Limyaael's Rants

Feral Children

Written on 2004-12-15; Read the original post on LiveJournal

I think writers usually have orphaned children growing up among animals because they see it as an easy “excuse” for the child being able to talk to animals or have animal friends or whatever. The problem comes when you sit down and really begin to look at that plotline.

1) Why was the child abandoned at all? The motive of exposure, of wanting to kill the child without actually bloodying one’s own hands, is the oldest and, I think, still the best. The others usually fail one test of plausibility or another.

-If the family really doesn’t wish to expose the child and wants it to survive, abandoning it on the doorstep of another family would be the best option. Parents who are dim-witted enough to think an infant would have a high chance of living by itself in the wilderness deserve to be killed by the Dark Lord.
-If the Dark Lord’s servants want it dead, why not just kill it themselves? Usually, they’re not represented as the kind of people who would scruple to murder a child.
-Parents killed as they flee into the wilderness by the Dark Lord’s servants might have a chance to abandon the baby in a thick clump of brush, but there’s absolutely no guarantee that the baby won’t scream and reveal itself. In fact, if the baby has been ripped out of a sound sleep, or thrown from a dying mother’s arms, it’s rather more likely than not. If the child is older and its mother has told it to keep quiet, then this plotline would have a much better chance of succeeding.
-The forces of light coming too late to save the parents but soon enough to kill the bad guys—and then just leaving the baby that was the cause of the Dark Lord’s servants searching the family out in the first place? Those are some damn dumb good guys, there. I would think they would at least look around, and not a casual or quick glance, either. Only if the mother really had managed to hide the baby in a good hiding place and the child kept quiet for hours for whatever reason would it work.

Of course, as I noted above, the problem could be solved easily enough by having an older child instead of a baby. And that solves some other problems, too.

2) There is a limited window of language—and it slams shut quickly. If you want a feral child who has a functional chance of coming back into society, I would say that she needs to be at least five, six, or seven before the wolves adopt her. There have been real-life cases of children reared from infancy by wolves, gazelles, and other animals, but they have enormous problems. The deepest and most basic of these have to do with language.

Children will learn languages quickly, as long as they are children and get encouragement from other people. By the time they’re ten, children’s ability to learn a second language has already begun to decline. By the time they’re teenagers, which is the age at which most feral children were discovered, it’s an uphill struggle to alter anything about their speech.

Now, imagine a child whose only companions have been wolves from the time she was a month or even a year old. She hasn’t heard adults around her speaking words and explaining abstract concepts. She hasn’t had other children to babble with. She hasn’t had a single word of human language except maybe from a distance, and now she’s sixteen.

She will never become a fully functioning adult human being. It’s too late. Some feral children have learned to speak, but it’s the same kind of struggle that it takes to learn a second language—and with a second language, at least most people have recourse to their first tongue, to compare it to. This child will have nothing. Yes, thought can take place without words, but it will be almost completely image- or concept-bound. She won’t be able to explain herself at first. She can learn only by long and patient instruction, and if the people around her don’t have that time to give, her chances of learning are in the shithole.

Most fantasy authors seem to prefer the idea of abandoned babies as orphans in the wilderness because, oooh, so dramatic, they don’t remember their parents then. However, such is the way to produce a true feral child. A child abandoned around the age of five or higher will have a much better chance of becoming “human” again. And even if you’re going to cheat with the psychology, it’s a puzzle how a girl who’s never spoken to anyone but wolves comes back into the human world speaking aloud.

3) Feral children lack the most basic social skills. This is only a partial list of the concepts that most human children don’t need to think about, since they’re reared from childhood understanding them, but which a feral child abandoned as a baby would have no grasp of:

-clothing.
-facial expressions and the meanings behind them.
-the complex and multiple reasons behind emotions (it would be almost impossible to make her understand, without language, whether a person was angry at her for breaking a vase, or angry with someone else and taking it out on her).
-art.
-buildings and how to get around in them.
-lying.
-math/numbers/means of counting and keeping track of time that relied on precise numbering.
-manners, including table manners.
-silverware.
-bathing.
-normal human daily routines (a child raised by wolves might well be partly nocturnal).
-means of creating light.
-politics.
-how to cook/prepare food.
-human ways of tending wounds.
-promises.
-notions of family, blood kinship, or inheritance (how are you really going to make the little feral princess understand that she’s the ruler of a country?)
-history.
-symbolic notions attached to colors, phrases, clothing, certain places, other animals.
-sexual mores.
-human ways of doing magic.
-crimes.
-“taboos” (for example, murder, cannibalism, incest).

And almost everything else you can think of.

A feral princess would be a disastrous ruler of a country if she was abandoned as an infant. She just wouldn’t be able to do it.

4) Reintegration into society would not be quick or easy. Perhaps you do have a child in a plotline you can work with. The child learned to speak and some basic notions like clothing and family before she ran away or was abandoned, and though she’s been reared by wolves for the past seven years, she had seven years of human socialization before that. So she has to play a key role in the plot, perhaps as the sole possessor of a particular kind of magic, and they have three days to get her ready.

Not enough. Not near enough.

For one thing, even though the child will have learned language and so on, that doesn’t mean that it simply comes back to her like that the moment another human being talks to her. If she’s been snatched from the wilderness, then she’s probably angry and frightened, more ready to lash out than to listen. It’ll take some time to calm her down and rekindle the memories.

For another, children can learn fairly complicated things without learning the “why” behind them. “You’ll understand when you’re older” might be a cliché, but it does hold true for quite a few things. So this little girl might have learned how to use her magic, a bit, as a child, but that doesn’t mean that she’ll necessarily understand what it means that she’s the only one in the world with it now, or why she should care about these people who want her to use it (especially if they took her away from the place that’s been her home for the last seven years), or that she’ll even realize what it means that perhaps the enemy they need her to defeat killed her parents or whatever. Explanations are needed to build trust, but before the “rescuers” can even give them, they’ll need to lay all the groundwork, all the “whys.”

For another, this will be a little girl who hasn’t had to hide her emotions or regulate her behavior to some human standard for the past seven years. She wouldn’t hide her anger, her disgust, her fear, or anything else. If someone tried to put a gown on her, she’d probably take it off. If someone told her not to do something, she might do it anyway. So her sitting quiet and calm and agreeing it would be a horrible thing if the world was destroyed is not an inevitable result when the explanations do come.

Months would be a more realistic timeline for a plot to have the girl return to society. Years would be even better.

5) Telepathy or magic is not a catch-all answer. Perhaps the writer looks at the chances she takes abandoning a child in the wilderness as a baby, frowns, and then says, “Well, these wolves are telepathic wolves. That means they can teach her about magic and humans and families and other things!”

Question for the supposed genius in the corner: Why would contact with lupine minds make her more human? She might well learn to use telepathy, but still, how would she learn to speak aloud? If the telepathy is conducted in images, which is the usual recourse with animal telepathy in fantasy books, she might develop very sophisticated mental imagery, but still not know what it means when a human talks about “family” to her. And why wouldn’t lupine notions of family be different from human ones?

For that matter, magic-using wolves living in the wilderness is not an answer, either. Once again, they might teach her to use their magic, but that doesn’t mean it’s automatically magic that humans would consider useful. Imagine a feral child returning who knows spells to kill the weakest deer in a herd, but not to kill a strong human opponent. It’s more likely than her just happening to have the power to destroy an army. What use would wolves have for such a power?

6) Why does being raised among one group of animals give her the power to command all animals, or even all of that species? Let’s return to the girl who spent seven years with her family and seven years in the wilderness, among wolves. Now she’s returned. She was living with a pack in a wooded valley, and her captors transport her a hundred miles, to a castle near a wood where another pack lives.

Why is she able to control that pack, summon them, and boss them around? Why would they care about her? She’s not their abandoned human infant.

This returns to the question I asked in the previous nature rant about why all animals of a particular species start drooling and following the heroine around. So someone’s killing wolves. If they’re not harming that particular pack, why does that particular pack care? So someone’s hunting leopards. Leopards are usually solitary; why does the one in this territory care if leopards are dying a thousand miles away? And why do they follow a human girl who wasn’t raised among them, whom they have no connection of familiarity or emotion to?

Animals don’t have the species-wide recognition that humans do. They do struggle against each other in mating season, fight against each other, kill each other on occasion. One reason animals don’t have wars is because of a lack of certain instincts that humans have, and one of them is our very aggressive social instinct. Animals don’t expand into nations and conquer each other, but neither do they extend helping paws towards a wolf across the mountains who’s starving to death. And they don’t have any reason to listen to some strange human thinking at them, even if she is doing so in wolf-images. She would have to establish a trusting bond with them in return, and, if they have anything like a normal pack social structure, take over from the alpha, not just move in and take that place like it’s been waiting for her.

Feral children having a “general bond with all animals” is just lazy. The author doesn’t explain how the magic works, why strange animals would care, or why people who have spent similar lengths of time in the wilderness (like hermits, trackers, druids, and so on) don’t have it. If there was a gift that everyone could have who spent a similar amount of time in the wilderness, or if it was attached to the age at which someone came among the wolves, then it would make more sense. I’m sure you can have something that makes more sense. Go forth and make it make sense.

Return to the top

Return to the index