The Jungle Book: Mowgli’s story is only a small part

Rudyard Kipling The Jungle BookRudyard Kipling The Jungle BooksThe Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling

Good Hunting All That Keep the Jungle Law…

If you were to ask anyone to describe The Jungle Book, they would probably take their cue from the widely known Disney film and say that it was about a young boy who was raised by wolves in the jungle, mentored by a bear and a panther, and who eventually kills a dangerous tiger. In this they’d be right, but they’d only be describing the first three chapters.

The rest of the book is a series of unrelated short stories about other animals, and which are not necessarily set in the jungle either. I was surprised at this, as although I knew that Disney had extensively reshaped the story, I had no idea that Mowgli’s story was such a comparatively small part of the book. To my knowledge, Rudyard Kipling’s characters have also featured in an anime series and a live-action film, and in both cases there has been no indication that the source material involved anything other than a boy called Mowgli and his adventures growing up in the jungle.

Though I had known that Disney had extensively reworked Kipling’s book (as Disney is accustomed to do with its film adaptations) it was surprising to find out the real scope and beauty of the original collection of stories, and just how deeply the film had permeated public awareness of what the story involved. Here Mowgli’s story doesn’t end when he rejoins the man-village, Kaa the snake is not an enemy but an ally, Shere Khan is not defeated with fire but with a well-strategized buffalo stampede, and there are no vultures that sound like The Beatles (though you probably had that one figured out on your own). If there’s one thing that especially stands out, it’s that Mowgli in this story is much more likeable and intelligent than the loathsome little brat of the film.

After Mowgli’s father is killed in the jungle, he is raised by a wolf pack as one of their own, called “the frog” on account of his gangly limbs, and tutored by Baloo the bear and Bagheera the panther in the ways of the Jungle Law: the fair but sometimes harsh edicts that make up life among the animals. Having escaped captivity at an early age, Bagheera in particular is serious about Mowgli’s education, hoping that when he finally returns to his own people, he can take knowledge of the Jungle Law with him to teach his fellow man.

Yet Mowgli is not easily accepted by either beast or man. Not only are the young wolves threatened by their inability to look him in the eye, but Shere Khan the tiger considers Mowgli his rightful prey. Likewise, the men and women of the village find the boy disconcerting in his habits and strange upbringing, making Mowgli quite a tragic figure in his inability to find a true home among either animals or mankind.

The first three chapters of The Jungle Book revolve around Mowgli’s story: his upbringing in the first chapter and defeat of Shere Khan in the third, leaving the second (rather oddly, considering it’s out of chronological order) to deal with his kidnapping at the hands of the Bandar-log, the Monkey People. Kipling is wonderful at capturing the mystery and atmosphere of the jungle, as well as the fundamental character traits of the animals (the thoughtless monkeys, the malevolent jackal, the wise panther, the complex wolf-pack dynamics). He introduces concepts such as the Jungle Law and the Red Flower, the animal etiquette used in the sharing of hunting grounds and the way in which they address each other, and each species’ unique customs and idioms. It’s all fascinating stuff, carefully strewn throughout the story to provide a rich background to the world that Mowgli inhabits.

The stories that follow are not quite as memorable, but still hold up well, and a couple have been published separately as their own books (“Rikki-Tikki-Tavi” and “Toomai of the Elephants.”)

“The White Seal” involves the birth of a strange white seal called Kotick who — after witnessing the mass slaughter of his fellows at the hands of sealers — takes it upon himself to traverse the seas in search of a safe beach that has not been discovered by man. It takes several years and a visitation with the mysterious sea-cows before he can finally return to his people and tell them of his discoveries. It’s at this point that a certain sense of values dissonance kicks in. Does Kotick convince his fellow seals to follow him to the promised land through his strong leadership and rousing speeches? No, he beats them all to a bloody pulp and insists on them following him once they’ve all been defeated.

Outside of Mowgli’s chapters, “Rikki-Tikki-Tavi” is probably the most famous of Kipling’s short stories. A mongoose is adopted into the home of an English family living in the jungles of Sugauli cantonment, where it soon learns that a cobra and its mate are planning to kill the little boy in the attempt to drive the family away and reclaim the bungalow for themselves. Aided by other animals in the house and garden, Rikki-Tikki-Tavi prepares to defend his home and family against the snakes with a series of ambushes, tricks and his instinctive fighting abilities. This is definitely the most appealing of the stand-alone stories.

“Toomai of the Elephants” concerns a young Indian boy who works with his father in the rounding-up and breaking-in of elephants for the Indian government. Having grown up among them, he has no fear of the elephants that he can control with simple words and hand gestures. Though his father prefers camp life, it is Toomai’s greatest ambition to go hunting for the elephants in the jungle, though he is told that this will only occur when he “sees the elephants dance” (that is, never). But one night Kala Nag and the other trained elephants are acting strangely, and when several manage to break free of their pickets, Toomai climbs aboard Kala and is taken to mysterious clearing where elephants from miles around have indeed come to dance…

In many ways “Her Majesty’s Servants” feels like the odd one out in this collection. More for adults than children (who may find it rather incomprehensible) Kipling provides a first-person narrative account of a British soldier who eavesdrops on a number of animals in service to the army. As each one tries to explain, justify and comprehend their roles in the service of mankind, the listener is struck by the differences between each one, and their understanding of the world they inhabit. Up until this story, Kipling has managed to steer surprisingly clear of imperialism and unfortunate implications; here, however, he mentions “savage men and savage horses from somewhere at the back of Asia” and “a wild king of a very wild country,” and ends the story on a note of British superiority over the disorganization of its colonies. For these reasons, “Her Majesty’s Servants” doesn’t hold up as well as the other stories.

As well as the seven short stories, the book also contains several poems, songs and chants, usually said to be performed by the animals themselves.

Just as many readers are unaware that Little Women is composed of two books (Little Womenand Good Wives) and that most of Alice’s famous adventures took place in the sequel Behind the Looking Glass, it’s a relatively little-known fact that there was a sequel to The Jungle Book. Known simply as The Second Jungle Book, it includes several more Mowgli adventures as well as other stand-alone stories and poems. Many editions of The Jungle Book combine both the first and second book into one volume, though it’s difficult to tell which is which, considering Amazon.com has grouped all the reviews togethe, regardless of what edition is being discussed. It’s hard to know exactly what you’ll be getting when you make the order, so keep in mind that it’s easy to miss out on the sequel. There is also the risk of buying an abridged version that cuts out stories or tampers with Kipling’s use of language (his use of the archaic terms “thee” and “thou” in discussions among the animals), so please be careful in deciding which edition to purchase.

All in all, The Jungle Book is still a rich and intriguing read, with only a few dated passages. At the very least, it’s worth reading in order to get an understanding of the source material as it was before Disney put its stamp on it.

The Jungle Book — (1894) Ages 9-12. Publisher: Children will delight in this unabridged version of Rudyard Kipling’s classics, Jungle Books One and Two! Not only does this attractive volume feature the beloved tales of Mowgli, the “man cub” raised by wolves, and Rikki Tikki Tavi, but also the lesser-known but wonderful stories of Toomai, the boy who gets to see elephants dance; Quiquern, who saves his Eskimo people from starvation; and Kotick, the white seal.

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REBECCA FISHER earned a Masters degree in literature at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. Her thesis included a comparison of how C.S. Lewis and Philip Pullman each use the idea of mankind’s Fall from Grace to structure the worldviews presented in their fantasy series. Rebecca is a firm believer that fantasy books written for children can be just as meaningful, well-written and enjoyable as those for adults, and in some cases, even more so. Rebecca lives in New Zealand.

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3 comments

  1. Rebecca, now that you’re fresh off The Jungle Book, you might want to read or re-read Gaiman’s The Graveyard book . It’s an homage. There is a scene that so powerfully evoked the ending sequence from Kipling’s elephant goad story that it made the back of my neck prickle.

  2. Rebecca /

    Quite coincidentally, I had discovered that “The Graveyard Book” was a homage to “The Jungle Book” whilst reading the latter. I’ll definitely pick up “Graveyard” in the near future.

  3. I have had The Graveyard Book sitting on a coffee table for about a year. I need to actually pick it up.

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