Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Think of the Children! Tuesday: 'A Walk in Wolf Wood'


Today's article is all about on of my favorite stories from childhood, but contrary to what I thought I was going to write, it's not going to be about how this is a great story and clearly child-me had amazing taste in books. See, I just reread the book in question, A Walk in Wolf Wood by Mary Stewart, and now I am pressed with a difficult question: what the hell did I see in this when I was a kid?

Make no mistake here, A Walk in Wolf Wood was one of my hands down favorite books when I was younger. The copy I have is beaten all to hell but still has the sentimental inscription in the back to remind me that this was a present from my third grade teacher at the end of the year. I've hoarded this book and kept it with me since I was eight because I just meant so gosh-darned much to me. And now that I've reread it for the first time in what must be a decade at least, I am forced to admit that I have no idea why.

Seriously. None.

I can speculate as to why I specifically as a child might have been drawn to the story - it's about wolves, magic, time travel, and medieval life - but I don't see why I loved it so much. The plot is almost laughably simplistic: John and Margaret are two nice young English kids on vacation with their parents in Germany's Black Forest when they fall into a magic spell. 

Playing in the woods after a picnic, the kids get separated from their parents and end up wandering around looking for a man they saw crying. And then they run into a wolf. Before you can say "contrived plot device" the children have run back to where their parents ought to be only to find that everything they knew is gone and they're lost in the woods and possible the past. Oh no!

The story goes on and we find that the man and the wolf are actually the same person. His name is Mardian and he's the sort of really really ridiculously nice fictional man who thinks nothing of helping out strange children who walked into his own house and threw things at him because they thought he was trying to eat them. Mardian tells his whole story to them, again because apparently that's just what you do when some weird time-traveling kids show up on your doorstep.

His story is that Mardian used to be an advisor to the Duke, best friends since they were kids, but they had a falling out when the Duke got depressed, and a mean bad rude enchanter in the castle took advantage of this fight. He cast a spell on Mardian to make him a werewolf, then made himself look like Mardian and stole his place. Not sure why he picked such a contrived plot, but okay. He could have just killed Mardian and saved himself the trouble, but no. Instead, the sorcerer, whose actual name is Almeric, took Mardian's life and now is poisoning the Duke himself. John and Mary must help the real Mardian get his life back and save the Duke!

So the real Mardian, who they call Wolf, helps the children into some conveniently placed medieval children's clothing and sneaks them into the castle. He gives John an amulet that he and the Duke had made when they were boys to convince the Duke that it's all true, and then they have to navigate their way through life in a medieval castle to save Wolf. It works out okay.

Actually, it works out improbably well. After less than twenty-four hours in the castle, John has managed to get the amulet into the Duke's hands and told him the story, while Margaret has gotten herself recognized by one person (who saw her out on the road the day before) and captured by the evil Almeric. She contributes very little to this story, honestly.

The whole thing is very anti-climactic, with the end coming as everyone watches Wolf turn back into the real Mardian and Almeric dissolve in a pile of slime at daybreak. That's it, and then the kids walk back to their parents.

Why the hell did I love this so much when I was eight?

I mean, on a purely surface level, it's not a very good story. Everything happens way too easily. John and Margaret happen to find Mardian's little house in the woods with no problem. When they decide to help him, which they do instinctively because they're just good people, he happens to have clothing in their size in his house which is not at all creepy or suspicious. Come on, it even "just so happens" that John is able to get in an audience with the Duke on his first night in the castle. No one works for anything in this book. It's like being told you're steering the train. It's on rails and nothing you do has any effect on the direction it goes.

So just from a storytelling standpoint I'm kind of giving me-from-the-past a sideeye here. But what about everything else? What about the emotional core of the book? Is that good at least?

Simply put, it's not awful, but I'm not sure I would go so far as to say it's good. Parts of it certainly have merit. There's a bit early on when the children ask what they should do if the Duke won't believe them, and Mardian replies, "Then hope is done. If trust dies, and vows come to count for nothing, then I must stay a forest wolf till they hunt me down to death. There will me no more reason for me to stay a man..." And that's some intense good crap! 

I find that bit rather profound, stating that without love and trust and hope, there is nothing human about us all. These are the things that make life worth living. So that bit is really compelling. It is also, however, pretty much the only time things get so emotionally involved. The rest of the time it's just meh.

And the thing is, because there are no hurdles in the story, no struggles to overcome, no obstacles, nothing in the way of this very simple plot and the happy ending, it comes off as cheap. It ends up being frustrating because you don't feel like the ending was earned. It's the participation trophy of book endings. You get it just for showing up, but no work or skill actually went into it.

Hell, from a gender standpoint this book is downright regressive. It gives good lip service to Margaret being a clever and brave little girl, even stating that she's so shocked by how little there is for these medieval women to do and how she hates it there, but in the end she contributes absolutely nothing to the plot. She gets recognized within the first two hours, then she hides all day, then she spies on the bad guy but gets caught and turned into a hostage, and then she's just kind of there for the rest of the book. How is that a good message for little kids? 

It bothers me because the bones of this book aren't half bad. The whole thing with Mardian and the curse - which, like I said above, is classic movie villain logic - is compelling and weird and interesting. The part with the children fitting into the castle life could have been really neat if it had gotten more of a handwave than "and no one recognized them and they were able to completely fake being almost a thousand years in the past without anyone noticing because magic". The emotional story of Mardian's humiliation at being forced to be a wild animal and his relationship with the Duke are both stories that needed more development but had real potential.

Unfortunately, all of that is really wasted here and all that we're left with is a plot that reads like an outline someone wrote before bothering to go back and edit. So, I say again, what on earth did I see in this?

I guess this is the part where I get all philosophical and point out that, a lot of the time, it's honestly hard to say why kids like the things they do. Why, when every adult who can speak is begging them to stop, do children so love Thomas the Tank Engine? Honestly, what is the appeal of Cars 2? There are dozens if not hundreds of children's franchises and stories that I as an adult cannot fathom. I suppose I thought I was above all of that, and this experience is teaching me that I'm not. 

I don't know why I liked this book so much. I can remember the feelings I associated with it. I remember being completely wrapped up in the story, biting my nails as we neared the really obvious ending. I distinctly remember being enraptured by the part where John and Margaret put on their medieval clothes for the first time. And I remember wishing so much that I had a wolf I could play with and hug and save from an evil sorcerer.

But I can't tell you why this book meant so much to me. And I feel like, in its own way, that's a very important message.

See, I talk a lot on this blog about children's media, and I always come at it from the perspective of an adult. This is what's helpful about this story, that's what's harmful, monitor what your kids consume as media, blah blah blah. I don't spend nearly as much time thinking through the logic of why kids like what they like. Probably because, as it is here, so much of that is completely ineffable.

So this is a reminder for me that for all that I can rail and rage about making sure your kids are exposed to good stories and good messages and media that helps them grow into good human beings (which I still think is important), there's another factor at work here too. Your kids are people with opinions and taste and particular preferences. I can't predict them and I can't explain them. I can no more guess if your child will fall head over heels for Bob the Builder than I can tell you what it is that so enraptured me in A Walk in Wolf Wood.

All I know is that personal preference seems to be one of our most human characteristics. Which is probably very good and deep and meaningful. But it's also weird and unpredictable and confusing. So take everything I say with a grain of salt, my chickadees. It's clear to me now that I don't even know my own mind as well as I'd like, let alone yours.

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