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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