Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf? A Fearsome Beast in Legends and Tales Around the World
There are many stock characters that are present in folk stories, fairy tales, and legends from all over the world. However, few are as constant as the figure of the Big Bad Wolf, a giant predator which would devour his victims in a single bite. Appearing in many cautionary tales – stories that are created to warn people from real danger – the figure of the wolf became the most famous archetype of menacing predatory antagonist.
Passing Down Wolf Tales
Lessons have long been passed through oral tradition and one way to secure people’s interest is through stories. The fear of wolf attacks was a very real problem during Medieval times in Europe and many other regions, especially in smaller settlements surrounded by wilderness. For a very long time, the wolf was a symbol of power, danger, and ferocity.
One of the first known folklorists was a slave and storyteller named Aesop, believed to have lived in ancient Greece between 620 and 564 BC. Being mentioned by Herodotus and Plato, Aesop’s fables were quite famous. They came from various origins and many were attributed to him without actual proof of authorship. Nonetheless, out of the many stories about wolves, there are four that eventually became associated with the figure of the Big Bad Wolf.
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Big Bad Wolf. ( Mario Klingemann /CC BY NC 2.0 )
“The Boy Who Cried Wolf ” is one of them, telling of a shepherd boy who repeatedly tricks the nearby villagers into thinking a wolf is attacking his flock. Eventually they get tired of the boy’s lies and when the wolf shows up for real, no one believes the boy and the sheep are eaten up. In some versions, it was the boy who was eaten instead. This story is often brought up in discussions on children’s development and the mechanics of lying as a warning on the dangers of raising false alarms and constant lying; many adaptations can be seen in different media.
Also attributed to Aesop, albeit as a variant of one of the Greek folklorist’s tales written by La Fontaine between 1668 and 1694, is the story of The Wolf and the Lamb. Originally ‘the cat and the cock’, a lamb questions a wolf why he wishes to take his life. The lupine makes many accusations, all which the young lamb rebuke and prove to be impossible, until the predator loses his patience and finally has the lamb for supper - just because he could. Wolves and lambs were often associated, which makes sense given how often wolves would attack livestock – especially ones that are easier to take down - such as lambs.
‘The Wolf and the Lamb’ by Jean-Baptiste Oudry. ( Public Domain )
Wolves and Kids
The story of the Wolf and the Kids came along in the 1st century. In this story, a mother goat left her kids alone, warning them to not open the door to strangers as the wolf was about and could eat them. Eventually the wolf manages to fool the kids and the youngest is the only one to survive. It rushes to find its mother and when she gets back she finds the wolf fast asleep after devouring the other younglings, completely unable to move. So, the mother goat cuts open the wolf’s belly to find her children survived the ordeal. She rescues them then fills the beast’s stomach with stones and throws him into the river. Later on, the Brothers Grimm would write the most widespread version of the story in 1812, first with five kids and later a revised version with seven kids.
Illustration by Karl Fahringer of the wolf attacking the kids once he is let into their home. ( Public Domain )
Misattributed to Aesop, there’s also the famous story of “ The Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing ” in which a wolf finds a sheepskin and accompanies the flock to the pasture, managing to fool the shepherd. In the original version by the 12th-century Greek rhetorician Nikephoros Basilakis, the wolf is shut up in the fold with the rest of the sheep and ends up slaughtered along with them. In comparison, modern versions of the tale end with the wolf having its supper, eating the sheep .
Messages in Little Red Riding Hood
By the 10th century, the story of the Wolf and the Kids had a new variant in French and Italian regions, which would be the prototype for the tale of Little Red Riding Hood. In the early versions, the wolf was sometimes a werewolf, making it relevant to the werewolf trials at the time and aggregating the sexual and cannibalistic undertones that would remain in many versions of the tale.