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“What a Handsome Family We Are!”: Feral Children and Kin-Making in Abbie Farwell Brown’s The Book of Saints and Friendly Beasts (1900)

Julia Helena Wilde


From the early modern period onwards, the phenomenon of feral children has led to ontological confusion and thus, has engendered both fascination and repulsion. A 1900 collection of short stories for children by American writer Abbie Farwell Brown titled The Book of Saints and Friendly Beasts seems, however, to depart from this way of thinking. The book includes two short stories about feral children who grow up to become saints (“Saint Keneth of the Gulls” and “The Wolf-Mother of Saint Ailbe”). The unusually close cross-species bonds presented by Brown in her stories can be considered as, what Donna Haraway, in Staying with the Trouble (2016), would call, “kin-making.” The aim of this article is to analyse the animality of the two feral boys as a formative element of their identity, stressing that it is the nonhuman Harawayan “oddkins” who shape their characters. Due to their unconventional upbringing, the boys become Catholic saints; crucially, the children choose not to renounce the familial bonds with their oddkins, which, in turn, presents a subtle shift in the portrayal of feral children.

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1. Introduction

1Told for centuries, stories of “wild children” have not lost their allure, being both sensational and slightly repulsive due to the apparent absence of humanness within their protagonists. One of the most famous examples of feral children comes from 1926 when the media worldwide was shocked by information about two feral girls, named Kamala and Amala, who had been allegedly raised by wolves in the Bengali jungle. The case proved so appealing that American anthropologist Robert M. Zingg contacted Joseph Amrito Lal Singh who ran the orphanage where the girls had been brought—the collaboration resulted in the publication of a book entitled Wolf Children and Feral Man (1942). However, the story itself stirred up some controversy even among the authors’ contemporaries due to the lack of reliable witnesses, a number of various versions of the events, and Zingg basing his book merely on Singh’s account, without going to India in person. After decades of doubts and unclarity, Serge Aroles wrote a book, L’Enigme des enfants-loup (Enigma of The Wolf-Children, 2007), in which he concludes that the whole story was a scandalous hoax and most probably the children suffered from a neurodevelopmental disorder and abuse. Yet, regardless of the facts, what remains interesting is the reception of the story and what it can tell us about the concept of feral children in the popular imagination.

2In one of the prefaces to Zingg’s Wolf Children and Feral Man, Bishop H. Pakenham-Walsh, who claims to have met Kamala in 1926 (Amala had died in 1921), provides a description of the girl’s behaviour and concludes:

while the wolves had not been able to teach anything especially human to their little human cubs, so that there was no sense of humor, nor (except in the one case when Kamala wept when Amala died) of sorrow, very little curiosity, and no interest except in raw meat, neither had they taught them anything bad. If one accepts as natural the use of teeth and nails when they felt themselves annoyed, there was no malice, nor was there any fear, as for instance of thunder and lightning, of big animals, of the dark, etc.; nor, so far as I could ascertain, was there any trace of pride or of jealousy. Human vices seem to have been as little inherited as human virtues, and this fact seems to me to have a very pertinent bearing on the consideration of what we mean by ‘Original Sin.’ It certainly shows the tremendous importance of the human environment, and of the training of little children. (xxvi-xxvii)

  • 1 The idea appears in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s treatise titled Emile, or on Education (1762).

3What these passages imply is the absence of human corruption, a return to innocence and amorality, which seems to point both at John Locke’s idea of tabula rasa (stressing the importance of nurture) and Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s concept of naturalistic education for young children (with emphasis on nature and humans in their natural state)1. Pakenham-Walsh’s interpretation of the case seems an important indicator of one of the possible readings of feral children—innocent creatures that have not been stained with evil.

4The phenomenon of children raised by animals has always been perceived as puzzling due to the unclear ontological status of such individuals. While in numerous myths from around the world being nursed by a nonhuman mother could indicate divine status or hint at the child’s exceptional future (e.g., Romulus and Remus nursed by the she-wolf in Roman mythology or one of the characters of the Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh, Enkidu, who was raised by wild animals of an unspecified species), in early-modern Europe it started to be perceived as a troubling anomaly, threatening the clear division between animals and humans. In her article discussing the entanglements of colonialism, animality, race, and the depictions of the feral child in stories by Kipling, Dipika Nath observes that: “the feral child evinces not the loss or absence of humanity as much as the presence of an incommensurable otherness within ‘the human,’ an animality that cannot be appropriated or reduced to familiar oppositional terms” (253). This fear permeates the writings from the early-modern period onwards (with an exception of Rousseau’s revolutionary idea of the natural man who is inherently good, living outside society). In some cases, the fear turns into an outright rejection of the possibility that true feral children could exist. In 1811, the German anthropologist Johann Friedrich Blumenbach expressed his scepticism regarding the cases of feral children: he claims that such stories are examples of nothing else but abandoned mute children. For Blumenbach, there is a very clear line between perfection (the domesticated) and degeneration (the feral). He declares his belief in humans’ natural (and most perfect) state of domestication and thus rejects the idea of a human returning to their wild nature by being placed among animals since: “all those so-called wild children in their other behaviour… strikingly differed one from another, for the very reason that they had no originally wild species to degenerate into” (340). Therefore, when American writer Abbie Farwell Brown published her collection of short stories for children, The Book of Saints and Friendly Beasts, in 1900, the status of feral children was already highly complex. Indeed, six years before the publication of Brown’s collection, the Englishman Rudyard Kipling introduced into world literature the character of a fictional feral child—the “man-cub” Mowgli, whose animality and humanity are far from being one-dimensional. Yet, the approach towards animals and animality in Abbie Farwell Brown’s collection of children’s stories, The Book of Saints and Friendly Beasts (first published by Houghton, Mifflin and Co. in Boston and New York), is radically different. Both the presence of animality within human beings and the forming of affective bonds across species are not presented as dangerous anomalies but on the contrary—as a source of kindness, wisdom, and, ultimately, holiness. The book consists of twenty-four short stories featuring episodes from the lives and legends of Catholic saints who, in one way or another, befriend nonhuman animals of various species, including fish, wolves, camels, lions, geese, and many others. The plots themselves vary and so do the relations of humans and nonhumans who help and save each other in times of need or, more mundanely, live in interspecies harmony. Some of these relations should be defined, rather, as encounters due to their incidental nature, while other relationships are more nuanced and complex.

5Most importantly for this paper, Brown’s book includes depictions of two feral-child protagonists, whose names appear in the titles of their respective stories: “Saint Keneth of the Gulls” and “The Wolf-Mother of Saint Ailbe.” Both of these children grow up to become saints and, thus, are presented as role-models for the readers. The author departs from the post-medieval tradition of describing the phenomenon of feral children as excitingly abnormal; instead, she depicts interspecies “kin-making” as enriching and leading to holiness. I would like to argue that Brown’s approach to feral children stories reflects a subtle turn in the understanding of interspecies relations: the two stories of children raised by animals illustrate what Donna Haraway, over a century later, will call “kin-making” and what she perceives as a strategy necessary for survival (Staying with the Trouble 2). In fact, not only are these tales in line with the Harawayan concept, but they also revolt against the idea that animality within a human is a threatening anomaly that should be eradicated. The cross-species affective bonds produce valuable and even exemplary individuals who never need to renounce their nonhuman upbringing and foster families in order to be considered saints. The aim of this article is to explore how animality remains a crucial part of their identities and how Brown dismisses the idea that human ferality is synonymous with an absence of humanity, suggesting instead that the nonhuman “oddkins” (Haraway, Staying with the Trouble) nurtured the virtues of the baby saints. Additionally, the two narratives serve as evidence that new theories may be useful for reading old stories—and that scholars can examine the latter using the new tools, however up-to-date these may seem.

2. Abbie Farwell Brown: Then and Now

6Despite her popularity at the beginning of the twentieth century, American writer Abbie Farwell Brown (1871-1927 in Boston, USA) is hardly mentioned in any scholarly research. Occasionally, her name may be found in the context of her letter exchange and friendship with other writers of the time (Rosenzweig 48) or merely listed among other authors of children's literature (e.g., Fenwick 45). Yet, her books were quite popular and appreciated by educators since, as Anne Lundin observes, the final two decades of the nineteenth century were characterized by the rapid growth of interest in children’s literature not only among writers themselves but also among teachers, literary critics, and clergy. What was seen as particularly pressing was finding the balance between didacticism and entertainment according to the belief that good literature results in good behavior, while bad literature may lead a student astray (Lundin 139). In her discussion of the history and cultural construction of American children's literature, Beverly Lyon Clark explicitly states that, toward the end of the nineteenth century, adults’ and children’s reading materials were gradually separating (57). Naturally, it was still adults who decided what should be found in children’s literature, meaning authors ultimately sought the approval of adults when writing for children.

7Brown’s works seem to have fulfilled the expectations of adults concerning children’s literature. For instance, Elizabeth Porter Clarke (who seems to be a mother or, more probably, a teacher) in her letter to the editor of The Journal of Education uses Abbie Farwell Brown’s The Book of Saints and Friendly Beasts as an example of books worth recommending for early school education and stresses the need for publishing more books of similar merit (Clarke 168-169). Moreover, in 1923, Brown's collection of stories could be found on the list of books recommended for third-grade students (James 605), but also earlier, in 1906, it appeared as a reading recommended by The American Journal of Education (“Some of our Newest Books” 661). Apart from the entertaining aspect of storytelling, these books also promoted values such as kindness, loyalty, responsibility, and diligence, endorsed by parents and educators.

8Brown’s decision to use animal characters in a text that explicitly combines didacticism and entertainment is not surprising. In fact, the use of animals is quite typical for children’s literature—from fables in which anthropomorphized animals serve as allegories of human conduct (Ratelle, Elick), through stories of fantastic talking animals (Elick, Cosslett), to the more realistic convention of the child hero’s animal sidekick (Tribunella, Włodarczyk and Wilde). As children’s literature becomes solidified as a separate genre, the very inclusion of a child-animal pairing can serve as a marker of the text’s intended juvenile audience, sometimes against authorial intention (Włodarczyk and Wilde). Contemporary scholars of children’s literature, like Amy Ratelle and Catherine Elick, have increasingly begun to explore the functions of animals in children’s literature.

9In spite of the facts mentioned above, the books by Brown have so far not been thoroughly scrutinized, not even by animal studies scholars. Interestingly, The Book of Saints and Friendly Beasts depicts a variety of affective bonds between humans and animals: the protagonists of the stories are far less important than the relationships themselves, which would explain the generic personalities of most saints featured in the book. Brown curiously combines the interests of her time—children’s literature, medievalism, and a growing sensitivity to animal welfare—into a single book that stresses that the emotional attachment to nonhuman animals is not an invention of the nineteenth century and that examples of such relations can be found in ancient Christian stories. To prove this claim, she uses examples of saints from late antiquity to the high Middle Ages. As she writes in the preface to the collection, the interspecies relationship reverberates throughout the centuries:

In the old legends there may be things which some folk nowadays find it hard to believe. But surely the theme of each is true. It is not hard to see how gentle bodies who had no other friends should make comrades of the little folk in fur and fins and feathers. For, as St. Francis knew so well, all the creatures are our little brothers, ready to meet halfway those who will but try to understand. And this is a truth which every one to-day, even tho’ he be no Saint, is waking up to learn. The happenings are set down quite as they read in the old books. Veritable histories, like those of St. Francis and St. Cuthbert, ask no addition of color to make them real. But sometimes, when a mere line of legend remained to hint of some dear Saint’s relation with his friendly Beast, the story has been filled out in the way that seemed most likely to be true. For so alone could the old tale be made alive again. So all one’s best is dressing old words new. (Brown “Preface”)

10The author insists on the truthfulness of the stories she describes, taking into account the potential scepticism of some of her contemporaries. She also stresses the possibility of connecting with nonhumans (our “little brothers”) who are willing to participate in bond-building—provided that the readiness is reciprocated by humans. Due to its democratic nature, this statement can be read as a reference to the nineteenth-century movements, from the 1830s onwards, aiming at the improvement of animal welfare (Tannenbaum 564-67).

11Figure 1: Cover of first edition of Abbie Farwell Brown’s The Book of Saints and Friendly Beasts (1900), Wikimedia Commons.

12Naturally, one should not forget that Brown’s book was written in 1900 and with a children’s audience in mind, which explains simplifications in certain statements. Yet, her message and premise cannot be overlooked as her narrative strategies aim at something more complex than just praising the saints in a fashion characteristic for medieval hagiographies. To a certain extent, Brown is able to achieve the ambitious goal of shifting focus from the human role models (i.e., saints) to animals without making the book unacceptable for adults. The author moves gently between the fairy-tale and hagiography, stressing the kindness of human protagonists and diminishing the importance of religious practices. At the same time, the spiritual aspect is not completely erased but rather moved to the background, leaving space for the foregrounding of interspecies relations.

13Two more elements should also be noticed in Brown’s preface: affective inter- and multispecies relations (“little brothers,” the famous term coined by St. Francis of Assisi) and the physicality of the animal body—both human and non-human (“It is not hard to see how gentle bodies who had no other friends should make comrades of the little folk in fur and fins and feathers.”). In fact, in Brown’s collection the two aspects merge into one because she both promotes the idea of emotional attachment being the essence of a familial relationship, regardless of the species (the Harawayan concept of kin-making), and highlights the bodily aspect of developing a bond. The latter may, in fact, stem from the nineteenth-century popularity of the naturalistic poetics, yet it needs to be stressed that the stories are far from being purely naturalistic, as they are very conscious of maintaining decorum. Despite the fact that the physicality in the two stories is stressed and the naturalistic influences are perceptible, the content remains subtle and inoffensive; bodily closeness is presented here as leading to an emotional closeness rather than as an end in itself.

14In her article on Mowgli stories, Dipika Nath recognizes three categories of feral children, or, rather, three circumstances when the term is used. It may refer to children living in the wilderness: alone (i.e., away from other humans); those living among animals, presumably raised by them, and sharing certain non-human behaviors and traits; and finally, the children kept in extreme isolation by their human caretakers (252). Both saints-to-be presented in the analyzed stories belong to the second category—the children raised by animals and exhibiting animal-like behaviors. However, Brown departs from the formulaic way of depicting the bonds and the animals themselves—the feral children either turn into feral adults (St. Keneth of the Gulls) or reunite with their animal family after a forced separation (St. Ailbe). Their humanness is never depicted as an innate quality that merely needs to be discovered under the right circumstances but rather their identity relies heavily on the upbringing—Keneth never returns to the world of humans, and his unity with the animal kingdom results in humans perceiving him as a saint; Ailbe, having been abducted by a hunter from his wolf-family, is trained to be a proper human, as he becomes a widely respected bishop, but it does not prevent him from openly displaying his familial bonds with a pack of wolves as they reunite.

15I do not claim that Brown’s take on the feral children and their further development is realistic—she draws her inspiration from both hagiographic and children’s literature traditions, oscillating between the two, which makes her work quite original yet still constrained by the conventions. However, an undeniable strength of her short stories is the focus on the mutual relation between the human and nonhuman characters, where the kin making does not merely serve as a tool of emphasizing the holiness and exceptionality of the saint, but remains crucial for the character’s development. While it can be highly debatable if the most famous feral children, Romulus and Remus, maintained a deep affectionate bond with their wolf-mother or were defined by it on a level other than their hubris and/or uniqueness, both Ailbe and Keneth are depicted as individuals for whom the relationship with their nonhuman kins proved important even when they became self-reliant adults.

16In fact, taking into account their brevity (as neither story exceeds twelve pages), both “Saint Keneth of the Gulls” and “The Wolf-Mother of Saint Ailbe” offer more than just superficial descriptions of multispecies bonds, especially when it comes to the relations between the child and his carer. The story of St. Keneth reveals more nuanced interspecies interconnections as it involves humans, gulls, and a doe. It is set on a cold Atlantic coast and starts with the White Gulls accidentally finding a basket with a human infant floating on the waves. Driven by sympathy, the White Gull and his companions bring the baby to safety and decide to take care of him. They build him a comfortable nest and bring a doe that becomes the boy's foster mother, providing him with milk and care. After some time, the baby is discovered by a shepherd who takes him to his wife as she cannot have children of her own. Yet, the non-human kin of the boy immediately step in and rescue him from the shepherd’s hut, bringing him to what they consider his home. Keneth grows up and continues to live among the birds, content and safe, and eventually becomes known among the Welsh as a saint, “beloved by the gulls and the deer and all the wild creatures of shore and forest” (41).

17Despite certain obvious similarities, the story of St. Ailbe unfolds in a radically different manner. A she-wolf finds an abandoned baby in a bush of heather and decides to raise him together with her own pups. The boy grows strong and healthy and lives a happy life alongside his lupine kin until one day he comes across a hunter who, in a manner very similar to the shepherd from the previous story, captures the feral child and takes him to his wife. Yet, unlike in the story of St. Keneth, the animal kin are helpless and do not succeed in rescuing the child, which results in Ailbe being reclaimed by the human world. As it turns out, the hunter is a prince and the feral child grows to become a very wise and kind bishop. Notably, he has not forgotten his childhood in the wilderness, and at times he longs for the freedom and wisdom of animals as opposed to human mindlessness. Ailbe reunites with his wolf-mother by accident when she tries to escape a hunt that takes place near his palace. As they instantly recognize each other, the bishop protects his wolf-mother from the hunters and ensures that no one in the town will hurt her or her children. Moreover, he invites the wolf kin to join him every day for dinner—the wolves feast with him at the table, celebrating their kinship and sharing fine, human food the bishop receives from his friends. The story concludes with St. Ailbe looking at his wolf family and laughing happily and saying: “What a handsome family we are!” (198).

3. Bonding Through Nursing

18Interestingly, despite different plot developments, both stories end with the child reuniting with his nonhuman family rather than coming back to the human community and cutting ties with the animal world. The circumstances are, of course, radically altered both in terms of setting (Keneth comes back to the animal realm, i.e., the rocks by the ocean, while Ailbe welcomes his wolf family into his bishop’s palace) and time (Keneth is rescued the same day; Ailbe comes across his wolf-mother as an adult, many years later); yet what both stories have in common is the underlying message that interspecies familial bonds cannot be simply broken by an intrusion of a human stranger. As it seems, Brown presents the experience of growing up feral as crucial for creating a sense of self.

19Both baby saints are nursed by their oddkins, and as an adult, St. Ailbe feasts with his wolf-family at the table (Brown 198). While discussing the complexities of the term companion species, Donna Haraway mentions that: “[c]ompanion comes from the Latin cum panis, ‘with bread.’ Messmates at table are companions” (When Species Meet 17). This observation becomes even more significant in the context of feral children and eating with their nonhuman kins who become their companions/oddkin. At first—as with every mammal—they suckle. The element of nursing seems to be of paramount importance in the stories of feral children: especially the fictional ones, as being suckled by a nonhuman has usually implied uniqueness and special traits—for instance, being destined for holiness. What needs to be stressed is that neither the doe nor the wolf mother is reduced to the role of a wet-nurse who becomes redundant as soon as she serves her purpose in the narrative. This fact itself is quite telling, as it is not so common in other stories about infants raised by wild animals: in many fairy-tales, myths, and hagiographies, the nonhuman foster mothers disappear from the plot when they are no longer needed; this is less common in modern fiction (e.g., The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling). Brown does not follow the ancient conventions, creating a deep bond between the nursing mothers and their human children.

20Using Schiebinger’s argument that both lactation and breastfeeding place the human species among other mammals in Linnaean taxonomy, Gaard notes that it is precisely this feature that reminds us of our animality (Gaard 2). This aspect is more pronounced in the story of the two baby-saints who cross the boundaries of species through the act of being nursed by two mammal mothers—a deer and a wolf—who share their milk with human foundlings, raising them almost like their own. Almost—because there is a tangible difference between the way both mothers approach their role and display their kinship with the human infants.

21In “Saint Keneth of the Gulls,” the situation is particularly complex due to the biological differences between the human baby and the gulls. The latter, being birds, are unable to feed the infant with the food he needs. They are acutely aware of their own limitations in this respect and their leader, the White Gull, brings “a kind forest doe, — a yellow mother Deer who had left her little ones, at the White Gull’s request, to come and feed the stranger baby” (36). Being to a large extent anthropomorphized (for instance, they talk with each other and the deer), the birds understand very clearly what a human baby needs and provide him with a mammal wet-nurse who soon becomes his foster (and forest) mother. As Brown puts it:

So Keneth found a new mother who loved him far better than his own had done, — a new mother who came every morning and every night and fed him with her milk. And he grew strong and fat and hearty, the happy baby in his nest upon the rocks, where his friends, the sea-gulls, watched over him, and the mother Deer fed and cared for him, and washed him clean with her warm crash-towel tongue. (36)

  • 2 It is worth mentioning that it is the gull mothers’ voices that tip the scales when it comes to res (...)

22Notably, it is the doe that earns the title of mother rather than the gulls who are described as friends (or, in the final paragraph of the story, as brothers).2 In spite of them caring for Keneth’s safety, well-being, and physical comfort (as they have built a soft nest using their own feathers, again taking into consideration the softness and sensitivity of the boy’s body), milk and touch seem to play the most important role in creating familial bonds. It is interesting to observe the episode in which the doe cleans the baby with her own tongue as she would do when caring for her own offspring. Brown highlights the materiality of both bodies by introducing this seemingly insignificant detail—the baby needs to be cleaned, and it is the doe's nature to carry out this “procedure” on her own fawns. In addition, the author provides a brief yet telling description of the tongue's physical qualities—a “warm crash-towel tongue” (36)—which adds to the realism of the scene.

23The doe’s maternity is stressed once again when she is referred to as “the mother Deer”—both by the narrator and the gulls themselves, who seem to accept the doe's exceptional role in the life of the human baby. Importantly, the gulls are usually presented as a collective character, with the exception of the moments when a leader is needed. In such instances, the White Gull takes the lead, solves dilemmas or makes decisions regarding the flock. Yet, his individual presence seems to be more of a practical solution for narrative purposes rather than a conscious creation of a unique gull. For this reason, the singularity of the mother Deer may be an additional explanation for her constituting the most important kin of the human baby. Yet, the exceptional closeness that stems from her feeding the boy with her own milk and cleaning him with her tongue seems to be the key factor in their bonding and creation of an affective relationship.

24However, it needs to be stressed that, despite his kinship with the mother Deer, the boy is never described as deer-like, nor does he grow up together with the fawns. The doe returns twice a day to feed and clean Keneth but never to take him into the woods. Her motherhood seems limited, despite her deep affection for the baby and the bonds created while nursing. In fact, the motif of a nonhuman wet-nurse appearing daily but not staying with the human infant may actually be borrowed from other hagiographies—for instance, a white cow would come to nurse baby St. Kevin of Glendalough twice a day and then leave (O’Hanlon 337).

25The story of the wolf-mother in “The Wolf-Mother of Saint Ailbe” is fairly straightforward, as she takes the baby to her den and raises him among her own pups:

Here the little one, whose name was Ailbe, lived with the baby wolves, sharing their breakfast and dinner and supper, playing and quarreling and growing up with them. The wolf-mother took good care of him and saw that he had the best of everything, for she loved him dearly indeed. And Ailbe grew stronger and stronger, taller and taller, handsomer and handsomer every day, living his happy life in the wild woods of green Ireland. (“The Wolf Mother of Saint Ailbe” 190-91)

26The wolf-mother does not differentiate between her own pups and the human foundling, rearing them all together in her den. Although it is not mentioned in the text explicitly, it is clear that, at first, she nurses him alongside her own children. Discussing other examples of human children adopted by wolves, Debra Mitts-Smith also pays attention to the importance of being fed on wolf-milk. She notes: “This sharing of milk expresses more than nurturing. An intimate act, it reinforces the mother-child bonds, and in these instances, the wolf-child bonds. As such, it serves as a tangible expression of their relationship. Further, by imbibing the wolf's milk, the child receives part of the wolf, becoming part wolf” (142). It seems very true also for Saint Ailbe who becomes both a wolf-child and a child of a wolf. This relationship remains an important part of his identity—even if somehow suppressed by his subsequent upbringing among and by humans.

4. Interspecies Communication and Misunderstandings

27It is not only milk that is of importance for shaping one’s identity. While nursing creates a bond between individuals, language enables them to communicate with the world. In her stories, Brown puts a strong emphasis on this question and, despite certain logical gaps and inconsistencies (which will be discussed), the motif of the voice as a device that either connects or divides cannot be overlooked. For instance, although at first the White Gull decides to save Keneth because of simple compassion, what convinces the rest of the flock is the baby’s voice:

Then he led the flock over the spot where the wicker cradle tossed on the growing waves. ‘Lo,’ said he, ‘a land-fish in danger of being drowned among the Scaly Ones. Let us save it. See how pink it is. Its eyes are a piece of the sky, and its voice is not unlike ours—listen!’
For by this time the baby had wakened, and feeling cold and hungry and wet with the dashing spray, opened his pink mouth, and began to cry lustily. ‘E-e-e-e-e!’ wailed the baby; and as the White Gull had said, that sounds very like the chief word of the Gull tongue. (“Saint Keneth of the Gulls” 32)

28The birds notice a certain similarity between themselves and the “land-fish,” their name for Keneth, and this coincidence tips the scales, prompting the birds to save the baby. It cannot be explained in terms of the mammalian kinship and the suckle instinct, but rather through the baby's vocal quality. Brown emphasizes the feeling of sympathy for the baby evoked by its cry that resembles a gull shriek. It is the sound of the baby’s cry that proves decisive rather than the baby’s purely aesthetic features, such as his pinkness and the color of his eyes (32), since it points at the likeness among obvious differences. Keneth from the very beginning seems to have a special bond with animals—which exemplifies the way human children and nonhuman animals have been culturally conflated (Ratelle 4). Presumably, for this reason, the boy is equipped with an instinctive understanding of the birds’ intentions: the narrator states that he/she does not understand “what cree-e-e means in Gull” but the baby boy apparently does, judging by his immediate reaction, as he stops crying and starts to laugh despite the cold, hunger, and other unpleasant elements of the setting (Brown 34).

29Moreover, an unexpected yet highly probable remark appears in the description of the scene in the shepherd’s hut:

The Shepherd’s wife was sitting by the cradle saying, ‘Hush!’ and ‘Bye-lo!’ and other silly things that Keneth did not understand. But when she heard the rushing of the gulls’ wings, she gave a scream and started for the door.
‘Cree-e-e!’ cried the gulls fiercely. ‘Give us our little one.’ And they perched on the edge of the cradle and looked tenderly at Keneth. Then he stopped his crying and began to laugh, for these were the voices he knew and loved. (39-40)

30The confusion and discontent of the baby are not portrayed merely as the result of him being taken away from the place that he considered home and the creatures that are his kin. Brown clearly represents the baby Keneth as being disinclined towards human language not by default but by its unfamiliarity. In the case of Keneth, raised by gulls and the doe, the human voice and typical ways of lulling the baby to sleep prove ineffective and only add to the confusion and fear. As soon as Keneth hears the voices of gulls, he stops crying and starts to laugh, associating the stereotypically unpleasant shrieks of those birds with safety and love.

31The gulls do not only shriek but also speak, albeit in a language the writer pretends to translate into that of humans. Notably, the Mother Doe and the White Gull are able to communicate verbally with each other in some generic animal tongue. The problem of language and identity appears particularly interesting in the scene in the shepherd's hut: the narrator explicitly states that Keneth’s strong reaction to the situation is partly caused by the fact that he does not understand the meaning of the human words and sounds used in order to soothe an infant. As it seems, Brown's attention to detail and appearance of partial realism somehow dwindles towards the end of the story, making it more generic and leaving the readers without answers to many questions regarding Keneth’s upbringing: his mannerisms, the language that he used to communicate, and, most importantly, his sense of self.

32While discussing the examples of Charlotte’s Web, the Doctor Dolittle series and the Mary Poppins books, Elick rightly observes that ascribing language to nonhumans has important consequences because it results in granting them subjectivity at the very beginning of the narrative (19). She also adds that “when authors include animal utterances competing with human ones, a novel's world becomes more equalitarian, its sense of truth more dialogic” (19). It seems especially true in the case of Ailbe, but less so for Keneth, who throughout the story is, in fact, devoid of any language due to him being an infant. He communicates his emotions and needs exclusively with crying or laughter and, in what follows, is zoomorphized while the speaking gulls and the doe are in turn anthropomorphized. In “Saint Keneth of the Gulls,” the animals become the child’s caregivers, and thus like adults, are naturally able to communicate in a complex, human-like manner, while the baby, due to its lack of subjectivity and absolute helplessness, is placed in an animal-like position.

33Interestingly, in the story of St. Ailbe and his wolf-family, the narrative choices are very different, and it is the wolf who is visibly disadvantaged linguistically. Despite the fact that the mother-wolf undoubtedly acts as an agent at the beginning of the story, a much greater emphasis is placed on her body language and realistic ways of communicating, such as howling. She does utter one sentence (“What is that!” when she finds the human baby; Brown 190) but then she ceases to use words as such—which cannot be said about Ailbe. In fact, he seems to follow a more natural or even realistic path—first speaking the language of wolves (rather than a general animal language) and then, after being captured and raised by humans, he uses Irish. His initial, wolfish identity is particularly visible in a description of him being abducted by a hunter who at first has taken him for game and for an unknown species. As he tries to escape, it is explicitly stated that when the boy calls for help, he does so in the wolves’ language (which, obviously, is his native tongue). Although his wolf kin do come to his rescue, it is all in vain—the boy is lost to the wilderness. Since the hunter turns out to be a prince, Ailbe is raised in a palace and eventually becomes a bishop, known for his wisdom and greatness. His life among humans is by no means described as unhappy, yet his early childhood seems to have had a profound influence on him:

But though he had grown so great and famous Ailbe had never forgotten his second mother, the good wolf, nor his four-footed brothers, in their coats of gray fur. And sometimes when his visitors were stupid and stayed a long time, or when they asked too many questions, or when they made him presents which he did not like, Ailbe longed to be back in the forest with the good beasts. For they had much more sense, though they had never kissed the Blarney Stone, which makes one talk good Irish. (195, my emphasis)

  • 3 He does not participate in it, having a distaste for “killing poor creatures”which does not seem v (...)

34Human stupidity is compared with the rough wisdom of the wilderness, which is not correlated with an ability to use human language or “talk good Irish” (195). Obviously, Ailbe’s nostalgia for his careless childhood and the noble simplicity of nature comes as no surprise. Yet, what seems important and less intuitive is the fact that, despite his high status among humans, he neither perceives himself as superior to the uncivilized animals nor loses his attachment to the wilderness. Though not cultivated, his bond with the nonhuman remains strong: something he discovers when hearing the hunt approaching his palace.3

Louder and louder came the ‘tantaratara!’ of the horns, and then he could hear the gallopy thud of the horses’ hoofs and the yelp of the hounds. But suddenly the Bishop’s heart stood still. Among all the other noises of the chase he heard a sound which made him think—think—think. It was the long-drawn howl of a wolf, a sad howl of fear and weariness and pain. It spoke a language which he had almost forgotten. (195)

35The wolf language seems to bear more emotional than lexical meaning, which is surprisingly accurate. Brown does not make an attempt to “translate” the howl from this passage, but rather she enables an affective reading of the wolf cry—making Ailbe remember the emotional meaning of the sound and activating his understanding of the wolf language.

36Notably, as Ailbe and his wolf-mother recognize each other, he does not make an attempt to speak wolf language but speaks Irish, instead. The narrator does not explain it in any way, and so the possible reasons for Keneth’s use of Irish here are numerous—from the fact that he has not had enough time to remember the wolf language; the potentially cartoonish effect (the bishop yelping and howling would seem improper to say the least); to the simple yet sufficient idea that what actually matters is the intention that permeates the act of speech: “‘I will protect thee, old mother,’ he said tenderly. ‘When I was little and young and feeble, thou didst nourish and cherish and protect me; and now that thou art old and gray and weak, shall I not render the same love and care to thee? None shall injure thee’ (196-197). Ailbe’s voice is described as tender, and this quality combined with his protective body language (he covers her with his velvet cloak, touches her head, and warns off the hounds with his crozier) is sufficient to assure her of his good intentions.

37Saint Ailbe consistently uses human language, assuming that his wolf mother understands him perfectly well. It is visible both in his speech to the townsfolk when he gathers both the people and the she-wolf and when he warns the humans not to hurt the wolf family. Then, he turns to his wolf mother and says in Irish: “See, mother, you need not fear. They dare not hurt you now you have found your son to protect you. Come every day with my brothers to my table, and you and yours shall share my food, as once I so often shared yours” (197-98). Following both the fairy-tale and hagiographic conventions, the wolf understands the complexity of his utterance, his promise, and invitation, which results in a happy ending: the wolves come every day to the bishop’s palace to dine with him at the table.

5. Generic Animality

38A detailed discussion of the power relations between human and nonhuman animals represented in Brown’s stories is not the objective of this study, yet it seems worth mentioning that despite the fact that Ailbe repays the kindness of the mother-wolf, it is questionable if the relation is truly equalitarian. Indeed, Ailbe takes care of his wolf kin—he feeds them and treats them like humans, yet one cannot but think that it is him who wields the power. Not only is he the only member of the wolf family who speaks human language (which Elick perceives as granting the status of the subject in talking animal stories; 19), but he also protects them with his high status among the humans. There is no conversation in a common language that would imply the equality of both parties, and it is even explicitly stated that it is Ailbe who is the mother-wolf’s favorite rather than one of her biological children (Brown 198). In other words, despite the fact that Ailbe readily takes care of his wolf family, it cannot be said that humans and wolves are presented as equals. Through this arrangement the wolves temporarily turn into wolf-humans—reflecting Ailbe’s wolf-human status in his childhood. What might be overlooked is the power shift that occurs when the wolves partially renounce their identity, pretending to be humans. On the other hand, the family dinner they share takes place once a day and seems to be an exception—this is only one moment when the wolves are anthropomorphized and constrained by human eating habits. At the same time, Ailbe is never mentioned as visiting them in the wilderness—apparently, despite his longing for the simplicity of life in the natural world, his lupine family seem to satisfy this need, and he decides to stay among humans as a bishop. He also talks to the wolves in Irish, which may imply that he has accepted his humanness and that the voice of wilderness, though present, is too faint to call him back into the woods.

  • 4 For more on the concept of Christian stewardship of nature see Robin Attfield’s Environmental Ethic (...)

39What follows is that, despite the general uniqueness and progressiveness of Brown's approach towards feral children and cross-species bonds, she does not reject the Christian concept of human stewardship of nature.4 This should come as no surprise, as even in the preface Brown mentions that “as St. Francis knew so well, all the creatures are our little brothers.” Such a reference implies that the relationship between humans and non-humans, although fraternal, is not equalitarian, since little brothers are expected to be weaker, submissive, and in need of protection. The power shift in the case of St. Ailbe seems to aptly illustrate how Brown smoothly and discreetly departs from the condemnation of animality within humans while at the same time remaining in tune with earlier traditions—especially the medieval tradition, which served as the main source of inspiration for her book.

40The materiality of the children’s bodies also provides the readers with hints regarding their identity. In her discussion of feral children in nineteenth-century literature, especially Mowgli from Kipling’s The Jungle Book, Nath states:

While cognitive ethology and other animal observation in the later twentieth century has shown us that various animal species have distinct and complex social, cultural, and familial practices, animals were considered to lack all sociality and culture in the nineteenth century. This is precisely why it was possible to characterise feral children’s behaviour and demeanour as generically animal-like. A charge of animality against feral children necessarily begs the question: Which animal, and where? The question was escaped only because animality was in the main nothing but an absence of humanity, as it was for Rousseau. (260n1)

41It is not an easy task to immediately establish if this observation applies to the cases of the “baby saints” from Brown’s stories—mostly due to their brevity and the age of the main characters. At first, St. Keneth is far too young to exhibit any particular characteristics, save those typical for a human baby. Assessing his likeness to his caretakers (the gulls and the doe) proves challenging if not impossible as the reader is given only a few sentences summarizing Keneth’s adulthood:

After this no one tried again to bring the gulls’ adopted baby back among human folk. Little Keneth tarried and thrived with his feathered brothers, growing fat and strong. When he came to walk he was somewhat lame, to be sure; one of his legs was shorter than the other, and he limped like a poor gull who has hurt his foot. But this troubled Keneth very little, and the gulls were kind. He was always happy and content, full of singing and laughter and kind words for all.
And here in this wild, spray-sprinkled nest above the Atlantic breakers, Keneth dwelt all his life. The Welsh peasants of the Gower peninsula revered him as their Saint, knowing him to be a holy man beloved by the gulls and the deer and all the wild creatures of shore and forest, who did their kindly best to make him happy. (40-41)

42In fact, these two final paragraphs prove more confusing than enlightening as Brown seems to suddenly contradict herself, probably due to a simple oversight and inconsistency. Namely, Keneth is claimed to have spent all his life among gulls, yet the only mention of his gull-likeness is actually a simile: his limping makes him look like a hurt gull. Yet, it does not seem to be sufficient evidence for Keneth being gull-like, for the similarity appears to come from the simple anatomical fact of both birds and humans having two legs and thus limping in a similar manner if hurt. It is the bipedalism that makes the two species bear a certain resemblance rather than the boy mimicking “his feathered brothers.” Moreover, there is no mention of him attempting to flap his arms (imitating birds’ wings), making gull-like noises or even being a skilful diver. On the contrary: Keneth sings and laughs, and has a kind word for everybody, (40) which are typical human behaviors. At the same time, we should bear in mind that the animals in the story are anthropomorphized, and hence the attempts to add realistic elements are somewhat fragmentary or superficial.

  • 5 Admittedly, Brown does mention that the boy walks on all fours. This is indeed interesting as the m (...)

43Taking all this into account, Nath’s claim regarding general animality in the nineteenth century seems justified, and Keneth may indeed be considered a generic feral child (and then a feral adult), although his case is more complex, as he is too young to mimic any behaviors of another species and the final two paragraphs where he is mentioned as an adult are rather superficial. At first glance, the situation is slightly clearer in the case of St. Ailbe: we are provided not only with a description of an infant, but also of a child who is approximately three years old: “and imagine the hunter’s surprise when he found that it had neither fur nor horns nor four feet nor a tail, but that it was a beautiful child who could not stand upright, and whose little bare body ran on all-fours like a baby wolf” (Brown 192). In fact, Brown yet again uses a simile in order to highlight the animal-like qualities of the boy or, to be more specific, the way he moves. While Keneth limps like a hurt gull, Ailbe runs on all-fours “like a baby wolf”—and this is where the similarities to the specific species end.5

So he [the hunter] caught Ailbe up in his arms, kicking and squealing and biting like the wild little animal he was, and wrapped him in a corner of his great cloak.
....So he [Ailbe] screamed and struggled to get away from the big hunter, and he called to the wolves in their own language to come and help him. (192)

44On the surface, the boy’s behavior may be interpreted as wolf-like, but in fact it is surprisingly formulaic—the narrator describes Ailbe as “a little animal” rather than a wolf cub, and there is nothing particularly lupine about his struggle. Moreover, he does not howl for help but rather “call[s] to the wolves in their own language” (192), which yet again points at his generic animality or potential humanness rather than wolfness. It seems particularly striking when compared with the description of the mother-wolf’s reaction where Brown very clearly highlights her identity as a member of a particular species. It is very much visible throughout the story, as the wolf-mother is portrayed to a great extent through her physicality and natural, wolf-like reactions and body language combined with her human-like thoughts and motivations (e.g., “She pricked up her pointed ears and said, ‘What’s that!’ And lo and behold, when she came to sniff out the mystery with her keen nose, it led her straight to the spot where the little pink baby lay, crying with cold and hunger.” (190)).

45Yet the difference between the wolfish wolf and the wolfish boy becomes even clearer in the chase scene as the wolf mother “chase[s] after the fleeting horse and snap[s] at the loose end of the huntsman’s cloak, howling with grief and anger”; then, when the chase proves futile, the wolf-mother gives “one last howl of farewell”, and finally she and her children go back home “with their tails between their legs and their heads drooping low” (193). While the wolves are presented quite precisely as members of their own species, Ailbe ultimately proves to be yet another generic feral child. However, it needs to be admitted that Brown does complicate the status of the feral child more than in many other instances (e.g., in the cases of Mowgli or even St. Keneth).

6. Conclusion

46Despite the fact that the discussed stories present two very different endings, they undoubtedly highlight the strength of multispecies kinship and of an unwillingness to erase the animality from one’s identity. In a very Harawayan manner, making oddkin proves necessary (and effective) for survival—both for the babies and for the wolf-kin of Ailbe when he saves them from the hunter. Brown clearly departs from the belief that animality within a (genetically) human being is synonymous with the absence of humanness and thus should be perceived as threatening and disgusting. She revives two ancient stories of Catholic saints whose feral upbringing does not prevent them from holiness, but on the contrary—equips them with wisdom and kindness, making them role-models worth following and remembering.

47What constitutes the core of each story is the reunion with nonhuman loved ones and the saints accepting them as part of their own identity. The degrees to which Keneth and Ailbe identify with their animal kins vary, as Keneth is never influenced by a human upbringing while Ailbe grows up in a palace. However, even the latter does not succumb to pride or shame, choosing to celebrate his wolf kin in a most ostentatious way: dining with them daily in his bishop palace.

48In fact, the boys do not seem to exhibit any behaviors that could be categorized as unquestionably wolf-, deer- or gull-like. Yet, their sense of self seems to stem from interspecies kinship rather than identification with a given species. In other words, although the representation of the animality of these feral children may seem generic, they remain deeply connected with their nonhuman carers and, in the case of Ailbe, siblings. The affective bonds are created through nursing, language, and physical closeness to animals, which deeply influence both boys—Keneth never seeks human company nor questions his identity, while Ailbe, despite the time he has spent among humans, neither forgets his wolf family nor renounces them. Loyalty and love are presented as prevailing and more powerful than human vices or a longing to be exclusively human without any traces of animality since being raised by nonhuman kins is depicted not as something that embarrasses them but rather as the source of happiness and kindness they show to the world. Stressing the benefits of oddkin-making, this message is deeply Harawayan, despite the fact that Brown formulated it more than a century before the publication of Staying with the Trouble, which shows that new concepts and tools may prove strikingly apt for discussing old texts and their historical contexts. In her book, Brown reworks early medieval stories, yet Donna Haraway’s concept proves consistent with Brown’s message—the idea of kin-making seems to continue a chain of thought that, while remaining marginal to the question of human identity until recently, permeates western literature of the past millennium.

Work on this article was supported by the National Science Centre, Poland, under the grant “Figurations of Interspecies Harmony in Literature, Film and Other Cultural Texts of the English-Speaking Sphere, from the mid-19th to the 21st Centuries” [UMO-2020/38/E/HS2/00130]

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1 The idea appears in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s treatise titled Emile, or on Education (1762).

2 It is worth mentioning that it is the gull mothers’ voices that tip the scales when it comes to rescuing the baby as they leave no room for hesitation: “‘Poor little thing!’ said all the mother gulls in chorus. ‘He talks our language, he must be saved. Come, brothers and sisters, and use your beaks and talons before the clumsy nest in which he lies is sunk beneath the waves. Cree-e-e, little one, cree-e-e! We will save you’” (Brown 33-34). Yet, they are never mentioned again as primary caretakers, and it is the doe who becomes and remains the main maternal figure of the story, both through her body and affective bond with Keneth.

3 He does not participate in it, having a distaste for “killing poor creatures”which does not seem very wolf-like, though could be explained in terms of him not being forced to obtain food on his own.

4 For more on the concept of Christian stewardship of nature see Robin Attfield’s Environmental Ethics; for more on the anthropocentrism inherent in the concept of human stewardship of animals see Justyna Włodarczyk’s article in this volume: “From Animal Odd Couples to Oddkin: Probing Visual Representations of Interspecies Friendships through Critical Cuteness.”

5 Admittedly, Brown does mention that the boy walks on all fours. This is indeed interesting as the most famous feral child in literature, Mowgli from The Jungle Book by Kipling (published only four years before The Book of Saints and Friendly Beasts) is depicted as walking upright. On the other hand, the moment Mowgli enters the wolves’ den he is already learning to walk (Kipling 10). Most probably he has acquired this skill while still living with his human parents.

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Electronic reference

Julia Helena Wilde, “What a Handsome Family We Are!”: Feral Children and Kin-Making in Abbie Farwell Brown’s The Book of Saints and Friendly Beasts (1900)European journal of American studies [Online], 19-1 | 2024, Online since 07 February 2024, connection on 20 April 2024. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Julia Helena Wilde

Julia Helena Wilde is a PhD candidate at the Institute of English Studies, University of Warsaw. In her master’s thesis, she examined the role of animals in early medieval lives of British saints. Currently, her main academic interest focuses on the reception of the early medieval Irish saints in the 19th century, medieval hagiographies in cultural context, children’s literature, and animal studies. In her PhD dissertation, she scrutinizes the reception and reinterpretation of St. Brendan the Navigator’s figure in the 19th century.

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The text only may be used under licence CC BY 4.0. All other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

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