The writer and the wolf
When Michelle Paver began researching wolf behaviour for a book, she had no idea it would lead to a memorable encounter with the much-maligned animals – and this year’s Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize, writes ARMINTA WALLACE
THE FORECAST has been for freezing fog: the reality, though, turns out to be much more glamorous. Mists swirl around the horizon, giving the landscape an eerie Lord of the Ringsglow. The trees are white with what they call, in these parts, hoar-frost; it’s as if some celebrity chef had been out at dawn, putting on a sugar-icing show for our benefit. But the star of this particular show is meandering calmly along, sniffing the grass and scanning the hedgerows. It is, quite frankly, hard to believe. I’m not on Middle Earth; not even in the high Arctic. I’m in middle England, an hour’s train journey from London Paddington, in the gentle hills of Berkshire. And yet I’m walking with a wolf.
I have come to the UK Wolf Conservation Trust to interview Michelle Paver, author of The Chronicles of Ancient Darknessand winner of this year’s GuardianChildren’s Fiction Prize.
To research her books, Paver has camped with the Sami in northern Finland, swum with killer whales in Norway, studied boat-building and seal-hunting with the Greenland Inuit. But when she wanted to find out what it feels like to bury your head in a wolf’s fur, she came here to seek the help of a particularly easygoing socialised wolf called Duma.
“It was a magical experience,” Paver says. “She licked my nose, then gazed into the distance with those amazing amber eyes – which is a wolf’s way of being polite. I also met her sister Dakota who has since, sadly, died. They had a wonderful relationship. Sometimes a look would pass between them, and then they’d do something mischievous – they’d see if they could snitch someone’s scarf, or a camera. And you’d think: ‘How did you tell each other, just with a little look?’”
When Dakota died, Paver adds, Duma was overtaken by grief. How does a wolf grieve? “She wasn’t playful, she was off her food, looking a bit – you know, hang-wolf, as it were. Just generally not being a joyful wolf. But she’s much better now.”
If the phrase “joyful wolf” strikes you as a little strange, then you clearly haven’t read Wolf Brother. As the story opens, the father of a Stone Age boy called Torak is killed by a bear. In another part of the forest a wolf den has been flooded, drowning all the occupants except for one cub. The two orphans meet, and gradually develop the intense bond suggested by the book’s title, Wolf Brother.
There follows a cracking six-volume adventure involving demons, warring clans, fugitives and a classic good-versus-evil struggle. The three central characters – Torak, Wolf and a girl called Renn, who is the best shot in the forest – are as vivid and likeable as the trio at the centre of the Harry Potterbooks. But what puts Paver’s books in a class of their own is that she gives Wolf a voice of his own.
“It was very important to me to make him a real character, and not just a sidekick animal – a Stone Age Lassie,” she explains. “I’d been interested in animal behaviour as a teenager, and had thought of studying it at one point. I had read some of the classic studies, and they talk about how predators perceive the world. At university – when I was supposed to be studying biochemistry – I had tried to write a children’s book about a boy and a wolf cub, and there was a paragraph in that which was from the wolf’s point of view.”
The wolf’s point of view is also central to the activities of the UK Wolf Conservation Trust (UKWCT). For centuries, wolves have had a bad press among human beings – which isn’t surprising, since we mostly encounter them as the granny-killers and werewolves of fairytale and folklore.
The Trust aims to change this by giving people a chance to get up close and personal with wolves. It organises everything from howl nights through school tours to international conferences, and it donates money to major conservation projects in Bulgaria, Ethiopia, Croatia, Russia and Armenia. It’s not, however, a zoo: outside of open days and organised events at weekends, visits are by prior arrangement only.
The UKWCT is run by Tsa Palmer, whose dedication to the animals in her care is evident from the moment she arrives to give us a tour of the enclosures where the current contingent of wolves are to be found.
As we visit them in turn I learn that European wolves howl at a much lower and softer pitch than the Americans; that when Palmer gets new animals from other sanctuaries, they have to be less than 10 weeks old if they’re to be accustomed to being around humans; that in the summer, they’re particularly fond of fish-flavoured ice lollies.
The Trust doesn’t set out to tame wolves, it just gives them a chance to be themselves, in a world that has persecuted and almost eliminated them – and it has become almost a chapter in itself in Paver’s writing career. She is now a patron, visiting on a regular basis to give writing seminars and workshops. But she doesn’t just write about wolves; her most recent book, Dark Matter, aimed at adults and young teens, is a ghost story set in 1937, amid the darkness of the polar winter.
“In a ghost story, usually, you’ve got to hang on until daylight and you’ll be alright,” Paver says. “But if daylight’s four months away, then you have a problem.” She has recently embarked on another children’s series, set in the Bronze Age Mediterranean. “It’s called Gods and Warriors. Wolves have had to take a bit of a back seat. There will be animals. That’s all I can say for the moment.” She admits, however, that a high point in her writing life came when she got a text from the UKWCT asking if they could name a wolf after her young hero, Torak.
This is the wolf with whom – thanks to two volunteer wolf keepers, Matthew and Pat – we have been walking around rural Berkshire. The volunteers are needed in order to satisfy health and safety regulations; Torak, for his part, ambles obligingly along, patiently posing for photographs and giving Paver – to her delight – a great big wolfy kiss. His dignity is hugely impressive, as is the low-key respect with which he’s treated by Palmer and the handlers.
When we come to a small pile of burning leaves, however, Torak can’t help himself. His paw goes out; his ears prick up; he dashes towards the flames then retreats, ears alert. For a brief moment, he’s a bundle of spontaneous wolfy curiosity – and we might be the characters in Paver’s Stone Age stories. Just for a moment. But it’s a moment to treasure.
The Chronicles of Ancient Darkness, by Michelle Paver, are published by Orion Books. Dark Matter is available from Orion £12.99. For more details on the UK Wolf Conservation Trust – including some fantastic BBC video of the wolves there, shot during last year’s snowy spell, go to the website: ukwct.org.uk
Books to give you wolf fever
Of Wolves and Menby Barry Lopez "I once saw a wolf on the tundra winging a piece of caribou hide around like a Frisbee for an hour by himself."
This classic study, first published in 1978, remains unsurpassed in wolf circles. Lopez's research is meticulous: he talks to people who love wolves, and people who hate them, he writes about Aesop's fables and habitat destruction; above all, he writes like a dream.
Wolf Brotherby Michelle Paver Read chapter three, in which Wolf and Torak meet, and see if you don't succumb to the charms of a Stone Age adventure. Or listen to Ian McKellen reading it on audio CD - that's what drew this reader in.
The Philosopher and the Wolfby Mark Rowlands High-octane memoir of the relationship between a philosopher and a wolf-dog hybrid - including a period when Rowlands lectured at University College, Cork, bringing the animal to class with him. The book is also a meditation on the nature of the human animal, and how we might differ if we had evolved from wolves rather than great apes.