Carried off by wild beasts…

In a year that’s seen cinematic re-makes of The Jungle Book (Disney 1967Disney 2016), Tarzan (Disney 1999; WarnerBros 2016) and Pete’s Dragon (Disney 1977; Disney 2016) – and another in the pipeline, in the form of Andy Serkis’s motion-capture Jungle Book due for release in October 2018 – it’s hard to miss the cultural obsession with tales of child-rearing animals.

It’s a motif that folklorists know well, and appears in at least two major forms in Thompson’s index. Relevant entries below.*

The new films have had mixed reviews, but the legends clearly have an enduring currency… And on a recent visit to Chester Zoo I heard many a gleeful shout of ‘King Louise!’ and hushed exclamations of ‘Shere Khan!’, from patrons young and old alike, and I’m counting that as good anecdotal evidence.

A survey of so-called ‘feral children’ veers between the idealistic-fantastical and the horrific, moving from popular stories about heroic children raised by noble animals – whose long inheritance takes you from the Tarzans and Mowglis to the ancient foundation myth of Romulus and Remus – through ‘cases’ of lost children comforted and protected by wild animals, and inevitably to the upsetting stories of child abuse and neglect – that are, in turn, imaginatively re-captured, as in Julia Fullerton-Batten’s photographic series. (There are also, of course, more insidious themes in the Mowgli-Tarzan legends too, in the mythic hierarchy of nature and culture, and in the colonial overtones of western ‘jungle’ stories generally).

By detour, you might come across the apocryphal tales of children briefly stolen away by animals and then ‘rescued’ or returned, and raised by humans. This little motif, arguably more ambivalent in its ethical implications and/or symbolic references than the extended animal-nurse narratives, features in the once-popular medieval romances of Octavian, Eglamour, Torrent of Portyngale, Isumbras and the later Valentine and Orson. These stories were relatively widely circulated in their time – 1300-1500s – and their influence is evident elsewhere in medieval culture. In particular, the animal-stealing-child trope common to this group is incorporated into the ancestral legends of at least two real families, the Stanleys of Lathom (later Earls of Derby) and the Earls of Kildare. (I’m fairly sure that there must be more examples, because animal-and-child imagery appears in the heraldry of other grand families – would love to hear from anyone who knows more!)

There’s lots to say about the various versions of the motif – from its recurrence in medieval romance to its ‘use’ in pseudo family histories – and how the stories could be interpreted in literary and historical contexts. Too much for a single blogpost; but you might want to see here, from Jeffrey Jerome Cohen.

I’d like to post about the ‘eagle and child’ myth at some point, though it’s easily discovered in simple web searches (and if you’ve been to any of the many Eagle and Child pubs in the UK, you’ll probably already know it). Taking this post as a general introduction to the theme, I’d just like to share handful of the lovely visual representations of the medieval animal-stealing-child motif that I’ve gathered along the way. Happy Folklore Thursday!

Eagle and baby: the legend of the eagle and child, aka the Lathom Legend, aka the Stanley Legend.

Own images, Manchester Cathedral misericords and quire stalls, c. 1500

Ape and baby: no known story (and might not relate to a romance at all since the image appears elsewhere e.g. in manuscript marginalia [where apes/monkeys proliferate]) but an ape stealing a child does feature in Octavian. Given the proximity to the eagle-and-child carving, surely an ape-stealing-child story must have crossed the carver’s mind?!

Own image, Manchester Cathedral misericords, c. 1500

Griffin and babySir Eglamour of Artois, Bodleian Library MS Douce 261, c. 1564

Bodleian image, can be seen (and magnified) on their Romance of the Middle Ages site here.

Child and lion (child carried away before his father can save him): the legend of St Eustace (similar to Isumbras) as depicted in the windows of Chartres Cathedral, c. 1200


From Stuart Whatling’s Corpus of Medieval Narrative Art.

Child and wolf (child being rescued by shepherda): the legend of Eustace in the same Chartres window, c.1200


From Stuart Whatling’s Corpus of Medieval Narrative Art.


*Thompson index:
Animal nurse. B535
Animal nourishes abandoned child.
*Frazer Fasti II 369ff., especially 369 n. 3, 375; Dickson Valentine and Orson 36, 103, 107, 112, 169; *Liebrecht Zur Volkskunde 17ff.; *Nutt FLR IV 1ff.; Penzer II 294; *Fb “ulv” III 971 a (Wolf); *BP II 317, III 60ff. Irish myth: Cross; Greek: Fox 22 (doe), 56 (bear), 118, 155 (goat, crow, sow), 280, Frazer Apollodorus I 397, II 47 n. 2, Roscher s.v. “Achilleus”; Roman: Fox 307 (Romulus and Remus) (wolf); Persian: Carnoy 330; Breton: Sibillot Incidents s.v. “chien” (dog); Missouri-French: Carriire; McCartney Papers of Michigan Academy of Science, Arts, and Letters IV (1924) 15 42; Wesselski Theorie 19; Icel.: Iuirriks saga I 302 03 (hind), Boberg; English: Wells 118 (Octovian) (lion); Chinese: Ferguson 41. N. A. Indian: Thompson CColl II 387 (Mt. 707), Thompson Tales 316 n. 146b; S. A. Indian (Brazil): Ehrenreich International Congress of Americanists XIV 662. Indonesian: De Vries Volksverhalen I Nos. 22, 89; India: *Thompson-Balys; Africa (Basuto): Jacottet 104 No. 15, 190 No. 28, (Wakweli): Bender 49f.

Stolen child rescued by animal nurse. B543.3
(Cf. +B535.) Irish myth: Cross; India: Thompson-Balys; *Krappe Balor 80ff.

Animal aids abandoned child(ren). S352
(Cf. +B535.) Missouri French: Carriire; India: *Thompson-Balys; S. A. Indian (Sherenti): Lowe BBAE CXLIII (1) 515; West Indies: Flowers 576.


Author: gtimperley

PhD University of Manchester researching disinheritance and heirs (unknown heirs / illegitimacy) in Middle English romance. Working for Chetham's Library & Dimensions. Personal site.

2 thoughts on “Carried off by wild beasts…”

  1. Enjoying your latest post, and what an unusual and intruiging misericord (ape and baby)



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