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Forest Boy: Hero Or Hapless?

Posted on the 21 September 2011 by Periscope @periscopepost

Forest Boy: Hero or hapless?

German forests. Photocredit: Henry

The German forests provide much meat for fairy tales: now a seventeen year old boy has emerged from them, claiming to have lived there for five years. Calling himself only “Ray”, he turned up at the City Hall in Berlin a fortnight ago, on the 5th September. His origins are still a mystery. He speaks fluent English but very little German, and had only a backpack and a sleeping back. He says his father has died (and that he buried him); his mother (Doreen) died too, in a car crash when he was young. Interpol are now on the case. He’s been dubbed ‘forest boy’ by the press.

He’s blond, has blue eyes and is around 5’11”, but that’s all we know about him. Fiona Govan on The Daily Telegraph reported that the boy was puzzled when asked about passports. He was sent to a care home, where he is described as a “normal teenager.” He is apparently adapting quickly to city life.

Noble savage? A report on the BBC by Graham Satchell said that Rousseau’s noble savage was a romantic ideal that we all find intriguing. But myth doesn’t always measure up to reality. John Darwin the canoe man is a case in point – he had performed insurance fraud. We don’t know forest boy’s true story, but we’ll remain fascinated by “unlikely stories of survival in wild places.”

“He didn’t look like at all like a vagrant – he didn’t smell, he was clean, his clothes were clean but he simply didn’t know anything about who he was,” said an office worker who dealt with the boy, quoted on The Daily Telegraph 

Should be be horrified? Clive Aslet on The Daily Telegraph asked whether we want to believe in Forest Boy, or should be we “horrified by him?” Forests have a huge hold on our imagination, and they’ve always been ambiguous places: “wild and tangled”, or “places of magic and transformation.” For Wagner, the forest “held the German soul.” And don’t forget the Brothers Grimm. Forest Boy wouldn’t have been far from hikers – he’d have had to dodge “Lycra-clad cyclists”. He might have been able to stay unseen, eating brambles, roeships, damsons, sloes; snaring rabbits, spearing trout, or eating mushrooms and eggs from birds’ nests. It would have been very cold too – did he have a shelter? It’s hard to say whether Forest Boy’s claim is genuine or not – but if we now think more about forests, “some good will have come of his adventures.”

It’s an archetypal story. Simon Winder on The Guardian said that it’s a story which engages with “childhood, heroism and deeply felt ideas about being German.” For Germans, forests are “as much part of the national DNA as heart-bursting pork dishes.” Everyone will be thinking about Kasper Hauser, a boy who turned up in Nuremberg in 1828, who was assumed to have been raised in the woods; nobody ever worked out who he was, and he eventually killed himself. Forest Boy’s tale could be “genuinely tragic and strange tale.” But the German forests are like a “Piccadilly Circus” – and how would he have dealt with the snow? We’ll know more soon, but maybe he’ll “never really give up his secret.”

Mowgli or Merlin? If you go into the forest, said Anouchka Grose, also on The Guardian, you come out either as a prophet (like Merlin or Jesus); or, like Mowgli, you might find you don’t get on with humans at all. People who come from the wilderness raise important questions about humans: can we be born evil, for instance? One of the side effects of civilisation is that we think of nature as appealing: it’s not. Forest Boy makes us all think about what it is to be civilised and human. Whether he turns out to be a Merlin or a Mowgli remains to be seen.


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