The Wolf King

by Judd Palmer
ISBN: 1896209823

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A Review of: The Wolf King
by Antony Di Nardo

The Wolf King is Number Three in Judd Palmer's "Preposterous Fables for Unusual Children". In a note from the author we are told that if you think to yourself, "How unusual it is to be me; how preposterous life is!" then a fable such as this one might just be the antidote to get you through that thought.
I'm not so sure. We usually expect fables to be accompanied by an inherent moral or lesson and that, I would think, should help sort out what makes life so preposterous. However, as we approach the conclusion of The Wolf King, there are so many endings and different twists, some surprising and some expected, that I can't seem to find a lesson to draw from this fable. If anything, it confirms that life is absurd. Or are we to learn that one lesson cancels out another? Is it "love conquers all" or "love is seldom won?" Is it "we are defeated by pride" or "pride is our only hope?"
These oppositions might make for interesting discussions, and they serve to further an examination of the fable as a facet of our inherited mythologies. Robert Bly, writing Iron John, would have had a field day with this story. However, the average adolescent reader does not have Professor Bly as a reading companion and I think much of the symbolism and myth-like aspects might be lost of the younger reader. As it is, there are sufficient lapses in the continuity of the narrative, and gaps that require filling, to make this story complicated enough.
Imagine what life would be like for the son of The Boy Who Cried Wolf. >From birth he is labeled a liar, ostracized, bullied and alienated from the life of the village. His father is presumed dead, taken by the wolves. His mother is abandoned by her lover, the arch-enemy of his father as we later learn, and every day she cries a river. When her son turns fifteen, he is expected to perform his military duty, "to Stand with Steel." He is willing and able to mount the guard on the wall that protects the village from menacing packs of wolves, but because of his father, he is denied the opportunity of performing this duty. Alfred, the son of The Boy Who Cried Wolf cannot be trusted.
Angry and rejected, Alfred steals into the forbidden forest at night where the hungry wolves lurk. One might see this as an attempted suicide and, given Alfred's emotional state, it wouldn't be surprising. However, before the wolves can feast on him, he meets the Wolf King himself and his life is saved. Alfred is sworn to secrecy and told never to return to the forest. But he breaches the agreement with the Wolf King, and returns with Martina, a classmate and the girl he loves, in order to impress her with his courage. She is terrified by the experience and Alfred is less than brave. Once again, he is rescued by the Wolf King who reveals his plan to assault the village and he secures a promise from Alfred to be his accomplice. When Alfred sees Martina with Raus, his boyhood nemesis, he is heart-broken and recognizes his true feelings for her. In a situation that parallels the fateful events that shaped his own life, Alfred betrays the Wolf King a second time and, rather than allow his pack of wolves to storm the village, he shoots at them in order to save Martina's life. In the end he saves the village from the wolves, yet Alfred is still denied acknowledgement as a hero and he is exiled to a distant land. But not before he learns the true identity of his father.
Palmer delivers a story with interesting premises and surprising twists, but it's not without flaws. His language and imagery establish a tone consistent with that of a fable set in what appears to be a corner of 19th century Germany. He creates the ideal mood and atmosphere for such a story, but there are gaps in the narrative. Some scenes depart without support from the logic of time, and connections between certain events are obscure or lacking. The reader is abandoned too often in the same dark forest as Alfred, asking for directions out. I wished at times that Palmer had left less to the imagination and filled in some of the blanks. I think many young readers will agree that this story could have used several more pages.

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