Monday, August 4, 2014

'The Wolf Talk' by Shaun Ellis - A Review

A Tool for Research on 'Wulfsuna'

            For me, this book began as a casual dip into research on wolf behaviour, intended to supplement a character profile. I anticipated a light read that would provide me with insights into the ways wolves move and communicate, thus enabling me to transpose those elements into the character. I wanted to know how these animals hunted, ate, slept, fought, played and spoke to one another. I wanted to understand pack hierarchy. The book did not disappoint.

            ‘The Wolf Talk’ is indeed a wonderfully light read. You can breeze through the pages and come and go as you please. Shaun’s prose is relaxed and familiar. You could be sat with him in the trees, watching the wolves as he relays all he knows. The subject matter is, however, by no means light. Shaun is informing, without being condescending; he is knowledgeable whilst humble. As per the spiritual connotation for the wolf, Shaun calls them his teachers. His book is not about training wolves, it is about learning from them. Having spent a lifetime engaging with Canids in the wild and in captivity, he has a unique insight. Shaun has lived among these secretive and intelligent creatures, sleeping with them, playing with them and challenging them to retain the status of a Beta wolf within the pack. In one amazing entry he recalls how an alpha male brought him a piece of meat from a kill because, although he had defended his Beta position at the meal itself, he had consumed no flesh. Alpha and Beta wolves feed on the more sumptuous areas of rump and shoulder, consuming the higher protein meat, thereby increasing their intake of nutrients and giving them a mental and physical advantage over lower ranking wolves.
            Did you know, for instance, that a wolf can see, hear and smell you from over 300 metres away through dense forest? Shaun learned to hone his senses among the wolves, gaining the ability to recognise scent nearby as well as at a distance. Each wolf’s howl is individual and every pack has a distinctive call, recognised by others. There is also an order of hierarchy as to who howls first. Shaun howled with the packs he lived with, creating his own call and modifying it as he changed rank or moved packs. Wolves love to play and the Alpha male regularly uses games to test other status wolves within his pack. Another incident Shaun tells of is when an Alpha came for him as he woke early one morning, challenging him to a game of chase. When Shaun caught the Alpha and took him down, the Alpha reasserted his status, the game coming to an abrupt halt. Shaun had to submit and reaffirm his status. Once accepted, the Alpha re-instigated their ‘game’. Shaun had been tested.

            In Shaun, I had found my ‘wolf man’ from whom to take notes on writing my own ‘wolf warrior’. I added subtle wolf nuances to my hero’s body language: his stance, how he hangs or tilts his head, how he turns and walks. I also elaborated on interaction and response with others in intense situations; the wolf’s need for survival paramount in its mind and therefore shaping its reactions. As my protagonist finds he must assert his leadership, amid betrayal and dissent, I used wolf behaviour to shape the responses of my hero and the supporting characters, my Saxon tribe of ‘Wolf Sons’ reacting as their namesake.

            But ‘The Wolf Talk’ did not merely leave me with all of this. There was so much more. The long history of the wolf’s involvement with the Native American people was one of several threads interwoven into Shaun’s book, and his gratitude to them and their wisdom was obvious. Though ultimately, it was the stories of individual wolves he has worked with that is the real inspiration drawn from this book. One particular story that stands out is that of a sterile Alpha female who he helps to abdicate and integrate another female, whom she ‘trains’ into her position. Shaun loves these animals and is passionate about preserving their existence, both in the wild and in captivity. If you love these animals, even if you think you know everything about wolves, please read Shaun’s book. I only hope I can bring as much passion to my historical fiction as Shaun Ellis has to his life’s work.


  1. Wow Elaine, it sounds like you have taken loads of inspiration from the book. I'd not heard of anyone living with a wolf pack before. I take it that it was intentional?

    1. Thanks Maria. I took away much more than I anticipated after reading this book and yes, he intentionally put himself into the wolf packs. He cites some amazing experiences with the wolves.

  2. Excellent piece Elaine. One day you should visit Wild Wood in Kent. they have both tame and wild wolves there. In our Saxon Longhall Wychurst which backs on to Wild Wood we can often here them howl at night and early in the mornings. Very spiritual and breath taking too.

    1. Thank you Paula. Yes, I've read about Wychurst and the wolves in Wild Wood (I love Regia's site). There is no other sound like it, is there? Indeed spiritual.