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  • Jean George's Arctic Pastoral:A Reading of Julie of the Wolves
  • Jon C. Stott (bio)

Although literary critics are surprised that they can effectively apply the techniques of their discipline to works for children which are thought of as simple, the reasons for their successes should be clear: good children's fiction, while it does not generally contain the social, economic, political, and sexual complexities found in adult novels, does operate according to principles inherent in all good writing. It differs from adult literature in degree rather than in kind.

One way of seeing the truth of this statement is to examine Jean Craighead George's Julie of the Wolves, 1973 Newbery Award winner, in terms of the pastoral tradition. To apply the term pastoral to a novel dealing with an Eskimo girl who early in the 1970's confronts a pack of arctic wolves may appear inappropriate to anyone who thinks of pastoral in terms of shepherds, Arcadia, and the Golden Age. Yet when we remember that the great Greek, Latin, Renaissance, and nineteenth-century American pastorals were written by sophisticated city dwellers, and that Jean George writes from the highly developed civilization of twentieth-century America, we are in a better position to understand the applicability of the term. As John Lynen has shown in his study of Robert Frost, the traditional elements mentioned above are not the essence of pastoralism, but tropes used to embody a basic literary structure: pastoralism "is always the product of a very highly developed society and arises from the impulse to look back with yearning and a degree of nostalgia toward the simpler, purer life which such a society has left behind."1 Such is the case in Julie of the Wolves, in which the simpler, purer life of Eskimo society is regarded from the perspective of the American civilization which is encroaching upon and destroying it.

Pastoral literature is generally structured around a series of contrasts between a sullied, artificial, complex, urban world which represents turmoil, and in which are found all the more evil aspects of progress, especially greed, anxiety, and ambition; and a rural world which is natural, pure, and calm. In this setting, truth, tranquility, contentment, and innocence predominate. The pastoral world is seen as an ideal one in which the characters come closer to achieving a fundamental goodness of being than is possible in the actual world. This utopian land represents a way of life not realizable in ordinary existence, but only in a distant land, such as Arcadia, or in a distant time, such as the Golden Age. Thus, it represents what ought to be, and what once may havebeen,a golden past created in the minds of wistful men. Often, therefore, pastoral literature is ironic; for, written as it is from the perspective of a deficient actual world, it is a literature of the defeat of the ideal. It may at best express beliefs like those of Miles Coverdale, narrator of Hawthorne's Blithedale Romance, who thinks of his communitarian experiment as follows: "Let it be reckoned neither among my sins nor follies that I once had faith and force enough to form generous hopes of the world's destiny."2 [End Page 131]

Within this structure of contrasted worlds, the central action of the pastoral takes place: the withdrawal of the central character from the urban world to the rural one, and his inevitable return to the urban world. It might be said that if the author intends his characters to stay in the Arcadian world and does not view their end ironically, he is writing romance rather than pastoral, a form seen in Book I of The Faerie Queene, in many folk tales in which the hero and heroine are married and live happily ever after, and in even Doris Gates' Blue Willow. In these works, a land of the heart's desire is achieved and the normal vicissitudes of life are over; the characters live happily ever after. The writer of the romance is more interested in the qualities that enable the characters to get to the ideal land, whereas the writer of the pastoral is concerned with how the experiences...


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pp. 131-139
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