The wolf cuts a wide swath throughout folk literature. Aesop’s Fables (ca. 600 BC) contains some of our earliest references to the dangerous wolf.
Everyone knows, The Boy Who Cried Wolf, but another 23 fables also feature wolves. These include, The Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing, The Lamb and the Wolves, and, The Stag, the Wolf and the Sheep. The wolf is always a villain in these stories.
Aesop, a liberated slave who died about 560 BC, is credited with some 656 of these moral tales. He didn’t put them into writing. Rather, he told them aloud and they were passed on in what is known as “oral tradition” — word of mouth. When the printing press was invented, Aesop’s Fables was one of the first books published. The fables remain popular today. Only Holy Scriptures can claim wider circulation.
Many centuries after Aesop, two brothers, Jacob (1785-1863) and Wilhelm (1786-1859) Grimm, published this same kind of oral literature.
The Grimms were collectors, not authors. That is, they didn’t compose the “fairy tales.” The 211 stories attributed to them were picked up throughout Europe. That’s why some Grimm tales are also found in the earlier collection of Charles Perrault (1628-1703), a collection published in 1697.
Perrault’s stories, like the Grimms’, owe their origin to the folk tale. Perrault called his collection, Tales from Times Past or Tales of Mother Goose.
Die Brüder Grimm called their stories, published in 1812, Kinder-und Haus Mȁrchen (Stories for Children and Home).
Perrault is credited with laying the foundation of a new literary genre — the fairy tale. The Grimms are considered the first folklorists.
The Grimms were, in fact, linguists who undertook this folklore project to find common links among European languages. Therefore, they sought out people not books. They collected word-of-mouth folklore; not edited stories found in print.
One discovery was an almost universal fear and loathing of wolves. In The Wolf and the Seven Little Kids, the nanny-goat tells her children, “I have to go into the forest; be on your guard against the wolf; if he comes in, he will devour you all.”
Well, he did trick the kids and swallow them whole. And when the mother slits him open so her children might escape, she fills his stomach with stones. In the end, the wolf falls into a well and drowns, and the goat family lives happily ever after.
What the Grimms sought was linguistic ties among languages. As we will see, they clearly found this with the word, “wolf.” Notice how closely Germanic languages agree on what this animal is called.
In English, we have wolf; Danish is ulv; German is Wolf; Dutch is wolf; Norwegian is ulv; Flemish is wolf; Yiddish is velvel or wolf; and Icelandic is ulfa.
The Romance languages show a similar relationship. French gives us loup; Italian, lupo; Spanish, lobo; Portuguese, lobo; Romanian, lup; and Corsican, lupu.
Each of these countries has folk stories depicting the wolf as treacherous, bloodthirsty, and cunning. Think of Little Red Riding Hood (continental Europe), or, The Three Little Pigs (England).
Take care. Beware of the big, bad wolf.