Alexandre Dumas’ Le Meneur de loups (The Wolf Leader), published in 1857, is one of the earliest werewolf novels. Prior to it, a werewolf story was included in the middle of English author Captain Marryat’s The Phantom Ship (1839) and English author George W. M. Reynolds provided a more thorough depiction of a character who turns into a werewolf in Wagner the Wehr-Wolf (1846-7). A few other pieces of werewolf literature, all by British authors, exist from this period, but Dumas’ novel may be the first werewolf story in French Gothic literature, and it does not appear to have been influenced by either Marryat or Wagner’s works.
The plot of The Wolf Leader is not complicated. What makes the novel interesting for me is how Dumas weaves in many Gothic elements that might be missed by someone who is not a serious student of the Gothic. I will summarize the plot here focusing on the Gothic elements worth noting.
The introduction begins with Dumas speaking in his own voice, telling how he heard this story from his father’s friend, Mocquet. Mocquet was superstitious and believed a local woman, Madame Durand, was a witch and was causing him to have nightmares. He held this low opinion of her because he said in her youth she was the mistress of Thibault, the wolf leader. By passing the story off as Mocquet’s, a real person he mentions in his Memoires, Dumas is using a literary device to make the story appear more authentic. Obviously, it is a supernatural tale that cannot possibly be true, but he can at least claim it is an authentic legend. Dumas says his father objected to Mocquet telling him supernatural tales, but when he was older and his father had died, Mocquet took him hunting and then told him the tale of Thibault.
Today, Dumas is best known for The Three Musketeers, but he was the author of many Gothic works, including The Count of Monte Cristo (1845), which plays with Gothic themes, as well as writing the play The Vampyre (1851) and using supernatural themes in his Marie Antoinette novels. The Wolf Leader, however, has received little attention by critics. According to Wikipedia, in 1951, Anthony Boucher and J. Francis McComas reviewed the 1950 Prime Press edition and placed it among “Dumas’s drabbest hack-work.” However, Franz Rottensteiner described it as “considerably superior from a literary point of view.” I would have to agree with the latter. While the book has its faults, Dumas thought out the plot carefully and used many Gothic elements for his story. That it could be dismissed as hack-work, however, may result from its rather light tone. Despite the dramatic incidents in the book and the overall Gothic theme of redemption, the main character suffers no major feelings of agony and there is no intensely Gothic atmosphere, the result being that it reads almost like a spoof on Gothic literature, and if not directly mocking Gothic literature, it has a light and almost humorous tone at least in several of the scenes. In fact, despite the main character’s less than moral behavior, readers may find themselves cheering him on to his next adventure.
That Dumas is drawing upon Gothic literary traditions is obvious from the beginning of the tale when we are told Thibault is a shoemaker. Similarly, the Wandering Jew was a shoemaker, and his profession immediately, therefore, tells us that Thibault is a Gothic wanderer figure, one who is or will be cursed. Of course, shoemakers are not supernatural and we could argue it is just a coincidence that he and the Wandering Jew were shoemakers, but given that just a few years earlier Dumas wrote Isaac Lacquedem (1852-53), his incomplete novel about the Wandering Jew, it is unlikely Dumas did not intentionally make Thibault a shoemaker.
Although a shoemaker, Thibault has received some education and traveled, which has given him a high opinion of himself. He has gotten permission to set up trade in the forest on the estate belonging to the Duke of Orleans. He is also unwilling to let others think they are better than him, despite the social disparity that exists in 1780, the year the novel is set, less than a decade before the French Revolution. Thibault’s troubles (or adventures) begin when he encounters the Baron of Vez, who is out hunting. When the baron asks him if he’s seen a deer, Thibault gives him saucy answers that result in the baron’s gamekeeper beating him. Afterwards, Thibault wishes for revenge and becomes determined to hunt down the deer before the baron can. Thibault issues this wish out loud and is heard by the devil or one of his minions, though Thibault doesn’t realize it at first.
Later, Thibault enters his goat shed and is surprised to find the deer the baron sought mysteriously tied inside. Thibault decides he will take it to the convent and sell it to the nuns to get money to buy a wedding dress for Agnelette, his beloved. However, before he can do that, a black wolf enters his cottage on its hind legs and speaks to him. The wolf explains that it brought Thibault the deer at his request and it offers to help Thibault get revenge on his enemies, the baron and the gamekeeper. To seal the pact, Thibault and the wolf exchange rings. Soon after, Thibault is astounded to hear the gamekeeper has died and his wish has come true. However, the baron is also ill and Thibault is forced to let the baron’s men kill his goat to make a healing potion for the baron. And so it goes with everything Thibault wishes. He wishes ill on his enemies, and while what he wishes comes true, it also leads to something detrimental for himself.
Agnelette soon after confronts Thibault about how he got the gold ring he is wearing. Unable to tell her he received it from the wolf, he claims he got it for their wedding, but she knows he is lying since it is obviously too large for her. She then breaks off their engagement.
Meanwhile, wolves begin to follow Thibault everywhere and obey him. Part of the pact with the wolf was that the wolf would be granted a hair for his first wish, two hairs for the second, four for the third, and so on. For every hair the wolf takes, a red one takes its place until soon Thibault has a shock of red hair, which he tries to conceal by combing his hair in different ways. His hair is a sign he has been marked by the devil, rather like the mark of Cain, and eventually, Thibault can no longer hide it.
Thibault has several more adventures, mostly involving women he decides he would like to wed, which results in wishes to possess them and be rid of their current suitors. In one such encounter, Thibault wishes he could become the Baron Raoul, the lover of a countess. Consequently, he is able to make love to the countess when he and the baron switch places for twenty-four hours. This is one of the most interesting scenes in the novel and probably the first case in literature of people switching places in the style popularized by the Disney film Freaky Friday (1976). Another novel using this plot is Vice Versa (1882) by F. Anstey, a novel in which a father and son, through use of a magic stone, switch places. That novel is said to have been so funny that English novelist Anthony Trollope died while laughing over it. (A myth about his death, but one often repeated.) While both Vice Versa and Freaky Friday use the switched roles theme for comical means, Dumas uses it more seriously. Thibault, under guise of the baron, ends up being pursued by the Countess’ husband and wounded in a duel. Fortunately, the twenty-four hours of switching places ends just before the baron dies, so Thibault finds himself returned to his own body.
By this point, people have figured out that Thibault is in some way involved with sorcery. He wakes in his home in his own body only to find his cottage on fire and people shouting “Death to the sorcerer! Death to the were-wolf!” (Thibault has not become a werewolf yet, but that he leads a pack of wolves that terrify the villagers has earned him the name.) He escapes from his house but now feels like “Cain, a wanderer on the face of the earth.” Earlier in the novel, he also compared himself to Cain because he brought about the death of the gamekeeper. These references to Cain again relate to the Gothic tradition and particularly the mark of Cain that showed Cain was cursed among men.
Homeless, Thibault now begins to sleep in a wolves’ den with his wolf followers. People fear him as he begins having his wolves destroy property, leading to the bishop excommunicating him. Then one day, Thibault rescues Agnelette from a wolf. She is not grateful but expects he will kill her. He tries to convince her to leave her husband and be with him, but while she admits she still loves him, she refuses. He then tells her he wishes her husband were dead. Terrified because she knows his wishes come true, Agnelette runs to her husband who turns out to be fine, but after Agnelette tells him of Thibault’s behavior, he goes to report the behavior to the authorities and is accidentally shot on the way. Soon after, Agnelette becomes ill over his death.
By this point, a year has passed since the day Thibault made his pact with the wolf. He is now cursing all his ill luck and wishing he had never met the wolf. The wolf now appears and says Thibault can still enjoy everything he wants if he will only take the wolf’s form. No one will then be able to hurt him because his skin will be so strong. He will have to be a wolf by night but can be a man by day. The only catch is that he must be a vulnerable wolf for twenty-four hours once a year. Thibault agrees to the proposal because he is assured he will have unlimited power and wealth. Once the agreement is made, the wolf takes on the form of a man and Thibault becomes a wolf. (If the novel was influenced by Reynolds’ Wagner the Wehr-Wolf, this would be the only scene because in that novel Faust convinced Wagner to take his place as a werewolf.)
Immediately, Thibault finds himself in trouble because it happens to be the twenty-four hours when he must be a wolf. He is hunted by the Baron of Vez and his dogs. As he flees from them, he comes to a church where he finds Agnelette’s funeral in progress. At that moment, he blames himself for her death, feels great sorrow, and asks God to restore her to life even if it means his death.
The baron’s dogs now catch up to him and attack. When the baron arrives, he finds the dogs fighting over a bloody wolf skin, but there is no body to be found. The priest presiding over the funeral says he heard Thibault’s prayer of repentance and sacrifice and that saved him. The sacrifice, however, isn’t a true one since Agnelette died anyway. The novel closes by telling us that each year on the anniversary of Agnelette’s death, a monk comes to pray beside her grave. The implication is that Thibault became a monk.
The novel’s storyline has one plot hole in that it never shows us Madame Durand as Thibault’s mistress, although she is the person who supposedly caused Mocquet to have nightmares and tell the story in the first place.
The novel is interesting for blending the Faustian pact with other themes of the Wandering Jew and Cain. At one point, we are even told that Thibault’s thoughts were like those of Milton’s Satan after he fell. This statement reveals that Dumas probably knew Paradise Lost (1667), which was a major influence in the development of the Gothic novel in England as I have discussed in my book The Gothic Wanderer.
Is The Wolf Leader Dumas’ best work? Far from it, but it is a highly readable and enjoyable novel. It is somewhat predictable and far from as complicated and wide-ranging a plot as in Reynolds’ novel. But it is also interesting that while Wagner agrees to be a werewolf, he does not wish to kill people. Thibault has few qualms about hurting his enemies, although he becomes more careful about making wishes as the novel progresses.
Given that the novel was written in 1857 but set before the French Revolution, it might be interpreted as showing the uprising of the common man against the French aristocracy, especially since Thibault’s first assault is upon a baron. Thibault is also shown as climbing the social ladder as the novel progresses, especially in relation to the women he desires. He goes from loving Agnelette, a peasant girl, to imagining himself marrying a widowed miller’s wife, then a bailiff’s wife, and then a countess, even becoming a baron himself for a short time. In each case, however, the women ultimately reject him or make fun of him behind his back. His social climbing also is obvious from his increasing wealth through not having to work since the wolves provide him with meat that he often sells to support himself. His improved financial situation makes people suspicious of him and in time accuse him of sorcery. We might interpret the novel as showing he is punished for his transgressions against the social order and rising above his class. In the end, he regrets that he was untrue to Agnelette, the only woman he really loved and the only one of his class. Only when Thibault tries to save her and repents is he redeemed from his crimes. The story is thus both subversive in its attacks upon aristocracy and ultimately conservative by showing the dangers or sin of trying to move beyond one’s class. In the end, like Milton’s Satan, pride comes before the fall for Thibault.
However one wishes to interpret The Wolf Leader, it is a fascinating piece of Gothic literature that deserves more attention than it has received, especially in relation to its social implications and revenge theme, a theme that Dumas used to greater effect in The Count of Monte Cristo. Dumas was a diverse and powerful writer, and while his work is somewhat uneven in quality, his lesser-known works deserve reevaluation.
Tyler Tichelaar, PhD, is the author of King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition, The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption, The Children of Arthur historical fantasy series, Haunted Marquette: Ghost Stories from the Queen City, and many other titles. Visit Tyler at www.GothicWanderer.com, www.ChildrenofArthur.com, and www.MarquetteFiction.com.