Other side of the story

28th March 2003 at 00:00
The wolf and the fox are given a fair deal, in fiction selected by Naomi Lewis

THE LAST WOLF. By Michael Foreman. Illustrated by Michael Morpurgo. Egmont pound;4.99

THE WOLF'S FOOTPRINT. By Susan Price. Hodder Children's Books pound;4.99

EYE OF THE WOLF. By Daniel Pennac. Translated by Sarah Adams. Walker Books pound;4.99

FOX. By Matthew Sweeney. Bloomsbury Children's Books pound;5.99

Has any animal fared worse than the wolf when it comes to nursery rhymes, nursery tales, fables, myths, songs and law? Rudyard Kipling, in The Jungle Book, is a rare exception in not making the wolf a scapegoat. There are signs of change, however.

Michael Morpurgo's The Last Wolf, now in paperback, is a strong example of fiction that celebrates the wolf. In this fine story young Robbie McLeod becomes a fugitive after fighting for Bonnie Prince Charlie at Culloden, and the wolf cub he adopts. The tale is rich enough to make three or four novels and Michael Foreman's illustrations are superb.

Susan Price's forte is the supernatural, but she can show a searcher's taste for facts. The setting of The Wolf's Footprint is unashamedly that of an age-old fairy tale, but the wolf's behaviour of caring for cast-out human young is certainly based on evidence.

The opening is straight from Hansel and Gretel by the Brothers Grimm ("No food. Best leave them to take their chance in the forest."), but the two lost children are saved by wolves who feed them (on wolf food) and lead them to the lair. When the children drink from a wolf's footprint filled with rain, they become wolves. Daw, the small boy-wolf, is caught during a royal hunt and becomes the king's new pet. He discovers that the footprint trick works in reverse and is glad to be human again. But what of his sister? Years later she briefly takes human form to tell Daw that she is happier living as a wolf with wolves and will never return. This yearning for the wolf life was shared by the real-life children raised by wolves in India in the 1970s. Their story is told by Charles McLean in The Wolf Children (Penguin 1979). For another strong fictional account of life with wolves for children, see Jean Craighead George's novel Julie of the Wolves which was last published in the UK by Red Fox.

The French original of Daniel Pennac's Eye of the Wolf has been in print in France since 1982, but this is the first English version published. Why does the boy stand day after day watching the pacing wolf in his dreary cage in the Paris zoo? Vexed, yet curious, the wolf stares back with his one and only eye. (The other was lost during capture.) The boy closes one of his own and each open eye then reveals to the other its owner's history.

The boy's tale is longer: orphaned at birth, he starts life with a cruel trader named Toa, who sells him to the Goat King as a goat herd. He promptly makes terms with the chief predators, striking his best deal with cheetah, who becomes co-goat herd.

Pennac's dazzling story culminates in the boy's encounter at the zoo with all his animal friends. His eye now seems permanently closed, but the wolf has a cure.

There are teasing echoes of Antoine de Saint-Exupery's The Little Prince in the speech of the creatures - their reasoning and philosophies. Pennac walks the same tightrope as St Exupery, over the same chasm. This kind of writing, in which humour and grief, light and dark, are served with the same unstressed elegance, is peculiarly French. If you are drawn to this marvellous book, taste - not age - is the guide, and one reading won't be enough.

Matthew Sweeney's Fox took shape when a branch of the Simon Community - a charity which works with the homeless - asked the poet to write a children's story as a tribute to the hidden, untold and unvalued lives of the many long-term street dwellers. What is achieved in this boy-told tale of a man, a boy and a fox is something moving and troubling, hopeful and lively - all of it easy reading in short, tantalising chapters. Each of the three is essential to the whole: Redbeard the street-dweller, often silent and moody, is keeper of mysteries, knowledge and secrets; young Gerard, who tracks down man and fox when they need help, is the force that holds the friendship together. And the fox? Well, without him, there would be no story and that would be a loss.

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