Tarzan and The Jungle Book's Mowgli: Why we're fascinated by the 'feral child' in fiction, and real-life
During a press show for Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book this week, just before the film was to begin, Disney screened a series of other trailers.
Among them was one for Pete's Dragon, the story of a boy — a mix of Mowgli and a young Tarzan in appearance — also raised in the wild, not by wolves or apes, but (as the title suggests) by a dragon.
That Pete’s story was being teased alongside Mowgli's was a serendipitous coincidence (or clever marketing) but it highlighted an important phenomenon — our fascination for children raised in the wild, or as they are commonly referred to: "feral children".
Mowgli — whose story was written by Rudyard Kipling all the way back in 1894 — and Tarzan (a product of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ imagination) may be the most popular, fictitious ‘feral children’ we've known, and have spawned several films, TV shows, innumerable regional spin-offs across the globe, animated features, comic books and what not.Oh, and also a Superman story!
But they are not the only characters of their kind. Even apart from obvious parodies (George of the Jungle for instance) and the other characters and stories they've inspired (Shasta of the Wolves etc) there are several literary and real accounts (books like Michael Netwon's Savage Boys And Wild Girls, Jean Zimmerman's Savage Girl and Animal Planet's TV show Raised Wild) that all draw on our fascination for human beings raised away from the modern trappings of well, being human.
Feral children aren't just a product of the modern imagination. Romulus and Remus, called the founders of Rome, are believed to have been reared by a she-wolf (after their mother was forced to pack them, Moses-like, into a basket and send them down the River Tiber, to save their lives). In Greek mythology, Atlanta is said to be raised by a she-bear. And in the ancient Mesopotamian epic of Gilgamesh, his friend Enkidu is also shown to grow up among a variety of beasts, until he becomes ‘civilised’.
And from time to time, we hear of someone who has been lost in the wild for years, only to return, with not much to say about how they survived. While some have turned out to be cases of fraud, there are tales that are still considered true — most notably that of Victor of Aveyron (the subject of a film made by Francois Truffaut) and Gaspar Hauser (whose story was brought to the screen by Werner Herzog).
Just why do the stories of these feral children arouse so much interest?
For the 17th-18th century philosophers, including Rousseau, the question was one of the ‘nature vs nurture’ dispensation. How much of what we were was down to the influences of the world around us and how we were raised, and how much was pre-programmed within us from birth?
Ashwin Sanghi, the author of the bestselling Chanakya's Chant, Krishna Key and The Sialkot Saga, believes it is the chance to have a definitive answer to this debate that draws us to stories of feral children. "The age old question of nature versus nurture has never found a satisfactory answer. Our fascination with the feral child is simply a reflection of this question. It is also related to our obsession with the bizarre and the extraordinary. The idea that a child can be brought up entirely disconnected from human contact is fascinating, an oddity... the same reason that P.T. Barnum was so successful!" he tells us.
Feral children represent the chance to study humans ‘untouched’ by the effects of civilisation; a rare chance to examine how we might have turned out had evolution worked out differently. The story of Oxana Malaya or the ‘dog girl’ from Ukraine is a case in point.
The stories of feral children also feed into other anxieties of modern life — they represent our belief that had we lived in a state of nature, we might be less anxious and stressed out than we are now. As though, having to hunt for survival or having to defend oneself from being hunted is somehow less stressful than ensuring the financial, professional and personal struggles that have come to symbolise our day-to-day lives (the jury's still out on that one)!
It's interesting here to note that a lot of the popular stories about feral children were written by people who didn't have much contact with the wild itself. Kipling certainly didn't spend much time in the jungle; neither did Burroughs, whose ideas of Africa and its inhabitants (where Tarzan is shown to live) were formed by the travel accounts of the explorer Henry Morton Stanley.
These writers/creators romanticised the idea of the wild in a way. Kipling’s jungle had darker, dangerous tones (unlike the Disney versions which made it seem like a slightly more chaotic and overgrown garden), but it was still a place where animals were noble, had a strong code of conduct and upheld the Law of the Land. There were a couple of bad apples in the form of Shere Khan and Tabaqui the jackal, but in Bagheera, Baloo, the wolf pack, Kipling presented a better ‘class’ of animals.
A recent and real life case of "Ray", an English speaking boy who showed up in Berlin, claiming that he had been living in the wild for several years, also shows how enchanted we are by the idea of surviving outside the bounds of civilisation (it turned out to be a hoax). The Guardian, which reported the story, also pointed out how the idea of feral children attested to an essential paradox of modern human society — that we got so good at dealing with the wild that over time, we needed to stop dealing with it at all. And now we have no skills to survive in the wild, should the need arise — which is why the cases of people who do survive, interest us so much.
Shweta Taneja, a speculative fiction author and a Charles Wallace Writing Fellow, offers this perspective: "I feel the idea of growing up in the wild, away from social norms, is tied up to having a re-look at society and what construes social norms and civilisation. When a character grows up in the jungle so to say, his/her perspective to our society is fresh, explorative, almost child-like in its curiosity, innocent and simplicity. This kind of storytelling is a way to explore the society that we live in from a fresh, almost innocent perspective. The writer, who is invariably city-based and grew up in the civilised environment looks at the jungle/forest space as something which is chaotic and dangerous, but at the same time has codes that are untouched and untainted by the civilized codes."
There are also several Freudian analyses that come up when talking of feral children — where the feral child represents that which is primitive among us, the "id", while civilisation can be seen as the "superego". Attaining a balance between the primal state and the overly straitlaced selves society would want us to be might construe the battle the ego must continuously undertake.
Of course, as much as we may want feral children to be free of the ideas that civilisation has imposed on us — they are curiously enough, a mirror for social constructs, especially those of class and gender.
So Tarzan was seen as the original ‘noble savage’ — he is actually an English aristocrat in the 'civilised' world. The stories — such as the one where Jane makes her appearance, with several "lazy, disobedient" porters carrying several trunks of her clothes into the interiors of Africa — can be racist. The Tarzan films only perpetuated those stereotypes further.
Meghna Pant, the author of Happy Birthday and One & A Half Wife, also highlights this issue.
"We love the feral child because he represents the un-seized passion in us that wants to be set free. Fair enough. But the person growing up in the wild has to be a man. How would we react is it was a girl growing up in the wild and swinging from trees? It’s an image society cannot comprehend," she says.
"Since eons, women and men have had their roles defined in a way that enables what is perceived as a smooth functioning of society and family... There are social constructs within which each gender is told how to behave. Women are told to be ladylike, nurturing, and earn merit through family. Men are encouraged to be adventurous, ambitious, and earn merit through status. That’s sadly why ‘boys will be boys’ still forms part of our cultural dictionary... Stereotypes and cultural labels are disturbing; they harm the social construction that is the foundation of a society. I’m sure in the 21st century we’d love to see a female Tarzan who finds love, adventure and humour in equal measure to Tarzan, without becoming unlovable or unidentifiable," Meghna adds.
Indeed, the roles of female characters in feral child stories seems restricted to nurturing (such as Raksha, the wolf mother for Mowgli) or to civilise (Shamhat for Enkidu, Jane for Tarzan, even the village girl for Mowgli).
We may never fully understand the curious grip that the accounts of feral children — be they real, fiction, televised, or animated — have on our minds. But with The Jungle Book playing to packed theatres, a Tarzan film on its way and yet another Mowgli film expected next year (not to mention Pete's Dragon) one thing is clear — for all the ‘progress’ we have made, we are as mystified now (if not more than ever) by the idea of the 'different', and the 'primitive'.