Can novels set in prehistoric times challenge young readers’ perceptions of the past and spark in them a desire to find out more about prehistory, other cultures and the natural world? Hannah Sackett invited young readers to discuss Michelle Paver’s ‘Chronicles of Ancient Darkness’ series. Here she describes how they responded.
Many children’s books, from Stig of the Dump to Over Sea, Under Stone take their inspiration from the remains left to us from prehistory – standing stones, burial chambers, prehistoric art and artefacts. Michelle Paver’s ‘Chronicles of Ancient Darkness’ series is a recent example. Set in northern Europe around 6,000 years ago, it follows the journey of Torak, Renn and their companion, Wolf, who is first encountered as an orphaned cub [image:Wolf Brother.jpg:left]in Wolf Brother.
Having studied archaeology and anthropology at university I approached these novels with some trepidation, wondering how far Paver would stray from the evidence. However, a visit to her website revealed a sound reading of up-to-date archaeology and a series of journeys to meet members of contemporary hunter-gatherer/pastoral groups such as the Inuit and the Saami.
Reading the series I was impressed by the skill with which Paver presents a culture very different from our own while creating engaging and believable characters. I wondered whether young readers would be convinced by Paver’s characters and her depiction of prehistory and whether the ‘Chronicles of Ancient Darkness’ could change or challenge young readers’ assumptions about prehistoric peoples and open their mind to world views that stand outside contemporary Western perspectives.
I explored these questions through discussions with Year 5 and 6 pupils in Bath (some of them quoted below) and by listening to podcasts and reading the forum entries on ‘The Clan’, the ‘Chronicles of Ancient Darkness’ fan site.
‘I was on page four and I felt like I had lived there all my life.’ Ethan Rees, Year 5, St Martin’s Garden Primary School, Bath
As this quote demonstrates, one of the strengths in Paver’s writing lies in her ability to create a convincing world very different from our own; a world of forests and dangerous animals, of skills and knowledge necessary to find food and shelter, and of rules and beliefs relating to the spirit world that need to be obeyed. Paver incorporates this information into her prose skilfully – information about how to skin and butcher an animal, how to perform death rites or how to appease animal spirits is imparted in a matter of fact manner. As the reader progresses through the books, so their knowledge builds. Paver is not trying to teach the reader, but her passionate interest in the details of how to care for a bow or to build a shelter, or how to survive the physical and otherworldly dangers of Torak’s world, carry the reader with her.
One pupil, Isobel, drew my attention to the way that each book focuses in on a different area such as Lake Axehead [image:Outcast.jpg:left](Outcast) or the Deep Forest (Oath Breaker). The maps provided on the endpapers show places mentioned in the stories and the rivers, lakes, forests, mountains, islands, caves and oceans that make up this Northern landscape are all depicted. One reader, coming to the map at the end of Wolf Brother, traced the route taken by Torak and his companions in the story; a map which he had found confusing at the start of the book had now become meaningful.
Prehistoric people in popular culture, including some children’s books, are often portrayed as archetypal cavemen, wearing animal skins, carrying clubs and shouting ‘Ug’ to one another. Even when they are not so stereotyped, they run the danger of being depicted as noble savages, or mystical figures speaking in an oddly stilted language of the ‘Running Bear carry fire to big mountain’ variety. Such stereotypes are sometimes also applied to people living in small-scale societies today.
However, contemporary hunter-gatherers and prehistoric peoples from the Upper Palaeolithic onwards are all modern humans (Homo sapiens). They share the same physical and emotional capacity as people in the ‘developed world’ and the same intelligence. What makes them different is their world view and, from a Western perspective, their minimal belongings. In her books Paver draws on the work of archaeologists and anthropologists to convey the complexity of prehistoric societies while also allowing readers to relate to the central characters of Torak and Renn as ‘real’ people, rather than other-worldly figures. In spite of the inclusion of magic/magecraft and the spirit world in the Chronicles, the books are grounded by the realistic relationships that exist between the central characters.
This aspect of Paver’s writing was commented upon by young readers. Josh and Joseph in particular felt that the people in the books had ‘the same emotions as us’ and were ‘just like us, but with different ways of living’. Paver shows how affection, loyalty, jealousy and suspicion can bind characters and communities together or push them apart, just as they do in our own world.
Changing ideas about prehistory?
But does Wolf Brother change young readers’ ideas about prehistoric people? ‘The Clan’ fan website offers differing views. Some members consider the series more fantasy than (pre)historical fiction. One strand of discussion discusses how Renn and Torak would have spoken. Some think they would have grunted. Others, some well informed about archaeology and the history of language, criticise this view. On a strand discussing whether or not the books had changed their ideas about prehistory, most said that it had made them revise their ideas. One Clan member notes that school lessons covering prehistory had only focused on tools, survival and evolution, while the Chronicles’ focus on cultural beliefs had served to spark her interest in the period.
Young readers interviewed in Bath agreed that the books had changed or helped to form their ideas about prehistoric peoples. After reading Wolf Brother one said that prehistoric people now seemed ‘less basic’ and that they thought that they would now be more understanding if they met people with world views that differed from their own. One reader felt that life in prehistory seemed attractive – with no credit crunch and no global warming, he felt it might provide a better way of life.
All the young readers expressed an interest in finding out more about prehistory. One boy had followed up his interest via Michelle Paver’s website and by watching documentaries about prehistory on television, while two of the interviewees had attended talks given by Michelle Paver at the Bath Children’s Literature Festival.
The Natural World Speaks
‘It made you feel you were inside Wolf’s head – I could see the world differently.’ Joseph Colman-Deveney, Widcombe Junior School, Bath
When asked about their favourite character in Wolf Brother, Alexander and Ethan gave an immediate and emphatic reply: ‘Wolf’. One of the distinctive features of the series is the way that Paver sometimes relates the story from Wolf’s perspective. Drawing on her time spent with wolves at an animal sanctuary, she recreates the world through Wolf’s eyes. We discover Wolf’s perception of events and of Torak and Renn’s behaviour, as well as learning his own descriptive terminology for certain aspects of the world e.g. ‘Fast Wet’ for river, ‘Bright Beast-that-Bites-Hot’ for fire.
In Torak’s world the relationship between humans and their environment is carefully managed. Drawing on research into the belief systems of peoples such as the Saami and Ainu, Paver describes a world inhabited by animal, tree and plant spirits; even the land is animate. To break the rules that maintain balance between humans and the spirit world is to invite illness, disaster and even madness, as we discover in Outcast and in the actions of the Soul Eaters throughout the series.
The Potential of Prehistory
The prehistory of Britain and Northern Europe is not a common topic for study in schools. This is a shame, especially as most schools in the UK are only a short drive away from a site of archaeological interest – be it a chambered tomb, stone circle, rock art site or hillfort. Visits to prehistoric sites can fire the imagination. The unfamiliar forms of prehistoric architecture can allow visitors to view the world afresh.
Michelle Paver’s work can, I believe, have the same effect. The interviews carried out in Bath and comments on The Clan website suggest that in many cases Paver’s well-researched and vivid account of prehistoric life challenged her readers’ perceptions of the past and sparked in them a desire to find out more about prehistory, other cultures and the natural world. The series also provoked reflection on our own society, with some readers highlighting the contrast between present-day consumption and the scarcity of belongings in hunter-gatherer societies, as well as noting a different relationship with the natural world – ‘they didn’t take more than they needed’.
One Clan member, asked whether reading the ‘Chronicles of Ancient Darkness’ changed their ideas about the past, replied:
‘It hasn’t changed my ideas. It created them…’
Bibliography and Weblinks
‘Chronicles of Ancient Darkness’ by Michelle Paver, published by Orion
Wolf Brother, 978 1 84255 170 7, £8.99 hbk, 978 1 84255 131 8, £6.99 pbk
Spirit Walker, 978 1 84255 171 4, £8.99 hbk, 978 1 84255 113 4, £6.99 pbk
Soul Eater, 978 1 84255 172 1, £9.99 hbk, 978 1 84255 114 1, £6.99 pbk
Outcast, 978 1 84255 173 8, £9.99 hbk, 978 1 84255 115 8, £6.99 pbk
Oath Breaker, 978 1 84255 174 5, £9.99 hbk, 978 1 84255 116 5, £6.99 pbk
Ghost Hunter, 978 1 84255 175 2, £10.99 hbk (due out August 2009)
Michelle Paver’s website: www.michellepaver.com
The Clan’s website: www.torak.info
A small selection of books featuring aspects of prehistory
Over Sea, Under Stone by Susan Cooper, Puffin, 978 0 14 030362 9, £5.99 pbk
Stig of the Dump by Clive King, Puffin Modern Classics, 978 0 14 036450 7, £6.99 pbk
Mammoth Academy by Neal Layton (even though the cavemen do go ‘Ug’!), Hodder, 978 0 340 93029 8, £4.99 pbk
The Whispering Knights by Penelope Lively, Oxford Bookworms Library, 978 0 19 479194 6, £5.00 pbk
The Hobbit by J R R Tolkien, HarperCollins, 978 0 261 10221 7, £6.99 pbk
My thanks are due to Mr David Turvey at St Martin’s Garden Primary School and Miss Cath Bush at Widcombe CofE Junior School for arranging the interviews and to Alexander Nettle and Ethan Rees (St Martin’s Garden Primary School) and Joseph Colman-Deveney, Isobel Wilkinson-Rippin and Josh Vince (Widcombe CofE Junior School) for taking the time to read and discuss the books.
Hannah Sackett is School Librarian at St Martin’s Garden Primary School, Odd Down, Bath.