Wendy N. Wagner is one of those people who lights up a room when she walks in. Every time I’ve seen her, she’s been happy, outgoing, and welcoming. She is also an excellent storyteller and a fine editor. A pleasant triple threat in the publishing industry. I am always happy to see her.
I thought An Oath of Dogs was going to be a short story about wolves. You see, people have had a tremendously complicated and unpleasant relationship with wolves over the millennia. They’ve killed us; we’ve killed them. They’ve eaten our livestock; we’ve destroyed their habitat. And before we pushed them to the very edges of our landscapes, we found a way to drown out their uncanny voices in the night: We started telling stories about them. From Norse mythology to Baltic folk legends to Grimms’ fairy tales, wolves have played an outsized role as the villain in human culture.
When we started writing novels, we brought the wolf along to fill up pages. If you’ve read JRR Tolkien, then you know about wargs: bigger, scarier, more evil wolves that pal around with orcs and goblins to terrify elves and hobbits. What you might not know is that the word “warg” comes from Old English and simply means “wolf.” That’s right: a regular old wolf. For people living in the northern parts of Europe before guns and electricity, that was scary enough. Wolf attacks, although probably far more rare than European records suggest, were a legitimate danger. (For a very thorough examination of wolf attacks on the human population, I recommend this report from the Norwegian Institute for Nature Research: http://bit.ly/2uw5bjr. Editor’s note: clicking this link will download a PDF doc.) And a rabid wolf—rabies being one of the most common causes of a wolf attack—must have been far more terrifying and destructive than an ordinary wolf. Maddened with disease, frothing at the mouth, biting anything that stood in its path, a rabid wolf must have seemed much more like one of Tolkien’s wargs than the forerunner of man’s best friend.
But in Old Norwegian, “warg” doesn’t only mean “wolf.” It also means “outlaw” or “criminal,” and in some contexts even came to mean “evil.” Learning this little linguistic chestnut sparked a fire in my brain. I wanted to explore the connections between wolves and outlaws, between canids and evil, and between evil and humanity. The more I dug, the more I realized that if I wanted to talk about humanity, then I needed to write, not about wolves, but their domesticated brethren: dogs.
Dogs are not wolves, and people don’t treat the two species the same way. But dogs come from wolves, and like wolves, we’ve had a long, strange history with them. While today most dogs are beloved house pets, that wasn’t always the case. Feral dog packs have eaten humanity’s garbage for centuries, and even the Bible discusses the common occurrence of dogs disturbing dead bodies: “Him that dieth of Jeroboam in the city shall the dogs eat,” (1 Kings 14:11, King James version). In the United States alone, more than four million people are bitten by dogs every year, with nearly two dozen people dying from dog attacks. And roaming wild dogs are an even bigger threat in some places. For example, Australia has organized massive wild dog management programs to manage dog predation on livestock, going so far as to build the world’s largest fence to keep them out of Queensland’s sheep country. These dogs are not the furry little pals that ride around in our purses or pad alongside us while we’re out for a walk. These dogs are big trouble, and our relationship with them is toxic and complicated.
In fact, the more I thought about dogs and wolves and people, the more complicated my story became. My fantasy short story about wolves grew more characters, moved onto another planet, and acquired a cast of friendly tame dogs and vicious wild ones, as well as an entire community that had to deal with them. I drew on Norse mythology and philosophical discussions of evil to shape my story, and I wound up throwing my characters (dog and human) into some pretty terrifying situations.
I loved writing An Oath of Dogs. It was the most fun I’ve ever had writing anything, and I’m really happy I got to take that one odd bit of Old English and spin it into a web of mystery, science fiction, and the fantastic. It’s a book that’s not just for animals lovers, but word nerds, too.
Wendy N. Wagner is a full-time nerd. She is the managing/associate editor Lightspeed and Nightmare magazines, and has published more than forty short stories about heroes, monsters, and other wacky stuff. Her third novel, a sci-fi thriller called An Oath of Dogs, was recently released by Angry Robot Books. She lives with her very understanding family in Portland, Oregon, and you can keep up with her exploits at winniewoohoo.com.