he theme is tricky colonial literature. If I have doubts about Bernardo Atxaga, I am sure about Kipling – there is the text, the subtext, and then also, at his best, another layer or two. One might think that The Jungle Book (1894) and The Second Jungle Book (1895), written explicitly for children, would be simple. No, not necessarily.
A bibliographic interruption. The Jungle Book and The Second Jungle Book have been published, with Kipling’s approval, in multiple arrangements depending on whether the Mowgli – raised by wolves, schooled by a singing blue bear, everyone knows about Mowgli – stories all go in one volume. Originally they did not, but were mixed in with the other animal stories like “Rikki Tikki Tavi” and the one about Eskimo sled dogs, which a careful reader will note is probably not set anywhere near a jungle. And then I read them at random. So I will ignore the books as such, except to steal their illustrations. The links go to the Google Books scans which have the original arrangements.
I was saying that Kipling was tricky. Not always. “The King’s Ankus” has a first-rate co-star:
"Am I nothing?" said a voice in the middle of the vault; and Mowgli saw something white move till, little by little, there stood up the hugest cobra he had ever set eyes on – a creature nearly eight feet long, and bleached by being in darkness to an old ivory-white. Even the spectacle-marks of his spread hood had faded to faint yellow. His eyes were as red as rubies, and altogether he was most wonderful.
The albino cobra is guarding a long-forgotten treasure hoard under a long-dead city. The snake is memorable, but the story turns out to be a simple parable about greed, as a priceless elephant goad causes a series of people to murder each other while a bewildered Mowgli watches from a distance. I had already learned this lesson. Perhaps, though, you suggest, some of the children reading this book for children could use a little reinforcement. You are right, these are stories for children.
The stories are violent, too, although I have little idea how they compare to today’s more complex kiddie lit. Kipling’s Nature is Tennyson’s, “red in tooth and claw.” Red in eye, too, like the cobra: “Rikki-tikki's eyes grew red again, and he danced up to Karait with the peculiar rocking, swaying motion that he had inherited from his family.” The animals kill each other as animals do, with the mongoose Rikki-tikki, an instinctive snake-exterminating machine, the most ruthless example. And the mongoose is the hero of the story:
The big snake turned half round, and saw the egg on the veranda. "Ah-h! Give it to me," she said.
Rikki-tikki put his paws one on each side of the egg, and his eyes were blood-red. "What price for a snake's egg? For a young cobra? For a young king-cobra? For the last--the very last of the brood? The ants are eating all the others down by the melon-bed."
That is a cold-blooded mongoose. But what can he do, it is his mongoosish nature. Mowgli, though, is a human, so what is his excuse?
I will spend a couple of days picking out some of my favorite Jungle Book complexities.