Black Leopard, Red Wolf

Marlon James

Riverhead Books

The day before (Sangoma) told the Leopard to take me out and teach me archery. All I learned was that I should try something else. Now I throw the hatchet…
“During my my ithwasa, my master told me that I would see far. Too far,” the Sangoma said.
“Close your eyes, then.”
“You need to respect your elders.”
“I will, when I meet elders I can respect.”

                  from Black Leopard, Red Wolf


Entering a different mythological universe

In 2015, Marlon James became the first Jamaican author to win the prestigious Man Booker Prize. His novel, A Brief History of Seven Killings, is a sprawling, complex tale surrounding the 1976 attempt on Bob Marley’s life.

For his next work, James said he wanted to write “the African Game of Thrones.” While that may not be an accurate description of this book, he nonetheless gets points for shrewd marketing. Black Leopard, Red Wolf belongs much more to the world of folklore, fairy tale and myth than to HBO’s popular medieval fantasy series. The main character is Tracker (the Red Wolf of the title), a famous hunter who has a nose that allows him to follow anyone’s scent. He is charged to find a mysterious missing boy. He opens the story announcing, “The child is dead. There is nothing left to know.” Then the book continues for 600+ pages telling us the nothing there is to know.

One is entering into a very different universe from the Greek, Roman and Norse mythologies that Western readers will be familiar with. James weaves African folklore and myths without many of the tropes that are stock in trade for the fantasy genre—kings and queens and wizards and so forth. Here there are amazing and unsettling creatures, shape-shifting characters whose personalities shift as well as their bodies, where good and evil and maybe-good play out in ways differently than expected.

Tracker’s tale has an earthy rawness that also resembles many myths and fairy tales before being bowdlerized by the Victorians and sanitized by Disney. Anyone who has read the original fairy tales collected by the Brothers Grimm knows they are often…well, grim. They can be bloody and violent, with children who are eaten, stepmothers who should have been reported to CPS, and evil witches who are seriously evil.

James does not apologize for the “gleeful profanity” of his work. He has stated, “I think violence should be violent,” and he scorns the way sex is often portrayed in literary fiction: suggestive rather than explicit, or altogether avoiding it with a discreet ellipsis (…), what he calls “space-break sex.” “It is a bawdy planet,” noted Shakespeare, and like many of the ancient myths, James doesn’t skirt around the fact. Clearly, unlike The Hobbit and The Chronicles of Narnia, this isn’t a fantasy epic to read to children before bedtime.

Black Leopard, Red Wolf is not a quick or easy read, but it affords the reader entry into a very different mythological universe where the unfamiliar accosts one on every page. And, honestly, shouldn’t fantasy worlds be truly strange and unnerving?


This review first appeared in The Columbia River Reader (March 15-April 15, 2019.) Reprinted with permission.