Webb, Jean ‘Is our future set in stone? A discussion of Michelle Paver’s Chronicles of Ancient Darkness.’ in Deep Into Nature: Ecology, Environment and Children’s Literature ed. Jennifer Harding Pied Piper Press, 2009.
Is our future set in stone? A discussion of Michelle Paver’s Chronicles of Ancient Darkness.
Professor Jean Webb.
Currently there is a high level of awareness in the media, politically and generally in the consciousness of the developed world, of increasing threats to the environment emanating from climate change and the destruction of the natural environment with, for example, industrial pollution and de-forestation for commercial development. Ironically, although there would seemingly be a greater engagement with nature, as Western society becomes increasingly urbanised the relationship of the individual with nature and the environment is ever more that of the civilised observer who is distanced from the natural world experiencing such, for example, through the media or by visiting zoos and nature reserves. In addition Western childhood is becoming more protected as children (particularly in the UK) are increasingly protected both by institutional fear of litigation in the case of accidents and by the social fear of the hostility of the urbanised environment. The child’s experience of and relationship with nature is far more sanitised and distanced than say in early 20th century England. For instance Kenneth, the brother of A.A. Milne, recalled long country walks as a boy in the 1890s:
Alan and I often used to get up at 5 o’clock and go out and walk five or eight miles (Thwaite 2006 34)
The boys would also engage in vigorous physical play in the public playground:
There was a swing in the playground which served as a flying trapeze. ‘The swing was set in motion, we ran at it from the far end of the playground, took off from a springboard, jumped, caught it, swung off at the other end, and left it swinging back for the next boy. Every game had its ecstatic moments...’ (Thwaite 36)
Such activities would now surely be banned under current health and safety regulations. The effect on childhood of contemporary attitudes is far-reaching. The availability of experiences where children can gain a direct sense of adventure and exploration, and are able to exercise independent and individual judgement, problem solving and decision making are now limited to organised activities, for example with the scouting movement or through school trips. Furthermore the opportunity for immediate engagement with nature is also impeded, as is the understanding of the reasons for and importance of environmental concerns as the child is further distanced from the actuality of such matters. However, one means of vicarious experience is through reading. As Stephen Bigger notes: ‘Environmental responsibility is an acquired concept’ which can be developed through reading fiction (Bigger and Webb 2008). The impact and quality of such development very much depends on the quality of the reading experience. Children’s literature, (and one could argue literature for adults) is always to some extent didactic. High quality literature, exemplified by Michelle Paver’s series Chronicles of Ancient Darkness (2004- ), has the capacity to engage the reader in a vibrant world of the imagination which is ‘naturally’ underpinned by the particular moral values and perspectives of the author, rather than the notion of writing for children as a ‘loudspeaker’ for propaganda (Mursepp 2005.)
The deeply engaging and vibrancy of the characters and world created by Michelle Paver in The Chronicles of Ancient Darkness stems from the combination of her long held fascination with the period of the Stone Age in which the novels are set and her extensive research which is documented on her website. (http://www.michellepaver.com/Features/p2_articleid/7). During her talk at the 2008 IBBY/MA Conference at Roehampton, Paver closely recalled her desire as a child of about 10 to live as people did in the Stone Age. This included wanting to eat, sleep and dress as our fore-generations had done. Despite the understandable constraints she did actually do so! As an adult she not only carried out considerable research from an academic perspective, but also engaged in courageous adventures to research the Stone Age period and to ensure accuracy and authenticity to substantiate her created worlds of the Clans, Torak and Wolf. Thus Paver combines a well-researched history of life during the Stone Age with her own fictional social world and the adventures which ensue.
Interestingly Paver’s series has a number of seemingly shared characteristics with Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Books, (1894: 1895). Like Kipling, Paver lived in similar conditions to her characters including the natural environment thus gaining an understanding of what the social structuring and lifestyle may well have been like for such societies during those times, and then imagining the adventures of her characters back in that time. Kipling also lived in the climate and environment depicted in his stories, and similarly to Paver had to create the social structure and interaction of his characters in an imaginary way since he was transposing human behaviour into the animal world. Both Kipling and Paver have the focalising hero being raised by wolves, and the protagonist having to learn the hierarchical and complex social structure of their worlds. However, whereas Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Books constructed the social world of Mowgli and his journey of self-discovery in order to produce a ‘moral guide book’ for the inheritors of the empire during British imperialism, Paver’s philosophical and moral perspective is more subtle in expression. Kipling’s Mowgli is raised by wolves and learns the ways of the animals and the hierarchical rules of the jungle before he enters the world of Man as an adolescent. His task is to transfer knowledge from one world to another, the implication being that the social world of the jungle has much to offer that of Man in terms of control, respect and behaviour; hence Kipling’s stories were adopted by the Baden Powell in structuring the Boy Scout movement. Paver’s work has a different intention as it addresses an overall practical and philosophical holistic relationship with nature and how homo sapiens relate physically and spiritually to the environment. She is interested in not only how humans can live with other animals, but also how as a species we can live without destroying that which is essential to life, the natural environment. A century on from Kipling and the concerns have changed.
The following discussion considers the construction of Paver’s world and the implications it raises for consideration by the contemporary reader of the current environmental and social problems which are faced by Western culture. The setting of the series Chronicles of Ancient Darkness, which is currently comprised of five of the six projected books: Wolf Brother (2004), Spirit Walker (2005), Soul Eater (2006), Outcast (2007) and Oath Breaker (2008) is, as said, the Stone Age at a time before agrarian settlement. By removing the reader from contemporary ‘normality’ into a pre-historic period Paver can obliquely critique the contemporary situation in Western culture. For example, embedded in the series are social considerations of racism, multi-culturalism and environmental awareness. The setting in the Stone Age also problematises the contemporary scientifically driven paradigm where the sense of mystery and that which cannot be understood is technically removed and the situating of the child subject is one where the expectation is that ‘they ought to be able to know and understand’, unlike Torak’s world where there is a respect for mysticism and spirituality. Paver’s characters have a quasi-Keatsian sense of negative capability. As John Keats described the notion of negative capability as ‘when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason’ (http://www.alpheratz.f2s.com/negative-capability.htm). In this Stone Age world the characters live in a state of uncertainty; they accept the mysteries of the Spiritual realm and concern themselves with resolving the imbalance resultant from the irresponsible actions of those who have acted upon their desire for power. Torak and his female companion Renn, albeit uncomfortably, accept their being Mages with the power to enter into the Spirit realms, yet neither desire nor attempt to reductively rationalise. Their energies are taken up with survival in a very practically based reality. They have to exercise independence, courage, physical endurance, tenacity and intelligence to solve the problems with which they are presented. Their engagement goes beyond social contexts such as families, friends and interaction with their own and other Clans, they are having to learn to live with and by nature and their environment, all of which can often be hostile.
Paver’s Stone Age communities are located in an indeterminate place somewhere in Northern Europe and cannot be more removed from the physicality of a contemporary urban setting. The series circulates about close physical and mystical relationships with nature and the environment; the organisation of society into clans; and the central role that the younger generation have in the destinies of their peoples. The different clans which are variously associated with wild life and the landscape, for example the Wolf, Raven and Forest Clans demonstrate tolerance of each other as long as they respect territorial boundaries. The organisation of Paver’s society equates to a multi-racial situation. Each clan has developed the skills and understandings which are required to survive in their particular micro-environment. These skills are not transferred between the clans. For example when the focalising hero Torak has to travel to the Far North in Soul Eater clothing, food, and modes of survival are different from forest dwelling, even the seasons carry different meanings:
In the Forest, the coming of spring is welcomed; in the Far North, it is feared.
(Soul Eater 208)
The clans do meet together at occasional gatherings in a necessary co-operation to avoid a state of outright war, however, they maintain distance, distrust, territorial rights and control over their own sources of knowledge. It is Torak who moves between them and learns of their different ways as he engages on the various quests which will take him to his Destiny of which he is growingly aware as the series progresses. Torak is seen by some as being the destroyer whilst others become aware of his being predicted the saviour, to save the peoples of the clans and the environment. He is the Chosen One with powers of understanding animals, particularly wolves. He is also growingly able to understand the mystical world of spirits as he learns and comes to terms with being a Mage.
Torak’s father had such mystical understanding and spent most of his adult life as an outcast from the clans as he sought closer communion with the darker regions of the Spirit World, which led to the unleashing of malevolent powers which Torak will now have to confront. Torak’s mother is dead; the child spent his first ten years with his father who was then killed by the monstrous evil spirit in the shape of a bear which was released from the other world by Torak’s father’s search for mystical knowledge. For the early period of his childhood Torak’s father left him to be raised by a pack of wolves. Torak’s first decade has been spent living with his father in the forest outside the direct influence of the clans as a result of his father’s previous actions, for which he was ejected from society. During these ten formative years Torak has learned the ways of the wolves plus an understanding of their language and forms of communication. He has also learned to survive as an individual hunter gatherer within the forest and to respect the environment which feeds, clothes and sustains him.
Torak crashed through the alder thickets and sank to his knees in bogs. Birch trees whispered of his passing. Silently he begged them not to tell the bear.
...He startled a young boar grubbing up pignuts, and grunted a quick apology to ward off attack. The Boar gave an ill-tempered snort and let him pass.
A wolverine snarled at him to stay away ,and he snarled back as fiercely as he could, because wolverines only listen to threats. (Wolf Brother 11)
Torak’s communication with and understanding of animals is not that of the exaggerated quasi-Doctor Dolittle, but that which can be learned through close observation and living with them in a shared environment. For all to survive harmony is essential. Paver expresses Torak’s grief at the death of his father through Torak’s sense of being dislocated from his environment:
For the first time in his life he was truly alone. He didn’t feel part of the Forest any more. He felt as if his world-soul had snapped its link to all other living things; tree and bird, hunter and prey, river and rock. Nothing in the whole world knew how he felt. Nothing wanted to know.
(Wolf Brother 12)
Paver portrays the inter-connectedness of Torak’s life particularly in the phrase ‘world-soul’ which encapsulates the spirituality of Torak’s relationship with his environment. Torak’s dislocation and re-location is essential as now he has to be an independent individual reliant upon his own resources. He cannot be merely an observer, he must engage with the environment to survive. For what he takes from the forest he respects and gives thanks, as when he makes his first big kill without his father.
With a graceful shudder, the buck folded its knees and sank to the ground...
Panting, Torak stood over the buck. Its ribs were still heaving but death was near. Its three souls were getting ready to leave.
Torak swallowed, now he had to do what he’d seen Fa do countless times. But for him it was the first time and he had to get it right.
Kneeling beside the buck, he put out his hand and gently stroked its sweaty cheek...
‘You did well,’ Torak told it... ‘You were brave and clever, and kept going all day. I promise to keep pact with the World Sprit and treat you with respect. Now go in peace.’
He watched death glaze the great dark eye.
(Wolf Brother 40)
Although Torak has been educated by the wolves and his father in knowledge of animal, environmental and spiritual matters, brought up in the forest he has not learnt the ways of the clans, the society of Man. Although he has been warned by his father to ‘Stay away from men’ with the following unfinished phrase ‘If they find out what you can do....’ (41) in his grief following his father’s death he longs for people: ‘He wanted to shout; to yell for help.’ (12). Torak is an outsider to the clans, perceived as different and therefore a threat. He is hunted by the first clan members whom he meets and is in danger of being put to death unless he can survive through his own mental and physical resources. Thankfully he does have help in the form of Wolf, the orphaned cub who has survived the flood and who adopts Torak. The unity between Wolf and Torak is very strong. They are pack brothers who demonstrate the highest levels of loyalty to each other. This relationship is an important part of the narrative strategy since pragmatically Wolf will repeatedly come to Torak and Renn’s rescue, whilst philosophically the relationship demonstrates the holistic vision of Paver’s world. For example Wolf, when albeit still a cub, senses the way to the Great Mountain which is part of Torak’s first quest. This journey is not determined by maps or satellite navigational aids, but by the driving unnamed instinct of the animal working in harmony with the human. The positive collaborative nature of the relationship is not simply one way for when Wolf is captured by the evil ones, Torak does his utmost to rescue him. They have a very strong partnership, however, although Torak’s skills at wolf communication are enhanced by his babyhood experiences as a pack member, Torak knows that he does not have the superior wolf facility of ‘sensing his thoughts and moods.’ (41) Despite the limitations their relationship deepens throughout the series as both Wolf and Torak mature from cub and boy to wolf and man. By the end of Oath Breaker, the fifth book, Wolf has Darkfur, a mate of his own. His priorities are becoming divided and his identity as a wolf being reinforced as he will mate and produce his own pack.
..Wolf caught another sound, but this was one that Darkfur couldn’t hear as it was inside Wolf’s head. It was Tall Tailless howling for him, just as Wolf had howled when the bad taillesses had trapped him in the stone Den. Pack-brother! Come to me! The pack-sister is in danger!
A cold nose nudged Wolf’s flank. Darkfur was puzzled. Why do you slow?
Wolf didn’t know what to do. He is not wolf, he told her.
Darkfur’s gaze turned stern. You were pack-brothers. A wolf does not abandon his pack-brother. (Oath Breaker 198)
Emphasis is being laid on questions of loyalty. Wolf recognises and states difference, yet there is the necessity for physical and species difference to be over-ridden by values and morality. Experience has strengthened their bond. Although Wolf intimates a sense of doubt at the end of this chapter the reader can be almost certain that Wolf will come to Torak and Renn’s aid. In this uncertain world there are some factors which are unchanging and reliable, and those circulate about relationships; for instance, the loyalty between Wolf and Torak; Torak and Renn, and Fin-Keddin’s fatherly overseeing of the youngsters. Beyond the closeness of social bonds there is a strong sense of the unknown and the unknowable. One of the literary strengths of Paver’s work is in creating a sense of holistic fusion between human, animal and spiritual worlds through communicating a sense of physical and emotional reality. In Oath Breaker there is a vivid and convincing account of Torak spirit walking where he enters into the physicality of a mare.
Feverishly, he took the last of Saeunn’s root from his medicine pouch and crammed it into his mouth. If Wolf or Renn were anywhere in this devestation, who better to sense them than prey? (Oath Breaker 155)
Torak is prepared to put himself into a state which may well be highly dangerous in order to simulate the conditions which Wolf and Renn are experiencing as victims. He too becomes the hunted, the prey by leaving his own body and entering into that of the mare.
The other horses side-stepped and tossed their heads, uneasy at his nearness, but the lead mare stood her ground. Swivelling her ears she listened to his moans as the cramps took hold. She lowered her head and watched him clutch his belly, falling to the ground in a cloud of ash...
... and through her horse eyes, Torak stared at the body which lay twitching and frothing at the mouth.
For the first time in his life, he felt the ceaseless vigilance of prey. He twisted one ear to listen to the human kicking at the cinders, and flicked back the other to catch the nicker of a mare chivvying her foal. One eye scanned the shore for hunters, the other the slope above, while his horse nose told him the movements of every member of the herd.
The mare’s souls were surprisingly strong...In the battle of the souls, Torak overcame her. Kicking up his hind hooves, he broke into a canter. With effortless strength his four legs hammered the earth. Such power, such speed! He felt a surge of wild joy as he thundered up the hill, and his herd came thundering after him. (Oath Breaker 156)
The fusion of the drug induced experience of spirit walking stands him in good stead when it comes to the ultimate rescue of Renn from the fire at the end of Oath Breaker. He needs this steed which no man has ever ridden, the mare with whom he entered into spiritual fusion.
Steam rose from her flanks. Her great dark eyes were wide, but no longer rimmed with white. For an instant, Torak met her gaze, and a current of knowledge flowed between them. His souls had hidden in her marrow. He had known what it was to be horse. And she knew that he knew. (Oath Breaker 194)
Although there are out of body experiences which give Torak and Renn knowledge beyond the pragmatic and the normal, where they enter into of spiritual existence their world of the Stone Age is nonetheless filled with mystery and mysticism. Materialism where it occurs in this world is connected with survival and remembrance. A bow, for example, is valued because it is a good weapon made by someone who was beloved to the owner. The clans inhabit and guard their territory, but do not own it as such. The hunter gatherer life does not depend upon trading for goods. Their security is not threatened by the fall of a bank, except it be that of a river collapsing under tumultuous flooding due to an imbalance in the harmonies which direct the weather conditions. The careful balance between the spirit other world and that of these Stone Age dwellers is out of joint. It has been upset because of a lust for power. Torak’s father was part of such doing (how far one cannot know until the final book of the series), and now Torak has to endeavour to restore the imbalance. The demon bear is one example of a physical embodiment of destructive power created when the other world malevolent spirits were released. The bear kills for the satisfaction of a blood lust. The more it kills, the more powerful and dangerous it becomes. The bear is a symbol of malevolent power which spreads death, destruction and desolation, leaving the forest dying. In the reality of the 21st century capitalism and materialism when employed in irresponsible and self-fulfilling modes which become environmentally destructive, can be symbolically equated with the malevolent bear. The environment is being destroyed and the balance of nature is upset; environmentally our world is ‘out of joint’: the parallels are very clear. The threats to Paver’s Stone Age world may be assuaged by the heroism, determination and collaboration of Torak, the Wolf and the other humans who help him. One suspects that Torak will bring the clans together, or that some will be saved and others lost in an environmental disaster, leaving the chosen few to continue with a brave new world. For Torak and his peoples this will be a matter of confronting their inner fears which are symbolised by the malevolent and frightening spirits. They come to terms with their unknown, by employing what to contemporary readers is for the most part, unknown, that is, a world devoid of science and filled with mysticism and magic. Their medicines are natural herbal remedies carried in a pouch. Disease is a monster which ravages the clans as epidemics can so readily do; beyond a certain point they have no response except to try to fight off the demon of disease by the power of the mind. In many ways one would not wish to return contemporary society to the Stone Age.
What Paver depicts is a convincing world where the weaknesses and strengths of homo sapiens are explored: the pragmatic capacity to adapt to wide a range of environmental conditions is celebrated: the destructive nature of territorialism, separatism and lust for power is exposed. The strength drawn from an intuitive and mystical relationship with nature and the landscape is an essential factor which, when respectfully employed, gives harmony and fruitfulness, but when abused leads to destruction and madness. Perhaps through this series Michelle Paver is asking the reader to examine what is accepted to be ‘normal’ in the contemporary world, by producing an imaginative experience drawing upon the realities of life in the Stone Age. A great deal can be learned by studying the past, for as Shakespeare wrote ‘What’s past is prologue.’ One hopes that Paver produces a positive outcome for the series when she writes the last book, for in doing so there would be an expression of hope itself, of faith in humanity and the capacity to overcome the ills of misguided sections of society. I am not suggesting that Michelle Paver herself represents a voice of prediction but that writers can elucidate, inspire, provoke and suggest ways of approaching the problems which beset the current generations and will no doubt, unfortunately recur in the future. The strength of Paver’s literary achievement is in the holistic integrity of her work: the scope, intensity, veracity and moral and philosophical depth of her created world which can communicate values, morality and ways of thinking which are based upon rational problem-solving whilst taking the reader into imaginative spiritual realms. Beyond fiction we can perhaps only contemplate whether our future is set in stone if we are unable to change the attitudes which will devastate our environment. More positively one hopes that we can learn that stone can be shaped to produce an enduring sculpture of great beauty symbolic of a future world in which generations to come can wander in awe and communion like Torak, spirits in a symbiotic relationship, walking with nature.
Bigger, Stephen and Webb, Jean ‘Changing Images of the Environment: hermeneutic contributions from children’s fiction.’ forthcoming in Environmental Education Research Special Issue 'Experiencing Environment and Place through Children's Literature' 2009.
Kipling, Rudyard The Jungle Books (1895, 1895) Oxford Worlds Classics 2008
Keats, John http://www.alpheratz.f2s.com/negative-capability.htm
Paver, Michelle Wolf Brother. Orion Books 2004
Spirit Walker. Orion Books 2005
Soul Eate.r Orion Books 2006,
Outcast. Orion Books 2007
Oath Breaker. Orion Books 2008
Michelle Paver official website accessed January 2009: http://www.michellepaver.com/Features/p2_articleid/7
Thwaite, Anne A.A. Milne: His Life Tempus 2006
JAW Jan10th 2009