Why wolves? The wolf in my story and finding a PhD topic that you love

I said in a previous post that I would talk about why I study wolves – so today I thought I’d fulfil that promise!

It’s been a bit of a winding journey to this point. When I started thinking about doing a PhD, I didn’t have wolves in mind at all. Truthfully, I hadn’t thought much about them in general – in fact, I don’t really remember considering them at all prior to my PhD.

All I knew at the time was that I wanted to do my own in-depth research on Anglo-Saxon literature, and probably that I wanted to study something to do with monsters. Anglo-Saxon lit is blessed (in my eyes anyway) with a cornucopia of monsters available for study, so my MLitt mentor at the time, now my supervisor, told me I would have to narrow my field to something far more specific. It was also going to be difficult to find something that hadn’t been done before – with monsters I had chosen an already saturated topic. He sent me away with some book recommendations, and for the next few weeks I read about various ancient creatures – dragons, elves, trolls, you name it.

Tucked away in the corner of a book, which sadly I don’t even remember the name of anymore, was a very short reference to wolves. I noted it down, adding it to my list of possible monstrous topics. When I brought that list of ideas to my mentor, he paused when I hit ‘wolves’, and excitedly told me that no one had yet conducted a full-length study of wolves in Anglo-Saxon literature. This was what I wanted: I now had an original idea against the odds, and just had to flesh it out.

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So, I went away again and started reading some more, and with a little more direction. This time, I stumbled across a really interesting titbit – that Isidore of Seville, the famous 6th-7th-century encyclopaedist, whose Etymologies were extremely popular in Anglo-Saxon England, wrote of a superstition where ‘country-folk’ believed that if a wolf saw you first, he would steal your speech. This superstition was accompanied by a saying that is similar to the modern ‘speak of the devil’, whereby the person you are talking about appears, putting an abrupt end to your discussion (stealing your speech), and who was, instead of the devil, ‘the wolf in the story’.

I’m still not quite sure why, but I found this really exciting. The Anglo-Saxons believed some crazy things about animals, but this really struck a chord with me, and I wanted to find out if it was something that I could find in the literature. It turns out that it was, and I’m now writing my third and final section of a chapter reading three Anglo-Saxon texts in light of the ‘wolf in the story’.

While of course I enjoy thinking of new ways to read a text through this superstition and proverb, my motivation for doing so has changed from a hunger for knowledge to a desire to make impact. As I’ve spoken about previously, I find motivation in the toughest moments of my PhD from my passion for saving wolves today. After working with them extensively during my SGSAH internship, I learnt that all of the fearsome things I had learned about wolves during my PhD, and had subconsciously carried with me since reading fairy tales as a child, were simply not true. Wolves are an absolute joy to be around. They also make you question yourself – I would often find myself staring into the eyes of RJ, Luna, or Baxter, feeling like they were looking into my soul – that’s what a wolf’s gaze does. It does take your breath away, but not your speech. If anything, it stirred up a new voice inside me, one that cares deeply about speaking up for the wolves who can’t do so themselves.

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While I stumbled across wolves in my search for a PhD topic, I now can’t imagine a life, or a me, without wolves. The look of those wolves utterly changed me and my life, and I’ve ended up on a path that is drastically different from that which I expected. I firmly believe in the mantra ‘everything happens for a reason’ – I’m not sure whether I believe in the power of fate, destiny, God, or the universe itself – but I’m sure that my decision to work with real wolves, to lift them off the pages that I studied, was meant to happen. Maybe it’s nature itself that holds the power, and the intense, questioning stare of the eyes of those wolves was nature itself directing me to the path that I was supposed to take.

We are always seeking new guest bloggers! If you have an idea for a blog post or would like to informally discuss writing for the SGSAH blog please get in touch with Lizzie via email at egm9@st-andrews.ac.uk or connect with the blog on Twitter

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