Wolf Time

In the old Russian story, Ivan and The Grey Wolf, the youngest of three brothers sets out on a journey to find the Firebird that has been stealing his father, the Czar’s, golden apples. He begins the journey on his favourite horse which gets him as far as the forest where he comes to a fork in the road. There is a sign at the junction which states “Take the left-hand path and your horse will live but you will die. Take the right-hand path and you will live but your horse will die.” This is a decision young Ivan does not want to make. He loves his horse. They have been together since childhood. He has been a faithful companion and they have had many adventures together. To lose his horse will break his heart. But, if he wants to continue his journey, he has to choose.

Ivan takes the right-hand path. And, for a couple of days, nothing happens. They just go deeper and deeper into the forest. When, suddenly, from behind a tree, there appears a great, grey wolf. It leaps towards them, knocks Ivan from his horse. Takes the horse’s throat between his enormous, slavering jaws and pulls the helpless animal to the ground. Ivan watches in horror as the wolf devours the horse. Hoof, mane, and tail. Every… last… bit.

Then the wolf turns to look at Ivan. And, to Ivan’s amazement, it speaks,

“Don’t look at me like that. You read the sign. You made the choice. You knew the deal. A wolf has to eat you know.”

Ivan’s jaw drops. The wolf continues,

“I understand that you are looking for the Firebird. I know of her and where she lives. A horse would never be able to bring you into the presence of such a fine creature. But I can. If you wish to find the Firebird, you must climb upon my back. I will take you to her. But hold tight, it will not be an easy ride.”

We all reach points in our lives when we have to decide whether we are prepared to step up and ride the wolf. Most of us spend the majority of our lives getting around on horseback. It is the sensible decision: horses are, by and large, tame, domesticated, and predictable. They will get you reliably from Point A to Point B. Which is what you want most of the time. The horse gets you where you want to go.

But what happens when, suddenly, the road disappears? Maybe there is an earthquake. Or a flood. Or a pandemic. All of a sudden, the road is gone, the map in your hand is useless, all the usual signs and landmarks have been torn down. All your usual terms of reference have been taken away and, so, for all intents and purposes, you find yourself in unfamiliar territory – a new and foreign land. On a personal level, this may happen with the death of a loved one, the end of a love affair, an illness or accident.  

At times like these we have to choose whether to end our journey, give up on the quest, return to the palace and forget our dreams of a better life. Or, take a risk, accept the challenge, face up to the unknown and climb aboard the grey wolf. It is neither a safe nor sensible option ……. But it is the only way to reach the Firebird.

On a wider, cultural level, a single event can, on occasion, carry a significance that resonates with a great number of people and causes a whole society to question the way in which it wants to move forward. In Sweden, a tiny, stubborn girl refuses to go to school until her Government starts to act upon Climate Change. In America, an innocent black man is suffocated to death by a policeman. The School Climate Strikes and Black Lives Matter are demonstrations of the need to recognise that we are standing at a junction. We have to choose how to move forward. Horse and Death or Wolf and Life? Perhaps it is time to tear the old statues down.

We find ourselves at an unprecedented time in history when the entire human world is faced with making that choice. Do we continue to live as we have been doing for a long time in a way that is unsustainable for the planet and unjust for the majority of living beings or do we adapt and change, find a better way? The coronavirus pandemic has brought the world up sharp and laid bare the failings and inadequacies of the systems whereby we live. It is forcing us to accept that we cannot simply return to our old ways only wearing a facemask. It simply will not work. Instead, we have to find new ways to survive and, hopefully, thrive. Our collective response to this pandemic is only the beginning. There are many challenges ahead.

Over the past few days, I have been talking to local businesses about how they are going to have to adapt as lockdown eases and they are allowed to reopen. One is a training provider on a complex site who is trying to figure out how to organise the use of available space so that staff and clients feel safe and comfortable. Another is a publican who is struggling with how to operate under the new laws when he cannot rely on the old rhythm of short, busy periods when the pub is full and profits are high balancing out longer spells of relative quiet. Both were certain that they are going to have to change and adapt if they are going to survive.

We are going to have to accept that the horse is dead. It is hard to see how many businesses could run along the old lines at any point in the foreseeable future. We are in a new land now.

Here in the UK, the sectors in which I have spent my life working, Education and the Performing Arts, face enormous obstacles. Teachers and lecturers around the country are trying to figure out ways to provide their students with a meaningful education whilst staying as safe as possible. I taught Drama, the essence of which is social. It is possible to imagine teaching Mathematics, English or History to individuals sat at socially distanced desks but how do you teach more practical subjects like Drama, P.E. or Science without losing something fundamental about the experience? Education is about much more than simply delivering knowledge. Students are not just empty vessels waiting to be filled. The process of learning is much more nuanced and complex than that. Different people learn in different ways. Good teachers employ a multi-layered approach and a variety of teaching styles to ensure that they reach as many students as they can. Social distancing in schools is not just practically difficult, it will impoverish the learning experience and leave teachers with a severely limited capacity to engage with their students. Not that the UK Government has ever shown any great interest in how children learn. Successive Governments of all parties have reduced the process of education (and pretty much everything else) to a mere economic equation. I don’t think that the present Government’s drive to get children back to school has anything to do with concern over their education and everything to do with freeing up parents to be able to return to work and prop up our crippled economy.

At least the Government has shown some commitment to keep schools open and get them up and running. In stark contrast, theatres and music venues across the UK are closing down and laying off staff. Many of them could well remain closed permanently. Artists, musicians, actors, and dancers are struggling to make ends meet. The Arts in the UK are in crisis and, as I write, the UK Government is doing nothing to help. Our leaders seem intent on trying to keep the saddle on the old horse, getting the economy back up and running, the planes in the air and the shoppers in the malls. The old order suited them; they were comfortable in it; riding the horse was working in their favour. They have no incentive to change. We need to keep a close eye upon them. To be aware when guidelines become laws. To challenge their necessity. To be watchful, critical, and alert. To challenge our rulers when they are not operating in our best interest. To remember when they set us rules which they do not themselves follow.

The Arts will adapt quickly to these challenging times. Artists are creative by nature and accustomed to thinking differently, inviting in ideas from the margins, finding new solutions. We must all be prepared to do the same. It’s time to ride the wolf.


  1. I’m riding the wolf. I quit my job. We’re going on the road in a caravan which we’ve longed to do for ages! I’m scared (almost) out of my wits but I know we can do it. That’s the advantage of age. We’ve gathered skills along the way and we know we can rely on those skills. Furthermore, I love this difficulty! Life is always uncertain. Death can come at any time. What are we prepared to do about that? Live Life, is what! So, with this Big Challenge comes a gift. Great are the uses of adversity! Adapt to fit the situation! If we don’t get mired in what we think should be we might find what can be. Thanks for your very cogent writing. You always make me think.


    • Amazing! You are an inspiration. I love the phrase “great are the uses of adversity!” How true. Good luck with the ride. Hang on tight and let us know how you get along.


      • Thank you. If you have time or interest you can follow http://www.rlbenoit.com. I’ll be posting stories along the way and have already posted a preamble. (I like that because that’s exactly what we’ll be doing: “ambling”) Warning: I’m not deep like you. It might be boring. I’ll sneak deep observations in as they present themselves. But mostly, no. Mostly, shenanigans and high jinks.


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