On September 5, a flaxen, mop-haired boy shows up at Berlin’s Town Hall with a tent and a rucksack. He claims to have been living rough with his father – now dead – for five years, deep in a German forest, before following his compass north for two weeks (or two days: versions vary) to seek help. He knows his name (Ray) and his birthday. He speaks good English, almost no German. The Press have named him “Forest Boy”. The police, so far, have bought his curious tale.
Germany’s dark romance with its woodlands dates back to the days when Roman legions, hacking their way through the densely forested terrain stretching east from the Rhine, described an enchanted world peopled by unicorns (Julius Caesar) and firebirds (Pliny the Elder).
Ludwig Tieck, a 19th-century German scholar, went in search of a lost Golden Age, and found ballads about poets and musicians who wandered from town to town through the great Teutonic forests. A century later, from those same forests, 12-year-old recruits to Himmler’s People’s Army launched attacks on the footsoldiers tramping behind America’s invading tanks. The Brothers Grimm, collecting carefully annotated folk fables for the benefit of scholars, not children, preserved the old German tales of Rapunzel, Hansel and Gretel, and Snow White: stories filled with horror, in which the woods are both threatening and protective.
Woods, to the imagination, have always been romantic: wild; mysterious. Dante set the celebrated opening canto of Italy’s greatest poem in a dark, dense forest. Gawain plunged into the woods to wage battle against the Green Knight. French troubadours trilled their way through the knotted thickets of Broceliande. Robin Hood is as hard to disentangle from the mighty branches of Sherwood Forest as Tarzan and Mowgli are from their jungles.
Where Germany has the edge on the rest of the world is in its long and venerable history of woodland orphans and recluses to whom “Forest Boy” has most recently added his name. Medieval Germany produced the mysterious wolf-children of Hesse and the Bamberg Boy, suckled by cattle and capable, it was alleged, of taking on and defeating the most ferocious wild dogs.
Historically closer, “Peter, the Wild Boy” was captured, famously, from his retreat in woods near Hamelin in Hanover and presented, “a naked brownish, black-haired creature”, as a gift to George I. Brought to England and treated as an eccentric court pet, Peter would never learn to speak or write. Buried in a Hertfordshire graveyard in 1785, he was later judged, by his low stature, thick lips and drooping eyelids, to have suffered from Pitt-Hopkins Disease.
A sickly nature, mental deficiency – or simply embarrassments of parentage – offer explanations as to why many of the forest children were left in the woods to die. Their sad little stories were preserved later in fairy tales of abandonment and subsequent rescue from a desperate fate by a lone and friendly forester.
The most famous German forest child of them all – setting aside Frankenstein’s hapless Creature – seems to belong in this category, since his DNA has now proved to link him to the ducal house of Baden, to which, apparently, he was the heir.
Kaspar Hauser – whose life was brilliantly told as an unsolved mystery by Werner Herzog in his 1974 film The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser – appeared on the streets of Nuremberg in 1828. Walking with the cautious movements of a drunk, he presented a letter addressed to a certain cavalry captain, who claimed never to have heard of him. Kaspar could pronounce his own name as well as, touchingly, the word for “horse”, but little else. Bafflingly, he carried books in his pockets, including one pamphlet poignantly entitled The Art of Replacing Lost Time and Years Badly Spent.
Careful questioning elicited the information that Kaspar Hauser had been imprisoned for many years. Locked away in a lightless hutch, he had been kept in a state of almost complete ignorance. He spoke of a jailor who brought him food and taught him to say: “I want to be a cavalryman, like my father” – words to which he himself appeared to attach no significance. According to his new guardians, however, honesty was not Kaspar Hauser’s strongest trait. In 1833, Hauser died of a knife wound, one that may have been self-inflicted. His gravestone states, alluringly: “Here lies Kaspar Hauser, a riddle of his time”.
So how well does Ray, this September’s blue-eyed English-speaking “Forest Boy”, fit into Germany’s tradition of woodland enigmas? The tent and rucksack suggest a primitive life, but hardly that of an orphaned outcast. The emerging picture, so far, appears to be closer to that of a father who, for whatever reason (we are told that Ray’s mother died in a car-crash), retreated into isolation, taking his son along for company.
But why Germany? Because – some might suggest – Germany’s dark and deep forests offer one of the few European refuges in which it still might just be possible today to eke out a spartan life without risk of detection. Forest Boy’s five years in the wild offer – to judge by his glowing skin and shiny white teeth – a good advertisement for embattled retreat. His friendly smile and enthusiasm for cigarettes suggest that life with Dad wasn’t one of total deprivation.