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Wild Things: Feral Children in Fiction and Mythology

Our culture is fascinated by stories of feral children, endlessly obsessed with the intersection between the wild and the civilized, the place where animals and humans can interact. All children play out Dr. Doolittle fantasies, wishing to talk to animals, or run away with their dogs. At least we pretended that our pets could talk back to us. That’s normal, right? Either way, we’ve been thinking about how feral children fantasies abound in fiction, film and mythology, and thought we’d gather some of our favorites here. The tales are remarkably similar, while each being singular, though we particularly wonder why it is so often wolves that are the caregivers in these stories — they don’t seem to be the wildest or most dangerous thing that could be imagined (hello, lions) or the most human-like. In addition, we think it’s amazing how often the feral children don’t return to society in the end — we would imagine a moralistic tale ending with the child being returned safely to soap and silverware, but that seems to be slightly antithetical to the genre. Click through for our round-up of our favorite fictional feral children, and let us know what you think.

Mowgli, The Jungle Book

Mowgli first appeared in Kipling’s 1893 short story “In the Rukh” where it is revealed that he was raised by wolves in India. The wolves mostly think he is a frog, but care for him as their own. Mowgli learns the language of all the creatures in the jungle and joins them in their battles. He is one of the original feral children in literature — his stories inspired many other additions to the genre.

Tarzan, Tarzan of the Apes

In Edgar Rice Burroughs’ 1914 novel Tarzan of the Apes, Tarzan is raised by great apes in the African jungle, but grows up to fall in love with a civilized girl. Though he follows her to America, he is never pleased with the land of culture, preferring to “strip off the thin veneer of civilization” and shimmy back into his loincloth.

Pecos Bill

The stories of Pecos Bill, a rowdy cowboy who rides cyclones and does a fair amount of whooping, first published by Edward O’Reilly in The Century Magazine in 1917, are widely acknowledged as an example of ‘fakelore’ — that is, O’Reilly claimed the stories were part of an American Southwestern oral tradition, when they were probably just stories he made up. In the tales, Pecos Bill fell out of a covered wagon as an infant and was found and raised by coyotes, and is only convinced that he is not a coyote himself when his brother finds him in the desert. We’d have thought all that lack of fur would have given it away, but you never can tell.

Romulus and Remus

It is perhaps fitting that the foundation myth of Rome would have its divinely-fathered founders abandoned before being found and suckled back to strength by a wolf. It seems to fit the ancient Roman ideal of strength and divinity rather well. Also, it could have totally happened. Haven’t you ever seen Rome?

San, Princess Mononoke

The warrior princess of Hayao Miyazaki is both brutal and gentle, angry and bitter towards humans for destroying her home and attacking her family, but still humanistic in many ways when faced with one of her own. The villagers call her “The Wolf Girl” or “Princess Mononoke,” which means “pesky demon.” Unlike some of the other feral children tales, San is as much as protector of her wolf family as they are of her, and she has no trouble conversing with normal humans — she just would prefer not to.

Shasta, Shasta of the Wolves

In Olaf Baker’s 1919 novel, a she-wolf called Nitka finds an abandoned Native American baby and raises him as her own. Much like other feral children, he grows to be able to speak to all the creatures of the forest. After discovering a human tribe nearby, Shasta stays with them for a time before returning to his wolf family. Like Tarzan, he prefers the wild and can never be fully socialized.