Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Article: Michelle Paver: Ancient Magic for a Modern, Greener World

*** Hint : there are references in the bibliography you may want to follow up ***

This article discusses Paver's Chronicles of Ancient Darkness and recent developments in green fiction for children which are texts which seek to raise awareness in children of the natural world and threats to it. Pavlik argues that recent texts re-examine the nature of the relationship between humankind and the environment.

Pavlik, Anthony: Michelle Paver: Ancient Magic for a Modern, Greener WorldBookbird (50:3) [Jul 2012] , p.25-33

While the Harry Potter series was continuing to take center stage at the beginning of this century, it would have been easy to forget that other British writers were also working their own kinds of magic away from the Rowling media spotlight. One such writer was Michelle Paver, whose Chronicles of Ancient Darkness series has now been published in thirty-eight countries, with sales in the UK alone amounting to one million copies. The six books in the series, Wolf Brother (2004), Spirit Walker (2005), Soul Eater (2006), Outcast (2007), Oath Breaker (2008) and, finally, Ghost Hunter (2009)-winner of the 2010 Guardian Children's Fiction Prize, a rare feat for a book that is part of a series-have garnered a very strong fan following and received considerable media acclaim. Whilst Rowling conjures a largely urban world of magical beasts and people in which her hero can play out his adventures, Paver's series offers an adventure narrative and coming of age story that speaks clearly to the current need to re-evaluate understandings of the way human beings respond to the natural world around them. I will, therefore, consider Paver's series in the light of recent ecocritical discussions regarding the relationship between humankind and the natural world.
As Elizabeth Thiel and Alison Waller have observed, "Nature and the natural world have long been inherent features of children's literature" (1) but, even so, as Julia Mickenberg and Phil Nel note, "[c]hildren are growing up with recycling, organic foods, and 'green' products, but can find few books that grapple with the real changes necessary to halt or reverse current trends" (456). The green children's literature that is available has a tendency to position the child protagonist as eco-hero, "assigned the role of the agent of its own environmental redemption" (Lesnik-Oberstein 213), something that is, in the real world of global corporate expansion, far beyond the capabilities of the child. Paver's series offers a new perspective on this situation.
The series is set after the end of the last ice age, in the Northern Europe of six thousand years ago, and begins with Wolf Brother, where the reader is introduced to the world of the Forest in which almost all the events of the series take place. However, this forest is not a traditional or symbolic motif of the kind found in folk and fairy tales such as "Little Red Riding Hood" or "Hansel and Gretel," nor is it simply a passive backdrop for the playing out of events as is, for example, the Forbidden Forest outside Hogwarts. Paver animates the Forest and gives it a life of its own. She uses a capital F to foreground the subjectivity of the Forest, enhancing the sense that the Forest has an identity equal to that of the human inhabitants. Paver's positioning of the Forest, and nature in general, in this way asks us to reconsider the position of human beings within the natural environment, a move I will consider in more detail.
In order to maintain the proper balance between humans, nature and the spirit world in the Forest, there are natural rules which, if broken, will result in ecological disaster. This is most strikingly seen in the actions of the Soul Eaters, a shadowy group of Mages (shamans), who persistently break or ignore these important rules in pursuit of their personal goals. These are not, however, the stereotypical wand-wielding magicians of standard fantasy fare; their powers operate in ways that are more attuned to the spiritual and the natural. The Soul Eaters once referred to themselves "the Healers," and their efforts had been for the good of all of the clans but, by the start of Wolf Brother, their purpose has changed: they "'wanted power. That's what they lived for. To rule the Forest. To force everyone to do their bidding'" (Wolf Brother 212-3). If the Soul Eaters succeed, the natural harmony will be broken and the Forest destroyed, along with everything and everyone that lives within it. Their desire is to stamp their authority over nature, in what is a largely Western, Judeo-Christian, anthropocentric point of view. It does not take a huge leap of imagination to see how the Soul Eaters' methods resemble the way that modern human beings have removed themselves from that idea of harmony with nature in favor of dominion over it.
To advance the idea of nature as a subject in its own right, Paver ensures that her world is not a simple backdrop for the playing out of plot. This world is not a passive place, for as Paver herself says of it, "I've used the rather eerie Sami idea that everything-including rocks, rivers and trees-is alive and has a spirit; not all of them can talk, but all can hear and think" ("Author"). Through this animism, Paver attempts to give the natural world a voice. In doing this, the series falls largely within a lesser trend in children's literature, noted by Jennifer Wagner-Lawlor, where nature is depicted as "a 'character' with a consciousness of its own, with interests not necessarily coinciding with those of humans and their progress-and indeed, with interests often at odds, or imperiled, by human activity, against which it has little defense" (144). At the same time, living in Paver's animated world, particularly in the Forest, are small clan groups of hunter-gatherer peoples, human characters who both survive by finding food, shelter and various material goods from the Forest and the natural world around them, and whose very existence is an integral part of the ecosystems from which they draw that sustenance and shelter.
The idea of human beings as integral parts of nature rather than masters of it is seen in the way each clan is as different as the area it inhabits. Clan children are taught that they should not seek to master nature, but to live in harmony with it. Thus, these peoples offer an alternative approach to existing in the natural world, and they survive not in spite of nature, and not by controlling and subduing it, but through an intimate knowledge and understanding of the flora and fauna of the Forest and by paying due respect to the non-human life around them. Each clan is intimately connected to the nature and character of its specific local environment, and so the clan members, young and old, know what is best to eat and drink and where to do so, and they understand the need to treat all animals, even prey, with the utmost respect.
Paver's imagined ecosystem seems to match very closely with Lawrence Buell's primary and most eco-focused requirement for an environmentally oriented text; that "the nonhuman environment is present not merely as a framing device but as a presence that begins to suggest that human history is implicated in natural history" (168). Indeed, "true ecofiction," as Patricia Greiner argues, is literature that "demonstrates the interrelatedness of people, activities, systems of thought, indeed of every part of life" (10). Moreover, this respect for and oneness with one's surroundings is a way of life that would find favor with many conservationists who, as Suzanne Rahn points out, "do not seek ways to seal offthe natural world, but ways for human societies to coexist with it-which means, first of all, ways of seeing and feeling about nature that encourage coexistence rather than exploitation and destruction" (150). In Paver's portrayal, then, there is no sense of human beings dismissing their "dependency on nature by mastering and dominating it" (Vilkka 71). Instead, the series stresses sustainable co-existence between humans and the natural world in much the same way that Fritjof Capra advocates when he suggests that maintaining sustainable human communities means existing "in continual interaction with other living systems, both human and nonhuman" (230). It is a question of harmonious co-existence or mutual destruction.
Thus, Paver does not depict the human inhabitants of the Forest as noble savages and, more importantly, nor does she make use of the stereotypical caveman and woman figures. These are not ignorant people dressed in animal hides, who grunt in order to communicate, and who carry oversized clubs to beat each other over the head with. Such representations, common in popular culture, would trivialize the complex prehistoric society she depicts. Although Paver's characters are prone to what modern readers might view as superstition, they are seen to be no different from modern homo-sapiens in their intellect and capacity for emotional commitment (and modern human beings are no less prone, it should be said, to superstitions themselves). In fact, rather than seeing the Forest and its inhabitants as otherworldly figures in an unearthly place, distanced from modern readers by time, Paver writes in a way that ensures that, even though the narrative is full of elements of the spirit world and magic or magecraft, the characters are seen as "real" people who have realistic relationships in much the same way as modern humans interact and respond to each other. This way of thinking is evident throughout the series, but is something that Paver presents to the reader very early in the first book, Wolf Brother (2004), through the protagonist, Torak, and his own response to the world in which he lives.
At the start of the series, Torak, a twelve-yearold boy from the Wolf Clan, lives alone in the Forest away from the clans with his father, Fa. Torak is orphaned in the first few pages when his father is killed by a bear believed to be possessed by a demon. Leftalone to fend for himself, Torak traps a wood grouse for food but, before killing the bird, he offers "a quick thank you to the bird's spirit" (Wolf Brother 30). After cooking it, but before eating any himself, "he twisted one leg offthe wood grouse and tucked it into the fork of a tree as an offering for his clan guardian" (31). Nothing in the Forest world can be taken from nature without acknowledging the spirits, and nothing can be leftto waste. After picking all the meat from the bones, Torak keeps them because "they'd still make needles, fish-hooks and broth" (31).
Later, too, when Torak successfully hunts and kills a young deer, he kneels down beside it: "'You did well,' Torak told it. His voice sounded awkward. 'You were brave and clever, and you kept going all day. I promise to keep the pact with the World Spirit, and treat you with respect. Now go in peace'" (40). Torak's reverence for the dead animal's spirit and the overarching influence of the "World Spirit" are evidenced here and in what Torak does with the animal next. It takes Torak two days to cut up the deer, not because he is incapable of doing so (his father has trained him), but because of the esteem in which he holds the animal: "He'd made the buck a promise, and he had to keep it by not wasting a thing. That was the age old pact between the hunters and the World Spirit. Hunters must treat prey with respect, and in return the World Spirit would send more prey" (42). Torak's behavior is not presented as being special: all the clan members behave in the same way. During the annual salmon run, for example, both humans and animals benefit. All members of the Raven clan, everyone-young and old-help with this seasonal bounty, but nothing was wasted. The skins would be cured and fashioned into waterproof tinder pouches; the eyes and bones would make glue; the livers and roe would provide a delicacy at nightmeal, and an offering for the guardian and the spirits of the salmon (Spirit Walker 8-9). Whilst humans still need to hunt the animals of the forest in order to live, there is no waste or greed, and all due respect is given to the animals as partners in a balanced ecosystem, a cycle of life that includes human beings.
The intimate connection between human and non-human is perhaps best seen in the relationship between Torak and his wolf companion, simply called Wolf. When Torak first finds the orphaned wolf cub, his first instinct is to kill it for food. He is unable to bring himself to do this, however, for Torak's father had once told him that "wolves are like us. They hunt in packs. They enjoy talking and playing. They have a fierce love for their mates and cubs. And each wolf works hard for the good of the pack" (Wolf Brother 35, original emphasis). Torak's connection with the wolf cub also arises because, when the cub howls, "in some strange way he couldn't begin to fathom, he recognised the high wavering sounds. His mind knew their shapes. He remembered them" (Wolf Brother 16). It later emerges, that Torak's father had put him in a wolf's den when he was small and, as a result, it seems that Torak has acquired rudimentary knowledge of the sounds and body language that wolves use to communicate with each other; Wolf and Torak become pack brothers.
It is not only with animals that Torak is able to establish a spiritual connection. When Torak chews a particular bitter root, he can merge his spirit with the spirit of any living thing, even a tree, as happens when Torak and Renn, his female companion, are spending the night in one. His oneness with the tree is clear, for
his voice was the groaning of bark and the roaring of branches. His twig-fingers knew the chill moonlight and the wind's screaming caress, his boughs te scratch of wasp and the weight of sleeping boy and girl. Deep in the earth, his roots knew the burrowing moles and the soft, blind worms, and all was good, for he was a tree, and he rejoiced in the wilderness of the night. (Oath Breaker 92)
This connection may be drug-induced, but his connection with the tree is another reminder that connections are made by living close to nature and by meticulously observing it.
The series also shows another way in which humans and the natural world are closely connected and should remain so, achieved by the narrative switches between focalizing through human eyes (through Torak, and sometimes Renn) to focalizing from Wolf's perspective. Apart from the obvious narrative ploy that enables Paver to recount events that Torak is not witness to, this narrative technique also provides another way of giving voice to the natural world. Wolf's focalization, however, is not a case of cute anthropomorphism. Paver works hard to ensure as realistic a portrayal of wolf habits as possible. For this, she draws on her time spent with wolves at the UK Wolf Conservation Trust sanctuary near Reading in Berkshire, just one part of her extensive research for the series. Wolf is a narrator on an equal footing with the human characters, and his responses to what he sees around him mean that the reader is also able to see much of the actual story from Wolf's point of view, allowing for a heightened empathy with Wolf and, consequently, a higher degree of respect for Wolf as a moral agent in his own right. Wolf's voice is verbalized through his own vocabulary for the world around him: Torak is "Tall Tailless", the sea is the "Big Wet" whereas a river is "Fast Wet", snow is "cold wet", a fire is the "Bright Beast-that-Bites-Hot", and the sun is the "Hot Bright Eye in the Up".
Although talking animals might lead some to view the Chronicles of Ancient Darkness as a variation on the fantasy mode, Paver's extensive research and attention to detail is consistent with a more realist approach to writing and, as she says, "[t]he world I'm trying to depict is strange, unfamiliar, beautiful, exciting-but above all, it's real" ("Author"). In fact, research is clearly a key element in Paver's writing. Her ability to craftthis intricate and wholly interconnected relationship between humans and the environment draws heavily on her research, as the "Author's Notes" at the end of each book confirm. This includes delving into the belief systems of modern hunter-gatherer peoples such as the Sami in Norway, Sweden and Finland, the Greenland Inuit, the San people from southern Africa, and the Ainu people from Japan. It also relies on library research and actual travel to places such as Greenland, Northern Canada and Scandinavia in order to physically experience the kind of life the clans would have lived thousands of years ago by spending time with peoples who still live in much the same way. As Paver says,
[t]o experience the northern forest in the raw, I went to northern Finland and Lapland, travelling on horseback, and sleeping on reindeer skins in the traditional open-fronted Finnish laavu. I ate elk heart, reindeer and lingonberries, and tried out spruce resin: the chewing gum of the Stone Age. I learnt traditional Sami (Lapp) methods for preparing reindeer hides, and picked up forest beliefs and customs from people who've lived there for generations. ("Author")
Although the series may indeed be set in ancient times, in drawing on the experience and traditions of these peoples it is very much a tale of today and redolent of the lives of peoples who still live in traditional ways and often in some of the more inhospitable places of the world and without the conveniences of modernity. In a very obvious way, this ties the world of Paver's Chronicles to the deep ecology approach to the environment, which opposes "the dominant worldview of technocratic-industrial societies which regard humans as isolated and fundamentally separate from the rest of Nature, as superior to, and in charge of, the rest of creation" (Devall and Sessions 65), and which draws heavily on many spiritual traditions including Taoist and Buddhist writing (Devall and Sessions 80). Clearly, the fact that Torak, Renn and Wolf-as the main characters with whom younger readers are most likely to identify-ultimately defeat all of the Soul Eaters who wish to dominate the world of the Forest suggests that readers are indeed being prompted to favor the deep ecological position.
On one level, the defeat of the Soul Eaters locates the Chronicles of Ancient Darkness series within a tradition of the "eco-hero" narrative identified by Lesnik-Oberstein. The fact that it is a wolf, a young boy and girl called Renn (a future Mage, or shaman, for her clan, the Ravens) who are ultimately charged with defeating this danger to the Forest's well being (and, therefore, the well-being of all the inhabitants, human, animal and plant) could be seen as following the line where future generations are tasked with resolving the problems arising from the errors of those of the older generations who seek only to manipulate and control the environment and who knowingly threaten the delicate balance that exists. However, the key to the series' message is not found through an understanding of the connection between children and the natural world in terms of the Romantic notion of innocence that figures the pure, untouched child, a child who is separate and distinct from the world of the adult. Instead, it comes from seeing that both child and adult characters respect their world, and that they participate as a part of the environment rather than standing outside nature as masters of all they survey.
As Jean Webb has stated, the series "addresses a practical and philosophical holistic relationship with nature and asks how Homo Sapiens relates physically and spiritually to the environment" (260). At the same time, enveloping important social and, in this case, environmental messages within an engaging fictional context is not always in itself a panacea, especially as fictional texts for children that do deal with matters of the environment are more likely to be read by (or to) young readers who are already environmentally minded if not aware, or those whose parents or teachers already have ecologically minded attitudes. The question, of course, is the nature of those attitudes, and clearly one very powerful change would be in attitudes towards the natural world that look to a "future world in which generations to come can wander in awe and communion like Torak, spirits in a symbiotic relationship, walking with nature" (Webb 267). This requires movement from an anthropocentric to a more ecocentric world view, not one that eulogizes nature at the expense of humankind, but rather one that acknowledges the inherent interconnectedness of all living beings.
In maintaining a sense of optimism that both attitudes and actions can be changed before it is too late, Paver offers a somewhat different literary approach to the environmental situation than, for instance, a book such as Megan McDonald's Judy Moody Saves the World (2002) that suggests children can indeed "save the world" through their own efforts as part of human (anthropocentric) stewardship of the planet. Paver's approach does not ask largely powerless children to tend their own gardens on a local level (useful as this might be in some small way), instead she demands a more emotional and direct identification and connection with the natural world. While Paver presents readers with a world from the distant past, the series is not intended as a call to return to those times. Instead, what Paver seems to be arguing for is very much about the present, and for Webb, "[b]y removing the reader from contemporary 'normality' into a prehistoric period, Paver can obliquely critique the contemporary situation in Western culture" (260). Paver's portrayal of human beings who have an understanding of their place in a biodiverse ecosystem is very much akin to the model set out by Joseph Meeker, in his arguments regarding ways people today need to respond to the ecological problems currently being faced. Thus, for Meeker, "the way out of environmental crisis does not lead back to the supposed simplicity of the cave or the farm, but towards a more intricate form of living guided by a complex human mind seeking to find its appropriate place upon a complex earth" (xx-xi). As such, although identifying trends in publishing tastes is an uncertain business, the approach to the environment offered in Paver's series is an important direction for green children's literature.
Whether Paver continues to write the environment in this way remains to be seen, but her new series for children, Gods and Warriors, will also have a similarly ancient setting, the early Bronze Age, with characters befriending animals as they journey around the Mediterranean region. The first book in the series of five is due to be published by Puffin in the autumn of 2012 and, even if it does not dwell on environmental issues in the same way as the Chronicles of Ancient Darkness series, it promises to be another excellent addition to the shelves of fiction for children.
[Sidebar]
...Paver's series offers an adventure narrative and coming of age story that speaks clearly to the current need to re-evaluate understandings of the way human beings respond to the natural world around them.
Paver's positioning of the Forest, and nature in general, in this way asks us to reconsider the position of human beings within the natural environment...
Through this animism, Paver attempts to give the natural world a voice.
It is a question of harmonious coexistence or mutual destruction.
Whilst humans still need to hunt the animals of the forest in order to live, there is no waste or greed, and all due respect is given to the animals as partners in a balanced ecosystem...
Apart from the obvious narrative ploy that enables Paver to recount events that Torak is not witness to, this narrative technique also provides another way of giving voice to the natural world.
This requires movement from an anthropocentric to a more ecocentric world view, not one that eulogizes nature at the expense of humankind, but rather one that acknowledges the inherent interconnectedness of all living beings.
 




[Reference]
Works Cited:
Children's Books
McDonald, Megan. Judy Moody Saves the World! London: Walker Books, 2002. Print.
Paver, Michelle. Ghost Hunter. London: Orion Children's Books, 2009. Print.
-. Oath Breaker. 2008. London: Orion Children's Books, 2009. Print.
-. Outcast. 2007. London: Orion Children's Books, 2008. Print.
-. Soul Eater. 2006. London: Orion Children's Books, 2007. Print.
-. Spirit Walker. 2005. London: Orion Children's Books, 2006. Print.
-. Wolf Brother. 2004. London: Orion Children's Books, 2005. Print.
Secondary Sources
Buell, Lawrence. The Environmental Imagination: Thoreau, Nature Writing, and the Formation of American Culture. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1995. Print.
Capra, Fritjof. The Hidden Connections: A Science for Sustainable Living. New York: Anchor Books, 2004. Print.
Devall, Bill and George Sessions. Deep Ecology. Layton UT: Gibbs Smith, 1985. Print.
Greiner, Patricia. "Radical Environmentalism in Recent Literature Concerning the American West." Rendezvous 19.1 (1983): 8-15. Print.
Lesnik-Oberstein, KarĂ­n. "Children's Literature and the Environment." Writing the Environment: Ecocriticism and Literature Eds. Richard Kerridge and Neil Sammells. London: Zed Books, 1998. 208-217. Print.
Meeker, Joseph W. The Comedy of Survival: Studies in Literary Ecology. 1972. New York: Charles Scribner's, 1974. Print.
Mickenberg, Julia L. and Philip Nel. "Radical Children's Literature Now!" Children's Literature Association Quarterly 36.4 (2011): 445-473. Print.
Paver, Michelle. "Author Essay." www.harpercollins. com. Web. 10 Feb 2012.
Rahn, Suzanne. "Green Worlds for Children." The Lion and the Unicorn 19.2 (1995): 149-170. Print.
Thiel, Elizabeth and Alison Waller. "Introduction." Deep into Nature: Ecology, Environment and Children's Literature (IBBY/NC RCL Papers 16). Eds. Jennifer Harding, Elizabeth Thiel and Alison Waller. Lichfield: Pied Piper, 2009. 1-4. Print.
Vilkka, Leena. The Intrinsic Value of Nature. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1994. Print.
Wagner-Lawlor, Jennifer A. "Advocating Environmentalism: The Voice of Nature in Contemporary Children's Literature." Children's Literature in Education 27.3: (1996). 143-152.
Webb, Jean. "Is Our Future Set in Stone? A Discussion of Michelle Paver's Chronicles of Ancient Darkness." Deep into Nature: Ecology, Environment and Children's Literature (IBBY/ NC RCL Papers 16). Eds. Jennifer Harding, Elizabeth Thiel and Alison Waller. Lichfield: Pied Piper, 2009. 258-267.

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