The wolf comes in from the cold

7th November 1997 at 00:00
Wolves are much maligned. Naomi Lewis finds two books which capture the real creatures

Walk with a Wolf. By Janni Howker. Illustrated by Sarah Fox-Davies. Walker Pounds 9.99. Sophie and the Sea Wolf. By Helen Cresswell. Illustrated by Jason Cockcroft. Hodder Pounds 4.99.

Wolf is a baddy. And a fool. Well, all the stories say so. But this obstinate human leaning towards worn superstition instead of fact has caused the genocide, in the cruellest ways, of one of the most maligned of animals. The wolf is highly intelligent, a model parent and partner. Wolves rarely attack humans. They have even in several authentic cases, rescued and brought up abandoned human infants. Kipling, whose well-spoken wolves protected Mowgli, was more accurate than he knew.

Late in the day, but still of importance, new views of the wolf can be found in more recent child literature. Hunt out and read that splendid novel Julie of the Wolves by Jean C George (Puffin, now out of print). Meanwhile, here are two relevant picture books, both, I'd say, for five to eight-year-olds, both of quality.

One is Janni Howker's Walk with a Wolf: any book by this author deserves attention. Her brief foreword reminds us of the near extinction by humans of a creature who was "probably the first large animal to live with people", the ancestor of "all the kinds of dog we know today". Her factual story follows, page by page, always from the wolf's view, the day of a she-wolf in the harsh Canadian winter. "Walk with a wolf in the cold air before sunrise. She moves, quiet as mist I"; "Run with a wolf" as she seeks for food; "Howl with a wolf in the dawn, thin and icy ... the song of the Arctic". So to the silent advance with the pack, to the kill, and finally sleep and wolf-dream.

Howker is a realist; there is no sentiment in this impressive book, but you will share her sense of respect. It might lead you, even, to search out more of wolf lore and history. The austere scene and landscape live in her text, as they do in the fine illustration, skilfully using throughout the grey, white and pale brown of sky, snow and wolf - with the startling black of a pair of crows.

Sophie and the Sea Wolf is a different affair, entirely, for this is a fantasy; yet, as we shall see, its wolf has its truth. Sophie, aged around six, loves and talks to the sea, though without much of an answer. She longs to know more of its "deep mysteriousness", just as she longs to touch the stars.

"Out of thin air - out of thin salt air", the wolf appears with his rough salt-sparkling coat, sharp ears and yellow eyes. "Meet me at midnight," he says. And she does. "I might never come back," she thinks, as the flight begins. But she doesn't care. What a journey! Are they fishes or birds in the waves of the wild night sky?

At last, wolf alights on the sand ("with a soft thud"). Family, friends and neighbours are all waiting there, calling to Sophie to come back. Yet she wants to stay with the wolf forever. Stay or go: which will she choose? Which do you want her to choose?

It's a thrilling tale. Cresswell is a sure hand at reaching the hither edge of the probable, and then stepping over.

But why a sea-wolf, a creature straight out of dream? Maybe because the wolf, in myth, is a perilous creature, and Sophie is a daring wisher and dreamer. And where should her answer come from but the "deep mysteriousness of the sea"?

"You don't have to believe this tale, but I do," Cresswell concludes. "Even if it isn't true it ought to be." But it does leave a curious sense of truth - not only the truth of fairy tale, but of the wolf itself. This wolf is not tamed or sentimental; you could certainly say what he is about - he is a genuine wolf. The wonderful pictures are indispensable to the whole.

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