Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Review: 'The White Devil: The Werewolf in European Culture'


These days there’s just no shortage of novels, movies, and histories about our pale old buddy the vampire. His furry cousin the werewolf gets much less respect, though this creature has some 30,000 years of history under his belt. While most examinations of werewolves pivot on the fiction, the creature’s role in the real world is less discussed. Before Darwin made it clear that animals cannot transform back-and-forth between species, people believed werewolves could exist in the same way that many modern folks believe the Yeti or the Nessie are possibilities. This is the era and area of lycanthropy that most concerns The White Devil: The Werewolf in European Culture, Matthew Beresford’s new sweeping historical study of werewolves in all their guises. The author tracks the relationship between man and beast from the pagan wolf cults that aspired to be hunters as great as the wolf to the post-Christianity downgrading of werewolves to allies of Satan in the Middle Ages to the physical and mental disorders that may account for this pervasive belief. With just 235 pages to peddle his theories, Beresford crams in a tremendous amount of data. Who knew The Epic of Gilgamesh and The Satyricon referenced werewolves? Or that men were burned at the stake for being “werewolves” just as women were for being “witches”? Or that much folklore views the werewolf, witch, and vampire as interchangeable creatures? Or that a number of historical serial killers were believed to be werewolves?

Indeed, there is little in The White Devil that isn’t really interesting, which helps to make up for the author’s dry tone and tendency to force his fascinating tidbits into suiting his subject. His tales’ connections to lycanthropy are often pretty tenuous, as in his discussion of the child-killer Gilles de Rais. It’s a fascinating story, for sure, but it has very, very little to do with werewolves aside from some people thinking they heard wolves howling near his house or something. Some of his theories, such as the ideas that Renfield of Dracula and Grendel of Beowulf might have been werewolves, are weakly posited too. However, what The White Devil lacks in consistency it makes up for in scope. Beresford’s willingness to toss as many ingredients into his cauldron as he can is admirable even when they don’t generate any bubbles.

Get The White Devil: The Werewolf in European Culture at Amazon.com here :


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