WolfWalkers and Irish Mythology: The Lycanthropic Lore Behind the Oscar-Nominated Animated Feature

photo of howling wolf in the woods

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It was only a matter of time before I wrote a post about WolfWalkers, one of my favorite films (animated or otherwise) of the past year.

Then, a couple of days ago, I saw the news: Tomm Moore and the other creative geniuses at the Kilkenny, Ireland-based animation studio Cartoon Saloon had released a new book: The Art of WolfWalkers.

Written by Charles Solomon, the author of several other books that explore the origins of animated features (including The Art of Frozen, The Toy Story Films: An Animated Journey, and The Art and Making of Peanuts Animation), The Art of WolfWalkers offers a behind-the-scenes look at the research, sketches, script notes, and storyboards that went into the creation of this Academy Award-nominated, hand-drawn masterpiece.

For me, perhaps not surprisingly, I was most interested in the section on the Irish folktales the filmmakers turned to for inspiration, most notably of which was The Man-Wolves of Ossory.

But look at me, getting ahead of myself. Let’s turn tail and lope back a few steps.

What is WolfWalkers about? (And why is it so fur-raisingly awesome?)

poster showing two girls and a pack of wolves
U.S. theatrical release poster for WolfWalkers (source: impawards.com)

Directed by Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart, WolfWalkers (2020) is the final installment in Moore’s “Irish Folklore Trilogy,” following his previous Celtic fantasy adventure films Song of the Sea (2014) and The Secret of Kells (2009)—both of which (like WolfWalkers) earned Oscar noms for Best Animated Feature.

From the moment you start watching WolfWalkers, or any of Cartoon Saloon’s productions, for that matter, you’ll notice immediately that the animation style is nothing like the three-dimensional Disney/Pixar fare we’ve all grown accustomed to in recent decades. Moore’s dedication to the traditional craft of hand-drawn, 2-D animation, combined with the swirling, intricate patterns of ancient Irish art creates the illusion of an illuminated medieval manuscript brought to life.

intricate illustration of a 17th-century town in Ireland
An opening scene from WolfWalkers showing Kilkenny, Ireland (source: “Wolfwalkers: the Story behind Story” by Iker Maidagan)

Every shot of WolfWalkers is an illustration worthy of framing and hanging on a wall. But to be clear, the film is more than just a series of pretty pictures. The story, a work of historical fiction, takes place in the town of Kilkenny in 1650 during Oliver Cromwell’s invasion of Ireland. Cromwell (voiced by Simon McBurney) calls upon hunter Bill Goodfellowe (Sean Bean) to exterminate a wolf pack living in the nearby woods. But as Goodfellowe’s rebellious daughter Robyn (Honor Kneafsey) soon discovers, not all members of said pack are ordinary wolves.

Robyn, who is training to become a wolfhunter like her father, befriends the mysterious Mebh (Eva Whittaker), whose spirit takes the form of a wolf while her human body sleeps, roaming the woods in search of her missing mother. This unlikely friendship is soon put to the ultimate test as Robyn is torn between two worlds: the “civilized” Cromwellian Ireland championed by her father and the wild Ireland of Mebh and the wolfwalkers. To quote Moore:

“The main theme of the story is trying to find the balance that we need between nature and wildness, order and stability, rules and structure.”

(source: The Hollywood Reporter)

Lupine Lore: Where did the inspiration for WolfWalkers come from?

medieval illustration of werewolves receiving the sacrament from a priest
Depiction of the werewolves of Ossory, from Topographia Hibernica by Gerald of Wales, c. 1200 (source: Wikimedia Commons)

Celtic mythology and its most well-preserved incarnation, Irish mythology, are filled with tales of therianthropy, i.e. the ability of humans (or human-like gods) to shapeshift or shape-change into animals. From Étaín metamorphosizing into a bejeweled, music-making fly to Tuan Mac Cairell metamorphosizing into a salmon to St. Patrick metamorphosizing into a deer, there are many examples—and animals—to choose from. And wolves are no exception.

The daughters of Airitech are perhaps the earliest example of werewolves (a.k.a. wolfwalkers a.k.a lycanthropes a.k.a. faoladh) in Irish mythology. Every Samhain, at the behest of their father, the trio of sisters would leave their home (the Cave of Cruachan, an entrance to the Otherworld), transform into wolves, and raid the Irish countryside for sustenance. Music—not silver—proved to be their weakness, for one Samhain a warrior of the Fianna, Cas Corach, was able to convince the sisters to change back into their human forms so they might better appreciate his enchanting tunes. The ruse worked, and the sisters were promptly dispatched with a spear, courtesy of Caílte mac Rónáin, cousin (and/or nephew) of Fionn mac Cumhail and, famously, the slayer of the ocean-god Lir.

(FYI: I wrote a retelling of the above story, “Daughters of Airitech,” for Enchanted Conversations Magazine a couple of years back if you want the more in-depth version.)

As noted in The Art of WolfWalkers, the most famous werewolves from Irish mythology are the man-wolves of Ossory, who were featured in the twelfth-century work Topographia Hibernica (Topography of Ireland). In it, Gerald of Wales tells of a wandering priest who gives the last rites to a dying wolf, who is actually an old woman. She and her husband (also a wolf) claim to be natives of Ossory, a medieval Irish kingdom that comprised what is now County Kilkenny and western County Laois. The pair are cursed to live as animals every seven years. Although in other versions, residents of Ossory are able to leave their bodies in a lifeless state while traveling as wolves, which more closely resembles what we see in WolfWalkers.

The man-wolves of Ossory are sometimes said to be the descendants of the old gods of Ireland, the Tuath Dé Danann, while other origin stories peg them as the descendants of Laighnech Fáelad, ancestor of the original kings of Ossory. And this makes me wonder: Is the Irish werewolf synonym “faoladh” derived from the name Fáelad? (I couldn’t find anything on this, so if you have information, please share it in the comments!) I’m also definitely reaching here, but it’s interesting that the name Ossory is similar to Ossar: a hound from Irish mythology, belonging to the Leinster king Mesorda Mac Da Thó, which could outrun all other hounds.

Of course, there is a more grounded explanation for the appearance of wolfmen (and wolfwomen) in Irish myths, legends, and folktales. As mentioned in The Art of WolfWalkers, Irish warriors often dressed in wolfskins when they “went wolfing,” i.e. went on raiding expeditions.

Whatever their origin, the man-wolves of Ossory clearly made an impression on a young Tomm Moore, who first heard of them while attending a Young Irish Film Makers program. To quote Tomm:

“I remember a lady named Angela Walsh talking about [the Wolves of Ossory] and thinking even then it could be a good idea for a film or comic book.”

source: The Art of WolfWalkers

Turns out, it was a great idea.

WolfWalkers is currently streaming on Apple TV+.

Grab yourself a copy of The Art of WolfWalkers.*

*It’s a limited edition, so act fast!

Per the publisher: “Through exclusive commentary and interviews with cast and crew, renowned animation critic and historian Charles Solomon showcases the craft and skill behind some of the most lovingly detailed and imaginative 2-D animation currently being produced. Featuring a foreword by award-winning animator James Baxter and an afterword by Cartoon Saloon cofounder and codirector of WolfWalkers Tomm Moore and codirector Ross Stewart, The Art of WolfWalkers is a must-have for animation fans everywhere.” Learn more…

You might also be interested in WolfWalkers: The Graphic Novel.

Per the publisher: “An enchanting graphic novel about a feud, a friendship, and two girls forever changed. Based on the beautifully hand-crafted animated adventure, WolfWalkers, this graphic novel features an introduction and exclusive original art from film co-creator Tomm Moore and co-Art Director Maria Pareja. Watch the stunning, Golden Globe-nominated film available on Apple TV+ now.” Learn more…

In the mood for more Irish werewolf lore?

Check out the short story “The Faoladh” by Patrick Winters, which is part of the Neon Druid anthology. In his story, Patrick explores the concept of Irish werewolves acting as heroic guardian figures (as opposed to the mindless monsters we often see in modern werewolf interpretations).

Neon Druid: An Anthology of Urban Celtic Fantasy

The hardcover Collector’s Edition of the short story collection Pyles of Books called “a thrilling romp through pubs, mythology, and alleyways. NEON DRUID is such a fun, pulpy anthology of stories that embody Celtic fantasy and myth.” Cross over into a world where the mischievous gods, goddesses, monsters, and heroes of Celtic mythology live among us, intermingling with unsuspecting mortals and stirring up mayhem in cities and towns on both sides of the Atlantic, from Limerick and Edinburgh to Montreal and Boston. Learn more…

Want to meet more monsters from Irish mythology? Check out…

Irish Monsters in Your Pocket (Celtic Pocket Guides 3)

In the Ireland of myth and legend, “spooky season” is every season. Spirits roam the countryside, hovering above the bogs. Werewolves lope through forests under full moons. Dragons lurk beneath the waves. Granted, there’s no denying that Samhain (Halloween’s Celtic predecessor) tends to bring out some of the island’s biggest, baddest monsters. Prepare yourself for (educational) encounters with Irish cryptids, demons, ghouls, goblins, and other supernatural beings. Learn more…

Looking for a comprehensive history of werewolves?

Retired Ulster University lecturer Bob Curran — author of The Werewolf Handbook — has got you covered.

The Werewolf Handbook: An Essential Guide to Werewolves and, More Importantly, How to Avoid Them

Per the publisher: “Werewolves are more popular than ever–thanks largely to recent film hits–and this highly entertaining new title tells readers everything they’ve ever wanted to know about those terrifying preternatural members of the canis lupus family. Newcomers to werewolf lore will be surprised to learn that there are many different werewolf varieties. Alphas are the leaders, and Betas are unwilling but deadly members of a werewolf pack. But there are also Benandanti, holy men who change into wolves in order to do battle with witches, and Loup-garoux, werewolves who can change from man to wolf even during daylight hours.” Learn more…

Interested in the darker side of Irish mythology? Check out…

Samhain in Your Pocket (Celtic Pocket Guides 2)

You’ve heard of it. Indirectly, you’ve probably already celebrated it. And if you’re not from Ireland or Scotland, you’ve definitely mispronounced it: Samhain. Perhaps the most important holiday on the ancient Celtic calendar, Samhain marks the end of summer and the beginning of a new pastoral year. It is a liminal time—a time when the forces of light and darkness, warmth and cold, growth and blight, are in conflict. A time when the barrier between the land of the living and the land of the dead is at its thinnest. A time when all manner of spirits and demons are wont to cross over from the Celtic Otherworld. Learn more…

More the listenin’ type?

I recommend the audiobook No Such Thing As Werewolves by Chris Fox (narrated by Ryan Kennard Burke). Use my link to get 3 free months of Audible Premium Plus and you can listen to the full 14-hour audiobook for free.

Last thing, I promise:

Introducing the official Irish Myths YouTube channel. Same Celtic flavor, new bold format.

3 thoughts on “WolfWalkers and Irish Mythology: The Lycanthropic Lore Behind the Oscar-Nominated Animated Feature

  1. I am a fantasy author and in my latest novel, The Prometheus Engine, one of the characters is a Fadolah, or Irish Werewolf, the protectors of travellers and children. Is that an accurate representation of the mythology?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes that definitely sounds right to me. In Irish mythology, werewolves (a.k.a wolfwalkers, faoladh) are much more intelligent and good-natured than what we see in popular/Hollywood depictions

      Liked by 1 person

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