Wimbledon wanderer Michelle Paver, author of the best-selling Chronicles of Ancient Darkness
10:46 07 April 2010
Originally published in Surrey Life magazine March 2010
Author Michelle Paver may not be a familiar name to many grown-ups, but to teenage lovers of fictional adventure, she is a living legend.
Her six-part Chronicles of Ancient Darkness, the immensely popular tales of Stone Age orphan Torak and his companion wolf, captured young imaginations the world over and sold over a million copies in the UK alone.
Last August saw the release of Ghost Hunter, the final book in the series – and now 20th Century Fox has bought the film rights, to be produced by the acclaimed director of Alien and Gladiator, Ridley Scott.
“It’s in development, as they say, yes,” Michelle confirms. “I’ve seen a copy of the Wolf Brother script that they very kindly sent to me. I rather liked it because they’ve stuck to the story. I think it’s quite a difficult one to film because of the wolf – I mean wolves are not good actors! You can’t train wolves, so they’ll have to think how to get round that.”
Would Sir Ian McKellen, the acclaimed actor who narrated the audio versions of the books, be likely to appear in the films, perhaps as Torak’s adoptive father Fin-Kedinn?
“I would certainly do my best,” says Michelle. “It wouldn’t be up to me for casting, that’s Fox’s decision, but Ian is an admirer of the books; he’s been kind enough to say some lovely things about them. I think he’d be fantastic, and he’s got such an understanding and sympathy with the characters. It made me realise how powerful someone of Ian’s charisma would have been in the Stone Age. He could have made you believe anything, sitting around the campfire.”
Born in Malawi, in 1960, Michelle relocated to England with her family when she was a young girl, eventually settling in suburban Wimbledon. Apart from a couple of years living in London, she’s remained in the area ever since.
Aside from tennis, of course, Wimbledon is perhaps best known for The Wombles – the innocuous furry creatures that roamed Wimbledon Common in a series of children’s stories that were developed for television in the 1970s. The pointy nosed, absent-minded rodents scooped up people’s rubbish, which they recycled to decorate their burrows.
So how does a young girl growing up in that sort of cosy environment develop a fascination for canus lupus, the fierce, undomesticated origin of all dog species, the wolf?
“I think that goes back to when I was ten and I wanted a wolf!” says Michelle. “I pestered my parents for a wolf – and they gave me a spaniel! But he sort of became a wolf in my imagination when I took him for walks on Wimbledon Common.”
In Wolf Brother, the first book in the series, Torak, who eventually learns to ‘spirit walk’ within the souls of living animals, befriends a young orphaned wolf with whom he can communicate. He then develops a friendship with Renn, a girl from the tribe that initially captures and threatens to sacrifice him. There are many dark elements in the books – sorcery, sickness and death – and Michelle doesn’t flinch from exploring them.
“I’ve always loved ancient myths,” she says. “As a child I loved them and I think they are incredibly powerful, and they are quite dark and violent at times.
“I suppose one of the things about hunter-gatherers is that they have a fairly unflinching attitude towards life and death, and what is great about writing these books is you can get to explore all sorts of things.
“You know, where do we go to after we die and how do people deal with grief when they lose someone? But also, how do they form strong friendships with animals and other people?
“So it’s the light and the dark thrown into very high relief. I do like sharp contrast between light and dark, and you can’t have contrast without the darkness.”
In varying combinations, the trio of Torak, Wolf and Renn, with the assistance of mage craft – ritual magic – undertake fantastic and dangerous journeys to counter the malevolent force of rogue mages, the Soul Eaters, who can also spirit walk and ultimately seek to control the clans of the forest.
I ask her why, when she envisioned the series, she chose a male character as the main protagonist.
“It is a bit weird, isn’t it?” she considers. “It struck me as a bit strange, and I did ask myself, ‘why is it a 12-year-old boy?’ Well, I am a woman, so why not make him a girl? But you know characters are strange, they walk into your head, for whatever reason.
“But then, very early on in Wolf Brother, Renn, the girl, asserted herself as someone I had to deal with! She’s got a much stronger character than I anticipated, so she made me change my plans for quite a few of the books.
“I think people do admire Renn because she’s pretty tough, and she’s the best shot in the forest with a bow and arrow, which is very cool – and unlike me!”
Myth and magic
The books are renowned for their detailed description of pre-agricultural Stone Age hunter-gatherers, and I find myself wondering whether she was initially interested in writing about myth and magic, and decided to set it in the Stone Age, or if she was more focused on exploring Stone Age peoples and the magic came later?
“Gosh, that’s an interesting question, I’ve never been asked that! I tell you what came first: the picture in my head of a boy and a wolf – before the Stone Age setting. It was just an emotional feeling that I wanted to write a story about a boy with a very strong connection to a wolf.
“Then I remember fairly early on thinking, ‘well, I want a nice simple, natural background, full of the natural world, no towns, no villages, when can I set it?’ I thought about a post-apocalyptic time but I didn’t like that. Then I remembered that I’d been keen on the Stone Age as a child and I thought that would be an interesting time – the hunter-gatherer time.”
As part of her meticulous research, Michelle made repeated visits to the Wolf Conservation Trust in Berkshire, where she observed the animals’ behaviour. She has since become a patron of the centre, and a young cub born there was named Torak. Michelle also spent time in Finland, Greenland and the Lofoten Islands, northwest of Norway, where she studied the indigenous Inuit and Sami people – whose way of living is virtually unchanged from the Stone Age.
“My interest dates back to a big beautiful book of archaeologically accurate pictures of people in the Stone Age,” she continues. “I remember looking at it before I could read, just looking at the pictures.”
While in the company of traditional peoples, Michelle ate things such as elk heart, seal liver, fish eyes and raw whale blubber, and learned how to make weapons and clothing from whalebones, sealskin and reindeer hides. However, swimming with killer whales is perhaps the memory that most stands out in her mind.
“That was extraordinary, partly because I was in this dry suit, floating, snorkelling in the second deepest fjord in Norway. I was in the orcas’ world, hearing them whistling and clicking to each other, and then looking down at this blue light and seeing these dim shapes. That was magic, because I was in a different world, their world, and I felt so privileged.”
After the Chronicles
So, the big question now, of course, with the tales of Torak and Wolf having reached their conclusion, is what comes next for Wimbledon’s best-known author?
“Well, I can’t say too much yet, but I’m working very hard on a new series for the same readership as the Chronicles,” she reveals. “All I can tell you at the moment is that I’ve had this idea with the characters in my head for a while. It will still be set in pre-history, but a slightly later time and a different part of the world. Sorry for being a bit gnomic but that’s all I can say! I haven’t told even my publishers more than that. I’m doing a bit of research to sort of feel my way into the period. A volcano is going to come into it at some point – I can tell you that.
“I don’t think there will be quite as many wolves! I’ve got definite plans to get close to a number of different animals – it would be premature to tell you which animals, though...”
When I was researching this article, I came across some photos of her visiting a kangaroo sanctuary in my native Australia. Might it be Kangaroo Brother?
“Ha! Ha! I think I can go so far as to tell you, no, it won’t be! Nice try!”
- For more information about the Chronicles of Ancient Darkness series, visit www.michellepaver.com