BOOK REVIEW / The prince, the wolf-girl and the Inquisitor: 'Knowledge of Angels' - Jill Paton Walsh: Green Bay, 14.99 pounds

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WOLF-CHILDREN have always haunted human imagination, even though there is precious little evidence that any ever existed. In her novel Knowledge of Angels, Jill Paton Walsh explores this myth as a way of wondering what any of us might be like if left to grow up without human influence.

The urge to find answers to this question has also been a feature of history. In the 13th century Emperor Frederick II instructed a group of wet nurses to remain silent at their job in order to discover whether the babies in their charge would first speak Hebrew, Greek, Latin, Arabic or their mother tongue. (In fact, under so odd a regime they all soon died.) In 1940 a psychologist husband-and-wife team kept a pair of twins - not their own - in isolation for their first 18 months to see how they would develop without any stimulation.

But in this novel, the author is interested in the symbolic rather than the developmental aspects of rearing an infant on its own. For as things turn out, waiting to discover whether the wolf- child Amara has an inherent knowledge (or ignorance) of the idea of God once she has acquired language is the pivotal point of the story.

To get to this position some good storytelling is needed, and Walsh is well qualified here. A skilled and prolific writer mostly of children's books, she brings a firm narrative hand to some otherwise unlikely events. The adventures of Amara, once separated from her wolves, are told in tandem with the story of Palinor. He is a glamorous middle-aged prince washed up on the 15th-century fantasy island where all these events take place. He comes from an advanced, equally mythological country where all or no faiths enjoy the same respect. As a gifted engineer and uninhibited sensualist, he has much to offer and soon makes friends. But under the island's laws, he is a unapologetic heretic and must therefore be put to death.

His only hope is last- minute conversion, and this task is given to the saintly Beneditx, a monk previously devoted to writing about angels. But Palinor makes short work of all his standard Roman Catholic proofs of faith, and it is Beneditx himself who finally comes to disbelieve. At this moment, enter the sinister figure of the Inquisitor from overseas - a thankless role in any work of the imagination long before Monty Python finally took them all on and won.

Palinor's last chance is with Amara, now more human than wolf. If she too shows no knowledge of God, then Palinor can be excused on the grounds that mere ignorance as a result of one's upbringing is not in itself heretical. But Amara, carefully coached by the nuns who guard her, answers pietistically and Palinor is doomed.

This story is half fable, half parable. It enters into dialogues about the nature of faith with wit and passion. Coming across it now is like going back 60 years to a time when such 'novels of ideas' might once receive good notices from T S Eliot in the Criterion, only then to fall foul of Orwell reviewing in Tribune. Often hypnotically readable, it engages in debates of more historical than contemporary interest. Principal characters move fluidly between ancient ignorance and Victorian rationalism while the surrounding proles remain happy with their lot and content to leave every decision to their betters. It is all rather like looking at a medieval illustrated manuscript recreated by a clever modern artist. Contrived, often describing an idealised world but with luminous moments quite outside the normal run of contemporary fiction, this is a serious children's book for adult readers, and none the worse for that.