Saturday, October 26, 2013

3. The Wolf as Juvenile Delinquent

There are many stories, from all over the world, of children being raised by animals in the wild or in conditions of terrible confinement.  The ‘parents’ in these cases have been sheep, cattle, bears, ostriches, gazelles, pumas, apes, monkeys, amphibians, dogs, goats, birds, and wolves.  Most of these stories have been determined to be hoaxes, but their worldwide, universal character suggests connections with an underlying archetype or some vague mythology.

The stories of feral children also tend to be sad ones, for the children involved have often been abandoned, suffer mental or physical handicaps, and are rarely able to adapt to a normal life once returned to human society.  Victor of Aveyron is a typical example.  Discovered living in the forest in 1800, he was estimated to be around 12 years of age.  He was unable to speak, had unusual food preferences, and bore numerous scars on his body.  For these reasons it was assumed that he had lived most of his life in the woods. (It was later estimated that he had survived there for about 7 years.)

Victor was studied by the medical and scientific professions of the time, and an attempt was made to educate and rehabilitate him.  His life and experiences in human society circa the early 19th century dove-tailed with Enlightenment notions about humans and society, and what distinguished mankind from other animal life. 

Ultimately, Victor was unable to learn much language, though his behavior towards fellow humans improved somewhat.  Later researchers have speculated that Victor suffered from some kind of developmental delay, perhaps involving autism.  As with the other stories of feral children, Victor was not so much raised by an animal in the wild as he was treated as if he were one by cruel and ignorant parents.  

A completely different kind of feral child is the subject of Saki’s 1909 story Gabriel-Earnest.  It seems likely, though not certain, that Saki may have taken some inspiration from stories like that of Victor of Aveyrone.  It being a Saki story, the theme is not so much about compassionate idealism as about the ironic consequences of good intentions. 

Van Cheele, a wealthy landowner, parish councilor and justice of the peace discovers a naked juvenile in a wooded section of his property.  He is reluctant to go public with this information, because he is afraid that he will be billed for a local spate of missing lambs and poultry, having sheltered a rapacious creature like Gabriel-Earnest in his woods. 

A number of facts and observations seem to indicate that the foundling is the culprit, not the least of which is the child’s list of favorite foods:  “rabbits, wild-fowl, hares, poultry, lambs in their season, children when I can get any…”  Even more disturbing, an artist friend of Van Cheele’s has observed at sunset what he took to be a similar boy changing into a wolf just as the sun sank below the horizon.

Gabriel-Earnest joins the household and soon ingratiates himself with Van Cheele’s aunt, though not with the family’s elderly spaniel.  The aunt makes arrangements for Gabriel-Earnest to help entertain the children in her Sunday-school class during tea time.  Her plan is thoughtful and generous, but dangerously uninformed.  It is enough to say that Saki’s stories do not contain a great deal of sentimentality or reverence.

There are several stories by Saki that contain wolves, as well as his fondness for irony.  Though it does not contain a werewolf, a wolf is an important agent of fate in The Story-Teller.  This poisonous little tart is essentially a fable told to some restless children on a long train ride, filled with Saki’s characteristic wit and cynicism.  The Story-Teller is in a collection of Saki’s stories of the same name, originally published in 1982.  He is a master of short, satirical fiction, some of it containing elements of horror and suspense.  Saki is well worth reading just to see what can be done in the space of a relatively few pages.

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