Half-Baked Ideas: The Wild Boy in British Children’s Books—Is This a Thing?

I had the great good fortune to find The Wolves of Willoughby Chase languishing in the bathroom recently, just when things seemed low and sad and I didn't know what to do with myself. Of course, once I had it in my hands, the only sensible option was to read it, and so I did.

As writer of this blog and mother to two driven readers, I have reread many, many books of my youth. In particular, lots of All of a Kind Family and Little House books. But for one reason or another, I hadn't actually reread this one. I had fond memories—which turned out to be true as far as fondness went, but profoundly wrong in terms of the actual happenings of the book—but it had been many years.

What a pleasure this book is! How generous its author! She will put in anything and everything to please a thirsty reader, particularly of the sort who says, "Let's play that we're rich girls, and then we get poor!" (not that I'm naming names). There is a beautiful box of chocolates tied with a violet velvet ribbon! There are fur capes! Golden dresses! Secret passageways! An evil governess! Pluck AND courage! This book has it ALL.

And there is also Simon, the goose boy. He was someone I had all but forgotten in my hazy recollections, but coming upon him now made me wonder all sorts of things. Chief among them: what is it with the British? So many of the cherished British books of my youth (Ballet Shoes, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Secret Garden etc, etc) have such reverence for: the Countryside! Putting roses in their cheeks! Walking on the heath! Getting brown as a berry! This always (and still does) made me feel secretly terrible, what with my wanting to stay indoors with my sallow cheeks and be in the unwholesome indoor environment, reading.

But what I noticed this time was embodying this particular ideal (or so it occurred to me as I was reading this) is the wild boy. Simon the Goose Boy lives in a neat little underground cave on the Willoughby estates, among his geese. He carries a bow and arrow and dresses in furs; he gathers chestnuts that he grinds into flour to bake small cakes among the embers, and he shelters the girls and is kind and true and altogether wonderful.

As a grownup reading this without the singular focus of a child, my mind strayed to other things I'd read, and I thought: Dickon, from The Secret Garden. He is Dickon, or rather, they are both expressions, somehow, of this wish somewhere for kind-hearted wild sprites of the countryside. They are the ones who always walk about the heath, with rosy cheeks and much interaction with animals. Simon made me think, too, of Mr. Tumnus and his cave, his feast, his connection to the pursued little girl. 

If I were more educated and more well-read I think (or imagine) that I could trace this back to one archetype, and it would be Pan or someone. Who also brought roses to the cheeks of little girls, though not in quite this way.

Or am I just creating a fake trend out of two similar characters in two books, a la the New York Times style section? I don't know. I must say, I am really taken with the idea that there has to be a wild boy in every children's book, simply because they are so wonderful.

So I ask you: are these the only ones? Does Mr. Tumnus fit? Am I making this up? Should I go take a walk on the heath to bring the roses to my cheeks? I probably should, right?

15 thoughts on “Half-Baked Ideas: The Wild Boy in British Children’s Books—Is This a Thing?

  1. Now you should read ‘Black hearts in Battersea,’ of course. (Which is what I’m currently doing.) Next thing you know it will be 10 books later and you’ll be reading about Dido’s little sister, Is.
    As for the nature thing — I don’t know, but the English do seem to have a thorough fascination with, even veneration of, the countryside, I have observed this in real life as well as in books. Books, by the way, make English weather sound a lot more pleasant than it actually is!

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  2. I started to think about Dickon when I began reading this post, so I was pleased to discover that you’d thought about him also. I think you’re onto something – both with the obsession with the healthy countryside, and the Wild Boy theme. It reminded me of the Borrowers, where Spiller might be such a boy (albeit in miniature!). The ultimate examples might be Mowgli, and Tarzan! But I’m not so sure that I would include Mr Tumnus in this category.

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  3. But the first scene in which you meet Simon the Goose Boy is so much like the scene with Mr. Tumnus it’s quite amazing. They both live in neat little caves, they both cook things in the embers and offer restorative drinks, and Mr. Tumnus’s being a faun seems to be the ultimate expression, almost of the wild boy. Though he doesn’t have the working class roughness that both Dickon and Simon have in spades. Hmmm….

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  4. I’ll guess it has to do with the wars (I and II) and sending children off to the countryside to be safe. I could be totally off in timing though.

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  5. Have you read A.S. Byatt’s “The Children’s Book”? I’m thinking of Tom Wellwood and what happens to him as the wild boy is forced to grow up and live in an adult world. In the book, he is both the hero in his mother’s children’s stories and a real person taking on that wild boy identity, for better or worse.

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  6. I have read that book and yes, he really is like that, isn’t he? Except his mother has it all wrong (in this particular trope anyway) because in her story he’s the magical boy, the center of it all, as opposed to the working class helper sort of boy of the other books. I am sure A.S. Byatt knows something I don’t, both about this and much else, besides.

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  7. I’m pretty sure A.S. Byatt has forgotten more things than I’ll ever know, which is to say that I think this wild boy idea is definitely a Thing in Literature and you are on to something.

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  8. And there is a wild boy in The Borrowers series–Arietty meets him in the second book after they flee the house. I forget his name…

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  9. I know you aren’t a fan, but Tom Bombadil in LOTR?
    Thank you for reminding me of “Wolves” I have dutifully requested it, b/c it’s PERFECT for my daughter right now (but wasn’t two years ago when I ran across it last). thank you!

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  10. Hmm, yes, and then there’s the Pan figure from Wind in the Willows. But at the same time I’m not sure if it’s really more about boys/Pan per se or whether these are tools to further evoke the restorative power of nature. Heidi of the Alps is another book along this line although it is Swiss. And I also think of “The Other Side of the Mountain” which is American but really fits the “wild boy” theme. But the Brits do seem to be particularly keen on this theme (see also the British fascination with gardening), which possibly could be attributed in part to:
    –temporal influences–writing during the Industrial Revolution through the wars as mentioned above
    — their lack of true frontier wilderness in the sense of the American West–enough nature to be fascinated by it, but not so much to feel quite as threatened by it as we Americans. Perhaps there is also a frisson of additional risk due to the cultural history of barbarians/conflicts emanating from the wilder areas up north
    –their cultural history e.g. the development of the concept of the sublime vs. the romantic
    –the cultural context of landed gentry who possessed large rolling estates that were a mixture of garden and less maintained nature
    –the broader human tendency to situate mystic qualities and adventures in the wilderness, e.g. fairy tales always start with going into the forest
    Did you see opening ceremony at the summer Olympics this past year? It was titled “Green and Pleasant Land” and focused on a similar semi-pastoral, semi-wild theme (I think Mole and Rat made an appearance) before seguing into the Industrial Revolution.
    In addition to the books you mentioned I think you could tie the Narnia series to this tendency to romanticize going out into nature and its beneficial effects, perhaps also the E. Nesbit books, definitely the All Creatures Great and Small series, and although I have not read Swallows and Amazons it sounds like it could fit the theme as well…
    Curious to see other comments on your half-baked idea. Those are my favorites… I love to see some ideas thrown out there without us needing to footnote all our wild thoughts!

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  11. I think there’s also something very attractive about a character with mastery over any kind of rare skill or arcane domain. Look at modern romance novels. The male heroes are always incredibly good at what they do – highly respected ranchers, lawyers who made partner at age 13, mechanics who can restore old cars until they win prizes, even (getting back to the wild boy idea) wilderness guides who know the back country better than anyone else. In general, I think competence is very sexy in a male literary figure.
    I think the Wild Boy idea is an outgrowth of this. Not that the boys are necessarily romantically attractive (although I’ve got to admit to a bit of a pre-teen crush on Dickon!) but I think there is a definite archetype of the male who is the absolute master of his domain.

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  12. Except couldn’t you say that the Dickon-type figure is precisely the opposite of a romantic hero? Perhaps he’s meant to be a safe male character for the female character/reader to love, someone who is so thoroughly embedded in Nature that he does not (yet) embody the threatening characteristics of Man. I think the pre-sexual nature of the pastoral ideal is important here.

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  13. The wild boy in Brit. lit. could be the Green Man, an ancient nature/forest deity who pops up in British myths, folktales, and architectural ornament. Perhaps not surprising if so enduring a figment of Britain’s collective unconscious were to make his way incognito into more contemporary stories too.

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