The Jungle Books by Rudyard Kipling

I assumed I must have read the Jungle Book in my youth until I sat down to reread it as part of my Kipling season. No, I’d have remembered. For a start there are two Jungle Books (1894 and 1895), typically for Kipling who gushed forth poems and stories in an unstoppable torrent (compare the two series of Barrack Room Ballads or Puck of Pook’s Hill and its sequel Rewards and Fairies).

Then, also typically, each of the books is a miscellaneous collection (Kipling published collections of stories almost every year in the 1890s) including – and here’s the surprise – a number of completely unrelated stories, stories not even about India let alone about Mowgli the man-cub.

Of the seven stories in Jungle Book 1 only three are about Mowgli – the other three are set in India and are about animals, but there the connection ceases, and the seventh story is as remote as can be, being about a seal in the Arctic Circle.

Of the eight stories in Jungle Book 2, three are nothing to do with Mowgli, one is about an Indian holy man and another is set among Eskimo in the Arctic (?).

So the first challenge is making sense of this hodge-podge, which is typical of Kipling’s lack of ‘artistic’ concern. He dashed off stories for newspapers and magazines, collected them in his miscellanies, and then hurried on to the next thing with little care or attention.

Even if you only read the Mowgli stories in these two volumes, there are several puzzling aspects. For example, the Mowgli stories are a bit tangled: the second story should really have been inserted a few pages into the first story, since the first one covers Mowgli’s expulsion from the wolf pack, whereas the second one describes a period earlier on when he was a happy member of it.

Despite this scrappiness, these stories are masterpieces. They take you to somewhere very deep indeed. They don’t feel like they’ve been written, but have always existed somewhere. They are told with utter conviction and impress themselves on your mind immediately.

Names Kipling is very bad with names. Nobody nowadays would recognise Mrs Hauksbee (the comic heroine of the Plain Tales) or Learoyd, Mulvaney and Ortheris (the heroes of Soldiers Three) and Dick Heldar was not a very memorable name for the hero of his first novel The Light That Failed.

But Mowgli, Bagheera, Baloo, Kaa and Shere Khan are namings of genius. Sure, the universal popularity of the Disney cartoon helps, but they are still brilliant.

Myth The characters leap off the page with the power of myth. Kipling is tapping into something very deep and primal. He handles all kinds of archetypes and narrative topoi:

  • the basic Bildungsroman of the growth and development of a mind (the child Mowgli)
  • the legend of a child blessed by the gods growing into his kingdom
  • stories of gods and heroes who can talk to animals, as Adam could
  • the laughing Nietzschean unafraidness of a Herakles or a Samson
  • along with darker, northern images of the fated death of the Leader (Akela)
  • the Final Fight, the last Battle, which dominates Germanic myth
  • and the departure of the king from his kingdom, from Jesus to Beowulf

Kipling taps all these stories, myths and legends but wrought into a new thing, in a new setting – the jungles of India – completely new to his English readers, and yet profoundly ancient at the same time.

The Bible In an A-level essay you’d score double for pointing out that both Kipling’s grandfathers were Methodist preachers, and that he had the Bible thrashed into him at his hated Portsmouth boarding house. If you’re forced to read the whole Bible you realise there’s a lot more Old Testament than there is New, and that the Old Testament God is one of fire and revenge.

In Kipling’s ‘ordinary’ short stories one stumbling block for the modern reader is his use of Old Testament diction, lots of thees and thous (just as Kipling’s poetry is tremendously anti-modern, with its thumping rhythms and hymn-like stanzas). But in The Jungle Books he finds a subject perfectly suited to the pomp and portentousness of his Bible-heavy style. It is imaginatively perfect when Bagheera or Kaa say: ‘Thou shalt learn thy error, O son of man.’

Violence For the supposed poet laureate of the British Empire Kipling is oddly silent about the religion which underpinned official attempts to bring ‘civilisation’ to the dark corners of the earth i.e. Christianity. One of the powerful themes in the stories is The Law of the Jungle. (I can’t presently discover whether Kipling actually coined this phrase.) Though much is made of it, Mowgli appears to break it with impunity (as a god is free to break merely human laws). In fact, the books allow Kipling not only to dig deep into a primeval level of mythmaking, but to express to the full the sadism and bloodthirstiness which are only hinted at in his other, ‘official’, stories.

It was partly this thirst for blood and revenge – licensed and appropriate in stories about jungle animals – which were to break out in Kipling’s later writings in other, inappropriate settings – in newspaper rants against Liberal politicians and anti-Imperialists and anyone who supported independence for British colonies etc.

Kipling’s growing rage, fuelled by personal embitterment, political conviction and given a vicious edge by the sadism of his schooldays, turned early fans against him, and helped cast a deepening shadow over his reputation which lasts to the present day.

Movies

Everyone knows the 1966 Disney cartoon version. Less well-known is the 1942 live-action movie starring the boy star Sabu.

Related links

Other Kipling reviews

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