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Literature / White Fang

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White Fang is a 1906 novel written by Jack London, often published together with The Call of the Wild nowadays. Whereas the latter 1903 novella is the story of a tame dog adapting to the wild, White Fang is the story of how the titular wild one-quarter-dog-three-quarters-wolf becomes tamed.

The novel starts with two men and their dog sled team being pursued by a wolf pack in the Northland Wild. Desperate for food during a famine, the wolves eventually kill all of the dogs and one of the men before the other is rescued. The starving pack eventually splits up, the she-wolf who lured the sled dogs to their doom going off with her mate, whom the narrator refers to as One Eye. The two raise a litter of pups, only for One Eye and all the litter except one to die. The she-wolf and her surviving pup eventually meet up with a group of Mackenzie Indians; one of them, Grey Beaver, recognizes her as Kiche, his brother's runaway wolf-dog, and takes possession of her and her pup, whom he names White Fang.

So begin White Fang's lessons in cruelty and mastery. The puppy pack he now belongs to see him as a wolf and treat him as an enemy. The abuse he endures from them, particularly the leader Lip-Lip, makes him both stronger and more vicious, gradually turning him into a brutal, savage fighter. Nevertheless, he adapts to the laws of his new surroundings and develops a loyalty and respect for Grey Beaver, who eventually sells Kiche and takes White Fang to his trading post at Fort Yukon.

At the Fort, the young wolf catches the attention of "Beauty Smith," who introduces Grey Beaver to whiskey in order to get him to sell White Fang. The book now takes the reader into the horrible world of dog fighting, where drunken men put two starved, violent dogs in the ring, but only one comes out alive. Thanks to his sadistic new tormentor of an owner, White Fang becomes an unbeatable monster, forced to fight wild wolves, several dogs at once, and even a lynx for entertainment. It is during a fight where a bulldog all but kills him that White Fang is finally rescued by Weedon Scott.

Like John Thornton in Call of the Wild, Scott introduces White Fang to The Power of Love for the first time, and his love slowly heals the wounds of abuse and torture and transforms the monster into a tame friend and protective ally. Scott eventually takes White Fang back to his father's estate in the Santa Clara Valley, where he must adjust to living as a tame pet and learn which animals are fair game (jack rabbits, squirrels, and quails) and which he must leave alone (chickens, cats, other dogs). He ultimately repays Scott for his love and protection by saving his family from a murderous intruder one night (an escaped convict whom Judge Scott unknowingly sent to prison for a crime he was framed for). The reader leaves White Fang surrounded by the puppies he fathered with the sheepdog Collie.

Definitely not a Coming of Age Story about A Boy and His X, but a harsh look at life in the rugged Northland Wild where only the strong survive and an ugly examination of the forces that shape the clay that is the human mind.

The novel was adapted to a namesake film in 1991, directed by Randal Kleiser. The film cast a real wolfdog, Jed, into the role, with Ethan Hawke cast as his beloved master Jack Conroy and Klaus Maria Brandauer as Alex Larson. It also spawned a sequel, "White Fang 2: Myth of the White Wolf" (1994). This one briefly featured Hawke. but the main human characters were Henry Casey (Scott Bairstow) and Lily Joseph (Charmaine Craig).

There was a television series based on the novel between 1993 and 1994. Not related to the films above, though probably inspired by the success of the first one. It lasted a single season, 26 episodes. All episodes are available on DVD. There was also an Animated Adaptation between 1992 and 1994, The Legend of White Fang, that was heavily bowdlerized to make it suitable for children. A 2018 French-English animated film version (starring Nick Offerman and Rashida Jones) was made widely-available on Netflix.

Tropes in this work:

  • Adaptational Alternate Ending:
    • In the 1991 film, instead of White Fang being unable to re-adapt to the wild and going back to California, it is the opposite with Jack deciding he can't go back and staying in the Yukon with White Fang.
    • In the 2018 film, Weedon and Maggie let White Fang go free rather than bringing him to California with them.
  • Adaptational Attractiveness: In the novel, Beauty Smith is a small ugly guy with a heart equally dark. In the 1991 Disney movie, his name holds more water since he's rather fair-looking.
  • Adaptational Name Change: Common in the 1991 film. Weedon Scott is changed to Jack Conroy. Judge Scott to Scott Conroy. Henry/Matt to Alex Larson. Bill to Clarence Thurston. Lord Alfred to Dutch. It is easier to find examples they didn't change.
  • Adaptational Nice Guy: In the 2018 film, White Fang is always a loyal, kind and scrappy animal; he gets strong after learning from his mother's example that helping with labor in the Native American village would earn him positive reinforcement. Even his turn as a pit dog and the abuse he suffered under Beauty Smith don't make him too difficult for Weedon Scott and his wife Maggie. In addition, Grey Beaver is portrayed more as a stern but reasonable first owner to White Fang and his mother Kiche, and only gives both of them up when the prospect of his village was at stake.
  • Artistic Licence – Biology: It's stated that no male wolf will ever fight a female wolf or dog, even if attacked by one. This is completely untrue of real wolves. Then there are inaccuracies in wolf pack structure, hunting, mating behavior, etc. Most notably, White Fang's father, One-Eye, kills two rival males to mate with Kiche; in real life, wolves rarely fight to the death, and really problematic subordinate wolves typically leave to find their own packs. Killing mostly happens when a bunch of unrelated wolves are thrown together in a confined space like a zoo. And when White Fang meets Kiche as an adult, she drives him away as a potential threat to her current pups, and it's said that wolf mothers don't remember their own pups after a year; in reality, pups tend to stay with their parents for years and baby-sit their younger siblings. In fact, most packs consist of one mated pair and their offspring.
  • Babies Ever After: The book ends with White Fang and Collie having puppies, the former meeting his pups for the first time.
  • Bears Are Bad News: One appears in the 1991 movie (and played by Bart the Bear), when the main human character gets attacked by it. Thankfully, White Fang arrives on the spot and keeps the bear away from him until it gets bored and walks off.
  • Beastly Bloodsports: White Fang is forced to become a pit dog, and it turns him into a deadly monster. He has to fight wolves, multiple dogs at a time, even a lynx once. The last fight he was in was against a bulldog, and it nearly killed him, until some men arrived and broke up the fight. One of them cared for White Fang, who eventually was tamed by his kind new master.
  • Being Tortured Makes You Evil: One of the central themes of the story. White Fang of course, but it applied to Beauty Smith (bullied and forced to grow up on the outskirts of society because he was ugly) and Jim Hall (abused by the legal system and punished for a crime he didn't commit) too.
  • Berserk Button: Do not laugh at White Fang. Just don't.
  • Big Damn Heroes: White Fang tries to invoke this when he meets his first humans — by calling Kiche to save him. It backfires.
  • Book Ends: With The Call of the Wild. While the first begins with Buck sleeping on a judge's farm on California and ends with a pack of wolves terrorizing the humans on Yukon, this one starts with a pack of wolves hunting two men and ends with White Fang on a judge's farm on California.
  • The Bully: Lip-Lip. A stronger older puppy in the Indian tribe, Lip-Lip singled White Fang out as his special object of persecution.
  • Bully Bulldog: Double Subverted by an American Bulldog named "Cherokee" who White Fang fights. While it's a fighting dog, it doesn't seem very aggressive or eager for battle. On the other hand, it would've killed White Fang if Weedon hadn't intervened.
  • Byronic Hero: Albeit having the excuse of being a wild mostly-wolf canine, White Fang is a very, very dark Anti-Hero for most of the book.
  • Composite Character: Alex Larson from the 1991 film is a loose combination of Henry, the man who survives the wolf pack in the opening act of the book and Matt, Scott's assistant who helps train White Fang in the second half.
  • Cub Cues Protective Parent: Subverted. When White Fang cries after one of the Indians hits him, Kiche springs to his defense, but then cowers in front of the men instead of defending him. When it doesn't involve a human, Kiche plays it completely straight however.
  • Crapsack World: Like its predecessor, White Fang portrays both the natural world and the world of humans as little more than a constant stream of horrible abuse, death and misery, with only a tiny fraction of a chance for a happy ending. Nothing takes precedence over survival, not even family bonds.
  • Death by Adaptation: Kiche is shot and killed early in the 1991 film, but survives in the book.
  • Dirty Coward: Beauty Smith, and Lip-Lip.
  • Disappeared Dad: White Fang's father One Eye is killed by a lynx early in the book.
  • Dispense with the Pleasantries: A dog version — most dogs growl and posture before a fight, but White Fang's savage upbringing has taught him to go for the kill immediately and not waste time with formalities.
  • Double Consciousness: The wild nature of a wolf vs. the tame, instinctually loyal nature of a dog. Since White Fang is three-quarters wolf and one-quarter dog, this also represents In the Blood.
  • Due to the Dead: The wolf-pursued men in the opening chapters are hauling the body of "Lord Alfred" — presumably an upper-class person who decided to try his luck in Alaska. Even though they could perhaps have sacrificed his corpse to save themselves, they never even think of opening his casket, and the last living man even suspends his box in a tree so the wolves can't get him.
  • Earn Your Happy Ending: You're darn right White Fang has to earn his happy ending.
  • Evil Makes You Ugly: Beauty Smith. Implied to be a vicious cycle — Beauty Smith born ugly and shunned for his appearance, which made him just as ugly on the inside.
  • Family-Unfriendly Violence: Constant graphic depictions of things hurting and killing other things.
  • For the Evulz: Deconstructed. White Fang kills other dogs for amusement, but his abusive upbringing has taught him that the strong have the privilege of abusing the weak.
  • Happily Ever After: The final scene is of White Fang, on the recovery from the injuries Jim Hall inflicted on him, licking one of his puppies.
  • Henpecked Husband: One Eye to Kiche.
  • Humans Are Bastards: True until we meet Scott, whose rescue of White Fang is motivated by his desire to atone for this.
  • Humans Are Cthulhu: The canines see the humans as gods and have an innate fear/respect of them.
  • Hunter of His Own Kind: White Fang loathes other dogs to the point of going out of his way to assassinate them when he spots one alone, and when threatened by any dog, he straight up kills it. One of the chapters is called "The Enemy Of His Own Kind."
  • I Want My Beloved to Be Happy:
    • Subverted in the novel — Weedon Scott tries to free White Fang rather than take him home to California, but the dog refuses to leave him.
    • Played straight in the 2018 film version, where Weedon and Maggie set White Fang free in the Yukon, as it became clear that he would miss his home too much.
  • Ironic Nickname: Beauty Smith, explicitly compared to calling a bald man "Curly."
  • In Name Only:
  • Karmic Death: White Fang kills a weakened Lip-Lip during a famine. While it is meant to show that even the dogs are resorting to desperate measures to survive, it's hard to feel sorry for Lip-Lip.
  • Kick the Dog: Literally. Also beat the dog, starve the dog, jump up and down on the dog...
  • Kids Are Cruel: The puppy form of this occurs with Lip-Lip and the puppy pack.
  • Lighter and Softer: The 2018 film. Gray Beaver is a much kinder owner and refers to White Fang as a friend, and instead of losing his money on alcohol, he tries to save his people’s land by selling mittens, and is initially successful before being robbed. White Fang always tries to be loyal, and comes around much faster to Weedon Scott, partly because White Fang was mainly afraid of his cane due to Smith’s club, and partly because Scott had once fed him as a pup and they suddenly recognized each other.
  • Love Redeems: Scott's patience with White Fang.
  • Mama Bear: Kiche repeatedly in the first part of the book. She even risks the wrath of a mama cat by killing lynx kittens to feed her pup.
    • Subverted later when the pup tries to invoke this upon his first encounter with humans — and is alarmed and dismayed when Kiche submits to them.
  • May–December Romance: One Eye is already old when he becomes Kiche's mate.
  • Mighty Whitey: When White Fang sees Caucasians for the first time, he immediately recognizes their superiority to his native 'gods' like Grey Beaver. Yeah.
  • No-Holds-Barred Beatdown: Inflicted on White Fang by other dogs, on White Fang by humans, by White Fang on other dogs, on him again by a bulldog, and finally by White Fang against an armed intruder.
  • One-Hit Kill: The way bulldogs fight is described this way. Cherokee and bulldogs like him bite the neck and hold onto it until whatever they're biting is dead. White Fang spent most of the fight against the bulldog tearing his back and ribs to shreds, but Cherokee did eventually get a neck bite on White Fang, and would have killed him if Weedon Scott hadn't intervened.
  • Outliving One's Offspring: During a harsh winter famine, Kiche loses four of her pups with White Fang being the only survivor.
  • Outside-Context Problem: White Fang faces a number of these.
    • Humans, initially, so overwhelm and baffle him that he concludes they must be gods.
    • The bulldog is immune to his normal tactics, being too low to knock over with a shoulder rush and too much of a Stone Wall to dissuade with slashes and bites.
    • When brought to more civilized climes, trains terrify him.
  • Papa Wolf: White Fang for his humans.
  • Physical God: White Fang learns early that humans are like gods and serves them devotedly the rest of his life. He may not like his god, but he will still be faithful.
  • The Power of Love: It saved White Fang.
  • Precious Puppy: Averted and later played straight.
  • Put on a Bus: Kiche, though she makes a brief cameo later.
  • Reality Is Unrealistic: Modern readers may question how a bulldog would possibly be able to stand up to a wolf in a fight, but long ago bulldogs were powerful, athletic, and incredibly sturdy, very unlike the waddling, laid-back bulldogs of today.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: Grey Beaver, before Beauty Smith gave him "the thirst."
  • Savage Wolves: Wolves are presented as harsh and savage creatures throughout, and White Fang himself depends on his wolfish side for survival more than once.
    • The opening section, with the implacable wolfpack following the two men and their sled, and eventually killing and eating one of the men and all of their sled-dogs, is among the most purely terrifying pieces of writing ever put on paper. To call it "nightmare fuel" is a drastic understatement. The wolves are presented as an almost mystical force of nature, striking at will, and neither dogs nor men have any chance against them.
    • Three male wolves pick out the female wolf-dog Kiche as a potential mate. Two of them cooperate to kill the third. When that fight is over and the two are licking their wounds, one kills the other with a surprise attack.
    • Partway through the book, White Fang is forced into dog-fighting, but thanks to his wolfish side, "fight" is not accurate — "execution" comes closer. It got to the point where they had to tie him up for the start of the fight, otherwise he'd kill the other dog before it had finished its preliminary snarl-and-threaten routine. Once the dog had finished its routine, it would almost certainly not be any more merciful.
  • Scenery Porn: The many incredible views of Alaska in the 1991 adaptation, sumptuously shot in both winter and summer. Particularly stunning is the young White Fang running through a glistening ice cave, and Jack's father's claim nestled in mountainous forestland overlooking lakes and rivers.
  • Slap-Slap-Kiss: How Jack London portrays dog romance. Kiche and the female collie on the Whedon family farm are aggressive toward potential mates except when in heat, not to mention reluctant to allow them near their newborn pups.
  • Slap Yourself Awake: Near the beginning, a drowsing character attaches a burning stick to his hand to keep from falling asleep, since he's surrounded by wolves and if the fire goes out, he's wolf chow.
  • Soft Glass: Averted in the book, where White Fang is torn up on the stomach after breaking through a window. Played straight in the 1991 film where White Fang jumps through a window with nary a scratch.
  • Sound-Only Death: Skunker dies this way in the 1991 film. He runs off into the night and all we hear is a couple of gunshots and the sound of wolves tearing him apart while the camera focuses on Alex and Jack's disturbed reactions.
  • Spiritual Successor: To The Call of the Wild, which creates Book Ends of a dog presiding as proverbial king over a judge's estate in the Santa Clara Valley.
  • Truth in Television:
    • The animal that comes closest to killing White Fang is a bulldog. This might seem surprising, but the bulldogs of old were athletic, powerful animals more akin to what would be considered modern-day pit bulls or mastiffs (the original bulldog type is best represented by the American Bulldog and the deliberate revivals of the old breed such as the Leavitt Bulldog and the Olde English Bulldogge, while the old breed became the more familiar English Bulldog, a sedentary breed notorious for numerous health problems). The original bulldogs might have actually had a chance of besting a wolf in a fight.
    • Lynxes are depicted as a dangerous threat to both White Fang and his mother Kiche. Lynxes are specialised to take proportionally larger prey (ambush predators vs the cursorial predator that the wolf is) and being considerably larger and more robustly built than domestic cats they do pose a threat to individual wolves, much in the same way golden eagles do.
  • Undying Loyalty: How White Fang's dog nature manifests. He has to have a "god," and while he respects Grey Beaver and tolerates Beauty Smith, his love for Weedon Scott forges a bond so intense that he'd rather die than be separated from him.
  • Unreliable Illustrator: In the illustrated version of the book, when the bulldog is strangling White Fang with a neck bite, the accompanying illustrations show the bulldog burying his jaws in White Fang's neck, then standing a foot away, then standing a few yards away, then back to gnawing on the protagonist's throat. All the while the accompanying text has White Fang constantly in the Bulldog's jaws with Scott and Matt barely struggling to get the dog's mouth open. Also, while a lot of blood and gore is described in-text, none of it is shown.
  • The Vamp: In the initial chapters, the she-wolf Kiche lures sled dogs away from camp so her pack can jump on them.
  • Winter of Starvation: As a pup, White Fang endures a hard winter that leaves him the only survivor of his litter, implied to be because he has more wolf in him than his siblings. His mother Kiche becomes so desperate for food that she breaks into a lynx's lair, eats her kittens, and brings the remaining one home to feed her pup, incurring the wrath of the mother lynx. She manages to fight it off and survive.
  • Wouldn't Hit a Girl: Fighting a female dog goes against every one of White Fang's natural instincts.
  • Xenofiction: The book is told through White Fang’s point of view.