Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Theology of Stories VI: Something to Look Forward To

In Paradise perchance the eye may stray
from gazing upon everlasting Day
to see the day-illumined, and renew
from mirrored truth the likeness of the True.
Then looking on the Blessed Land 'twill see
that all is as it is, and yet may free:
Salvation changes not, nor yet destroys,
garden nor gardener, children nor their toys.
Evil it will not see, for evil lies
not in God's picture but in crooked eyes,
not in the source but in the tuneless voice.
In Paradise they look no more awry;
and though they make anew, they make no lie.
Be sure they still will make, not being dead,
and poets shall have flames upon their head,
and harps whereon their faultless fingers fall:
there each shall choose for ever from the All.

--from Mythopoeiaby JRR Tolkien.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

The Theology of Stories V: Heroes, Humanism, and Christ

One criticism of stories that I have heard is that a heroic character that overcomes all obstacles by the might of his own arm demonstrates a humanist understanding of life. This is in many cases true, and the difficulty comes in discerning between man-honouring heroism and legitimate, God-honouring heroism.

Ancient Greece, a very humanist society, in addition to having false humanist tragedies also enjoyed false humanist heroes: heroes that sought only honour and glory, and solved the problems of the world through their superhuman strength. Many heroes of the later Romantic era—especially the heroes of Alexandre Dumas, of Victor Hugo and of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle—display their author's humanist assumptions. For example, Sherlock Holmes is able to infallibly detect truth through a strictly materialist understanding of unambiguous facts, and the eponymous Count of Monte Cristo is able to execute his elaborate revenge upon each of his old enemies with few repercussions beyond a sense of ennui at the end of the book.

Friday, January 28, 2011

The Theology of Stories IV: Outer Trappings

Mythopoeia is a great idea, you might say, but shouldn't a Christian story bear an explicitly Christian message?

We live in a Trinitarian world, which means that different things and different people exist for different purposes, all to the glory of God. We see this in Paul's illustration of different people as eyes, or ears, or hands: all have different gifts, and all are needed. An eye cannot do the work of a hand; the Son, not the Spirit, died to redeem the world. It should not surprise us to find that different ways of communication are appropriate to different literary forms. A story is not a sermon: break that rule, and you damage the story irreparably, whether the sermon is false (as in Philip Pullman's Northern Lights series) or whether it is gloriously true.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Theology of Stories III: Mythopoeia and the Charge of Escapism

"Because ours is an age with a will to fiction, the role of imagination is extremely important. Men who will not be governed by God’s word will not be governed by reality, because reality is not of their making. God having created all things, reality reflects the mind of God, not man. Hence, it is the essence of sin to resort to imagination to escape God’s law world...It is essential to imagination to create a man-made world and a man-ordained decree of predestination. It is the essence of sin to demand such a world.” R.J. Rushdoony, Systematic Theology Volume I, pp. 474, 475.
Here Rushdoony warns against sinful use of the imagination. I'm not aware of anywhere in his writings that extol the rightful use of the imagination, but that's probably my own fault. Now I know the imagination can be used sinfully. I've got a particularly strong one. But I believe the imagination is also a gift of God, a gift and a tool that can be used rightly or wrongly. Is using one's imagination to alter reality really sinful?

I hesitate to disagree with Rushdoony about anything. In the kingdom of heaven, he prunes the shrubs of wisdom and discernment, while I scrub the floors of the kitchen of richly-deserved humble pie. That said, I find it hard to believe that he was really opposed to all use of the imagination in principle.

I believe that imagination, defined as the ability to think of the world as different to the way it is, is an indispensable tool in the fulfilment of the Genesis dominion mandate; without it, we could do nothing. For centuries man imagined he could fly; and then the Wright brothers, sharing that dream, made it possible. Tyndale imagined a world in which every man could read the Bible in his own tongue, and then gave his life to make it possible. The music of Bach and Handel, the exquisite illuminated manuscripts of the Middle Ages, the tale of Gawain and the Green Knight, the navy of King Alfred, the art of knitting, the magnificent decorations of Solomon's temple, the novels of Jane Austen, and every cultural achievement that has ever been made has resulted from an act of imagination without which it would have been impossible. Imagination, when put into the service of God, is good; and so may fantasy be.

Christian fantasists argue that God's reality is closer to what we would call fantasy, than to the cold materialism of modernism. Which is closer to the truth: an Asimov novel in which there is no supernatural, and robots may have many of the same attributes as humans—may even question their own programming (for example, to develop the Zeroth Law of Robotics); or the cosmos of Lewis's Space Trilogy, in which each world is ruled by an angelic intelligence, each obedient to the Creator of them all?

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Theology of Stories II: Symbol and Metaphor in Christian Fantasy

Once you acknowledge that fantasy may be the best way to talk of the things of God in fiction, you develop a need for symbols. Something must symbolise Him, must allow the viewer to see “through a glass, darkly”. The medievals and the Puritans had a way of doing it: while acknowledging that the Greek gods were in fact demons (as Paul says), they redeemed that symbolism as a useful way of reminding the reader of the True God. Michael Ward says:
As we pointed out in chapter 2, Lewis had a high view of the pagan gods and he was not averse, in fact he was wholly committed, to using them for literary purposes. He held this view largely because writers he respected had held it before him. ‘Gods and goddesses could always be used in a Christian sense’ by a medieval or Elizabethan poet; paganism was not just ‘plumb wrong’ to their minds. The redeemed gods could perform all sorts of good, true, and beautiful tasks, as was recognised by Dante, Sidney, Spenser, and Milton, for all of whom ‘the gods are God incognito and everyone is in the secret.’
All belief systems in the end come down to this: God is Sovereign, or man is. A Christian use of pagan symbols—as for example Lewis's in the Chronicles and in the Space Trilogy—will redeem them, divorce them from all man-honouring meanings, and use them to preach the sovereignty of God. The symbols can be redeemed. Conversely, Greek humanist philosophy existed only to give glory to man and was in many instances actively hostile to the myth and religion of its own culture.

Of course, like everything else, the pagan gods must be thoroughly killed before they can be resurrected. Redeeming them as symbols means forgetting what they stood for that was evil, and remembering only the good; and that can only be done clearly once the worship of them is long faded. “Fathful as Aurora,” we might say, or “patient as Isis.” “Kingly like Jove,” “clever as Loki.” Read Shakespeare. Such expressions are everywhere.

The reason why the widespread medieval and Reformation use of pagan symbols seems so strange to us today is because the Enlightenment, that great humanist revival, was a reaction against the solempne, the pageantry and beauty and symbolism of the medievals. For the medievals, everything—colours, objects, beasts, or even the old gods--were metaphors for something else, something higher. Metaphor was a fundamental and vital part of the medieval imagination, and the medievals used everything they could to convey meaning, including pagan symbols, which they redeemed and hallowed by putting them into the service of Christ. The book Signs and Symbols in Christian Art is a fascinating study of how the medievals, possibly because the common people couldn't read or write, used all the contents of creation to form a symbolic universal language.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The Theology of Stories I: Why fantasy might be the wisest form of Christian fiction

Here is a quote from Planet Narnia:
“Spenser disguised Venus in the Faerie Queene (so Lewis argues in Spenser's Images of Life) because he was drawing on the tradition of neo-Platonic thought which deemed it proper that ‘all great truths should be veiled,’ should ‘be treated mythically (per fabulosa) by the prudent.’ It is for the same reason that the good ‘is (usually) hidden’ in Spenser and that the Faerie Queene is ‘dangerous, cryptic, its every detail loaded with unguessed meaning.’ And as with the romance, so with the masque: ‘The iconography of masques could be extremely sophisticated. In fact, much of the effort in writing them must have gone into subtle finessing on the well-known iconographical types, into progressively lightening the touch in pursuit of the ideal of multum in parvo.’ One particular element that was hidden or finessed by these techniques was divine presence. ‘In the medieval allegories and the renaissance masks, God, if we may say so without irreverence, appears frequently, but always incognito.’ Sir Philip Sidney neatly expressed the prevailing aesthetic temper of the period when he wrote: ‘there are many misteries contained in Poetrie, which of purpose were written darkly, least by prophane wits it should be abused.'” (footnotes omitted).

Monday, January 24, 2011

Planet Narnia by Michael Ward

Planet Narnia by Michael Ward is something far beyond the most important work on Lewis or Narnia: it may be the most important work of literary criticism for the last fifty years. Admittedly, I avoid literary criticism wherever possible, so I don't have a good feeling for the genre, but I am confident in saying that it is totally unique. Critics delight in bringing the hidden to light, but never before has something so well hidden been so suddenly, so unexpectedly revealed.

If Ward is correct, then the Chronicles of Narnia, simultaneously beloved and belittled by all (Christian allegory—so obvious—so inartistic) have a third level of meaning so subtle and so arcane that, while each of the Chronicles is written on a certain theme, it has taken fifty years for the hidden meaning to be revealed, and the author's true genius to be made plain. If Ward is correct, the Chronicles of Narnia represent a whole new technique of story-telling, and its author displayed a staggering humility in never revealing that method to the world.

I will put Ward's thesis briefly, trying not to spoil the fun you will have when you read it for yourself. His argument is this: Lewis encoded within each of the seven Chronicles an embodiment of one of the seven planets of pre-Copernican medieval cosmology, with which he was fascinated all his life. Rather than referring specifically to the planets, he instead wrote stories marinated in those planets' attributes. Kingliness, forgiveness of guilt, jollity, the colour red, and the turn of winter to spring are attributes of the planet Jupiter, for example—can you spot the corresponding Chronicle? By doing this, Lewis hoped to immerse his readers in a distinctively medieval and Christian mindset and create on a subconscious level a recognition of the same things he came to love in his lifelong studies of medieval Christianity: a symbolic, poetic, allusive faith rather than a materialistic, sterile existence in world without metaphors. In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader Lewis hints at the underlying themes of his books when Eustace says that a star is only a flaming ball of gas: “Even in your world, that is not what a star is but only what it is made of,” returns the retired star Ramandu. Lewis intended to direct his readers to an understanding of how this Christian world of ours is far richer and more beautiful than we think.

Another of the medieval cultural artefacts that Lewis sought to recover in The Chronicles of Narnia was the sanctification of pagan symbols. Symbols like the old Greek gods were un-divinised by the medievals and used instead as mirrors of the True God. RJ Rushdoony has pointed out that it was compromise with Greco-Roman ideas and attitudes that brought the richness and splendour of medieval Christendom down, in the end. The redeeming of classical pagan symbols was probably related to this acceptance of Greco-Roman logic, but I believe the literary and artistic use of these symbols had no destructive effect at all insofar as they were used as metaphors to tell the truth about the True God. In Narnia, Lewis uses pagan symbols in just the same way that the medievals did, showing how the attributes of the medieval and redeemed Jupiter, Mars, Venus, &c each serve to reveal and teach about God. An interesting side-effect is that this scheme and mindset explains what so many people find strange about Narnia: the presence of pagan symbols.

In the Chronicles of Narnia, Lewis does not just preach Christianity. He preaches a particular mode of experiencing it: an intensely poetic, beautiful, and metaphorical mode. Beneath the obvious allegory he hid an incredibly rich system of symbols which he successfully concealed until one scholar, Michael Ward, suddenly stumbled upon the secret.. Lewis's eventual aim was to make us understand that our own world is wonderful. Perhaps the stars do literally sing, as the Psalmist suggests (Psalm 19). Perhaps there are spirits in woods and wells; perhaps angels animate the beasts. Lewis doesn't say that all this is so. He merely suggests that we should not discount the possibility just because materialists tell us to. After all, materialists also tell us there's no such thing as a human spirit or an eternal sovereign God! Why do we believe these people? They are obviously the enemy!

Perhaps there is more to medieval Christian cosmology than meets the eye; the medievals were neither as superstitious nor as ignorant as they have been painted. Or perhaps there isn't; perhaps that old cosmology really was false. Either way, materialism is the lie of the modern era, and it's time to start fighting back.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Feature Week: The Theology of Stories

I am thrilled to announce the start of our second feature week, The Theology of Stories.
As you know, last October's Feature Week was all about John Buchan, one of my favourite authors. Two of my friends were convinced to try some Buchan after that, and are now eager fans! I call that a roaring success, and hope my public will enjoy The Theology of Stories just as much, or even better.
Christians today are anxious to have an impact on their culture, in many cases dedicating their lives to reclaiming and redeeming the arts and sciences. Stories, which are told through the arts of writing, drama, and more, are foundationally important to all cultures. How should we think of stories? When, and how can they be redeemed and used to glorify God? Among other questions I tackle next week, you can expect to find musings on:
  • Are stories necessary?
  • What is the role of the imagination in God's created world?
  • Are there any fundamentally anti-Christian story forms or genres?
  • Must a story explicitly preach a Christian message?
  • Should Christians write and read fantasy?
  • What is the difference between a humanistic hero and a Christlike hero?
I will be taking especial notice of famed recent Christian fantasists Tolkien and Lewis. Check back on Monday for the first in this series, a review of Planet Narnia by Michael Ward!

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Talisman by Sir Walter Scott

If you've read Ivanhoe (and if you haven't, go on! We'll wait for you!), the next Scott book to read is The Talisman. Scott can be an acquired taste: his books sometimes require a little dedication to get into (at least until the plot starts rolling). But The Talisman is not at all hard to read.

The Talisman is set during the Third Crusade, King Richard Lionheart's Crusade; the Crusade of the brethren Godwin and Wulf, of the boy-knight Cuthbert, of Wilfred of Ivanhoe himself. When the book starts we find our hero, Sir Kenneth of Scotland, travelling through the desert of the Holy Land on pilgrimage. By a desert oasis he meets a Saracen warrior. At first they fight; but then the Saracen calls a truce, and the two make each other's acquaintance, in a friendly yet martial manner:
"Valiant Nazarene, is it fitting that one who can fight like a man should feed like a dog or a wolf? Even a misbelieving Jew would shudder at the food which you seem to eat with as much relish as if it were fruit from the trees of Paradise."
"Valiant Saracen," answered the Christian, looking up with some surprise at the accusation thus unexpectedly brought, "know thou that I exercise my Christian freedom in using that which is forbidden to the Jews, being, as they esteem themselves, under the bondage of the old law of Moses. We, Saracen, be it known to thee, have a better warrant for what we do—Ave Maria!—be we thankful." And, as if in defiance of his companion's scruples, he concluded a short Latin grace with a long draught from the leathern bottle.
"That, too, you call a part of your liberty," said the Saracen; "and as you feed like the brutes, so you degrade yourself to the bestial condition by drinking a poisonous liquor which even they refuse!"
"Know, foolish Saracen," replied the Christian, without hesitation, "that thou blasphemest the gifts of God, even with the blasphemy of thy father Ishmael. The juice of the grape is given to him that will use it wisely, as that which cheers the heart of man after toil, refreshes him in sickness, and comforts him in sorrow. He who so enjoyeth it may thank God for his winecup as for his daily bread; and he who abuseth the gift of Heaven is not a greater fool in his intoxication than thou in thine abstinence."
The keen eye of the Saracen kindled at this sarcasm, and his hand sought the hilt of his poniard.
Scott is an undeservingly underrated novelist, a man who could write a thrilling story with fantastic characters, and this is just another example of his skill. I love the relationship--which will prove to be extremely important throughout the plot of The Talisman--between Sir Kenneth and this Saracen, as they become fast friends. Interfaith dialogue the way it should be done, right?

The Third Crusade has hit the doldrums. King Richard, who would like nothing more than to get at the Saracens and show them who's boss, is laid up with a wasting illness. King Philip of the French, meanwhile, has had his nose put out of joint by Richard and is perilously close to withdrawing from the Crusade altogether. The Crusaders' camp is full of muttering and grumbling.

A Saracen physician appears, volunteering to treat the King, and Richard begins to mend. But the villainous Conrad of Montserrat is bent on causing an open rift between France and England. When his plots collide with bored Queen Berengaria's prank on Richard's cousin Edith, disaster looms not just for the Crusade but also for Sir Kenneth. Will he ever regain his honour and win the hand of Lady Edith?

As you can imagine, this story is full of adventure and intrigue. But again, as always with Scott, it's the characters that you've got to love--from the mysterious Saracen himself to the heroic Sir Kenneth; from the flighty but good-natured Berengaria to the more hard-headed Edith and the very lion-hearted Richard. And there are assassinations, disguises, disgrace, and a happy ending. If you're looking for an adventure novel with a bit more substance than usual, you can't go wrong with The Talisman.
Project Gutenberg etext
Librivox recording

Monday, January 17, 2011

The Warden by Anthony Trollope

This post is brought to you in association with Mrs Margaret Sonnemann!

Fourteen months ago, I had never read Anthony Trollope, and he had never been recommended to me, and I was getting along quite nicely in life without having to read him.

Then I went to Tasmania to stay with some long-lost friends, and during our progression around that island, I was made a captive audience to a Trollope audiobook. It was called Alice Dugdale, I believe, and it was wonderful. I have been looking for my own copy ever since, especially as I did not hear the end of the story and I have been wondering what happened to Alice and her perambulator ever since.

Margaret, the long-lost friend, is a huge Trollope fan and after I had been blogging here for a month or two could no longer contain herself and sent me two Trollope novels of my very own (...and some others, which I will dutifully review when I finish reading them).

The Warden is an immensely enjoyable book. Very short, with bite-sized chapters, it provides a non-threatening introduction to Trollope's work. Set in the fictional English cathedral town of Barchester, it tells the story of Mr Septimus Harding, the gentle precentor of Barchester cathedral. Mr Harding is also the warden of a hospice set up in medieval times for the care and pension of twelve old townsmen, financed by lands in the town. The land has now increased in value, and the upshot is that while the twelve old men are kept in comfortable poverty, the warden finds himself in reception of an income of eight hundred pounds a year.

There have always been quiet murmurs about the warden's income, but then Dr Bold, a civic-minded young man, decides to take action on behalf of the twelve old men, to share out among them the surplus income which he believes is their right. The whole affair becomes a news sensation and very nearly scuppers the course of true love between Dr Bold and the warden's younger daughter Eleanor; but fortunately for Mr Harding, his strong-minded son-in-law, an archdeacon, is not going to let him lose a penny of his eight hundred pounds....I say fortunately, because that's the way the archdeacon sees it; but Mr Harding himself suddenly falls prey to doubt and a sudden certainty that he really is receiving more than his due.

This was a wonderful novel. Though brief, I read it over the course of several days, savouring every chapter. Trollope was a great admirer of Jane Austen, and it shows: he deals, like she did, in the small doings of small people. His wit is a little more pronounced, however, and he pokes fun not merely at his characters (none of them perfect, and none of them utterly wicked) but also at real people of the day; the Pre-Raphaelites, for instance. And though I love the Pre-Raphaelites, I cannot bring myself to dislike Trollope for laughing at them.

I loved the absolutely accurate depiction of the less noble aspects of the legal profession, and all the characters are lovable. The most lovable character of all, however, is the warden. I don't remember the last time I loved a character so entirely; less for his good qualities than for his weaknesses. I heard a good storyteller once defined as a man who can make you love the unlovable. By that definition, Trollope succeeds better than almost anyone I can think of.

Gutenberg etext
Librivox recording

Saturday, January 15, 2011

The Three Hostages by John Buchan

You may remember John Buchan Week, back in October: a whole week devoted to the works of the man who invented the modern spy thriller. The very first action thriller story ever written was Buchan's The Thirty-Nine Steps; this was soon followed by Greenmantle and Mr Standfast. And there, the First War having been won, Buchan rested, and turned his hand to other tales than the nail-biting adventures of the not-quite-fearless-but-definitely-courageous Richard Hannay.
One of the stories Buchan wrote then was Midwinter, which I shall review another time: a sombre, haunting story of a man who loses the world but gains his soul during Bonnie Prince Charlie's uprising. Not long after the publication of this mature and thoughtful novel, Buchan received a letter from a schoolboy who had enjoyed the Hannay books and whose well-meaning uncle had given him 'the latest Buchan'. The schoolboy wanted to know what the matter was, and exhorted Buchan to “pull himself together” and write another Hannay book.
Buchan did so, dedicating the book to the youngster. If unironically, then he must have been an extremely humble man; if ironically, then serve the kid right. The Three Hostages, while never dull, is not exactly the kind of story its predecessors are.
The aftermath of the War has been kind to our old friend Major-General Richard Hannay. Now he has a knighthood, a wise and lovely wife, a manor in the Cotswolds, a solemn baby he has named Peter John after his two most respected mentors, and a shelf full of detective stories, for he is a man of simple tastes. When the call to adventure comes once more, Hannay is inclined to think that he has done enough 'public service', as he calls his soldiering, and is entitled to a rest. But this time there are three hostages: a girl, a youth, and a little boy that have all been kidnapped; and even if Hannay could bear to look their parents in the eye and tell them he won't help, Lady Mary Hannay would have something to say about it.
Piece by piece, Hannay starts to put the puzzle together, and the trail leads straight to Dominic Medina, a powerful and ambitious man with frightening hypnotic powers, who wants to rule the world. In order to free the hostages and uncover Medina's plot, Hannay must become the man's disciple, and worse, guinea-pig.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The Orlando Furioso by Ludovico Ariosto (trans. Barbara Reynolds)

My silence for the last few weeks may be attributed to my heroic efforts to get through both volumes of the Orlando Furioso. And here is the fruit of my labours!

Written over twenty-seven years, roughly 1300 pages long in my Penguin Classics edition, and full of non-stop adventure, the
Orlando Furioso is, with Dante's Divine Comedy and Machiavelli's The Prince, one of the defining texts of the Italian Renaissance. Almost unheard-of these days, the Orlando Furioso was once famous world-wide. It had a great impact on both Renaissance humanist and Reformation Christian literature, and it did not truly fade into obscurity until the late 1800s.
Popular scholars like the Inklings (Tolkien, Lewis, Charles Williams and others) and Dorothy Sayers preferred to focus on the Divine Comedy or Spenser's Faerie Queene, with good reason. Both Spenser and Dante arrange their works in praise of God; Ariosto arranges his work solely in praise of his patron, Cardinal Ippolito of the House of Este. To Spenser and Dante, widely as they differ, love is above all else sacred in the context of God; to Ariosto, it is sacred mainly in the context of lust. In Spenser and Dante, one senses unplumbed philosophical depths; in Ariosto, one splashes easily through the shallows.
So the Orlando Furioso has been overlooked. Yet for several centuries it had an enormous effect upon the world's literature. Sir Walter Scott was a fan, and in Rob Roy he has the hero attempt a translation. But by far the most obvious effect the story has had is on Edmund Spenser. In writing The Faerie Queene, Spenser intended to provide the English and Puritan answer to the Italian humanist Ariosto. This is obvious in the similar settings and adventures shared by the similar heroes—for one example, while Ariosto's lady-knight-heroine is named Bradamante, Spenser's is named Britomart.
The great books of the world have always been engaged in conversation; a conversation that has lasted for millenia. And The Orlando Furioso is a fascinating, though forgotten, part of that conversation.
I first discovered the poem when reading Bulfinch's Mythology, which is still the authoritative work on the legends of Western Civilisation. “The Legends of Charlemagne,” the last division in the book, includes Bulfinch's retelling of two great Italian poems: the Orlando Inammorato by Boiardo and the Orlando Furioso by Ariosto.
The shorter Orlando Inammorato tells how Angelica, the supernaturally beautiful daughter of the king of Cathay, came to France; and how King Agramante, the Saracen king, made war on King Charlemagne to avenge the death of his father. Like the British King Arthur, Charlemagne had gathered about him a society of knights called paladins, and the greatest of these, Orlando (or Roland), falls in love with Angelica and follows her around the world.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

The Jungle Book and The Second Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling

I still remember the day, somewhere in my seventh or eighth year, when it was announced that we would watch Disney's The Jungle Book movie. I was extremely excited. The Jungle Book was full of wonderful stories, I told everyone who wanted to listen. Best of all was the story about the red dogs, the dhole, which attacked the jungle and only Mowgli was brave enough to lead the wolves against them.

Imagine my disappointment to find that instead of savage red dogs, killer bees, and a riverside battle, the movie was full of singing monkeys! Imagine a Disney animated version of The Saga of the Volsungs, and you may have an idea of my disappointment. I have never really trusted Disney since.

So forget the movie! Kipling's Mowgli stories--contained, with others, in The Jungle Book and The Second Jungle Book, are full of serious danger and adventure, told in a relatively archaic manner that reinforces their mythic atmosphere. I have already mentioned that the book was inspired by Rider Haggard's Nada the Lily; like Nada the Lily, The Jungle Book seems like an old legend.

The Jungle Book contains three Mowgli stories. "Mowgli's Brothers" tells how Mowgli was found and adopted as a baby by the wolf-family, and how he was accepted into the Seeonee Pack and brought up learning the Law of the Jungle from Baloo the old bear. "Kaa's Hunting" tells of how Mowgli was kidnapped by the Bandar-log, the monkey tribe, and Mowgli's tutors Baloo and Bagheera must ask the help of Kaa the python in stealing him back. "Tiger! Tiger!" tells how Mowgli settled the score with his old enemy, the tiger Shere Khan; and how he met Men for the first time, and was cast out by them.

"The White Seal," "Rikki-Tikki-Tavi", "Toomai of the Elephants", and "Her Majesty's Servants" round out the stories, all about animals. "Rikki-Tikki-Tavi", one of the best, is about a mongoose's epic battles against a pair of cobras.

The Second Jungle Book, the sequel, contains even more Mowgli stories. "How Fear Came," a story from the time of Mowgli's childhood, relates the Fall legend of the jungle, and explains why the Tigers are so feared. "Letting in the Jungle", "The King's Ankus", "Red Dog," and "The Spring Running" complete the Mowgli stories, and as with the first book one or two other stories are included.

"The King's Ankus" is one of my favourites. Deep in the Jungle are the Cold Lairs, an ancient palace of Men now crumbling to ruin. The python Kaa takes Mowgli to see the White Cobra that lives below this palace, guarding a heap of dead things for the merest sight of which he says any Man would gladly die. Mowgli does not understand why, but takes away with him one thing--an ankus, an elephant-goad crusted with fabulous jewels. On understanding its purpose, he throws it away; but it does not lie for long, and wherever it goes among Men it causes death.

Though I came to them early, The Jungle Books are fascinating reading, no matter what your age. One interesting theme that Kipling uses is that of Man's dominion over animals. As a child, the animals of the jungle feel Mowgli's vulnerability keenly: his skin is soft and hairless, and he takes to carrying a knife since he has neither teeth nor claws. The animals know that one nip or cuff too hard could draw blood or break bones. Yet as he grows older, Mowgli begins to rule them all. When Kaa hypnotises the Bandar-log before dining off them, Baloo and Bagheera also fall under his spell; but Mowgli sees only "old Kaa making circles in the dust". When he grows older, Mowgli's difference from the other animals causes them to go somewhat in fear of him; even his old tutor, Bagheera, cannot look him in the eye. From a helpless little 'frog', he becomes the most powerful being in the jungle.

The Jungle Book is probably an example of the humanist 'noble savage' idea, where human sin comes from the effects of civilisation, and is not innate. Mowgli is impervious to the lure of the jewelled ankus, but the men who know its worth will kill for it. This theme is not paramount, however, and barely detracts from the stories, which are excellent.


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