Jungle book

Savage Girls and Wild Boys

Michael Newton<em> Faber and Faber, 299pp, £12.99</em>

ISBN 057120139

How terrible to fall alive into the benevolent hands of those who would make of you a parable, an example or an experiment. Michael Newton's account of several of the best-known cases of feral children (children raised by animals) is, inevitably, as much a history of the doctors and other savants who have tried to teach, tame and transform them into knowledge and story. It is a tale of good intentions and of limits; each age treats its damaged children according to its lights and finds itself retrospectively judged accordingly.

The individual stories share material, not least because these are stories and studies that created a tradition. Each child is found, usually in the wild woods, and separated from the animal companions that are all he or she has known. Ordinary people treat the child with ignorant cruelty or kindness. Savants attempt to teach the child language and cultivated behaviour, and succeed or fail; almost always, they turn the child's story, and their own partial success, into text.

Jonathan Swift saw Peter, the Wild Boy of Hanover reared by bears and adopted by the Princess of Wales, as retrospective proof of his misanthropy - here was a Yahoo, for all the work Swift's friend Dr Arbuthnot could do to fit Peter for his role as a freak taken up by polite society. Daniel Defoe, on the other hand, agonised over whether Peter had a prelapsarian soul and could talk to God without language. Peter himself, meanwhile, blissful at court and happy in farmyards, bumbled speechless into happy old age.

A few decades later, Memmie of Champagne learnt to speak, but the story she told her protectors was confusing in the extreme; Lord Monboddo, who fitted her into a busy schedule of investigations that included impostors and orang-utans, thought that she was a Huron Indian kidnapped by slavers, or perhaps an Eskimo. Whatever her origins, she was a perfect object of care and condescension for an age of sensibility - polite and too ashamed of her erstwhile wildness to become a nun.

Without ever eliding into fiction, Newton constructs each of his episodes as a blend of scholarly fact and mild literary conceit. The tale of Victor, the Wild Boy of Aveyron, is a perfect narrative of reason and liberation; his mentor, Jean-Marc Itard, struggles hard to teach him to shuffle letters into words and phrases, but is, as a disciple of Rousseau, gratified to find that it is Victor's unadorned humanity that leads him to resist injustice. Kaspar Hauser, with his naive prattle of wooden horses, the rumours of his royal birth and the mystery of his violent death, is a perfect Romantic-Gothic tale. When we reach Mowgli and Tarzan, and the two Indian children, Kamala and Amala, whose sojourn with wolves and rescue by missionaries inspired them, Newton concedes that, in childhood, it was the myth of wildness and natural superiority that first inspired his interest in feral children.

Writing this fine book is his adult way of apologising for, and to, a younger self that, in fantasy, swung on creepers like Johnny Weissmuller. This is a book about how we negotiate with our obsessions; it is a work about free imagination and civilised discipline and the price tags attached to each of them. And so we go on trying to understand what it is to be human, and getting closer to the truth, and we do it by making up the stories closest to our age's hearts.