I was reading out loud to my son on Thanksgiving holiday. We were snuggled into sleeping bags and blankets by the fire. Two sentences into his 1915 legend White Fang, Jack London writes:
A vast silence reigned over the land. The land itself was a desolation, lifeless, without movement, so lone and cold that the spirit of it was not even that of sadness. There was a hint in it of laughter, but of a laughter more terrible than any sadness—a laughter that was mirthless as the smile of the sphinx, a laughter cold as the frost and partaking of the grimness of infallibility. It was the masterful and incommunicable wisdom of eternity laughing at the futility of life and the effort of life. It was the Wild, the savage, frozen-hearted Northland Wild…
On the sled, in the box, lay a third man whose toil was over,—a man whom the Wild had conquered and beaten down until he would never move nor struggle again. It is not the way of the Wild to like movement. Life is an offence to it, for life is movement; and the Wild aims always to destroy movement. It freezes the water to prevent it running to the sea; it drives the sap out of the trees till they are frozen to their mighty hearts; and most ferociously and terribly of all does the Wild harry and crush into submission man—man who is the most restless of life, ever in revolt against the dictum that all movement must in the end come to the cessation of movement…
On every side was the silence, pressing upon them with a tangible presence. It affected their minds as the many atmospheres of deep water affect the body of the diver. It crushed them with the weight of unending vastness and unalterable decree. It crushed them into the remotest recesses of their own minds, pressing out of them, like juices from the grape, all the false ardours and exaltations and undue self-values of the human soul, until they perceived themselves finite and small, specks and motes, moving with weak cunning and little wisdom amidst the play and inter-play of the great blind elements and forces.
Striking in its language, London employs the words of a systematic theology to describe the Incomprehensible Other of the frozen Wild: “silence,” “incommunicable wisdom of eternity,” “crushed weight,” and vast stillness. London writes of the Yukon and the Klondike as the scholastics wrote of the mysterium tremendum. The majestic immanence of the Wild reveals a horrifying transcendence.
At the end of chapter three, at a key narrative turn that could spell disaster for the protagonist before even coming into existence, London introduces a holy tautology: “But the Wild is the Wild…” Evoking the tetragrammaton of the Hebrew scriptures (“I Am is that I Am”), White Fang introduces readers to that which was, which is, and which is to come. The Wild is. The Wild is the Wild.
London is laying out his theology. The functional atheism of the Gold Rush cannot restrain the divine attributes of the frozen Wild. London’s characters are sinners in the hands of an angry Wilderness, at the mercy of its harshest elements. Where Captain Ahab faced an omnisciently cunning white whale, or Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley faced the Wholly Other of alien space, in London’s cosmos John Thornton (Call of the Wild), Weedon Scott (White Fang), and the chechaquo (“To Build A Fire”) face the most dangerous and omnipotent antagonist in the Wild. The divine presence is everywhere communicated in nature, and London writes of the eternal stillness of the frozen Wild for this purpose.
Salvation Among the Wolves
Riding the line of this boundary between divine nature and mortal tragedy are the protagonists, Buck (in Call of the Wild) and the eponymous White Fang. Early on, we discover that White Fang is actually a wolfdog, sired by a wolf father and wolfdog mother. This hypostatic union of feral wolf and domesticated dog is the main plot arc for White Fang, as the union of these two natures war for supremacy in the protagonist. Buck, who does not incarnate the two natures, tells the story of when a dog is predestined to remember its instinctual life in a wolf’s world.
Eventually, White Fang learns to live in harmony with his dual nature. Alternating between wild violence to domesticated support, he learns to accept his hybrid incarnation of wolf and dog. White Fang never becomes a house dog, but finds serenity in the next generation of pups he sires with a domesticated dog.
Buck, conversely, descends further into the Wild’s call. By the end of Buck’s experience of living as a dog in a wolf’s world, he literally regresses to “a younger world,” when Wild Nature was primary against the evolutionary march of Man’s progress. The dog becomes the leader of a wolf pack, and maintains an air of violence against a Native American tribe, and a haunting memory for all humans. In Christian theology, grace or sin begin to have total sway over the soul, bringing it into their respective dominions. Buck pilgrimages deeper into ancient instinct and feral practice.
The evil and better angels that assist the canines toward their predestined roles are played by the humans. Both Buck and White Fang experience the range of human behavior toward dogs and wolves. Many men/tribes mistreat the animals, especially when it involves greed or liquor. In each monograph, the lowest circle of hell is reached when the men pit beast against beast. Buck fights and kills Spitz (an alpha husky), and White Fang barely survives Cherokee (an unyielding pitbull).
Despite the evil of some of the humans, neither White Fang or Buck are able to disentangle themselves from wicked society. Instead, a “good” human is sent in divine intervention. Weedon Scott redeems White Fang out of the Egyptian slavery of dog-fighting. John Thornton circumcises the wicked dogsled, cutting Buck free and granting him salvation. In both cases, the kindness of Scott and Thornton lead to a sanctification of the dogs’ savagery.
Much ink has already been spilled over London’s view of the noble self, and the proper piety that should be shown dominates his books. Heavily influenced by the natural selection of Charles Darwin (London read The Origin of Species during his own journey through the Yukon) and Friedrich Nietzsche’s Übermensch, London extolled self-reliance, reason tempered by instinct, and manly strength in the fight for survival.* All of his characters receive blessings when they practice these virtues. Ignoring this piety led to disaster or death, both for human and canine characters.
The human-dog interaction is not a static tale of humans exerting gracious or evil temptations on the dogs, because each narrative arcs toward a climactic act of atoning violence, exacted by beast against human. White Fang kills the convict Jim Hall, and for this final supererogatory act is given beatitudes, as “the Blessed Wolf.” Buck establishes his man-killing ways by tearing out the throat of Burton, but this climaxes with Buck’s attack (and ongoing terrorizing) of the Yeehat tribe. This violence confirms Buck’s obedience to the call of the Wild, bestowing upon him the title of “Ghost Dog.” Both canines are glorified in their final state and renown.
At the conclusion of London’s novels, the human actors retreat to the background, either deceased or absent. But the Wild continues on in the fore, incarnated in Buck and White Fang. This is especially true of White Fang: compared to the humans’ domesticated dogs, White Fang “in appearance and action and impulse, still clung the Wild. He symbolised [sic] it, was its personification: so that when they showed their teeth to him they were defending themselves against the powers of destruction that lurked in the shadows of the forest and in the dark beyond the camp-fire.” His instinct “was the Wild still clinging to him, asserting itself through him.” Just a few pages later, London declares, “He was the Wild…” As Buck and White Fang incarnate aspects of the Wild, their reputations will carry on long after the Gold Rush.
The Wild is a cruel deity in London’s writing. At one point in the White Fang narrative where survival seems impossible, the men join together “in cursing the power of the Wild…” More than a setting or backdrop, London’s fiction is representative of “man vs. nature,” for there was no fiercer or more frightening antagonist. But in showing the theological undercurrents of his writing, I’m arguing that for London, “man vs. nature” can quickly slide into theomachy, a conflict with the divine. The Wild is a majestic yet dangerous meeting of the transcendent and the immanent.
In our current era of superhero movies, finding a sufficient antagonist is actually a challenge. When Superman and Wonder Woman team up, who could possibly pose a real threat?
But despite all the super powers, or the advance of technology, Wild Nature is often still the greatest foe. Indeed, the most powerful heroes control nature – Aquaman over the seas, Storm over the elements, etc. But as these symbolic characters try to tame what we cannot, the Wild is unpredictable in ways that do not fit neatly into a three hour Marvel film. The same Wild that squeezes out all life and motion in arctic freeze inevitably resurrects life each Spring. While not fickle, the cruel fate the Wild imposes on London’s characters cannot be contained.
If “man vs. nature” slides into theomachy for London, the real danger in atheistic fiction is that all conflict eventually devolves to the solitary self. Commenting on American nature fiction in the recent centuries, BBC writer Cameron Laux notes, “The ideology of man against wilderness stands revealed: without doubt, the real wilderness is inside us.” He writes that in these wild places, “the real monsters are other men.” Laux elevates humanity to the apex of the hierarchy of being, which simultaneously burdens us as responsible for the problem of evil, as well as the only hope for salvation.
But London’s Wild is objective and external to humans. No amount of education, government control, or personal self-improvement changes the Wild or its existential threat to humans. And the more civilized culture attempts to control the Wild through technological advance, the more we find humanity back in a Tower of Babel story, attempting to rise above the floodwaters to the divine. People are certainly monsters at some points – a drunk Grey Beaver or monstrous Beauty Smith (White Fang), the otiose Americans (Call of the Wild) – but they also need saving from other humans, from themselves, and from the wolves. Both Scott and Thornton display London’s ideal wisdom by listening to their canines. The chechaquo embodies foolishness by failing to heed his dog’s instincts (“To Build A Fire”). The Wild is not merely a psychologized theater for London’s characters. It is an external threat and power that will consume them without proper piety.
In an upcoming conclusion, I want to look at a very different way London presents humanity – as lesser deities – and how his writing on wilderness transcendence can still be so important in our technological day.
* For a very different take on the virtues that London extolled, see Bembridge, Steven. “Jesus as a Cultural Weapon in the Work of Jack London.” Studies in American Naturalism, vol. 10 no. 1, 2015, p. 22-40. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/san.2015.0006. He writes:
London constructs an image of Christ in the form of human protagonists, who display an overt physical masculinity, reject religious orthodoxy, and foster a relationship that privileges the white race. Those characters who exhibit these core qualities reflect London’s exploration of the Darwinian implications of the nature of Christ’s self-sacrifice, and, because London’s exploration of what it means to be Christ progressed throughout his life, they take on political meaning through the incorporation of socialism and the Social Gospel.
I am no London expert. I just leave this here for the reader’s imagination.