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Who the Wild Things Are: The Feral Child in Fiction

by Mordicai Gerstein

Stories about feral children have always fascinated me. As a child, I read what I could find, and as an adult I found myself writing them. For me, part of the purpose of writing is to find out why a subject intrigues me. Why the feral child?

jungle-book-movie-posterI first encountered him when I was seven or eight in the dust-and-popcorn-scented darkness of a neighborhood movie palace. The enormous deep red velvet curtains lifted in curved folds — and there was a tangled jungle of intensely green leaves and vines where deer huddled and tigers and panthers stalked. Leaves rattled in close-up and then parted-and there was a boy, brown-skinned, bare-chested, black hair flowing to his shoulders, quick black eyes flicking back and forth, nostrils dilated and twitching: Sabu as Mowgli.

For the next couple of years, that’s who I wanted to be: a self-sufficient prince of the jungle who came and went by swinging through the trees, and who spoke the languages of all the animals; who had wolves for brothers, a black panther for a best friend — and a life infinitely more wonderful than the one I lived in our San Fernando Valley ranch house. A bit later, when I read The Jungle Book, on which the film was based, I was equally captivated. Walt Disney’s later cartoon version, full of songs and one liners, missed, for me, the beauty and magic; so did Tarzan, a grown-up feral child I knew from the Sunday comics and black-and-white B movies.

The heart of my fantasy was leaving the human world for a kind of jungle Eden where all one needed was readily found and that had, in Kipling’s version, less hypocrisy, more nobility. I liked best the idea of being protected from potential enemies by powerful animal friends. Mowgli knew the animal dialects, the proverbs of the wolves, the polite way to address a snake. In the realm of fairy tale, conversations between people and animals, like Little Red Riding Hood’s chat with the Wolf, are everyday events. I suspect this springs from an underlying human belief that we actually do communicate with animals, verbally and nonverbally. Making eye contact with an owl or fox in the woods feels to me like a substantial exchange of greetings and questions.

Where the Wild Things AreThere is also a genre in children’s literature of the wild rather than feral child. The wild child, rather than being lost in the wild, chooses and embraces it, along with wildness. The Gingerbread Boy may be its archetype. Off he goes into the world, absolutely independent, caring not a whit for anyone and afraid of nothing. (Of course, he doesn’t do too well.) Sendak’s Max is a gingerbread boy, plunging into the jungle of his own inherent wildness and celebrating it; the prince of his own jungle, he thrives in it. Huck Finn is another. But these are not feral children.

Historically, only a handful of cases of children found living in the wild, alone or with animals, have been more or less convincingly documented. In the typical account, the feral child always resists capture and, once captured, is found to be mute, though some have been reported to have later learned to make some type of utterance. There is then always the hope of bringing the child into society, teaching it to speak, and learning something of its wild life. At the same time, though, and almost paradoxically, we study the child, trying to find answers to the question of what kind of creatures we are at our essence — who we would be without the guidance and education provided by family and society.

There have also been cases-like that of Kaspar Hauser in the nineteenth century and “Genie” in the latter part of the twentieth century — of children who were imprisoned, isolated, and kept from all outside stimulus; children who have been forced, essentially, to play the subject in what Roger Shattuck calls the “forbidden experiment,” by which he means depriving a child of society and human context to create a pure example of humanity. These cases only give us painful evidence of the effects of such abusive treatment. Herodotus tells of a king who performed this experiment to determine the original language of mankind. He caused a mute shepherd to raise a child away from all society. At the age of five, the child was brought before the king, who addressed him. The boy responded by baaing like a sheep. It was the only language he had heard.

yolen_children-of-the-wolfEdgar Rice Burroughs’s Tarzan became king of the apes, and Kipling made Mowgli a kind of jungle prince, superior in both the animal and human realms because of his human intelligence and dexterity combined with his jungle knowledge. But the antelope boy who was reported to have been seen in the Sahara in the 1960s was not dominant or superior in his herd, and the wolf girls found in India early in this century were neither leaders of the pack nor successful humans. Jane Yolen depicts them very realistically in her novel Children of the Wolf, and they are not very appealing except to the adolescent boy who is the novel’s hero, and for whose emerging self-awareness they are a foil. While Julie in Jean Craighead George’s Julie of the Wolves is not a feral child, she brings us close to a community of wolves in a very convincing, more realistic way than either Mowgli or Tarzan. Karen Hesse’s The Music of Dolphins is remarkable in that it tries to give us first-hand the experience of a feral child by having the protagonist tell us in her own words, as she acquires them, about her life among the dolphins.

The great opportunity in these stories is to escape the vantage of an anthropocentricity to experience an alternative way of living on this earth; of seeing human society from a completely alien point of view, as Hesse’s dolphin girl does, and so provide a critical vision of that society. One of the greatest gifts of fiction is allowing us to see through the eyes of others.

Another vast topic involved in stories of feral children is education: how we learn to be what we are, and how much of what we are is learned.

wild-child-posterIf Sabu’s Mowgli fired my seven-year-old imagination with ideas of joining the wilder world, François Truffaut’s film The Wild Child introduced the more mature me to Victor of Aveyron and a new, completely convincing vision of a child, seemingly unmarked by the human world, surviving successfully alone. The boy who played Victor was as beautiful in his own way as Sabu’s Mowgli. There is an uncanny unhuman quality in everything he does. Victor’s real-life teacher, twenty-six-year-old Jean-Marc-Gaspard-ltard, wrote two reports of his six years of work with the pre-adolescent boy found naked and mute in the rugged mountains of south central France at the start of the nineteenth century. Unlike the accounts of the Indian wolf girls, Itard’s descriptions of Victor evoke a sprite of some kind; there is a magic about him. The story of Victor has all the potential elements of the wild child scenario. I used it as inspiration for my first picture book, Arnold of the Ducks, and then later for The Wild Boy, and  eventually my novelized account of the story, Victor. Itard’s reports provide not only the best documentation we have of a feral child but also one of the most thoughtful, beautifully written, and moving accounts of a teacher-pupil relationship, which has as its object nothing less than learning to be a human being (or at least what Itard, as a man of his time, thought a human being to be). Thinkers of the enlightenment felt it particularly urgent to define the differences between humankind and other animals (among which some wanted to include people they called “savages”) in order to draw clear borders separating us from them. In 1735, the scientist Linneaus named homo Ferus a distinct species. Itard’s ambition to have Victor speak ultimately failed, but even if he had succeeded, he could never know Victor better or be more truly, deeply engaged with him than during those evenings, early on, when they sat together as Victor loved to, with the boy’s face buried in the man’s hands. But the more Itard taught Victor, and the more civilized Victor became, the more the distance between them grew.

gerstein_victorFor me, another major fascination with the feral child is the thought of experiencing the world without language, directly, as pure sensation. Language is not only a medium of interpersonal communication, but also the means we use to speak to ourselves, and in so doing, objectify ourselves. I am a voice, and I am a listener. What was I before language? I see language as a kind of clothing or armor. I look up and see the moon; I have a name for it. The name is between myself and it. The word is a kind of shield or filter. But what would it be to face the moon — that big, blind, glowing eye — without a word to protect me from it? What is it like to experience the world as an infant does?

Are ideas possible without language? What is the nature of thought without words? Would there be some other language, a grammar of the senses, some medium to order and deal with our experience? What is it? One of the most moving and remarkable chapters of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is the one in which the monster describes his first days of life, his first vivid, incoherent, innocent impressions of the world:

It is with considerable difficulty that I remember the original era of my being; all the events of that period seem confused and indistinct. A strange multiplicity of sensations seized me, and I saw, felt, heard, and smelt at the same time; and it was, indeed, a long time before I learned to distinguish between the operations of my various senses.

Helen Keller, deprived of sight, hearing, and language, lived this; it was her childhood. As she describes it with the words she learned later, it was a wild and rather formless world of sensations. Her acquisition of language was for her a joyful revelation that gave form to her world and, most important, made her a social being.

The idea — the fantasy — of the feral child brings me close to certain summer mornings of my early childhood, walking barefoot over bedewed grass through the shadowy coolness under trees and bushes. It is the joy of not needing clothes or towns or anything or anyone, and being a part of the day and place, as they are a part of me. It is the idea of living outside the constraints and forms of society, outside of language, in a life of direct relation, as in Martin Buber’s I-Thou. This I imagine as a state of constant wonder.

Of course I have a much more intellectual understanding of the feral child story and all its implications, but at bottom I simply take pleasure in it, as I do in drinking cool sweet water, which, maybe, is the real point after all. Intellectual understanding has its limits, and there is another and more primal kind that ha it own meanings and content. The one untempered by the other is incomplete. Poetry, I believe, is the name we give to that expression that attempts to say the un-sayable. “The poem,” Wallace Stevens said, “must resist the intelligence almost successfully.” (italics mine)

I believe a story is good to the extent that it provokes good questions. The tale of the feral child is fascinating because it brings up so many questions, not so much about who we are, but what we are and how we become what we are. And just as interesting, given other circumstances, What might we become?


Mordicai Gerstein is the author and illustrator of many books for children, the most recent of which, The Wild Boy (a picture book) and Victor (a novel), are published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

From the November/December 1999 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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