Tamora Pierce’s Wolf Speaker starts with an acknowledgments section. Pierce included a staggering amount of animal behavior theory in this book. While some information is out of date, due to being published in 1994, it’s clear that Pierce cares about accuracy in her work. For a book largely based around various philosophical debates about humanity, showing her sources is important. Pierce spends Wolf Speaker talking about how humans interact with the environment. She also discusses how humans interact with each other and the ugly biases that everyone has. Finally, she talks about how we can change and outgrow those biases.
Spoilers for all of Pierce’s previous work.
What Happened In The Book?
The novel begins with Daine and Numair arriving at Dunlath, a fief in northern Tortall. Brokefang, the head of the Snowsdale wolf pack, summoned them to Dunlath to speak with the humans. King Jonathan allowed them to go, provided they search for a group of Riders and a unit of the army that disappeared near Dunlath. Daine discovers that the nobles are cutting down the forest and mining for opals.
The badger arrives and tells Daine that she can share the mind of an animal. Daine does so several times. When she leaves the animal, some aspect remains shortly with her system, e.g. her ears turn into bat ears. After Daine and Numair meet with Belden and Yolane, the nobles, for the first time, Numair says they have to leave the valley. They met several wizards aligned with Carthak at the castle.
Numair leaves Dunlath, but Daine stays to help Brokefang and the other wolves. They had changed because of her magic, and Daine feels responsible. A magical barrier goes up, separating the valley from everything else. The wolves steal from the logging camp, and Daine panics over their changed behavior. The mages send a Coldfang, an immortal that hunts thieves, after the wolves, and Daine stops it. With help from Tkaa, a basilisk.
Maura, Yolane’s half-sister, flees the castle and tells them that the nobles want to rebel against Jonathan. They’re selling the opals they mine to Carthak, which provides them with soldiers and mages.. Daine, Maura, and various animals and immortals, and villagers rebel against Yolane and Belden.
Daine fights another Coldfang, breaks the barrier, and hunts down Yolane in wolf shape. Maura takes control of the fief, and she promises to take advice from humans, animals, and immortals.
Eco-Feminism and The Environment
Environment and Humans
One of the major issues that Wolf Speaker covers is the relationship between humans and the natural world. The central conflict in this book is revealed because the wolves saw the issues that the humans were causing. As Brokefang says, “this spring men started cutting trees and digging holes without planting anything. He says they brought monsters and more humans there, and they are killing off the game. …they’re driving the deer and elk from the valley. If it isn’t stopped, the pack will starve,” (13). This, and the rest of the story, reads as a fairly stereotypical example of the sort of damage humans cause the environment. Pierce shows how humans take advantage of the environment, and she frames it as explicitly bad.
Pierce addresses the issues of deforestation and strip mining in a children’s novel. While it’s not an incredibly nuanced reading, considering the fact that it’s a young adult novel somewhat justifies that lack of nuance. With her novels, Pierce tries to show by example how we can be better people. But she frames her story around the issues she addresses, so it doesn’t sound too moralizing.
In addition to the initial problem of deforestation, Pierce also addresses pollution in this novel. The mages from Carthak, create a poison called Bloodrain. They plan to dump it in the river in order to defeat Alanna, and her forces. It’s a poison so powerful that one of them got a drop on her hand, and cut it off. It’ll kill everything that uses moisture from the river, and keep it barren for the next seven years. Again, it’s not a particularly nuanced depiction. However, it shows that Belden and Yolane are willing to kill an entire ecosystem for power. Sadly, that’s not incredibly inaccurate.
Humans and Animals
Another aspect that Pierce discusses is the relationship between humans and animals. We see two characters as foils in this regard. Daine, who knows animals though her magic. Maura, on the other hand, knows animals only through what gossip says.
Several times through the book, Maura is terrified of Daine’s animal companions. She flees in terror from bats. She believes the wolves will eat her. And always, she explains that, “Everybody says — ‘Everybody’s wrong.” (158). Daine then proceeds to explain that bats don’t fly into hair, or that wolves only hunt to eat, and they don’t eat humans. Through Maura, Pierce shows the importance of being properly educated about the environment and all it’s inhabitants.
Through the book, Daine is occasionally scared of the wolves. However, her fear comes from how she’s changed the wolves, rather than their natural behavior. The wolves steal axes from the logger and food from the humans for Daine and Maura. Daine panics both times about how they are more intelligent than normal wolves, seeing how her magic has changed their thoughts.
The most pertinent example is Brokefang. He licked a wound Daine received from the bandits while they were in Snowsdale. This changed him more than all the other wolves. “New thoughts came thick and fast now, more every day, and he did not understand them all.” (97). Daine’s magic changed Brokefang, so much that his mind works more like a humans’s than a wolfs. Because of the damage that did, Daine remains behind, to help heal some of it. While animals don’t change to this extent in the actual world, human behavior shapes theirs.
Tolerance and Cooperation
Daine and the Stormwings
A recurring theme in Wolf Speaker is the tense relationship between Daine and any Stormwings in the vicinity. After the events of the last book (and events alluded to between the books), Daine despises the entire species. She aims her crossbow at a group of Stormwings that fly overhead when she and Numair arrived at the valley. Numair stopped her from shooting, and suggested that she learn tolerance.
She proceeds to do so through the rest of the book. Maura proves to be a good influence there. Shortly after Maura joins Daine and the wolves, three Stormwings appear to return her home, because the Stormwings were concerned for her. Maura is friends with a specific Stormwing, Rikash, and he is fond of her in turn. Maura and Daine have several conversations about Stormwings, where Maura slowly convinces her that not all Stormwings are awful.
At the climax of the story, Daine runs into Rikash and more Stormwings again. She thinks:
Once she had wanted to kill every Stormwing she found, but was that still true? It seemed as if, ever since she had come here, someone was telling her that because she didn’t like a creature’s looks, it didn’t mean that creature was bad. She still didn’t like Stormwing looks, but … ‘I’d like to end this bloodshed, I think,’ … We don’t like each other, but you can’t go killing everyone you don’t like.”
Through the rest of the series, Daine never again makes the mistake of hating all creatures of a particular species, just the ones aligned against her. Through Daine’s hatred of Stormwings, and her subsequent change of heart, Pierce advocates for learning tolerance.
The Badger’s Plan
Two thirds of the way through the novel, the badger god reappears. He asks Daine what she thinks of Dunlath. She replies that it’s a nice place, for animals and for humans, and “even immortals, too, if they wanted to just live here and raise families.” (216). The badger then reveals that Brokefang’s call for help had divine inspiration. Daine was summoned to Dunlath for a godly experiment, she is to, “set this whole valley to rights, … shape a bridge between kindreds.” (217-8). The Badger explains that she is supposed to broker peace between humans, animals, and immortals in Dunlath.
This is something that Dunlath desperately needs. At the beginning of the book animals and humans are opposed. The nobles laugh Daine out of the castle when she brings the plight of the wolves up to the nobles. The wolves are preparing a war of attrition against the humans in retribution. The mages imprisoned a whole slew of hurroks (carnivorous winged horses), ogres, and Stormwings. They forced the ogres to mine for opals, and the hurroks and Stormwings to patrol the valley.
Through Daine, all three groups can communicate. She organizes the animals during the battle to reclaim Dunlath. She sends squirrels to free horses, and the wolves and a pack of wolf-hounds go with Maura. Daine and Iakoju (an escaped ogre) help the ogres rise up against their human oppressors. The villagers evacuate and help round up the soldiers employed by Belden and Yolane.
Maura ends up ending the book as the leader of the valley. She vows to listen not just to the humans, but the animals, when their opinions are translated by Tkaa, the basilisk. She gives the ogres half the valley for them to farm. Maura, with Daine’s initial assistance, fulfills the Badger’s plan for Dunlath.
In Wolf Speaker, Pierce tries to do many things. She demonstrates the relationship between the ecosystem and humans. She shows how important it is that we are educated about animals and the effects we have on the environment around us. In addition, she addresses the issue of biases and how we can, and should grow to overcome them. She advocates for different groups of people working together and living together in harmony. It may be idealistic, it may not be incredibly nuanced, but all of the messages she sends are important.