The Wild Man, Part 1—Danielle Sahm, Guest Blogger
Updated: Jan 13
Today we share the first of a two-part post by Danielle Sahm, who was a student in our Fall 2022 Introduction to the Fairy Tale course.
Danielle Sahm has a bachelor’s degree in English literature. She enjoys reading fairy tales, myths, and poetry, and finding the connections between them.
Recently, I read Anne Sexton’s poem “Iron Hans,” based on the Grimm tale of the same name. This short animation by Xun Wang is a beautiful introduction to the beginning of the tale and captures the mysterious nature of the Wild Man, or Iron Hans, which persists despite the quick and neat way the tale concludes. Sexton’s poem got me thinking about Wild Men in literature and the role they play in the stories that feature them.
The Wild Man makes several appearances in the margins of medieval manuscripts. The fourteenth century Taymouth Hours contains a bas-de-page scene of a Wodewose “ravishing” a lady who is out picking flowers. This scene unfolds at the bottom of a series of four pages, during which the Wodewose attempts to carry the lady off, is thwarted by a knight with a spear, and is left mortally wounded while the two humans depart together. A similar tableau can be seen in the margins of The Decretals of Gregory IX (pages 74 and 101). These Woodwoses are apparently caught between two evolutionary stages: human enough to want a mate but not human enough to join society. It seems that Iron Hans is a descendent of these Medieval Wild Men, a sort of literary living fossil that had survived into the nineteenth century.
The Wild Man archetype has also endured in contemporary literature. At around the time I read Sexton’s poem, I also happened to encounter the short story “Inheritance” by Jedediah Berry (published in the Green Issue of The Fairy Tale Review). The story opens with the protagonist, Greg, at his usual Saturday night poker game, only this week he has with him a “beast.” The beast is described: cloven hooves, long snout, clumped hair, as well as “almost human parts” like a navel and “eyes with something like a soul behind them.” At first, we don’t know where the beast came from or why Greg has it.
After a dinner party, Phil and Greg go to his study to talk about his father, recently deceased. He was a war veteran and a pilot with whom Greg had very little contact before his death. As they look at photos of the dead man, Phil asks of the beast, “Where did you find him, anyway?” With a shock to the reader, Greg reveals that after his father’s death they found the beast in the basement. “There’s a little room down there where they used to store coal, for the old furnace. It was just chained up back there. Dirty and half-starved,” Greg explains. Because the beast can’t speak, no one knows why or how his father obtained the beast, nor why he kept it in the basement. Greg’s wife Lilith tries to teach it to speak, beginning with the ABCs, and feels she’s making progress.
Like the Wild Man of “Iron Hans” and the medieval Woodewose, the beast is caught in a liminal space between animal and human: sleeping in the garage, chasing oranges like a dog, and rooting through trash cans when he gets loose. Neighbors are made uneasy by the beast’s presence and things soon come to a head. Despite Lilith’s protests and Greg’s own misgivings, he drives the beast out to the woods behind his father’s old house. He plans to “take care” of the beast like it’s a dangerous dog, but the story implies that it’s not so much the physical threat of the beast that has them all worried. One of Greg’s poker buddies tells him, “A beast like that shouldn’t be taught to speak. Nobody wants to know what it would have to say.”
Berry’s beast is a descendant of Enkidu from “The Epic of Gilgamesh,” the medieval Woodewose, and Iron Hans. He serves the same purpose as the various Wild Men have throughout centuries of literature: a foil for the humans around him. It is, ironically, through the inhuman (and inhumane) that people try to define themselves, and the Wild Man holds the perfect position between animal and human to make him useful for self-examination.