This seems to me to speak to the situation in which many people, especially women, find themselves today. And of course, fairy tales provide paradigms for these situations. One of my favorite films–though it’s not well known–is “Company of Wolves.” Based on an Angela Carter short story, the film shows a 20th-Century woman’s coming of age. Through brilliant fantasy sequences, her story is linked to the story of “Little Red Riding Hood.” But there’s a twist. In the end, the heroine joins the wolf, becomes a wolf herself and runs with the wolves. It’s the same kind of ending as “Splash” and “Greystoke” and “Mohicans”–a return to wildness. (It is just this desire that the current underground bestseller, “Women Who Run With the Wolves” by Clarissa Pinkola Estes, addresses.)
But I don’t mean to imply that this is just the case with women. What are we to make of the extraordinary popularity of Robert Bly’s book “Iron John”? Again, a fairy tale provides a paradigm. The point of “Iron John” and the men’s movement it has spawned seems to be the need for men to “get in touch” with a missing wildness.
This theme is everywhere. Rent the movie “Never Cry Wolf,” which ends with a naked scientist running and howling with the wolves. Or “Harry and the Hendersons,” with its message that into every suburban family must come a touch of wildness. Or “Edward Scissorhands,” which makes the same point but via Mary Shelley’s novel “Frankenstein.”
Still, knowing all that, how can we answer the Hollywood producer’s question: Which are the stories that will capture the popular imagination next? What will be the next “Beauty and the Beast”? I must admit that made me pause. Then, since we’re talking about fairy tales, let’s say my fairy godmother tapped me on the shoulder and said: “Wild Women have been done. Wild Men too. What about the Wild Child?”
The Wild Child or Feral Child is a term folklorists use to describe a group of stories about children who grow up in the wild, without human help, often raised by animals. Romulus and Remus. Kipling’s Mowgli raised by wolves. Tarzan raised by apes. Pecos Bill raised by coyotes.
There are accounts of actual feral children. In France, there was Victor, the Wild Boy of Aveyron (about whom Harlan Lane, Lucien Malson and Roger Shattuck have written interesting books). In Germany, there was Kaspar Hauser. And both boys have been the subject of art films, by Francois Truffaut and Werner Herzog, respectively.
Surprisingly, I noted to the Hollywood producer, most films about the Wild Child have been of this nonfiction kind. Only two fictionalized versions came to mind, both set in the jungles of South America: “Emerald Forest” and the lesser- known “Where the River Runs Black.” There seemed to be room here, I suggested.
So I sent the producer’s assistant to the library. Go get Charles MacLean’s “The Wolf Children,” I said. It’s an account of two girls in India, Amala and Kamala, who were raised by wolves (or so we were told by one Rev. Singh in what many now believe was an entirely fabricated report, though this doesn’t diminish its value as a story). Find an anthology of Wild Child stories. And if it’s nonfiction you’re after, look at Susan Curtiss’ “Genie: A Linguistic Study of a Modern-day Wild Child” or Eleanor Craig’s “One, Two, Three: The Story of Matt, a Feral Child.”
For background reading, pick up Freud’s aptly named “Civilization and Its Discontents,” with its contention that the more a society advances, the more individuals are obliged to sacrifice (and miss) an essential wildness. To get in the mood, turn to “Lord of the Flies” . . . or to what must be the most popular children’s book ever written: Maurice Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are” (“The night Max wore his wolf suit . . . “).
To those who believe with me that stories, certain stories, speak to us and to our times, I would say: Read the original fairy tales, the paradigms–and “Beauty and the Beast” is a fine place to start. Then watch as a miracle unfolds and these stories begin to make sense, everywhere.
Originally appeared on page one of the Los Angeles Times Book Review (December 6, 1992): http://articles.latimes.com/1992-12-06/books/bk-3075_1_wild-child/2 This essay eventually became my book The Meanings of “Beauty and the Beast.”