Wednesday, January 30, 2013

And altogether he was most wonderful - Kipling's Jungle Book stories

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.


  1. It has been years since I read or heard these stories. Of course as a child I never thought of Mowgli motives for violence in relation to the animal's motive. As I recall however Mowgli was in the reality of the story, as well as psychologically and symbolically, in the twilight zone between humans and animals.

  2. Yes, exactly. "There has been too much talk of killing" Mowgli says in "The King's Ankus," while in "Red Dog" he leads a wolf pack into battle. He kills with purpose, but by choice, not instinct.

    Of course in the same story, the supposedly civilized men wantonly murder each other for treasure.

    Meanwhile the mongoose is wired with a snake sensor that automatically flips a "kill! kill! kill!" switch in his furry little brain.

    Kipling's use of violence is itself purposeful.

  3. Rikki-tikki is one of the great heroes of literature!

    It would be interesting to read Horacio Quiroga's 'Jungle Tales' which were obviously inspired by Kipling's: it has the same themes of nature vs. civilization and instinct vs. consciousness/culture.

  4. I think I've only ever read bits and pieces of the Jungle Books--bits included in other anthologies. I remember "Rikki Tikki Tavi" best. The mongoose hero--I never thought of him as a cold-blooded killer, but now that you mention it...

    I think I've just moved these books further up the must read pile.

  5. The Jungle Book(s) are impressive as a whole, and the mix of non-Mowgli with Mowgli stories is actually meaningful - they shade each other in productive ways.

    Rikki-tikki is a hero because he is a killer, focused, brave, relentless, resourceful. Mowgli is a hero in part because he is not a killer, although he frequently kills. Kipling enjoys this sort of paradox.

    Quiroga - that is a great idea. Quiroga, unlike Kipling, had actually visited a jungle. WHo knows what that might do for a writer.

  6. 'The King's Ankus' is Chaucer's 'Pardoner's Tale' transformed.

    'Quiroga, unlike Kipling, had actually visited a jungle.'
    There was jungle in Kipling's India. Hoow do you know Kipling had never visited one?

  7. Chaucer's 'Pardoner's Tale' transformed.

    Yes, that's right. At least the part at the end, not the part with the lost city and white cobra.

    How do you know that?

    Intuition and revelation.

    No, reading! I read about it. How else would I know it?

    A couple of relevant articles at the Kipling Society site are about the location of Kipling's jungle and Kipling's responses to questions about his knowledge of the jungle: "I got it all from Sterndale's Gazetteer."

  8. "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."

    I never noticed this before, but there's a kind of pre-echo there of One Hundred Years of Solitude: "The first of the line is tied to a tree, and the last is being eaten by the ants."

  9. It's a wild moment - a leap in sympathy. That mongoose is cruel. Gabo picks up that hint of cruelty, yes, which I suppose is implicit in the idea of the ant.