I would never have read this book had it not been for the brilliant biography Into the Wild I read earlier in the year. The Call of the Wild was one of the books found near Chris McCandless’ unfortunate remains, with significant passages underlined. It is clear that McCandless associated with Jack London’s beautiful depictions of “the wild”. Though he never makes it seem easy to live in, it is perhaps something that calls to us all.
Anyway! I didn’t realised this book was published as two books together. The Call of the Wild is actually quite short, but is combined with the novel White Fang (in my Penguin version anyway).
Interestingly, they are almost inverse versions of each other. In White Fang, we follow the life of a wolf puppy as he grows up, learns about living in the wild, and then meets humans and becomes tame, eventually settling down to an easy farm life. In Into the Wild, we follow the life of an older dog Buck who is taken from his comfortable farm life to be sleigh dog in the harsh Alaskan wild, and eventually leaves the confines of humans altogether to live with wild wolves.
In both stories, “the wild” is almost set up as a character of its own.
It is not the way of the Wild to like movement. Life is an offense to it, for life is movement; and the Wild aims always to destroy movement.
The wild is depicted as a strong, overwhelming and threatening force which must be treated with respect and understanding. This, coming from a man who understood its threat firsthand, having attempted to live in the wild a few months before being arrested for vagrancy.
London speaks a lot on the ‘natural order of things’, inbuilt instinct and understanding that carries through existence. It’s really quite beautiful.
Never, in his brief cavelife, had he encountered anything of which to be afraid. Yet fear was in him. It had come down to him from a remote ancestry through a thousand thousand lives.
London writes very simply and directly. Yet there is also a poetic side to his writing. It is deep, and it’s impressive.
Take this philosophical view on humans as ‘gods’ of the earth:
To man has been given the grief, often, of seeing his gods overthrown and his altars crumbling; but to the wolf and the wild dog that have come in to crouch at man’s feet, this grief has never come. Unlike man, whose gods are of the unseen and the overguessed, vapors and mists of fancy eluding the garmenture of realist, wandering wraiths of desired goodness and power, intangible outcroppings of self into the realm of spirit – unlike man, the wolf and the wild dog that have come into their fire find the gods in the living flesh, solid to the touch, occupying earth-space and requiring time for the accomplishment of their ends and their existence. No effort of faith is necessary to believe in such a god.
It’s a bit confronting to read these stories, as the dogs/wolves are not innocent, cute puppies. They are savage, brutal beasts. They are compelled to survive whatever it takes. They kill their mates and hunt wild animals. But the point, I think, is to respect the wild and its creatures for how they naturally live. This is how things actually go out in the wild! It’s harsh and it’s tough, something that sheltered, civilised humans will never understand.
London also has a knack for describing nature.
The ghostly winter silence had given way to the great spring murmur of awakening life… The sap was rising in the pines. The willows and aspens were bursting out in young buds. Shrubs and vines were putting on fresh garbs of green… All things were thawing, bending, snapping.
It is all so sensory. The sounds of nature really come alive in his writings.
I enjoyed reading this book, connecting with nature and experiencing excellent writing from an early 20th century writer.