Wagner, the Wehr-Wolf Essay - Critical Essays

Analysis

Readers hoping to find an early classic treatment of the werewolf theme will find Wagner, the Wehr-Wolf disappointing. The werewolf material could be removed entirely (or replaced by some other curse or disgrace), and the novel would be largely unaffected. The supernatural material is minimal: The demoniac pact, the werewolf matter, the diabolical appearances, and the Rosicrucian matter taken together occupy less than a tenth of this immense episodic novel.

Reynolds was uncommonly alert to the tastes of his readers and was able to give them what they wanted in large, frequent, and hastily prepared doses. What his public required was foreign intrigue, sensational scandal, exotic adventure, and sentimental love stories of the love versus honor variety. Reynolds supplied these elements in Wagner, the Wehr-Wolf.

For modern readers, the novel suffers from stilted, sentimental writing and idealized, pasteboard characterization. One beautiful or evil character might be exchanged easily for any other. An accurate estimate of Reynolds’ style can be gleaned from the following excerpt of his description of Flora:[H]er forehead was white and polished as alabaster, yet the rose-tint of health was upon her cheeks, and her lips had the rich redness of coral. Her nose was perfectly straight; her teeth were white and even; and the graceful arching of her swan-like neck imparted something of nobility to her tall, sylph-like, and exquisitely-proportioned figure.

The werewolf itself is handled in an unconvincing manner. Wagner turns completely into a wolf, and all human intelligence disappears. Absent are the now-standard ferocious attacks on lone victims and the rifling of graves. Instead, the quality of the monster most emphasized by Reynolds is its speed as it dashes madly about, upsetting things. The most common form of murder is brains being knocked out on paving stones.

Reynolds clearly is a Victorian and frequently digresses on the religious, moral, and social concerns of that period. He seems progressive in pointing out racial injustice and the abuses of wealth and in recommending religious tolerance. His writing nevertheless harks back to the past. The bulk of his most popular work, The Mysteries of London (1845), and his other fantastic novels, such as Faust: A Romance of the Secret Tribunals (1847) and The Necromancer (1857), betray him as a late gothic romancer more properly in the company of Ann Radcliffe or Charles Robert Maturin than Wilkie Collins or Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu.