Painting from the Chauvet Cave, France
My experience with bears in literature was not and is not limited to children’s literature. When I was in my teens I read Faulkner’s short story, “The Bear” part of the collection titled Go Down, Moses.
Old Ben, the bear, is hunted by many of the white characters in Yoknapatawpha County. Isaac McCaslin, the hero of the story, doesn’t kill the bear when he has a chance: instead, he saves the dog that the bear would have killed. The bear is finally killed by the dog Lion and the man Boon Hogganbeck, neither of whom share Ike’s ambivalence about taking the life of a fellow creature.
The theme of this powerful short story (probably Faulkner’s best-known and most-anthologized) is that land should not be owned, and that when humans try to own it, that ownership brings about the destruction of the land and the corruption (and destruction) of society. Ike believes that ownership of the land in the South led to slavery and that slavery led to the destruction of the South.
That’s a strong theme, and I understood why Faulkner chose a bear to symbolize the wilderness: a bear belongs there, a bear is the largest land-based carnivore, and those in tune with the earth would respect the bear and leave it alone. Those who don’t respect the bear and don’t leave it alone are blind to consequences and harbor a ruthless willfulness to destroy the natural world.
Not long after I read that short story, I took a college course in the origins of Indo-European languages. At that time scholars believed that modern-day Indo-European languages may have originated in the area of [the former] Yugoslavia, because key root words throughout most of these languages were words for bear and honey. In Serbo-Croatian and many Slavic languages, the word for bear is medvjed, which means, literally, honey-eater. In Old English, the drink made from fermented honey was mead. The roots are the same.
Today scholars have broadened the area they believe modern-day Indo-European languages originated in, thinking they came into being about 15,000 years ago, after the last Ice Age, somewhere in Turkey and/or Southern Europe. In order to determine this, scholars look not only at basic relationship words such as Mother (Matar, Mati, Mayr) and Father (pater, fadar, pitar, athir), but also at the different words for bear.
Recently I’ve learned that in many Proto-Indo-European languages, the word for bear was a taboo word, never to be spoken. (Shades of You-Know-Who in Harry Potter.) Thus arose expressions such as The Honey-Eater or The Brown One. Everybody knew who was being referred to, but nobody had to speak the forbidden word. If you spoke the word, then The Shaggy One might eat you. The same Shaggy One was also referred to as The Destroyer.
If there’s a modern-day book written with a bear character, you can bet I’ll read that book. One of the ones I recommend is The Bear Went Over the Mountain, by William Kotzwinkle. It’s about a Maine brown bear who digs up a buried manuscript written by a professor. The bear adopts the name Hal Jam and takes the manuscript to a New York publishing house: suddenly the book is a blockbuster and Hal is on a book tour.
Another bear book I love is Ursus Major, by Roberta Smoodin. The hero of the book is a dancing and wrestling bear owned by two hippies who use him as a meal-ticket. The bear decides he is being taken advantage of and leaves the hippies. Setting out on his own, he encounters colorful characters who welcome him into their world. He becomes an NBA star, and later works with a movie doctor. The story is about the bear’s learning that it’s necessary to flee those who want only to use you.
Literature includes nonfiction as well as fiction, and one of the nonfiction bear books I totally love is Summers with the Bears: Six Seasons in the North Woods, by Jack Becklund. The story of how Becklund and his wife encountered and formed a relationship with a particular bear in Minnesota’s north woods is beautifully told, without sentimentalism.
I hope to pass some of my love of bears on to you, so if you’re reading this blog, consider reading a bear book, for whatever age.