Arise, Sir Ian McKellan. He with the voice of leather and milk, blood and cough syrup. The one-man orchestra with consonants like kisses and vowels like the best sex you've ever had.I've been listening to the Guardian Unlimited weekly podcasts of Wolf Brother, written by Michelle Paver and read by Sir I.
Until I saw an ad in the paper I didn't realise that this is 'children's literature', but I should have known. Not because the hero is a young boy (aren't they all) but because It Is Good.
Over the past few weeks I've been re-reading my favourite childhood authors: Rosemary Sutcliff, Alan Garner, Susan Cooper, Ursula LeGuin. Along with Wolf Brother, they share certain themes: the buildungsroman grail quest, the primacy of animals and nature, the value of a sharply sensed moment in a great sweep of time and place. They are properly epic, humbling and exhilarating.
But above all, these tales are rolled out in a cool, deep river of action. There is so little self-indulgence, because kids are the most exacting, most selfish readers. They have no time for a book written to please anyone but themselves, certainly not an author or a critic. Awkwardness is too familiar and raw a feeling at that age to want to grapple with it in books. Pain, yes, ambiguity, yes, but not wanking about with words.
The upcoming films of Northern Lights and Eagle Of The Ninth make me a bit sad. The imaginations of Chris Weitz and Kevin MacDonald may be incredible, but they're not a patch on the weird originality of a child's. Just like making Sir I be forever Gandalf: diminishing to both.
Wolf Brother is a proper story, set in a shiveringly strong prehistoric world ruled by the nature spirits of tough love and easy death. It avoids both the nonsense of Tolkein and the chat-room role-play boy-bedroom whiff of most swirly-covered teenage fantasy books.
It's even better read by Sir I. He is part wolf in this story, growling and panting and scampering around the story, but always with a backbone of dark, snapping liqourice.
Lupus via Lear. You know you want to.