Amongst the pages of Frederick Marryat’s gothic novel, The Phantom Ship, lies a short tale titled The White Wolf of the Hartz Mountains. A supernatural yarn filled with strange events meant to haunt the reader, it narrates the tragedy of a family brought to despair and annihilation under odd circumstances.
In the vast expanse of Transylvania, Krantz, a serf, commits double murder by killing his wife and lord for having engaged in a sexual affair during his absence. Fearing the punishment he will surely receive, he decides to flee with his three young children to an isolated area where none will be able to trace him, thus ending up in the Hartz Mountains.
But the Hartz Mountains conceal within their harshness and cold beauty a horrifying secret. One night, a white she-wolf howls without intermission for hours. Krantz takes the bait and leaves his hut to give chase to her. As he comes a stone’s throw away from her, though, and is about to shoot, the beast suddenly vanishes. A few minutes later, a huntsman appears followed by his young daughter.
Krantz offers his hospitality to the pair of strangers and not much time has lapsed when he decides to marry Christina, the huntsman’s daughter, first having sworn by a peculiar oath imposed by his new father in law.
“I swear by all the spirits of the Hartz mountains, by all their power for good or for evil, that I take Christina for my wedded wife; that I will ever protect her, cherish her, and love her; that my hand shall never be raised against her to harm her. And if I fail in this my vow, may all the vengeance of the spirits fall upon me and upon my children; may they perish by the vulture, by the wolf, or other beasts of the forest; may their flesh be torn from their limbs, and their bones blanch in the wilderness: all this I swear.”
Thus, married life starts, but it is far from a blissful one as the menacing oath foreshadows. Christina turns out to be far from the loving and caring ideal of the woman as the Victorians conceived her. Instead, she abuses her stepchildren and abandons her marital bed at night in order to prowl in the forest in the form of a vicious she-wolf.
The Victorians held fast to strict rules regarding women. The female was supposed to exhibit traits of docility and sexual submission, recognizing the power and absolute dominance of the male. Women displaying traits that flouted such notions such as strong sexual urges and passionate appetites were deemed a disgrace and an abomination who had to either be excluded from polite society or to forcibly jump on the bandwagon of meekness.
In the tale, Krantz’s first wife is described as ”more beautiful than virtuous”, a phrase that denotes her vast carnality, something which makes her deserving of her tragic fate. Similarly, Christina conceals a carnal nature, for beneath her beauty a fierce longing for the flesh is concealed. However, Christina takes this carnality to a whole other level, her behaviour even more appalling than the first wife’s. She doesn’t seek for a lover, but devours the little bodies of her husband’s children, her hunger for the flesh acquiring a literal meaning.
Plato had talked of the wandering uterus claiming that ”when remaining unfruitful long beyond its proper time, it gets discontented and angry, and wandering in every direction through the body causes all varieties of disease.” The fact that Christina wanders at night by rejecting her conjugal state and that of motherhood can be interpreted by Plato’s theory as a symptom of hysteria caused by her empty womb. A common belief in the Victorian culture as women not bearing children frequently were thought to suffer from anxiety, nerves and agitation.
Christina’s abhorence to motherhood and her domestic responsibilities incite her to not only beat her stepchildren but to eventually devour them alive. Hearing the howl one night, the oldest son, Ceasar, rushes outside. Later, his mutilated body is found. Christina comments that he must have been hunting the white she-wolf and couldn’t fight off the powerful beast. The male legacy is threatened as the family’s oldest heir lies dead.
It is only after the youngest child, Marcella, is killed that Christina’s bestial nature is disclosed. Seeing his stepmother abandon her bed, Hermann, the only surviving offspring, stalks after her only to see her devouring the remains of Marcella at the little girl’s grave. He dashes inside the house to call his father who, with horror, sees “his wife in her nightdress, on her hands and knees, crouched by the body of Marcella, tearing off large pieces of the flesh, and devouring them with all the avidity of a wolf.”
Struck by the dreadful scene of cannibalism, Krantz drops his gun, the phallic symbol of male dominance. Hermann, as the surviving male heir picks it up and gives it back to his father, forcing the patriarch to come to his senses and assert his authority over his wife, by shooting at the beast.
In the end, a surprising reversal of the werewolf trope takes place. Dead, instead of returning to her human form as it usually happens in the werewolf lore, Christina remains in the semblance of the white she-wolf. Perhaps a reminder that beneath the glossy camouflage of gentleness and sweet domestication that women present, the voracious beast is always ready to leap to the surface.
Having read this tale multiple times, I found myself conflicted because one could, also, interpret it as going to the entirely opposite direction. Instead of being a story of expression of male Victorian fear and obsession regarding the untamed nature of women and the need for their suppression, it could be viewed as a cautionary tale that warns readers about the dangers of such a catastrophic suppression.
Nothing is known about the first wife. Nor about the second. Their background and character history is a blank canvas. However, a few things are known about Krantz that don’t help the reader picture him in a particularly flattering light. We read that he’s moody, brusque in his manner and violent towards his youngest child. Nothing is mentioned openly, but there lurks throughout the tale an unspoken implication that perhaps it’s Krantz’s male dominance that caused both his wives to disregard their domestic duties and abandon their passive respectability in order to answer their undeniable call to freedom. A freedom gone awry after so much brutal suffocation.
The reader is left wondering: if Krantz didn’t act as a swinish symbol of male power and brutish control, would his first wife seek a liaison outside marriage and would Christina abandon her marital bed at night and sadistically murder his children? Marryat perhaps might be suggesting here that a system of female subjugation to male authority leads to monstrosities and deeply unnatural consequences that can only end in tragedy for everybody involved.
Last, I believe there’s room for a third interpretation (if not for many more). Leaving aside for a moment both patriarchal and feminist perspectives, the story can be read as a narrative of justice. A justice that hovers between the human and the divine laws. Krantz, having caught wind of his wife’s unfaithfulness, ”surprised her in the company of her seducer! Carried away by the impetuosity of his feelings, he watched the opportunity of a meeting taking place between them, and murdered both his wife and her seducer.
”Conscious that, as a serf, not even the provocation which he had received would be allowed as a justification of his conduct, he hastily collected together what money he
could lay his hands upon, and, as we were then in the depth of winter, he put his horses to the sleigh, and taking his children with him, he set off in the middle of the night, and was far away before the tragical circumstance had transpired. Aware that he would be pursued, and that he had no chance of escape if he remained in any portion of his native country (in which the authorities could lay hold of him), he continued his flight without intermission until he had buried himself in the intricacies and seclusion of the Hartz
Krantz flees the scene of the murder, dreading the consequences of his action. Secluded in the Hartz Mountains, he has escaped from the claws of the human law. However, punishment cannot be evaded, and Krantz has only managed to fool himself in thinking so. As it turns out, he cannot avoid the punishment meted out by some higher forces residing in this world.
After Krantz kills Christina in the semblance of a white she-wolf, the huntsman returns to the hut and demands to see his daughter. When Krantz lashes out and tells him all that has happened, the huntsman replies, ”Mortal! We have power over those only who have committed murder. You have been guilty of a double murder: you shall pay the penalty attached to your marriage vow. Two of your children are gone, the third is yet to follow and follow them he will, for your oath is registered. Go. It were kindness to kill thee. Your punishment is that you live!”
Here it is important to remember that as Hermann, an adult now, narrates this tale to his friend, Philip, the second makes some philosophical and ethical remarks. We read, ”The great principle of all evil fulfils his work of evil; why, then, not the other minor spirits of the same class? What matters it to us, whether we are tried by, and have to suffer from, the enmity of our fellow−mortals, or whether we are persecuted by beings more powerful and more malevolent than ourselves? We know that we have to work out our salvation, and that we shall be judged according to our strength; if then there be evil spirits who delight to oppress man, there surely must be, as Amine asserts, good
spirits, whose delight is to do him service. Whether, then, we have to struggle against our passions only, or whether we have to struggle not only against our passions, but also the dire influence of unseen enemies, we ever struggle with the same odds in our favour, as the good are stronger than the evil which we combat. In either case we are on the ‘vantage ground, whether, as in the first, we fight the good cause single−handed, or
as in the second, although opposed, we have the host of Heaven ranged on our side. Thus are the scales of Divine justice evenly balanced, and man is still a free agent, as his own virtuous or vicious propensities must ever decide whether he shall gain or lose the victory.”
Could the hunstman’s final confrontation with Kratz reveal to us the story’s deeper meaning? If the supernatural forces are in league to deliver justice upon the mortal world and leave the innocent untouched, then the roles are suddenly reversed. Krantz is the villain and the destruction Christina wreaks is merely in the service of just punishment. Where the human law has failed, the law of a superior force is ultimately enacted.
Philip comments about the existence of evil spirits that delight to oppress man and good spirits that work in his favour. Having read the tale on the Hartz Mountains, it becomes evident that what Philip expresses takes on another meaning in the end. Horrific as Christina’s actions might seem to the reader, Marryat might be implying that justice is poetic and the guilty only suffer according to the proportion of the offense they have committed.
A strong case of no rest for the wicked.