Our Feral Child Obsession

This week’s guest entry from Rebekah Fitzsimmons’s “The Golden Age of Children’s Literature” course comes from Jess Ferro, who has written for us before. This week, she looks at our enduring fascination with stories about the feral child, and what it means that they happen so often within the context of children’s literature.

By Jessica Ferro

What is a feral child? The dictionary defines this as a child who is in a wild state, especially after escape from captivity or domestication. Now while there are unfortunate real life examples of children who have been believed to exhibit feral qualities as we discussed in class, I will not be going into that here. Instead I’d like to ask the question, why have we as humans had such a cultural, and ultimately literary obsession, with the idea of the feral child?

If you really think about it, this fantastical idea of the feral child goes back many centuries, with one of the earliest examples being the legend of twin babies Romulus and Remus. These brothers were abandoned in the wild, but rescued, fed and raised by a she-wolf. These brothers went on to supposedly found the city of Rome. Moreover, this specific legend made its way into the cultural imagination, especially through art but also through literature.

Examples from the Fine Arts:

This is a piece of Etruscan sculpture of a she wolf, “The Capitoline Wolf”, however the small babies were actually added centuries later during the Renaissance.

In an illuminated manuscript

Romulus and Remus being given shelter by Faustulus the Shepherd, painted by Pietro da Cortona

Another depiction, this time from Peter Paul Rubens

These artistic depictions fall right into place with Rousseau’s ideas of the “natural child” and the Victorian obsession with the feral child, in that they depict these utterly angelic children, pure, clean and out in the wild as though it was the most natural thing for them to be doing; in fact as though this was actually the healthiest for them. Of course, in reality, if in fact Romulus and Remus did exist, and were raised by a wolf, these depictions would have been very far from the truth, they would have most likely been very dirty, covered with scratches, and far from pure angelic forms. It is interesting to note, that in each of these images where the shepherd is actually depicted, there is always slight tension created, either through shading and lighting, or in bodily movement, that creates an uneasiness in the viewer as if we should be questioning whether their “rescue” by the shepherd is indeed not a horrible event taking them away from the tranquility and beauty of nature.

And just as this story infused itself into the artistic imagination, this legend, and the idea of the feral child raised by wolves, has evolved and progressed through history, melting it’s way into all sorts of stories, flooding the literary imagination. This topic was explored last summer, at the Children’s Literature Association Conference, during one of the talks that I really found intriguing by Professor Debra Mitts-Smith titled: Raising the Man’s Cubs: The Slipperiness of Otherness in Rudyard Kipling’s “The Mowgli Stories”, Angela Carter’s “Peter and the Wolf,” Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book, and Maryrose Wood’s The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place. Professor Mitts-Smith drew on the ideas of the feral child and how they have manifested themselves in literature, especially in children’s literature. She explored the way that the feral child raised by wolves manifests itself in the four texts from her talk’s title, stemming from the traditional and idealized Victorian feral child in the figure of Mowgli to the parody like quality of The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place* to the updated and postmodern feel of The Graveyard Book **, and finally with one text that is not actually for children, but which takes the complete opposite approach coming from a more raw, grotestque and utlimately realistic look at the feral child in Carter’s short story Peter and the Wolf.

Jerry Pinkney’s cover for The Jungle Book

(Second book in the series, but I just thought this one was perfect what with the children climbing over soldiers and biting his leg)

Thus, the feral child proves to be a fascinating trope to look at culturally throughout history, especially as it manifests itself in art, but perhaps even more curiously in children’s books, where the lines between human and animal are sometimes blurred and can be taken in sometimes fascinating, sometimes humorous and sometimes horrendous directions.

I’ll end with asking you to watch the book trailers for The Graveyard Book and The Incorrigible Children, enjoy!


*This book, actually series, is new with the next installment coming out this September, and it plays on the tropes and voice of classic Victorian children’s books and centers on the mishaps a young governess faces in dealing with three siblings that were found in the woods, presumed to be raised by wolves, and the books are just wondeful, hilarious and beautifully written. (Here’s a link to my review of the audiobooks, click here . I definitely recommend these books!)

**Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book, is specifically inspired by The Jungle Book, and involves a child that is orphaned after his family is murdered and then he wanders (actually crawls) into a cemetery and is raised by the ghosts that “live” there.

Jess is an undergraduate at the University of Florida.

Categories: Critical Conversations, Undergraduate Guest Posts

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