Mowgli had never seen an Indian city before, and though this was almost a heap of ruins it seemed very wonderful and splendid. Some king had built it long ago on a little hill. You could still trace the stone cause-ways that led up to the ruined gates where the last splinters of wood hung to the worn, rusted hinges. Trees had grown into and out of the walls; the battlements were tumbled down and decayed, and wild creepers hung out of the windows of the towers on the walls in bushy hanging clumps. (“Kaa’s Hunting”)
That I should decide to read The Jungle Book in the same month that Disney should release their big-budget “live-action” remake of the animated film is complete coincidence. Rather, it had been sitting on my shelf for some time, tempting me, and with this month’s Children’s Classics Event incentive, I decided to finally give in.
The Jungle Book is not a novel, but a collection of seven short stories with accompanying poems (one per story, relating to to the story previously told). Of these stories, three–“Mowgli’s Brothers,” “Kaa’s Hunting,” and “Tiger! Tiger!”–are related to Mowgli, Shere Khan, Baloo, and all the other characters familiar to us from Disney. The remaining four stories all feature different characters and are not all closely linked to the Jungle. While “Toomai of the Elephants” is very much jungle-based, and “Rikki-Tikki-Tavi” and “Her Majesty’s Servants” both remain set in British India they are in the human world and “The White Seal” is largely set on an island in the Bering Sea–what a contrast! But constant throughout is the importance of animals, usually anthropomorphized. Only in “Toomai of the Elephants” do we not have the direct thoughts of the animal characters presented as dialogue. More often, the animals speak directly–even in “Her Majesty’s Servants,” which is narrated entirely by an unnamed man of British origin, who had learned from the “natives” to understand camp-beast speech. Which poses an interesting question–was this conceit, that the locals understood camp-beast speech, simply meant as a narrative device, or is it part of Kipling’s romanticization of India, and the Jungle? Although Kipling had spent a good portion of his life in India–he was born there, and after schooling in England returned to work for some time–he wrote his Jungle Book stories while living in Vermont, and the brief introduction in my copy of The Jungle Book (Collins Classics edition) suggests that his distance from the country led to creating an India that “perhaps never quite existed.”
‘All the jungle is thine,’ said Bagheera, ‘and thou canst kill everything that thou art strong enough to kill; but for the sake of the bull that bought thee thou must never kill or eat any cattle young or old. That is the law of the Jungle.’ (“Mowgli’s Brothers”)
On the other hand, Kipling’s India reflects back on the human world he lived in. Setting the stories among animals allows him to comment on human society, both through the customs and structures of his animal characters–“The Law of the Jungle” so frequently referenced in the Mowgli stories (and strictly adhered to by most)–and Mowgli’s uneasy interactions with other humans once he finally leaves the jungle. His arrival in a human village brings to him the knowledge that there is a price on man-eating Shere Khan’s head, but the reward is never motivating to young Mowgli. Rather his motivation is more complicated–a mix of survival, vengeance, power. And in turn, the villagers cannot understand him, for his ability to communicate with animals seems a most dangerous magic. What is not understood is feared–and understanding takes away fear, as in Mowgli’s ability to yield the “red flower” so feared among the jungle beasts.
Moving away from Mowgli, the story most directly connected to his seems to be “Toomai of the Elephants,” also set in the jungle, and another instance of a young child seeing a side of it–in this case, the elephant’s dance–that the adults–native and colonist alike–will never see. Although perhaps one might say there is the fantastic in these stories, specifically in the ability of human and beast to communicate, the real magic seems to be the experiencing of the natural world free of human intervention.
The air was full of all the night noises that, taken together, make one big silence–the click of one bamboo-stem against the other, the rustle of something alive in the undergrowth, the scratch and squawk of a half-waked bird (birds are awake in the night much more often than we imagine), and the fall of water ever so far away. (“Toomai of the Elephants”)
“Rikki-Tikki-Tavi” and “Her Majesty’s Servants” are on the other hand set in the human world. The perpetual conflict between wild, natural space and human, created space is illustrated in the former, when the cobras resent the arrival of humans who they feel must be responsible for the dangerous mongoose that now threatens not only their eggs but their very lives. Rikki in turn becomes the intermediary between the two spaces, for his natural instinct to kill the snakes fits well with the human desire to have space safe from such dangerous reptiles. And finally, man vs. nature makes way for man vs. man in “Her Majesty’s Servants,” as now all animals involved are either domesticated or trainable wild beasts (elephants) whose concerns are how to reconcile their fears with their service to their human masters. It is an illustration and contrast of types, for each beast–horse, camel, mule, elephant, bull–has a different function, and different fears, based on their natural abilities and inclinations. It is also fascinating to reflect on all the different ways humans have found to solve their difficulties–in this instance fighting on all sorts of different terrain.
The most distinct of the stories is “The White Seal,” whose titular hero Kotick is shocked to discover the passivity with which his fellow creatures allow themselves to be hunted by man. He is unique–not only for his white coat, but for his determination to find a nesting ground which is truly safe for all. A reminder, perhaps, that even humans too often simply allow dark things to happen and only the most daring or most determined speak out or act.
I rather enjoyed these enchanting stories. The poems, or “songs,” less so, but then I am not so much a poetry person and could not really begin to judge if they are even any good or not. Although I think they do work better if thought of as “songs” as Kipling calls them. (Actually, I read the “Road-Song of the Bandar-Log” as a sort of pirate’s shanty. It seemed appropriate.) There is a second volume of Jungle Book stories which I shall be on the lookout for–especially as I am promised that more Mowgli stories feature among them.