Monday, May 13, 2019

Of Wolf and Dog


The following discussion is a little off my usual discussion of fencing subjects, but it does apply to the broad general area of fencing. The following is a discussion of Jack London's White Fang and how its themes and concepts can be applied. While not exactly aimed at fencing it does discuss training in fencing and also concepts around expectations and education, two subjects which are related to fencing.

The novel White Fang has been used by many people to explain many different things. For myself, it is one of my favourite books that I enjoy reading because it immerses you in the place and period in which it is set and also shows you somewhat the life of one wolf from pup to full-grown, and the interesting experiences that he had along the way. There is an animated version of this story available now on Netflix, which hits most of the main plot points, but misses much of the detail which is contained within the book. It also, as can be expected, changes elements within the story as well.

The first question that White Fang asks is how much of you is wolf and how much of you is dog? Or to put it another way, how much is driven by your instincts and how much of you is driven by what you have learnt at the hands of others? The same question could also ask how much of you is free and how much of you is tied to expectations and impositions, many which are imposed by the self?

We would all like to think that we are more wolf than dog, that we are free to do what we want when we want, but this is really not the truth. We are tied by our expectations of our society, and impositions made by ourselves and our own egos and what we want out of life, which tie us to society. The freedom of the wolf is an illusion that we would like to hold, but many cannot grasp.

Other aspects of the dog show themselves, our education, our further learning at the hands of other education and being part of societal systems. All of these things make us good members of society, good dogs. To rebel against these, to become the wolf, is to threaten ourselves with the potential of becoming outcasts, to stand alone, something which our gregarious nature and ego-financial-driven selves are somewhat afraid of. We admire the rebels in our midst, those who stand alone, but do not join them. Sometimes we need to stand alone, because it is the right thing to do.

In the story, White Fang spends some of his early years in the wild. Then with his mother, Kiche, becomes a sled-dog for an Indian named Gray Beaver. He is trained in this role. He does not get along with the other dogs in the tribe, his mostly-wolf self shows too much. He fights the other dogs to defend himself and place himself on the top of the pack. But he is accepted by Gray Beaver and thus works for him. Later, through some trickery White Fang is sold to “Beauty” Smith and is trained as a fighting dog. He is beaten and set upon other dogs. The fights are vicious and all that White Fang learns is how to fight and kill the dog that is in front of him. Eventually he is taken by Weedon Scott who heals him after a dog-fight and then teaches him another way; that he can live without fighting, or at least that fighting should only be reserved for enemies.

White Fang’s story shows many fights with other dogs who refuse to accept him. In some instances it is to prove that he belongs and others it is because it is what he was trained to do. Some instances are because it is what he is. His early experiences are of rejection from other dogs, these are his formative years and they leave an imprint of not being wanted by other dogs. The result is he defends himself against them and establishes his dominance. This fighting ability pure and raw is taken by “Beauty” Smith and harnessed and let loose on other dogs for money. Weedon Scott wants something else from White Fang, to show him another way; that he can be accepted and that fighting is not the only way to be accepted. He learns from these experiences that he can be accepted and that fighting is not the only way to fit in.

What we must all ask ourselves is in our teaching and interactions are we acting like “Beauty” Smith or Weedon Scott? Are we taking someone at face value and just accepting everyone else’s view of them, or are we forming our own opinion? Are we simply harnessing one ability or are we really developing a human being? This is a question that trainers in all forms of martial arts must ask. What sort of impact is the training having on the individual? Is it perpetuating a cycle or is it doing the best for the individual?

As trainers of martial arts we should all be seeking the improvement of our students, in all senses of the word. We should not just be honing their fighting abilities, but we should also be examining other aspects as well. The social aspects of the art that we teach should be a serious consideration, as the students will learn everything from their teachers. If you teach in a gung-ho, “anything for a win” fashion, then that is what the students will take away. If you teach in an honourable, victory by art and skill rather than pure force fashion, then that is what the students will take away.

I recommend White Fang to anyone as a good read, and a book which will probe thoughts. The themes and ideas which the author presents are some which need to be considered. The story itself is well-written, primarily from the point of view of the protagonist wolf-dog White Fang, which is an achievement in itself, it describes scenes which will make you think.