Friday, February 1, 2013

The Jungle Book as myth - Because the jungle is full of such tales.

ipling was an original and credible myth-maker.  I mean something specific and rare: in the Jungle Book stories he wrote stories that often feel like re-tellings of ancient stories.  Read in this way, they build to scenes of sublimity.

I have little idea what Kipling had been reading, so the fact that I pick up hints of any number of old stories means nothing.  Kipling is working with common tools.  It is odd, though, to realize that a story like “The King’s Ankus” that at first seemed slight contains so many elements of the Germanic Siegfried stories – the cobra is a dragon, the ankus is the Rheingold, Mowgli like Siegfried knows the language of animals.  References or archetypes?

Here is how David Ferry, in his version of Gilgamesh (1992) describes the wild man Enkidu, a prototype who predates Mowgli by thousands of years:

I saw a hairy-bodied man today
at the watering place, powerful as Ninurta

the god of war; he feeds upon the grasslands
with gazelles; he visits the watering places

with the beasts; he has unset my traps and filled
my hunting pits; the creatures of the grasslands

get away free.  (Tablet I)

Mowgli is a boy, not a man, and as an honorary wolf he feeds on gazelles, not with them, but the part about the traps is accurate, and in the most openly mythological of the stories, so is the gathering at the watering place.  The story, “How Fear Came,” even features gazelles and hunters eating grass.

A drought has struck the jungle:

and when Hathi, the wild elephant, who lives for a hundred years and more, saw a long, lean blue ridge of rock show dry in the very centre of the stream, he knew that he was looking at the Peace Rock, and then and there he lifted up the trunk and proclaimed the Water Truce, as his father before him had proclaimed it fifty years ago.

That is history, not myth.  But when the animals, tiger, deer, bear, and buffalo, gather around the Peace Rock for water but Hathi tells them the legend that gives the story its title.  The elephant’s tale has everything – a creation myth (“Tha, the First of the Elephants… drew the Jungle out of deep waters with his trunk”), a number of Just So stories (how the tiger got his stripes), and answers to some big questions – the origins of death, fear of Man, and the Law of the Jungle.  Some parts of the story, like the tiger’s Mark of Cain, are borrowed from Genesis and the Garden of Eden, while others are from I do not know where, perhaps Kipling’s imagination.  The pre-Fall vegetarian tiger really could be from Gilgamesh by way of Genesis.

As the Mowgli stories progress, Mowgli himself becomes a legendary figure, a hero or demi-god who follows a standard path – foster parents, the favor of friendly gods, a period of exile, and so on.  The effect is powerful.  I have not even begun to explain it.


  1. Interesting post. I read the Just So stories as a kid because I got a copy of the book for Xmas and I always read what I was given to read! I like the idea of Kipling as myth maker rather than story reteller.

    I think "References or archetypes?" will keep me thinking about this for awhile.

  2. "will keep me thinking" - me too! I do not know the answer. Just imagine all of the Indian mythical sources Kipling would have come across, maybe just as stories someone told him, that I know nothing about. So I want to be careful with claims of originality.

    Still, Kipling has tapped into a sort of cosmic vein with few peers. It is a puzzle.

    If I ever read more than one or two of the Just So stories I do not remember it, so I hope to read them soon.

  3. I'm enjoying your analyses of Kipling's stories very much, Tom. I only read them when I was an adult, but they still fascinate me. As modern myth-making they're quite good.

  4. "Fascinating" is the right word. I am surprised how many times his stories take me by surprise - I should be used to it - how often about halfway or 2/3 through I think "Hey, wait, what is he doing here?"

  5. Perhaps this is obvious, but one thing that this post made me think of is how a set of myths and symbols get taken by an author, retold and thus are changed a little. The slightly altered myths disseminate throughout a culture. Others take up the changes myths and change them a little more in turn. The evolution of human culture and art is amazing. I do understand that the analogy is limited. If a particular myth or story is preserved and well known in a holy or classic work like the Bible or The Jungle Book thinkers will still be influenced by the originals. However, I marvel at the way that human art and thought develops.

  6. It was a great surprise to find that kind of extension of myth in these particular books. I had assumed they would be much simpler.