A story with such a title, set in medieval times on a Mediterranean island with a wolf child and written by Jill Paton Walsh – I was smitten before I started reading.
Paton Walsh writes with the beautiful clarity of the best English writers for children, with clear simple phrasing, elegantly expressed ideas and a compelling other-worldliness. You dive into her books and are submerged.
This is an adults’ book – I think I read it first in my late teens and found it quite disturbing, but have re-read it often since and find the reading a vivid experience. I recently walked on the rocky shores of just such a place as this is set and recognised the world she describes: the monastery with the orange grove and the goats on the mountains and everywhere the view of the “hazy dazzle” of the sea.
The question that underlies the story is this: if a child has no human contact – raised by wolves in this case – will she come to recognise God instinctively?
The enigmatic Palinor “falls in” from an unseen ship and swims ashore. He claims to come from an island no one knows and the local prefect tells him must register as a visiting Christian, Saracen or a Jew. He claims to have no religion, so is locked up. “A man of no religion might do anything.”
As a heretic, he is condemned to death unless the gentle scholar Beneditx can convert him. The men read and talk and discuss proofs of God but Palinor is not convinced and Beneditx eventually questions own beliefs. Palinor’s last hope to escape death lies with the child rescued from wolves on the mountain.
As an experiment, Amara the wolf child is kept in strict confinement at a monastery, where she is taught to speak but there is no mention of God.
If she discovers God on her own, this is proof that everyone is born with knowledge of divinity. If she has no concept of God, this proves that religion is not innate and must be taught, and therefore a man, like Palinor, who has never been educated in God is not guilty of turning away from God, but pitiable and ripe for redemption.
An Inquisitor from Rome arrives, hell bent on burning heretics at the stake.
God certainly moves in mysterious ways.