The Forgotten Wilderness: Naming, Heritage, and ‘Wolfwalkers’

“I’m not a girl! I’m a Wolfwalker!”

When I was young, I used to think I was a Changeling. For anyone unfamiliar, Changelings are an old Irish folktale, referencing infants stolen by faeries and replaced with one of their own. Often, the infant imposter is discovered and the baby is returned, and historically has been a horrific excuse for ableism. History isn’t perfect. Still, I was convinced I had to be something other than I was. The parts of my body didn’t fit together right, and I thought, maybe that’s just how faeries work. 

Irish folklore has always been something that I have had a deep connection to, and recently that connection has spun into an obsession. In trying to sort out the reasoning for this obsession, the clearest point always came back to my identity. As a non-binary trans person, and much like my conviction that I had been stolen by fairies in my youth, I’ve always found myself looking for roots. Without much of a real community of trans people around me due to quarantine, my experience with coming out and learning about my identity has been an isolating one at best. As a result, I’ve found myself diving into my history, my folklore, and most of all, my language. I’m Irish by blood, and my coming out has been inseparable from learning about my history. I often look to my past, especially my folklore, hoping to find someone or something that feels like myself.  I named myself Meabh to further this connection, using a traditional spelling to emphasize my cultural roots. Despite this, when it comes to Irish folklore in general, I’m often disappointed. Something always feels like it’s missing. Then came Wolfwalkers.

The third feature of Irish animation studio Cartoon Saloon, Wolfwalkers centers on the stories of Robyn (Honor Kneafsey) and Mebh (Eva Whittaker). Mebh is a Wolfwalker, a mythical being capable of transforming into a wolf when she sleeps and healing the wounds of others. Robyn is the daughter of one of the English settlers (Sean Bean) who live in the walled colony constructed by the English in Kilkenny, and her father has been commissioned by Lord Protector Cromwell (Simon McBurney) to kill all of the wolves in the local forest so it can be chopped down and the colony can expand. While the transformation metaphor might already seem too obvious, it is the way the film represents both Mebh and Robyn that strikes a chord with me in the halls of my lost history. While the metaphor may be simple, it is the way in which the metaphor of transformation interacts with the historical and cultural context of the film that elevates reading and analyzing it from a trans/non-binary perspective.

At the film’s outset, Robyn and Mebh are both adrift, looking for a sense of belonging. Robyn seeks to find a home that suits her wild spirit and her love for hunting amongst the strict confines of the walled English colony. In fact, it’s worth mentioning that the oppressive force Robyn is in conflict with is the gendered roles of the colony, where she is forced to serve in the colony’s scullery cooking, cleaning, and doing laundry. These tasks are traditionally assigned to femininity in an extremely rigid sense, something further highlighted by the film’s art. The scullery, and the women inside it, are all illustrated with rigid lines and square forms; drawing obvious comparison to Robyn’s experience in the Wilderness, where smooth, circular forms and graceful movement are emphasized. Even the quadriptych that is used to illustrate her tiring work uses chains to separate each panel, highlighting the restraining nature of conformity. It is also worth noting that Robyn’s father is the one who takes her to the scullery out of concern for her safety in the forest. His intentions are good, his actions performed out of concern for his child, and yet they do nothing but restrict Robyn and distance her from the freedom of being a Wolfwalker. Of course, this doesn’t make Robyn’s father an antagonist but instead highlights the often complicated issue of self-determination and safety. Ultimately, Robyn’s misery in the scullery isn’t worth the “safety” that gender conformity seemingly provides. Her safety comes at the cost of her autonomy and freedom, undermining the very concept of what that safety should provide. Fulfillment of her assigned gender is unsatisfactory to Robyn, whereas being a Wolfwalker allows her to live as she’s always wanted to. However, Robyn can’t be a Wolfwalker without fear of her father not understanding her. As a result, she is stuck halfway, not belonging in either place.

Mebh’s core conflict is slightly different, reflecting another facet of my own experience, one closer to the cultural connection I have with the film. Mebh’s mother is alive, but missing in her wolf form, leaving her human body dormant. Mebh’s connection to her family and her history is severed, her mother’s human form a representation of the existence of her history, but lacking the life to revive, experience, and truly know that history. I find myself feeling the same way about my Irish heritage. Our folklore, our traditions, our histories have been either lost to time, converted, or altogether destroyed through the historical English conquest of the Emerald Isle, leaving myself and many others grasping at straws. Our language, one that Mebh herself occasionally speaks in, is dying. I cannot speak Gaelige, but I am trying. Without her mother, her history slowly fades, the grottos they inhabit are threatened more and more by the presence of English colonial expansion. Even as Robyn becomes a Wolfwalker like her, Robyn is English, lacking the same cultural roots that Mebh holds so tightly too. Even with her closest friend, the motherless Mebh is out of her depth, holding tightly to a natural Wilderness that becomes less and less recognizable.

This sense of “not belonging,” in my own experience, extends beyond the simplest definition as well. I didn’t lack exposure to communities or people like me, nor did I lack the support of close friends. However, these two things did not intersect. Thanks to spending the last year in quarantine, I lacked the essential connections to a community of trans people that could’ve helped me to feel less alone, less isolated, and more comfortable with being who I was at that point. I’m lucky to have queer friends, but lacking others who shared my experience as a non-binary person, it always felt like self-understanding was at a constant, haunting arm’s length. If I wanted to relate this to the popular and the often-misquoted theology by author Julian K. Jarboe about trans existence and grapes, I could call myself the Greek Tantalus, the grapes with which to make myself wine just barely out of my reach.

Mebh and Robyn’s lacking connection, their distance from the Wilderness they hold in common, is part of their united journey. Robyn must learn to be a Wolfwalker, while Mebh is overjoyed to have someone else like her around. They find a renewed connection in the Wilderness through their bond. In the same way, queerness cannot exist in a vacuum. We thrive when we are able to form community, relate to one another, and redefine the spaces we belong to.  However, when community becomes a suspended impossibility due to a global pandemic, community is forced to take on new meanings; for me, I found community in the media I consumed, those whose struggles and joys I could see myself in. I tried my best to simulate community in art, and hope for a future where one is not a substitution of the other, but where the two can be fused together into something stronger than its parts. 

Another important representation of these ideas of community and belonging manifests in Mebh and Robyn’s complex relationships with their family. Mebh’s mother is missing, Robyn’s father is unwilling to believe his daughter’s tales of shapeshifting wolves and healing magic. The bond between parent and child is just as close to the heart of Wolfwalkers as its core female friendship, and the idea of family is an ever-present one for many queer people, especially myself. The confines of a society in which cisgender and heterosexual identities are the expected norm, the onus of “coming out” and preserving the family bond is placed onto queer people, forcing them into moments of extreme vulnerability. When Robyn first tries to tell her dad of the Wolfwalker’s existence, she practices a script, cleans the house, she even dresses in the “proper” attire of one of the settler women. She tries to create the perfect scenario for her father so that she can break the news without provoking a strong reaction. Of course, it doesn’t work. Attempting to create the perfect space for one’s coming out doesn’t always work, proof of the complexities of family ties to queer existence. 

While her perfect, rehearsed process doesn’t succeed, what eventually does is the admission of mutual trust between the two, following the escape of Mebh’s mother and Robyn’s father having to face the fact that he is driven by fear. He worries for their safety, and moreover, worries that the process of becoming a Wolfwalker will mean he loses his daughter. She reassures him that this is not the case, to trust that no shift in identity would ever cause such an irrevocable, unannounced severance of such a close bond. What does accompany the culmination of their journey together is Robyn’s father’s acknowledgment of the harm he has caused, even unintentionally. His acknowledgment of the way that fear has restrained him, and by extension, Robyn, opens the door for their reconciliation. My own coming out has been difficult. I was afraid of being vulnerable, and afraid of the possibility of the worst-case scenario. Much like Robyn, panicking after her father’s discovery of her wolf form in their shared home, certain moments that may seem like fleeting conversations to others left me reading between every line. I’m glad I came out, but I was never going to create the perfect scenario in which to do so. Wolfwalkers, among many other things, reassured me that I didn’t have to. I need to be met on my own terms, as the person I am. 

The common thread of resolution in Wolfwalkers is the idea of liberation: Robyn’s father escapes the fear of living under the Lord Protector in order to accept his daughter, and Mebh is able to save her mother from the Lord Protector’s clutches, allowing the four to form a new family and find a new home, a Wilderness all their own. 

The film’s conclusion is more than reconciling family drama before setting off into the sunset, however. It is about ousting the oppressors, in the shape of the Lord Protector and his soldiers, and reclaiming the home in which you belong. I have used my name to do the same, to cross the boundary and reconnect and reclaim a forgotten past. Mebh’s mother tells them to run. The world they once inhabited, once lived freely in, has become unsafe and now they have to flee. Among the wave of current anti-trans legislation in the US, the renewed prominence of hateful TERF rhetoric, to flee can seem appealing. To cut the ties that bind and only celebrate ourselves in secret, rather than demand the love and safety we deserve as people, is often the safest option many of us have. 

We were not meant to live like this. We have just as much a right to the world as any other. We have a right to our homes and our histories. We deserve to be loved as people, not turned into spectacle or loathsome criminals. Their logic founds itself on decades of hateful anti-trans rhetoric, lies, and misinformation. To them, we are monsters. Monsters so horrible that carrying out an inspection of a child’s genitals based solely on their appearance seems a legitimate response. It’s not far off from the Lord Protector’s response to the Wolfwalkers: to burn the forest, kill the Wilderness and, symbolically, Ireland itself. All to stop the wolves and continue their imperialist conquest. 

We are not monsters. Nor are the Wolfwalkers. We belong where we are, as we are. The only monster is those who seek to dehumanize us, debase us, to burn us to the ground for the sake of an imperialistic, theocratic crusade. It’s not accidental that the film’s antagonist, the Lord Protector, is not just an English colonizer, but a puriticanical Christian as well. I have mentioned community countless times in this piece, and I want to emphasize it again. Community is essential to our livelihood. We do not deserve our homes burned, or to be hunted like wolves for our resistance to societal moulds. We deserve to live in the fullness of our identities, to be met on our terms rather than through the lens of a cis-gendered, heteronormative society. Without that understanding, our history risks further destruction, much like the destruction of my own Irish history for simply not melding with the beliefs of those who sought to conquer and exploit my ancestral home.

What first drew me to writing about my cultural ties to Wolfwalkers was as simple as a name. Mebh Óg McTíre, the wild child, had the same name as myself, Meabh Cadigan.  What I went on to find, though, was that Wolfwalkers not only fueled a connection to my history that I had been desperately searching for but proved to me that the community and belonging I sought were possible. I may not be a Wolfwalker, but I am Irish, and I am non-binary. I long for a world in which I am not afraid to exist as I am, and Wolfwalkers gave me hope that that world is possible.