The Wild Child
by Frederick Turner
One of the most persistent Western myths is that of the Wild Child. The myth takes various forms: a child is born to noble parents but is spirited away and raised in the wild. Or the child is abandoned and raised by animals. Or the child is a changeling, having been swapped for the rightful infant. Or one of the child’s birth parents is a god or spirit, or both are, and the child grows up as a foster-child but psychologically without the cultural and social limitations of ordinary humans, a “natural son” or daughter. Or the child is not begotten but made by a divine being out of natural ingredients, and enters the human social world in a more or less uncanny, tragic, and revelatory way.
In fact, the myth is not by any means a purely Western one (before anyone jumps to postcolonial conclusions about “Western” essentialism, alienation, racism, subaltern otherness, etc). The Mayan hero twins, Hunahpu and Xbalanque, are the last in a series of increasingly fallen and self-aware wild children in the Popol Vuh, beginning with the Four Hundred Boys, passing through the intermediate stage of Monkey and Artisan, and finally catalyzed by One Hunahpu’s postmortem encounter with the divine death-maiden Blood Moon. In the Congolese epic Mwindo, the newborn hero is imprisoned in a drum and cast into the river by his father, and manages to turn the drum of his prison into the shamanic instrument of his transcendence; but he must learn humility, empathy, and the mortal limits of human action before he can become king.
Hanuman or Monkey in The Journey to the West is a wild child until he is domesticated by Tripitaka, the holy man chosen by divine decree to carry the sacred scriptures of the Buddha over the Himalayas from India to China. Monkey begins as an unreflective and boisterous natural being, the king of the monkeys, but is inducted into knowledge and reflection and humanity by his service to Tripitaka. Tripitaka as a baby had himself been fished from The Yangtze. Like Moses, he was abandoned to float on a river by his desperate mother, found, rescued, and raised by a monk in the forest. The seduction of the deer-horned wild boy Rishyasringa by the river-princess Santa in the Hindu Mahabharata is a classic example of the wild child—in one of the most delightfully comic, erotic and wickedly coy passages in all of literature, he naïvely describes the experience to his hermit father Vibhandaka:
Father, a religious student came by today, as shining and gracious as a god. He was very beautiful, and he wore his dark hair very long, and it was fragrant and tied with golden strings. His smooth skin was fair as fine warm gold, and on his chest were two soft, round pillows. His clothes were wonderful, not at all like mine, and in his hair he wore a flower I have never seen and round his neck a sparkling ornament. His waist was slender, and he had musical rosaries on his wrists and ankles. His voice was happy and clear, like a bird’s song in the morning, and over his eyes were beautiful black curves. He carries the large round fruit [a ball] that falls to the ground only to leap up again into the sky, and he held me, and caught my hair to pull down my mouth, and covered my mouth with his, and made a little murmuring sound. He gave me sweet fruit, without any skin, or any stone inside, and flavored holy water that made me very happy, and made the Earth seem to move under my feet.
(William Buck’s translation)
The West is certainly not to be outdone in wild child stories. Sinfljötli in the Volsung Saga is a wild child, a werewolf, conceived in the forest and destined to be the friend of the hero Sigurd. Parzifal is raised by his mother Herzeloyde in the forest and is thus both naïve and capable of mystical experience. When he “falls” into self-aware shame and learns the dissimulations of human society at Arthur’s court he loses his ability to be saved, and must learn from the ugly lady Cundrie the humility and pity required to achieve the Grail. King Arthur himself, we learn from Thomas Malory, was raised in rural innocence and obscurity. Like Sigurd of the Volsungs he must prove his royal blood by drawing a sword from its imprisonment in natural matter (a stone for Arthur, an oak for Sigurd). Romulus and Remus are raised by wolves, and virtually every Greek hero, including Aeneas, Theseus, Achilles, Jason, Perseus and Herakles, was raised in the wild forests of Mount Pelion by the half-beast half-man, Chiron the centaur. More modern examples of the myth include Mowgli, Tarzan, and Superman.
Nor is the wild child myth a special feature of the modern or even the classical age. In Gilgamesh, the oldest known work of literature in the world, the wild child is Enkidu. Innocent, naked and untroubled, he runs with the animals until he is seduced by Shamhat the temple prostitute and learns self-consciousness, shame, clothes, human food, friendship, technology, spiritual aspiration, and the knowledge of death. In the Bible Adam and Eve are wild children who also fall and gain knowledge and mortality. The myth’s known precursors can be traced back even beyond such texts as Gilgamesh, to Neolithic cave paintings of beast-headed dancing shamans such as the famous one at Trois Frères.
In a sense the wild child is the Gedankenexperiment by which we humans investigate the question of what a natural human being would be like, and what we can infer about the social and cultural condition of humans therefrom. How are we, or are we, distinct from other animals? As “the state of nature” the concept is the basic tool of most political philosophy, economic theory of value and property, jurisprudential definitions of justice, and psychological theories of human development.
When the wild man is incapable of becoming a human social being he is seen as a monster, like Humbaba in Gilgamesh, Polyphemus in the Odyssey, the Minotaur in the Theseus story, Grendel in Beowulf or Caliban in The Tempest. Are these terrifying giants some kind of ancient legend preserving our species’ encounters with Neanderthals, Denisovans, and the other hominids of our tangled ancestral tree? Or does high civilization always harken back to an imagined paradise unburdened by thought and death, a paradise inhabited—as is the Edenic vale of Enna—by a Cyclops, whose one eye lacks the perspective of the duplicitous Homo sapiens who is destined to replace him?
The French in all their cultured sophistication were obsessed with Montaigne’s cannibals, Rousseau’s noble savages, and the Wild Boy of Aveyron. Victor of Aveyron really existed; a feral child, apparently abandoned or orphaned during the French Revolution, he was found by hunters in 1800 near Saint-Sernin-sur-Rance in the ancient realm of Occitania, home of the legendary castle of the Holy Grail at Les Baux and the famous Neolithic cave at Chauvet. Victor’s partial rehabilitation by Dr. Jean Itard was the talk of Europe, sparking epochal discussions of human nature, the nature of the soul, language learning, the theory of knowledge, the state of nature, colonialism, and the social contract—and the topic continues to be explored, for instance in Truffaut’s film L’Enfant Sauvage and T. Coraghessan Boyle’s collection of stories, The Wild Child.
Occitania was of old the home of the Cathars, who believed, like William Blake, that the human soul was pure but trapped in the physical senses, from which it could be redeemed by a life of perfection and love. Cathars also held that women were equal to men and could perform priestly duties; they had a great devotion to Mary Magdalen (whom they believed to be the bride of Christ and the mother of his daughter) and to the Holy Grail, and were perhaps the source of the Provencal troubadour tradition.
Occitania was devastated twice by the armies of worldly power: once, in 1209-1229, by the Church of Rome in the Albigensian Crusade against the Cathars, and once, in 1790-1793, by the French Revolutionary Army; it seems likely that Victor was lost during the second episode. In some strange way the issue of the Wild Child is bound up with the whole history of the region. The neolithic cave paintings of Chauvet (beautifully described in Kim Stanley Robinson’s recent book Shaman) clearly stand as a visual investigation of what unites humans with animals, and what decisively divides them. How did we, obviously animals, become human? Is the fundamental source of our humanity God, nature, or society, with its gifts of nurture and language? Ancient Celtic druidic practices in the area posed the same questions. The Albigensian Crusade was a violent rejection of the issue itself by monotheist authorities; the French Revolution, which believed in the social and secular perfectibility of human nature, was another. Otto Rahn, whose remarkable book Kreuzzug gegen den Graal (Crusade Against the Grail) explores the Catharist beliefs of the Knights Templars and their tragic defeat, was inspired by Eschenbach’s Parzifal (and Wagner’s operatic treatment of the story); he believes that the source Eschenbach cites for his story (Kyot or Guyot) was a Provençal Cathar.
Wolfram von Eschenbach’s epic Parzifal, in which the hero grows up as a wild child and must achieve the Grail to recover his true nature, is one of the great mythic explorations of the issue. Parzifal is redeemed from his worldly sophistication by three persons and one condition: the three persons are his beloved Condwiramurs (“The Conductress to Love”), the harsh and ascetic anchorite Trevrizent, and the loathly lady Cundrie, the hag of the woods, who is tusked like an animal and teaches him humility. The condition is that the knight must wander alone in the wilderness and recover the primal innocence of the wild child. In doing so he follows in the footsteps of wild-child heroes from all over the world: the Mesopotamian Gilgamesh, the Persian Rostam, the Korean Jumong, the Malinese Sundiata, the Mayan hero twins, the Mongolian Temüjin, and the Pandava brothers in the Mahabharata.
A pattern, then, seems to emerge. If the hero represents the human person seen on the grandest scale, we are born with a real nature (as Lady Gaga insists in her song “Born this Way”), which we lose when we are molded to the customs, routines, and concealments of society. But that original nature was mute and did not know itself. Like Wordsworth’s iconic child of nature, the shades of the prison-house and the theater of social life close in on the growing youth.
But the answer is not, as Keats insists in “Ode to a Nightingale,” to drug oneself into insensibility and lose the burden of conscious thought, for then one would lose the ability to hear the nightingale’s song in all its poignant and fugitive sweetness: “To thy high requiem become a sod.” The hero who seeks to recover his true nature must go forward, not back, from his alienated inauthenticity. Like the dancing deer-headed shaman of Trois Frères (or like Odysseus disguising himself as a ram in Polyphemus’s cave) he must re-enter the state of nature, but this time with his full consciousness intact. But this experience can be devastating, and perhaps fatal-he must let himself be exposed to knowledge and experience that are transformative. He himself—or she herself—becomes a natural mortal being, subject to material causes, a thing, like animals and plants and rivers; while the animals and trees and mountains and streams become spirits with conscious intentions. If the hero is a poet he learns the languages of the animals and birds, as do Orpheus, Solomon, and Vyasa, the mythical poet of the Mahabharata itself. The poetic form of the Ode, its second-person address to a being that is not necessarily present, human, or even alive, is itself perhaps an expression of this ancient animism.
This need to return to nature and re-experience the fall and the anagnorisis of its outcome is expressed, I believe, in the worldwide rituals of the murdered and resurrected wild man. Rural societies all over Europe, for instance, select in Spring a young man to take on the role of the wild man, who wears an animal costume, comes into the village and terrifies the children, is hounded down and symbolically killed by the populace, but rises again to return the following year. L’homme sauvage, Wilder Mann, Macidula, Knappviecher—there are some fine images of these figures at The National Geographic. Shrove Tuesday rituals such as Carnaval in Brazil and Mardi Gras in New Orleans, Maying ceremonies in England (I participated at Oxford’s version of it while at college) and Fall festivals like Fasching in Germany are still performed. They all retain some features of this mythic reenactment of the crossover from nature to culture and back, and back again. Sir Gawaine and the Green Knight with its beheaded but reanimated nature god, Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with its beast-headed transitional figure Bottom, and Twain’s Huckleberry Finn are literary examples.
Through narrative and ritual dramatization we explore the mystery of how we first looked back at ourselves and saw that we are, and are not, animals. By masking ourselves as the beast we reenact the birth of language, fiction, deceit, awareness of our future death, and sexual passion as an end in itself. We recognize that the human condition is essentially a fetishistic one, nature hypertrophied into the strange chimeric forms of consciousness and the imagination, tangled up in gorgeous and dangerous abstractions and essences. The wild child is our dream of what we would be without them.
Copyright © 2014 by Fred Turner.
Frederick Turner originally wrote this essay on request for the Dutch/Flemish cultural
journal Streven [“Aspiring”], Special Issue
“The Child Project” (A.Estor, E. Muller and W. Weyns, eds.) where its translation can be found.