OK – it’s children’s fantasy adventure time. My son and I are reading GHOST HUNTER, the sixth and last book in the Chronicles of Ancient Darkness series by Michelle Paver.
Here’s the series: WOLF BROTHER, SPIRIT WALKER, SOUL EATER, OUTCAST, OATH BREAKER, GHOST HUNTER.
I love these books — really love them. We’ve been at them since November and they’ve made the kids’ bedtime hour feel like an adventure, rather than a faceplant. I’m approaching the end of the last one with genuine sadness.
The story: Torak is twelve when his father dies, leaving him only with an orphaned wolf cub for company. Set in a Nordic land thousands of years ago, the series charts his journeys through the land, interacting with various clans (Raven, Otter, Hare, Seal, Swan, Willow, etc) as he unravels the mysteries and undoes the mayhem of the good-turned-evil mages, the Soul Eaters. The first book introduces Torak to Renn, the Raven clan girl who accompanies him and Wolf for the rest of the series.
All the stories are told in the context of the hunter-gatherer life of nomadic clans. Berries, meats, and stews – chewed roots, herbal remedies, and shelters made from bent saplings, upturned dugout canoes or seal-skin kayaks. Fur-lined parkas and hide boots filled with soft moss, or auroch wool. Journeys follow tracks, markers, and contours. Every step of the story is marked by changes in weather, landscape, or stages of hunger. It’s a visceral book, rich with scents, tastes and sensations. The animals are described in terms of their body language – the warning “uff” of the wolf, the lowered heads of dogs or reindeer. These stories speak to us on a primal level.
There’s enough adventure and suspense to turn the pages well past normal lights out, but for my son and I, it was the resonance between Torak’s world and ours that felt really exciting. Torak’s adventures were wild and unfamiliar enough to be frightening but close enough to feel relatable.
Torak is just a little older than my son, his life wilder than anything we have experienced as a family (we’ve slept under canvas but not in a hide tent), his landscape colder (we’ve woken to rain on our faces, but never ice). He has a wolf and ravens as companions – we have a domestic dog, but we’ve rescued a buzzard, song birds, and mice, and have been face-to-face with foxes and seals.
We don’t live in the wild, but my children know to slow blink at cats to soothe them, to tickle goats under the chin (not on their forehead), and to avoid shrews because ANGER ISSUES (bite, every time). Torak runs for his life through ice storms in the mountains (for several days). We go hill-running in the rain until it gets dark (three miles).
Torak’s world is wild and frightening, but not entirely unfamiliar. We can (almost) feel the book as we read.
One thing we’ve never come close to achieving, though, is hunting. My children are versed in a certain amount of animal lore, but I’ve never taught them to kill their food (except a few fish). We source local, ethical meat if we eat it at all, and they know not to waste it; to respect it as food and life, but we don’t live in a culture where people routinely hunt and kill their own food, and my children do not know how.
This flagged a big question for me. Could my children, in a few years’ time, fend for themselves in the wild? Could I fend for myself now? I’m not so sure. Following gannets and black-backed gulls to shoals of mackerel is no use if you can’t build a boat. Tracking badger and fox prints to a copse doesn’t mean you can set a rabbit snare. Firing arrows at a stationary target doesn’t mean you can hit a moving one, and we have NO idea how to make a bow without string. Add to this that I was vegetarian for years but don’t even know which wild plants to eat.
These are skills that humans maintained for millennia until a handful of generations ago, but now I think we’d struggle to eat, let alone thrive.
How would we actually fare in the wild, right now?
If Armageddon arrived, I sort of picture our family sitting beside a green lean-to, wearing thick-seamed, home-made leather and wool outfits, roasting wild rabbits and nettles over an open fire. But let’s just analyse this a bit.
- That leather outfit? Pfff, yeah, right. Firstly, where did the leather come from? And then, how do you make leather into clothes, and sewing – how do you make bone needles or sinew thread? How, how – any of these things – panic?
- What wild rabbit? Exactly. I don’t know how to catch a rabbit. I might be able to catch lost domesticated pets, if they weren’t too fast. Perhaps an elderly pug.
- And the fire. Fire? Really? The two-sticks, rubbing thing? In the rain? Not seeing sparks, here.
In fairness, I could probably manage a shelter — bend a few saplings and prop up a few branches, leaves, and bracken fronds — and I could probably fashion a hunk of granite into a sharpish tool and maybe cobble together some bark twine or withies to stabilise it, and if we had any kind of decent weather, I could make some hay and create a bed (ish).
So in reality, we’d be crouched naked in a bush-shelter, around two wet sticks and my bleeding fingers, with a few dock leaves and a handful of moss draped over my mortified, shivering children. On the offchance that an elderly pug happened to walk by, I might leap up and, in the name of my family, chase after it, clutching my dock leaves and bra-less boobs until the final lunge. If I caught it and it didn’t happen to be a better fighter than me, we could then hide in our shelter, chewing on raw pug and grass. If scraping it clean with a rock and stretching it between two branches for a few days turned the pug skin into something wearable, I might be able to clothe a tiny patch of one of my children.
What else? If roots can be made into twine, I might even stretch to a net, which means crab and lobster pots, and then we’re talking. Plus I believe seaweed is largely edible, and can also be fashioned into a streamlined and elegant bikini. You heard it here first.
So, OK, it might be appalling but it might not be instant doom — naked but sheltered, with a bit of sea food and the promise of pants — we might not have lost all our skills.
(We’ve totally lost all our skills.)
Either way, skilled or not, in the middle of winter, it’s much nicer to snuggle up in our cosy home, turning pages that allow us to run with wolves, spearing boar and roasting lingonberries, eating around campfires and sleeping on hare- or reindeer-skin rugs. Almost feeling the fear, the cold, the hunger and the occasional seal fat satiety of the hunter gatherers of ages past. Almost.
Almost, for us right now, is probably a good thing.
Here’s a little true thing about a hare.
When I was about twelve, I started running around the farm lanes behind our house in rural Hampshire. I’d pant and sweat up the hill, and then on the way back every day, I’d jog around a sweeping bend before an open gateway (it was always open, I don’t know why), and sit for a moment beside the mother hare who crouched there. She was always both more and less scared than the other hares, panting her fear, but not running. She’d freeze at first, until I said hello to let her know I wasn’t hunting, and then relax, never moving her body but starting to snuffle and flex her long, black-tipped ears again. We’d watch each other. I’d rest for a moment, then softly grunt goodbye to warn her that I was about to move again. She never ran if I was alone; we’d just sit about three feet apart, soaking up the sun.
I was still at the age when I couldn’t easily explain to my friends about the slowing and sitting and talking. I only took friends once and they talked and she ran, so they just saw a distant, running blur. I went alone, after that, and she let me sit beside her again. This is what I want to teach my children.