Saturday, February 2, 2013

"How good – how very good is goat!" - that has little to do with what I wrote about The Jungle Book

f course I could comb through The Jungle Books selecting especially good sentences, phrases, and well-placed adjectives.  There are plenty of those:

It was a thick voice – a muddy voice that would have made you shudder – a voice like something soft breaking in two.  There was a quaver in it, a croak and a whine.

The voice is that of an ancient crocodile.  I do not know if the description is accurate, but it gives me something to imagine as, in “The Undertakers,” the crocodile tells his life story to a crane and a jackal.

This one practically screams “political allegory.”  The crocodile is the exploitive ruler of the nearby village.  The English will likely tame him.  This is apparently the only place in his fiction Kipling mentions the Indian Mutiny of 1857.  The crocodile greatly approved of it:

“But the season I think of, the river was low, smooth, and even, and, as the Gavial had warned me, the dead English came down, touching each other.  I got my girth in that season—my girth and my depth.”

Shudder.  Children’s book.  Anyway, the crocodile is a legendary figure, too, a god, or a monster, or both:

“'Look, he is driving the flood before him!  He is the godling of the village.'  Then they threw many flowers at me, and by happy thought one led a goat across the road.”

“How good – how very good is goat!” said the Jackal.

The non-Mowgli interact in curious and subtle ways with the Mowgli stories.  “The White Seal”’s white seal, Kotick, becomes a Mowgli-like hero, but in this case he is a prophet and culture hero.  The story is set in the Pacific Ocean and on an Alaskan beach where tens of thousands of seals gather every year.  The hero discovers that seal-hunters attack the herd every year, slaughtering hundreds.  Or rather, the hero notices this.  His unique white hide is accompanied by an unusual degree of cognition:

Hundreds and hundreds of thousands of seals watched them being driven, but they went on playing just the same.  Kotick was the only one who asked questions, and none of his companions could tell him anything, except that the men always drove seals in that way for six weeks or two months of every year.

I will just lightly step over the slaughtering scene.  Kotick vows to save the seals by finding a safe beach, unknown to men, and of course, since this is a children’s book, succeeds:

Of course it was not all done at once, for the seals need a long time to turn things over in their minds, but year by year more seals went away from Novastoshnah, and Lukannon, and the other nurseries, to the quiet, sheltered beaches where Kotick sits all the summer through, getting bigger and fatter and stronger each year, while the holluschickie [bachelor seals] play round him, in that sea where no man comes.

If this appears to be a simplistic ending, I suggest it is worthwhile thinking through the logic, which Kipling did.  If there is no place on earth where no man comes, and the seals go to a place where no man comes, the place they go must not be on earth.  Kotick the hero-prophet leads his people to the safety of the afterlife, of death.  “The White Seal” is a parable of extinction.  Children’s book, I say to myself, a book for children.


  1. I got to "the place they go must not be on earth" and thought, "he's going to tell us they've gone to the moon." Not the moon then. All right.

  2. Although I've never seen it or read the book, I do remember wondering whether the idea for The Beach (about a legendary beach unknown to tourists) was stolen from The White Seal. But then again, it is just a typical myth-type story anyway.

  3. Very nice to partake of your foray into children's literature and eco-criticism. Also enjoyed the well-selected illustrations, of course. Kipling, you say? Hmm, it's been a while, but...

  4. I fear the story of the seals who flee to the moon and create a Utopian moon-seal society has yet to be written. This makes me a little sad.

    Yes, typical. Even, orespecially, the notion that the hidden shore is reachable only by death.

    The illustrations were cheap fun. Those Google Books scans make it easy. They are all from The Second Jungle Book, if I remember correctly.

    Richard, I think you would find Kipling valuable - his stories, at least. It is easy to see why Borges was all het up about him.

  5. Children's literature has always been famously horrifying; just read La Fontaine's fairy-tales full of incest, cannibalism and child murder.

  6. That is very true. It is the adult who is taken aback, usually, not the child.

  7. I've enjoyed your Jungle Books posts, Tom--so much so that, if time allows, I think I shall try to read the books themselves soon.

  8. Oh good, thanks. I think these will be a pleasure for you, easy books to check off your list.

    Anyone interested in old-timey kiddie lit shouls see Amanda's list.