Sabine Baring-Gould’s Book of Werewolves is full of relished detail, picking out bits of folklore from all over the place with Baring-Gould tenacity. The werewolf as outsider, cannibal, predator: “the younger they were, esteemed them the mair tender and delicious…” Outside the bounds of the villlage, a monster, Long Lankin. I’ve written about these before, for example, here. Sensational stuff, sensationalised stuff, too.
In Broadchurch we are confronted with a very rare sight: a man lost, confused, unable to deal with his own feelings, one minute a stupid, failure of a man, the next a killer trying hard to conceal his crime, and in a few moments reduced to a penitent, frightened prisoner. There is no werewolf here, no monster. A real life example, whereas fable demands a diametric opposite, some binary to be defeated. If anything, the wholly believable fury of the murderer’s wife and the rage of the victim’s father made them for a moment less human – or at least, less covered by a veneer of politeness. It is a tribute to the writers and cast of Broadchurch that they sustained that ambiguity, maintained such sympathy for all those flawed and suffering characters.
But what of the Fairy Tale? What of sympathy for the Big Bad Wolf? We don’t want to reduce the wolf to a nothing. The numerous rewrites of Red Riding Hood attempt some sort of reconciliation, whereby the wolf comes back to life and reforms, and retellings such as The True Story of the Three Little Pigs or The Three Little Wolves and the Big Bad Pig turn the wolf in turns into someone misunderstood, or victim of his own mauvaise foi, or victim of another (better, funnier) monster.
Only once have I seen something approaching genuine understanding. As part of a writing project in a school, the teacher (writing as the wolf from prison) sent a letter a day to the children and the children responded. They asked all sorts of questions, such as “Are you real?” and “Did you mean to eat the Granny?” One little girl, however, wrote in some detail, asking what life was like “inside,” asking if he was “on remand” – and ending “And have you met my dad?”