The Wisdom of a Children’s Book [Wolfsaga by Käthe Recheis]
Wolfsaga, read to pieces and taped back together, is one of those books I could easily recognize with my eyes closed , and one of the books that influenced my personality in subtle but lasting ways. It is also one of those books that have, sadly, never been translated from German, but has that ever stopped me from reviewing books here?
How old was I when I first read Wolfsaga? Older than ten, younger than fourteen, because the book still holds the memories of walking home from secondary school with my best friend, of visits to the library, which wasn’t far out of our way. My friend discovered it first, and as soon as she had returned it, I took it out – and then we both informed our parents that they’d have to buy us this book.
I must have read Wolfsaga dozens of times in my teenage years alone, and a few times as an adult, and I’m still discovering new layers.
This is the best kind of book. One that works on so many levels, offering up new meanings depending on what the reader is ready for.
On the surface, it is a story about animals – about a wolf pack driven from their peaceful life in the Valley of Whispering Winds by Schogar Kan, Alpha Wolf of Alpha Wolves, and his Pack Numberless.
The first time I read Wolfsaga, s a child or still very childish teen, already a lover of wolves, that was probably what first appealed to me: the adventures of the yearlings Imiak, Schiriki and Sternschwester [Starsister] and the rest of their pack, their flight through woods, mountains and deserts, their return journey and eventual confrontation with Schogar Kan.
Being a rabid environmentalist as a teen, the next layer that opened up to me was the message about respect for nature.
The wolves live a peaceful life as long as they obey the words of Waka, the Law: to respect everything that lives, to never take more than needed, to keep the balance. Schogar Kan, however, rejects Waka, seeing wolves as the most important creatures and all others as their slaves or enemies.
The parallels to how we humans treat the rest of creation is emphasized by Schiriki’s dreams, in which he sees Schogar Kan’s wolves turning into two-legged, hairless monstrosities.
For many years and many rereads, that was all I saw, all I was ready to see. I tried my best to live by Waka’s words, and although I’m no longer quite as obsessive as I was as a teenager, I still try to remember that every plant and every animal deserves my respect (even – perhaps especially – if I have to kill it) and to never take more than I need.
It wasn’t until last year that the next layer hit me, like a brick in the head. I was reading Lena, also by Käthe Recheis, which is based on the author’s experiences between 1938 and 1945 – born in 1928, Ms Recheis spent a lot of her childhood and youth under Hitler’s rule.
It was embarrassing how long it had taken me to see the parallels between the Pack Numberless and the Hitler regime, from the occupation of territories to the prosecution of bears and cougars to the cult surrounding Schogar Kan.
But even though I didn’t realize what Ms Recheis was writing about, subconsciously I absorbed the messages she was sending: to never be blinded by ideology, to always think for myself, and to keep an open mind when dealing with people: because even those who are as different from me as cougars are from wolves are still driven by the same things. And even those who seem evil have a motivation beyond, “I’m eeeeevil!”
This is an important lesson both for live and for story writing: evil does not see itself as evil. Twisted as his reasoning may be, Schogar Kan wants to change the world for the better – for the wolves, anyway. Even Hitler probably thought he was doing good, even if the results are so horrible that thinking about them makes me nauseous.
This is another thing that I consider the mark of a good (children’s) book: that you can learn from it, without noticing, even if you don’t understand all the facets of the story yet.
One repeating theme in Ms Recheis’ work (in what I’ve read of it so far, anyway) is forgiveness. As important as it is to stand up against injustice, revenge is never the goal. Another important truth, which is a central aspect in Wolfsaga.
On my most recent re-read, what most stood out were the detailed, loving descriptions of nature, which I never really noticed before. This time, it almost felt like a love song to the wilderness. I’m looking forward to reading it again in a few years – who knows what I will find then?
Sometimes I wonder what it would be like to read it if I were religious. Faith in Waka is the main reason why the wolves of the Valley of Whispering Winds defy Schogar Kan, and even more, why they return from exile to confront him. And yet.. even though I consider myself an agnostic, sometimes I feel like I can hear Waka speak with the manifold voice of all of creation, just as Schiriki does.
Speaking of Schiriki – he was the main reason I reread Wolfsaga this spring. Although it was good timing, too, because it was right around Ms Recheis’ 85th birthday.
My best friend and I have often wondered if the characters’ names mean anything. Especially Schiriki’s. We had many theories, each one probably more far-fetched than the last. One of them was that it had something to do with Prince Jiriki from Memory, Sorrow and Thorn (yeah, everything in my life is tangled up with Tad Williams…) Years later, when I found out that “jiriki” is an actual word in Japanese, I briefly thought of MST, but my mind was too occupied with my upcoming grammar school finals to think of Wolfsaga.
But this year, as I reread MST and followed along in the discussion threads at the Tad Williams message board, I came upon “jiriki” again and took the time to look up its meaning. “one’s own strength”, referring to reaching enlightenment without help
And this time, it hit me. This fits Schiriki so well that it just couldn’t be the coincidence. Schiriki, the smallest of his litter and the only one who is able to stand up to Schogar Kan, Schiriki whom they call “the weak one who is stronger than the strong”, Schiriki who can hear the voice of Waka the Law.
Ms Recheis is old and doesn’t use the internet, so I sent her a letter instead, to ask if I was on to something there. I’m always shy about reaching out to people, but I knew that if I didn’t ask this, it would always bug me, and, well, she is 85, there’s a chance she won’t be around much longer.
And she wrote back the sweetest letter, saying how happy my letter made her, talking a bit about how she names characters… and she had not known the word “jiriki”, but agreed that there could be no more perfect meaning for Schiriki’s name and was grateful to me for finding it.
I’ve always been rather jealous of two of my acquaintances who actually met Ms Recheis – one interviewed her, and the other worked in a bookstore where she was a customer – but now I’m happy with this lovely letter and the knowledge that I put a smile on her face.