Scrawny and disheveled and wild, a child steps from the cold darkness of the woods and into the bustle of a small European village. Quietly, slowly, step by cautious step, she makes her way to the largest, most impressive building in sight, and on the step, she collapses in a pile of malnourishment and neglect. Long hair and tiny scraps of cloth for clothing are the only distinguishing features as a growing crowd of onlookers gathers to inspect this forgotten vestige of an era past. Questions slip from the mouths of witnesses: Who is she? Where did she come from? What should we do?
They soon find the child is mute, or at least unwilling to talk. She is inquisitive but fearful of people and new and loud experiences, and totally unaware of the civilities that come from a decent upbringing. The child is hungry, very hungry, but seems confused by eating utensils and even amused by the novelty of prepared food. It becomes painfully clear that this child has been through an ordeal that would, perhaps, have ended a weaker soul.
This is a wild child.
The above story may seem familiar to you, and not just insofar as it seems like the plot to a fairly cheesy period mystery book you might find in an airport lounge. It seems, if you’ll indulge, to stir something primal inside of us. That last bit is a touch misleading though, for the proper term is feral child, not wild child (which engenders visions of some hippy road trip or something).
In fact, this story is one of the oldest morality tales known to man, and what’s more is, the basic plot has never left our literary psyche over the millennia.
You may find the following names somewhat familiar; Romulus and Remus (no, not the Klingon brothers), Atalanta, Enkidu, Tarzan and Mowgli. These are just the most famous examples of feral children in our literary history. Of course, the last two may be more familiar than the others. Pop culture has celebrated the romance of what, in reality, would be a devastating and permanently retarding experience for any person. The classic tales of Tarzan, a character dreamed up by Edgar Rice Burroughs in his 1912 Tarzan of the Apes, exemplify the quintessential feral child. Abandoned or lost as a young child, possibly at birth, to be raised by either primitives or animals in a wild jungle environment (apes in Africa in the case of Tarzan). The child learns the laws of the jungle and once faced with the modern world upon their discovery, either struggles with or outright rejects the prospect of rejoining the human race. And who could forget Rudyard Kipling’s Mowgli, the Indian feral child of The Jungle Book?
As interesting and entertaining as these examples might be, they are just stories, though they are stories with an origin. That oldest known examples of feral children tales come, actually, from what is arguably the oldest known manuscript, the Epic of Gilgamesh. In it, Enkidu, a wild man created by the gods, befriends Gilgamesh, and after several adventures during which the two slay frightening monsters, Enkidu is killed by the gods, leaving Gilgamesh devastated by the loss.
Romulus and Remus come from ancient Rome’s original creation myth, wherein the brothers escape the violent efforts of their maternal Grandfather Numitor and Great Uncle Amulius to rid the kingdom of rightful heirs to the throne. As infants born of the god Mars, they are left for dead but rescued by a she-wolf and woodpecker, who raise them. Ultimately they grow strong and return to challenge Amulius’ claim as King and emerge victorious, creating the great Roman Empire in their wake. (The story’s a little more complicated than that, but you get the gist.)
The point of all this is to illustrate that these stories speak to us on a culturally universal level. There is a feral child type story in nearly every human culture since the Sumerian civilization, and probably originates with tribal traditions before that. What’s truly incredible about this motif though, is the staying power it has in literature, and this may have something to do with the fact that many of these stories, at least later ones, are true (with some obvious poetic licence around the edges).
There are no less than forty well-known accounts of real-life feral children from between the 14th century to present day, all over the world. In 536BC, Egyptian Pharaoh Psammetichus (twenty-sixth dynasty) is said to have deliberately abandoned twins with a goat herder, giving him instructions to feed them, but never talk to them or instruct them in any way. He hoped to find the divine language in this way. Most accounts suggest he failed.
The problem is that many, if not most of those accounts are quite unreliable in their veracity. They were often the result of second or even third-hand testimony and are seldom backed up with any kind of historical record such as migration records or death census. There are a few though, that stand out from the crowd, if you will. One such account is the famous story of Kaspar Hauser. Hauser’s tale is not that of a true feral child, however, as we shall see.
In 1828, on May 26, a young man appeared on the streets of Nuremberg, Germany. He carried with him a letter addressed to Captain von Wessenig, the Captain of the 4th Squadron of the 6th cavalry regiment. The famous line from the letter, also said to be the only thing the boy could say at the time, was “I want to be a cavalryman, as my father was”.
Hauser was, by all accounts, an idiot (in the classical sense), he spoke little, knew nothing of reading or writing, except to crudely write his own name, and he scoffed at food offered him that he did not recognize. In time, and under the tutelage of several people, including the jailor Andreas Hiltel and a Mayor Binder, he began to learn to speak more and to draw or sketch (some of his sketches survive today and are quite striking). He told his own story – and this is where his story differs from the traditional feral child accounts – saying that all he ever knew was a cold, dark concrete cell with a straw bed and a horse carved out of wood as a toy. His captor would feed him bread and water each morning without revealing himself, and on occasion Hauser claimed that the water made him sleep deeply and he would wake to find his nails and hair had been cut the next day. Shortly before he had been released, his captor, presumably, had entered the cell and taught him everything he knew, such as it was; writing his name and the phrase about becoming a cavalryman.
He was soon after released and sent on his way to Nuremberg, where he found himself at the charity of strangers. There are some real problems with his story, namely that his physical condition at the time of his arrival in Nuremberg is thought to have been much better than would be expected for someone who had spent his entire life locked up in a small room and without contact of another living being. He bounced around, living with several benefactors, most of whom initially felt pity for his situation and were intrigued by his story, but nearly all of whom eventually labelled him a liar.
Eventually, and some think to gain sympathy for his earlier troubles, he apparently faked a stabbing, wherein he was cut above his eye. He claimed that a mysterious stranger had done it, though most believe he used a razor to inflict the wound on himself.
On December 17, 1833, Hauser died of a stab wound to his chest. The events surrounding his death are just as mysterious as those surrounding his sudden appearance. He said to witnesses on December 14th, while slowly dying from his wound, that he had been lured to Ansbach Court Garden by a mysterious stranger, who stabbed him while handing him a bag. Police later recovered a small violet purse in the precise location Hauser had described, which contained a penciled note written in mirror-writing. The note read as follows:
“Hauser will be
able to tell you quite precisely how
I look and from where I am.
To save Hauser the effort,
I want to tell you myself from where
I come _ _ .
I come from from _ _ _
the Bavarian border _ _
On the river _ _ _ _ _
I will even
tell you the name: M. L. Ö.”
Hauser’s account was, even at the time, widely doubted. With his history of lying and his previous attempts to cull favour by faking personal injury, people were not in the mood to humour him any longer. The Ansbach Court of Enquiry maintained that he had inflicted the wound himself and invented the story about the mysterious stranger. There is, apparently, forensic and documentary evidence to support this position, and in light of everything, many are in doubt of his entire story.
The facts are, he arrived one day under the cloak of mystery, and left another, under equally mysterious circumstances. Not much more can be said of him, but of feral children stories in general, of the many accounts to choose from, Kaspar Hauser’s may be the most memorable. We do know that feral children exist, and have existed throughout our history, and it seems we’re programmed psychologically to identify with these lost relics of humanity past.
Somewhat more sensational stories have emerged in recent years, such as that of Lyokha (Russia 2007), who was raised by wolves, showed definite wolf-like behaviour and escaped custody to return to the wild after only a single day in medical care. These stories are fascinating in a side-show kind of way, but they also have psychological and sociological value. We can learn from the children in these stories, but we can also learn from our reaction to the stories and from our apparent obsession with the motif through the ages. Humans are survivors. We routinely face death and destruction with bravery and determination. If these small children could survive the wilds with nothing but their wits and their will, it would seem that we, as a species, can survive anything.