Everyone knows that you’ve got a great fictional destiny if you were raised by animals or in the wild. It’s a one-two mythic punch, like the right foundation for a cathedral or the New York water in good pizza dough (it’s scientifically proven, folks). But who are our favorite feral children? Let’s look at ten of the best, from the classics right up through some unforgettable pop culture offerings.
Feral Kid (Mad Max 2)
Post-apocalyptic settings are the perfect backdrop for feral children. When it’s easy to lose friends and loved ones and civilization has nice big gaps in it, someone is bound to get lost in the wasteland. Mad Max befriended one of those, a boy with no name whom the script simply refers to as “Feral Kid.” It’s hard to tell if the boy simply grew up alone, or if there were some animals involved, though his growly way of communicating might indicate the latter. The little guy did sport a badass lethal boomerang, and who knows? Maybe that where Sokka’s boomerang in Avatar: The Last Airbender came from! Regardless, Max’s buddy did pretty well for himself, and we find by the end that he grew up to become the leader of the Great Northern Tribe. Nice one.
Tarzan (Edgar Rice Burroughs’ novels)
Though non-fictional feral children often have a difficult-to-entirely impossible time integrating with modern society, one wonders how being raised by apes would actually affect a kid. Primates do seem to have an instinct to protect human children (if you’ve never heard about this incredible rescue of a toddler by a mother gorilla, I encourage you to take a peek), and perhaps Tarzan would have grown up just fine amidst the jungles of Africa. The likelihood that he would be teaching himself any language within days and adventuring all over the world on the other hand… well, that’s what books are for.
Though he was raised by apes, Tarzan grew into a traveling hero. According to Burroughs’ many novels, Tarzan was the son of a marooned British Lord, a man of great loyalty and bravery who was utterly smitten with his wife Jane and unimpressed with the hypocrisy of civilized men. He was literally too good, a paragon of raw masculinity, but also gentle, intelligent, and fair. He was the Gary Stu of early 20th century fiction. You have to love him for it. Also, without Tarzan there would be no George of the Jungle, which is the most tragic thing I can think of.
Romulus and Remus (Roman Mythology)
Raised by wolves! If you find yourself in the middle of a tale with a wild child, majority chances are that kid was raised by wolves. And one of the first examples that comes to mind is Romulus and Remus, twin brothers who were responsible for a little city that you might have heard of called Rome. In fact, the brothers were not raised by a pack, but cared for as infants by one she-wolf. (They were also fed by a woodpecker and why this poor bird never seems to get any credit is a mystery.) Story goes that both brothers wanted to build a city, but they couldn’t agree on which hill would be the founding site. They fought about who had been favored in the augury to determine it, Remus was killed, and Rome was named for Romulus because he was clearly the most modest of fellows. It was popular for certain Emperors of Rome to claim ancestry dating back to Romulus himself, which is sort of akin to them adopting the Divine Right of Kings, particularly if they were on board with one version of the myth that made Aphrodite’s son Aeneas a distant ancestor of the brothers.
Hayy ibn Yaqdhan (The Improvement of Human Reason: Exhibited in the Life of Hai Ebn Yokdhan by Ibn Tufail)
Interestingly, this seminal work (also the first Arabic novel), is not about how civilization is bad for kids raised in the woods, but a story of enlightenment and philosophy. The protagonist is raised by a gazelle — just stop for a moment there because how cool would it be to have a gazelle for a mom? — who eventually dies. The boy dissects her to find out how she died, and once he achieves that knowledge, he sets out to learn about science and truth. His thoughts on civilization and religion’s reliance on material objects, and his use of reason to provoke these revelations on his travels, made this work very important in the Scientific Revolution and Enlightenment periods.
Mowgli (The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling)
Rudyard Kipling’s man-cub served as the inspiration for many children of this persuasion, and he is perhaps the greatest example of a child caught between the wild world of nature and the civilized world of man. Mowgli can stare down any wolf in his pack, but he also goes to live with human parents for a time, who wonder if he might be their long lost son. One of his best friends—Bagheera the panther—understands the boy’s plight entirely, having been kept by humans in a cage as a cub, thereby gaining an understanding of both worlds himself. Different versions of the tale offer different outcomes to Mowgli’s journey, and occasionally it gets blended with elements of Tarzan’s story; the live action film of the 90s gave Mowgli his own version of Jane, and emphasized a rejection of imperialist culture.
Peter Pan (J.M. Barrie’s works)
Of course, the boy who wouldn’t grow up lands on this list simply due to his status as Prince of Neverland, but did you know that the original version of Peter Pan was also raised by animals? Peter Pan’s first introduction to the world was in Barrie’s novel The Little White Bird, a lengthy interlude in the midst of its main plot. There we meet Peter Pan, a boy who lived on the little island in the middle of the pond in Kensington Gardens after flying away from home (for all children are truly birds deep down and simply forget how to fly as they get older). There he lived among birds. Then his mother gave up on him and had another baby, preventing him from ever being able to return home. Poor Peter.
Lots of Kids in Star Trek (All Over the Trek)
In science fiction, the furry or feathered chaperones are usually exchanged for alien ones or no parents at all. Star Trek has a colorful history where this is concerned, particularly in the Original Series. First we encountered Charlie, who had practically omnipotent powers, which he then used to sexually harass Yeoman Janice Rand because he was a teenager raised by aliens who probably didn’t put him through harassment workshops or teach him how to be a nice boy. Then we had children living on a world where everyone got sick and went crazy after hitting puberty in “Miri.” The children formed themselves into a rough little gang of misfits called “Onlies,” and only Kirk’s pleas to the older Miri end up saving the day in time.
We got kids being controlled by the alien entity named Gorgan, who killed their parents and then tried to take over the Enterprise in “And the Children Shall Lead.” Then there was the time traveling episode of Deep Space Nine “Time’s Orphan,” where Molly O’Brien, the child of Keiko and Miles O’Brien, fell through a funny portal and ended up spending ten years living alone. (Though that episode used a helpful paradox to right the timeline and spare the kid such a depressing adolescence.) All in all, you just don’t want to be a kid on Star Trek - the batting average for becoming a creepy, isolated youth just isn’t worth the risk.
Claudette, Jeanette and Mirabella (“St. Lucy’s Home For Girls Raised By Wolves” by Karen Russell)
One of the questions that often isn’t lingered over is how ordinary people would go about rehabilitating children of this ilk. In Karen Russell’s short story, werewolf girls are put into a finishing school run by nuns in hopes of obtaining a better future than the ones their families face. Though the girls come to the school in a large group, the three we spend the most time with are Claudette, Jeanette, and Mirabella, who each develop quite differently as their training advances. Jeanette adapts quickly, learning the new etiquette at a speed that puts distance between her and her sisters. Claudette comes into reading and language faster than the rest, but has moments of difficulty, where situations invite relapses into old wolfish behavior. The youngest of the group, Mirabella, cannot (or will not) conform to the new society, and is rejected not only by the nuns, but by her sisters as well. When set up as a matter of learning curves and cultural education, you can’t help but wonder which of these girls you would turn out to be if placed in the same situation.
San (Princess Mononoke)
Nevermind the wolves - Princess Mononoke was raised by a wolf goddess. (Okay, and some wolves.) San—that’s the princess’s real name—has perhaps a more straightforward path when choosing between man and nature, taking part in a battle between the people of Iron Town and the forest that surrounds it. Though San falls in love with a cursed prince named Ashitaka, she refuses to leave the forest after witnessing the gruesome things humans are willing to do to the land, the gods, and spirits there. Though Miyazaki’s film is meant to inspire hope that humanity and nature do not have to continue on such a destructive path, there is no doubt that this is a cyclical fight, and one that we should be mindful of in our future.
The Penguin (Batman Returns)
In Tim Burton’s origin story of the Penguin, we are told the tale of an infant so ugly that his parents could not bear to look at him, eventually throwing his pram into a freezing river. (I would like to point out that this was a traumatizing thing to watch as a child… but so worth it.) Naturally, that boy was found and raised by penguins. While it might not be quite fair to call the Penguin “feral”—he’s fond of top hats and tuxedos, after all—his background provides a cutting remark on so-called evolved people preferring to hide or destroy the things that don’t conform to their homogenous expectations of beauty. Offering that background ultimately made the Penguin a much more sympathetic figure, and between he and Catwoman, it was sort of hard to root for the Bat this time around.
The Child of Omelas (Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas”)
Ursula K. Le Guin’s Hugo-winning story was recently revitalized in Doctor Who’s season five episode, “The Beast Below,” and proves that animals and aliens are not the only things that can turn a child savage - the brutality of neglect is an easy mentor as well. The people of Omelas live in a utopian society, but upon coming of age they find out the price of their perfect existence; one child is kept in darkness filthy and alone. For those who cannot live with that decision—the ones who walk away from Omelas—they venture out of the city and are never seen again. No one knows what becomes of them.
I’m sure there are a few fabulous examples that got left behind, so weigh in - who’s your favorite among these ranks? And why do you think we keep coming back to these stories? Is it simply part of that man vs. nature plot we love so much, or could it be something deeper?
Emily Asher-Perrin, if asked to pick a favorite from this list, will come down firmly on the Peter Pan side of things every time. You can bug her on Twitter and read more of her work here and elsewhere.