on ‘conjecture’.

Yet, as it transpires, the hermit has been carrying out small acts of kindness towards the very people who would persecute him (leaving coins outside their doors), a ‘generous impulse’ which ‘had relieved misery in a number of distressed families’, showing that ‘he could show care for others’ despite the fact that ‘he lived quite along in self-imposed exile’ (p. 289). One of the recipients is a witch named Emma of Crofton, whom the hermit encounters in the forest. When they meet:

The hermit gazed deep into her eyes and their separate worlds merged for a second to banish all contradiction. Both were lonely outcasts. Both would be spurned on sight, yet both could be forgiving to those who spurned them. Both worshipped a deity that was older than time itself and beyond the scope of common imagination. Both followed their own twisting paths to a higher state of being that could be attained only in painful isolation (p. 289).

These unfortunate outcasts, misunderstood and scorned as a result, are much more ‘human’ – they have the qualities that we expect of our species, such as kindness, forgiveness, and empathy – than those who claim them to be no better than animals. In fact, it is these people who hunt Emma ‘like’ wolves themselves:

Bent on summary justice, they were all for riding down to Crofton there and then to slaughter both witch and dog and rid the shire of two excrescences in one fell swoop, but Wulfgeat exerted control.

       ‘Silence!’ he decreed. ‘Yesterday, you feared a pack of wolves in Savernake. Today, you are that pack of wolves yourselves. Guilty she may be, but that guilt is not proven in a court of law. If Emma is a witch and that dog is her familiar, she will be held to account. Her curse and her cur destroyed Alric Longdon.’

        The men laughed with brutal delight. They were content.

       They now had a scapegoat (p. 103).

Despite the fact that they are the true ‘wolves’, these bloodthirsty men are still not held to account for their intentions and assumptions. Though they are (only just) kept in check by the law (ironically so since being ‘outside’ the law, i.e., an outlaw, is what makes one wolfish), they still able to treat Emma like an animal, who is more a ‘scape-wolf’ than a ‘scapegoat’. Again, notice the certainty which quickly follows hypotheticals: ‘if Emma is a witch’ becomes ‘her curse and her cur destroyed Alric Longdon’. As Gervase had thought previously, even those who are supposed to uphold the law are vicious, no better than beasts. They might try to pass their lupine title onto others, like Emma, but it is they who are truly the ‘wolves in sheep’s’ clothing’, their victims like helpless lambs to slaughter. Here, it’s an issue of perspective, as it is with the treatment of wolves in the real world. For Emma and the hermit, the people who belong to society are wolfish villains (especially since it is one of them, the most supposedly lamb-like of all, who commits the murder), just as, if wolves could write their own stories, humans would be their ‘wolves’. I’m reminded of the phrase ‘man is a wolf and not a man toward a man’ (de Mello, 2011). Everyone has a ‘wolf’ in their story, but who that wolf is depends on who is telling the tale and often, as is suggested by the end of this quotation – ‘when he doesn’t know what he’s like’ – when he does not understand the ‘wolf’.

In fact, early in the novel we see how wolves are hunted down like prey by predatorial humans:

Richard Esturmy had come to England in 1066 to fight Duke William. When the latter became King of England, the former was made Warden of Savernake and took over several holdings in the area. He reacted to the situation with commendable speed and decision, sending out his foresters to hunt the wolf and follow it to its pack. Wolves had been a menace for generations and Esturmys house in the parish of Grafton bore testimony to this. It was called Wolf Hall. The royal forest was the preserve of royal deer, shy and retiring creatures who needed ranges that were undisturbed. Any animals which might be harmful to the deer were thus kept down and Esturmy had granted rights of warren to local men to kill foxes, hares, wildcats, and even squirrels. Wolves and boars were controlled by organised hunts with spear and net and mastiff (p. 43).

Ironically, wolves are subjected to exactly the same ‘ruthlessness’ which humans attribute to these same animals when they ‘decimate’ deer numbers. Except, wolves kill not for fun but to survive. While hunting obviously does meet the same end for humans, a big factor is also enjoyment, to the extent that it holds precedence over all else for the warden of Savernake (again, a relatively historically accurate observation; wolves were hunted to prevent them from killing deer in game forests). Our expectation that humans and our needs and wants should come above all else has not changed, since exactly the same thing happens today, with wolves culled to ‘protect’ game species (Cerulli, 2016).

Nonetheless, even as Marston acknowledges the double standards to which society subjects ‘wolfish’ humans and wolves, that the enemies of any humans are compared to wolves is problematic. While we are encouraged to empathize with the ‘wolves’ and to share Gervase’s perspective on the senseless bloodthirstiness when the townspeople see the carcass of the animal, it’s still anthropomorphic and zoomorphic to categorise any traits as ‘lupine’. Wolves are not bloodthirsty, savage, nor murderous; they’re simply just animals hunting for a meal, just as any predator must do. It’s no different from a cat stalking a mouse, or an arctic fox chasing a hare, or a lion bearing down upon an antelope. And yet, none of these animals are ‘vicious killers’ or any of the many other ways in which wolves are vitriolically described. Lions are ‘majestic’ ‘kings of the jungle’, while cats and foxes are even cute. Why should we have such a vastly different attitude towards wolves? Answer: we shouldn’t; as it has no basis in reality. The ‘Big Bad Wolf’ is just fiction, and we need to remember that.

Why read The Wolves of Savernake?

Like Jackal and Wolf, The Wolves of Savernake calls into question a variety of human assumptions about wolves and the way in which we both anthropomorphise them, as well as the way in which we zoomorphise humans who we consider to be like them. Though one might argue that Savernake is more subtle than Jackal and Wolf in doing so, that does not mean that the message is less effectively or forcefully delivered. Rather than having the answers given to them the reader is given the chance to puzzle over the questions raised themselves (much like the nature of the mystery itself, which is of course withheld until the end), to take what they have read and think about what it truly means for the hermit to be mistaken for a wolf, for the band of vigilante justices to be compared to the animal.

In doing so, Savernake asks us to question what the ‘idea’ of a wolf is, encouraging us to consider the possibility that what we know as ‘wolves’ are not really wolves at all. We must ask: ‘what does it mean when we call someone a wolf, both for that person, their accuser, and the animal?’. Though it is undoubtedly compelling to read Savernake to find out whodunnit, the true mystery is who the ‘wolf’ is. This, we discover by the end of the novel, is a matter of definition and perspective.

References / further reading

Marston, Edward (2020). The Wolves of Savernake. London: Allison & Busby

Cerulli, Tovar (2016). “Of Wolves, Hunters, and Words: A Comparative Study of Cultural Discourses in the Western Great Lakes Region”. PhD thesis, University of Massachusetts

de Melo, Wolfgang, ed. (2011). Plautus, Volume I: Amphitryon. The Comedy of Asses. The Pot of Gold. The Two Bacchises. The Captives. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press

Jones, Timothy S. (2010). Outlawry in Medieval Literature. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan

Shixi, Shen (2012). Jackal and Wolf, trans. by Helen Wang. London: Egmont

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