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le meneur de loups

2 april 2023

Le meneur de loups in idiomatic English should be "The Wolfherd," but that word does not exist because one cannot herd wolves. Which is sort of the point of the story. Our hero Thibault becomes "the wolf leader" as the result of a pact with the devil. He acquires his unholy army of the night and wreaks vengeance on the local French nobility, in a bygone era when such things could come to pass.

Alexandre Dumas tells Le meneur de loups by means of a frame tale, or rather a prefatory tale (we don't return to the frame at the end). When he was young, Dumas explains, he greatly admired a gamekeeper named Mocquet, who would take him hunting. Mocquet was full of stories, and one of his best was that of Thibault and the wolf. The novel proper is that story, told to the narrator by the internal narrator, Mocquet.

Mocquet, or rather of course Dumas, gives Thibault an overriding character note. Thibault has been educated above his station, and envies those who enjoy greater resources. Thibault's envy is presented as a fault, but it boils down to a question of equity that continues to plague society:

Qu'avaient donc fait de bien ceux qui jouissaient d'une pareille faveur? Qu'avaient donc fait de mal ceux qui en étaient privés?

[What had those who luxuriated in such privileges done right? What had those deprived of them done wrong?] (188)
Thibault, at several junctures in the novel, does very nasty things. But we never completely lose sympathy with him, because he's been very hard done by, himself.

Thibault is a poor sabotier, a cobbler of wooden shoes, despised and literally beaten down by the local seigneur, the baron de Vez. One day, a chance visitor gives Thibault the opportunity to turn the tables on the baron. This visitor is an enchanted wolf, and the deal is that Thibault, for the usual Faustian terms, can ask for anything he wants: provided that his wish takes the form of harm to someone else.

Well, I said there were ambivalent aspects to Thibault. At first, he simply turns the tables on his persecutors. But more and more, as he starts feeling the power of his peculiar gift, Thibault comes to wish harm on the innocent and the good: for instance, his ex-girlfriend's husband, a blameless guy who has taken on the charge of his wife's blind grandmother, one that Thibault wasn't eager to assumes.

But the moral aspects of Thibault's descent into Hell are less salient in Le meneur de loups than the ironic comeuppances he always suffers when making an evil wish – and the wolves, who are the real stars of the story. The original wolf didn't mention it, but Thibault's benefits package includes the allegiance of a pack of super-wolves, who behave like puppies around the cobbler but like ravening predators to everyone else. At first Thibault just uses the wolves to enrich himself by poaching on de Vez' land, but later he declares open season on all the humans around, whom he's increasingly come to see as his inveterate enemies. With some reason, because they are a torch-and-pitchforky crowd. Seeing Thibault as the quasi-werewolf he's become, they burn his cottage to the ground and such. Again, it becomes hard to read Thibault as all bad, because so many folks in his vicinity are worse than he is.

Wikipedia cites a 1950 review of The Wolf Leader that calls it "Dumas's drabbest hack-work." C'mon. What do you want out of a werewolf novel.

Dumas, Alexandre. Le meneur de loups. 1857. Kindle Edition.