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 with only 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.
The adventure and suspense are brilliant, but for my son and I, it was the resonance between Torak’s world and ours that felt special — wild and unfamiliar enough to be frightening but close enough to feel relatable.
Torak is older than my son, his life wilder than anything we have experienced (we’ve slept under canvas but not in a hide tent), and his landscape is colder (we’ve woken to rain on our faces, but never ice). He has a wolf and ravens as companions (we have a dog, and occasional rescued buzzards and mice). 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). We have all swum with seals and befriended foxes and other wild animals.
So Torak’s world is wild and frightening, but not entirely unfamiliar. We can (almost) feel the book as we read.
The book made me wonder how we would fare in the wild. Our tracking skills are minimal, our hunting skills limited to modern line fishing (perhaps we could whittle a lobster pot of sorts) and our ability to make clothes from the wild might be limited to a few hastily clutched dock leaves and a daisy chain, which doesn’t bear thinking about.
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).
Still though, 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.