Wednesday, 1 July 2009

The Call of the Wild and White Fang - Jack London

Read: January 2009

"It filled him with a great unrest and strange desires. It caused him to feel a vague, sweet gladness, and he was aware of wild yearnings and stirrings for he knew not what."

I had been intending to read Jack London for months before I actually got around to doing so. I can't remember exactly when he became the author I was most intrigued in, most wanted to read, but it was probably around the time I read Jon Krakauer's Into the Wild. Then Chris Stevens (the enigmatic DJ, artist and philosopher on the fantastic American drama show Northern Exposure) dedicated an entire episode to reading from 'The Call of the Wild' and 'White Fang' and I pretty much went straight out and bought it.

There is something about the tough, uncompromising wild which fascinates and inspires me. In my head the Alaskan wilds hold all sorts of romantic connotations and juvenile ideas of freedom, escape, and total peace. Perhaps because that sort of hard life is so completely alien to me, I feel it calling me in a way which is difficult to refuse. And this is only heightened having read these fantastically powerful depictions of life in the wild.

'The Call of the Wild' tells the story of Buck, a comfortable pet from California who is sold into the life of a pack dog in the frozen landscapes of Alaska. But after a tough few weeks Buck finds that he is in his element in that harsh cold climate and that the work tones his body, and fine tunes his entire system to function at peak physical condition. Up there in the wilds he can feel the ancestry of all the dogs who have come before him and as the call of the wild grows stronger he takes off on his own to join a pack of wolves.

'White Fang' shows the other side of the coin, following the life of a ferocious wolf who comes away from the wild to find safety in the employ of humans. Never tamed he remains a vicious and unbeatable fighter until a strange human shows him kindness and he finds companionship and peace. From pet to wild animal, wild animal to something approaching tame, Jack London uses the journey of these two tough but loveable animals to hold a mirror up to the wild side of human nature.

The skill with which he is able to get into the head of the animals and see life through their eyes is mind boggling. He doesn't personify them with human thoughts and emotions but gets inside their heads and looks at life as it might be like for them, with its own imperatives for life and intrinsic rules to be learned. Buck and White Fang and all the other dogs are proud and determined, adaptable and yet driven by a primordial force inside them, willing to relinquish control of their lives to the humans they view as gods, but only while it suits them. Never before have I seen the mind of an animal more fantastically interpreted than by Jack London in these two novellas.

They are a joy to read: beautifully described, excitingly plotted and providing fascinatingly savage insight into both the wildness and love which make up human nature. Although 'The Call of the Wild' probably has the more memorable passages and intrepid insight into the human condition, it is 'White Fang' which I enjoyed more. He is a character it is impossible not to love, even in the midst of his most vicious and terrifying moments. They are not cuddly, fuzzy, domesticated animals (these are no children's stories!) but with their independence of nature and strong will they remain thoroughly attractive, both as symbols of competing sides of human nature and characters in their own right.

"In this manner had fought forgotten ancestors. They quickened the old life within him, the old tricks which they had stamped into the heredity of the breed were his tricks... And when, on the still cold nights, he pointed his nose at a star and howled long and wolflike, it was his ancestors, dead and dust, pointing nose at star and howling down through the centuries and through him."

8.5 out of 10

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