A Dog Returns to His Fierce Nature in The Call of the Wild

Read an excerpt from Jack London's classic adventure novel.

the call of the wild jack london

Originally published in 1903, The Call of the Wild is a story about a dog named Buck. A 4-year-old, 140-pound St. Bernard and Scotch shepherd mix, Buck was the favorite pet of Judge Miller and grew up in the warmth of his California home, “a big house in the sun-kissed Santa Clara Valley.”

However, in the fall of 1897, the Klondike Gold Rush was at its height, and strong, well-trained dogs like Buck were worth a lot of money. Seeing an opportunity, the Judge’s gardener, Manuel, sells Buck into the sled dog business. And though Buck is a formidable dog, he quickly learns that he’s no match for a man with a club—or a pack of angry sled dogs. 

As he is forced to fight and subjected to the harsh environment, Buck becomes more and more feral, relying on his long-forgotten instincts to become a leader in the wild. 

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Though The Call of the Wild is fairly short—just over 200 pages—it was extremely popular, and made Jack London a household name. The story has been adapted into multiple films, including a silent film in 1923; a Clark Gable and Loretta Young-led “talkie” in 1935; a 1972 version starring Charlton Heston; and a 1996 movie narrated by Richard Dreyfuss and featuring Dutch film star Rutger Hauer.

On February 21, 2020, Jack London’s adventure story will hit the big screens once more, with Harrison Ford starring in the remake of the film as John Thornton, a man who becomes Buck’s friend. Buck is being rendered in CGI, though his movements are portrayed by Terry Notary. Notary has done similar work in films such as Avatar, The Hobbit trilogy, and the reboot series of The Planet of the Apes.

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Clark Gable and a dog on set of "The Call of the Wild," 1935
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  • Clark Gable and the dog who played Buck on set of The Call of the Wild, 1935. Public domain image courtesy of Wikipedia

If you’ve never read The Call of the Wild before, now is the perfect time to get acquainted with London’s famous story. Keep reading for an excerpt from Chapter II of the book: Buck has just arrived in Alaska, having been beaten into submission by the men who transported him there. He’s also not the only new dog. Buck is accompanied by Curly, a good-natured Newfoundland; a big white dog from Spitzbergen (henceforth known as “Spitz”); and Dave, a gloomy dog that only desired to be left alone.

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The Call of the Wild

By Jack London

Chapter II. The Law of Club and Fang

BUCK’S FIRST DAY ON the Dyea beach was like a nightmare. Every hour was filled with shock and surprise. He had been suddenly jerked from the heart of civilization and flung into the heart of things primordial. No lazy, sun-kissed life was this, with nothing to do but loaf and be bored. Here was neither peace, nor rest, nor a moment’s safety. All was confusion and action, and every moment life and limb were in peril. There was imperative need to be constantly alert; for these dogs and men were not town dogs and men. They were savages, all of them, who knew no law but the law of club and fang.

He had never seen dogs fight as these wolfish creatures fought, and his first experience taught him an unforgettable lesson. It is true, it was a vicarious experience, else he would not have lived to profit by it. Curly was the victim. They were camped near the log store, where she, in her friendly way, made advances to a husky dog the size of a full-grown wolf, though not half so large as she. There was no warning, only a leap in like a flash, a metallic clip of teeth, a leap out equally swift, and Curly’s face was ripped open from eye to jaw.

It was the wolf manner of fighting, to strike and leap away; but there was more to it than this. Thirty or forty huskies ran to the spot and surrounded the combatants in an intent and silent circle. Buck did not comprehend that silent intentness, nor the eager way with which they were licking their chops. Curly rushed her antagonist, who struck again and leaped aside. He met her next rush with his chest, in a peculiar fashion that tumbled her off her feet. She never regained them. This was what the onlooking huskies had waited for. They closed in upon her, snarling and yelping, and she was buried, screaming with agony, beneath the bristling mass of bodies.

a first edition copy of Jack London's The Call of the Wild
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  • A first edition copy of Jack London's The Call of the Wild, 1903. Image courtesy of Wikipedia

So sudden was it, and so unexpected, that Buck was taken aback. He saw Spitz run out his scarlet tongue in a way he had of laughing; and he saw Francois, swinging an axe, spring into the mess of dogs. Three men with clubs were helping him to scatter them. It did not take long. Two minutes from the time Curly went down, the last of her assailants were clubbed off. But she lay there limp and lifeless in the bloody, trampled snow, almost literally torn to pieces, the swart half-breed standing over her and cursing horribly. The scene often came back to Buck to trouble him in his sleep. So that was the way. No fair play. Once down, that was the end of you. Well, he would see to it that he never went down. Spitz ran out his tongue and laughed again, and from that moment Buck hated him with a bitter and deathless hatred.

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Before he had recovered from the shock caused by the tragic passing of Curly, he received another shock. Francois fastened upon him an arrangement of straps and buckles. It was a harness, such as he had seen the grooms put on the horses at home. And as he had seen horses work, so he was set to work, hauling Francois on a sled to the forest that fringed the valley, and returning with a load of firewood. Though his dignity was sorely hurt by thus being made a draught animal, he was too wise to rebel. He buckled down with a will and did his best, though it was all new and strange. Francois was stern, demanding instant obedience, and by virtue of his whip receiving instant obedience; while Dave, who was an experienced wheeler, nipped Buck’s hind quarters whenever he was in error. Spitz was the leader, likewise experienced, and while he could not always get at Buck, he growled sharp reproof now and again, or cunningly threw his weight in the traces to jerk Buck into the way he should go. Buck learned easily, and under the combined tuition of his two mates and Francois made remarkable progress. Ere they returned to camp he knew enough to stop at “ho,” to go ahead at “mush,” to swing wide on the bends, and to keep clear of the wheeler when the loaded sled shot downhill at their heels.

“T’ree vair’ good dogs,” Francois told Perrault. “Dat Buck, heem pool lak hell. I tich heem queek as anyt’ing.”

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dogs pulling a sled, like in The Call of the Wild

By afternoon, Perrault, who was in a hurry to be on the trail with his despatches, returned with two more dogs. “Billee” and “Joe” he called them, two brothers, and true huskies both. Sons of the one mother though they were, they were as different as day and night. Billee’s one fault was his excessive good nature, while Joe was the very opposite, sour and introspective, with a perpetual snarl and a malignant eye. Buck received them in comradely fashion, Dave ignored them, while Spitz proceeded to thrash first one and then the other. Billee wagged his tail appeasingly, turned to run when he saw that appeasement was of no avail, and cried (still appeasingly) when Spitz’s sharp teeth scored his flank. But no matter how Spitz circled, Joe whirled around on his heels to face him, mane bristling, ears laid back, lips writhing and snarling, jaws clipping together as fast as he could snap, and eyes diabolically gleaming—the incarnation of belligerent fear. So terrible was his appearance that Spitz was forced to forego disciplining him; but to cover his own discomfiture he turned upon the inoffensive and wailing Billee and drove him to the confines of the camp.

By evening Perrault secured another dog, an old husky, long and lean and gaunt, with a battle-scarred face and a single eye which flashed a warning of prowess that commanded respect. He was called Sol-leks, which means the Angry One. Like Dave, he asked nothing, gave nothing, expected nothing; and when he marched slowly and deliberately into their midst, even Spitz left him alone. He had one peculiarity which Buck was unlucky enough to discover. He did not like to be approached on his blind side. Of this offence Buck was unwittingly guilty, and the first knowledge he had of his indiscretion was when Sol-leks whirled upon him and slashed his shoulder to the bone for three inches up and down. Forever after Buck avoided his blind side, and to the last of their comradeship had no more trouble. His only apparent ambition, like Dave’s, was to be left alone; though, as Buck was afterward to learn, each of them possessed one other and even more vital ambition.

That night Buck faced the great problem of sleeping. The tent, illumined by a candle, glowed warmly in the midst of the white plain; and when he, as a matter of course, entered it, both Perrault and Francois bombarded him with curses and cooking utensils, till he recovered from his consternation and fled ignominiously into the outer cold. A chill wind was blowing that nipped him sharply and bit with especial venom into his wounded shoulder. He lay down on the snow and attempted to sleep, but the frost soon drove him shivering to his feet. Miserable and disconsolate, he wandered about among the many tents, only to find that one place was as cold as another. Here and there savage dogs rushed upon him, but he bristled his neck-hair and snarled (for he was learning fast), and they let him go his way unmolested.

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Finally an idea came to him. He would return and see how his own teammates were making out. To his astonishment, they had disappeared. Again he wandered about through the great camp, looking for them, and again he returned. Were they in the tent? No, that could not be, else he would not have been driven out. Then where could they possibly be? With drooping tail and shivering body, very forlorn indeed, he aimlessly circled the tent. Suddenly the snow gave way beneath his fore legs and he sank down. Something wriggled under his feet. He sprang back, bristling and snarling, fearful of the unseen and unknown. But a friendly little yelp reassured him, and he went back to investigate. A whiff of warm air ascended to his nostrils, and there, curled up under the snow in a snug ball, lay Billee. He whined placatingly, squirmed and wriggled to show his good will and intentions, and even ventured, as a bribe for peace, to lick Buck’s face with his warm wet tongue.

Another lesson. So that was the way they did it, eh? Buck confidently selected a spot, and with much fuss and waste effort proceeded to dig a hole for himself. In a trice the heat from his body filled the confined space and he was asleep. The day had been long and arduous, and he slept soundly and comfortably, though he growled and barked and wrestled with bad dreams.

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Want to keep reading? Download The Call of the Wild now.

Buck is a fast learner—but the Yukon is full of dangers he can't possibly anticipate. His adventure is long and arduous, and by the end of the book, Buck is almost unrecognizable from the loving, pampered companion who grew up in sunny California. Download The Call of the Wild to find out what happens next, and rediscover Jack London's most famous story for yourself.

Published on 20 Jan 2020