Sunday, October 30, 2016

The Jungle Books

Kipling's Jungle books are beast fables, the animals having names and able to converse with each other. The tales are delightful and impossibly romantic, especially the eight that concern Mowgli ("the Frog"), a toddler adopted by a wolf pack.

Mowgli is charmingly innocent and childishly brave, but sometimes rather imperious. Other animals, even Shere Khan the tiger, look away from his stare. Some of the wolves resent this and turn against him. He leaves the jungle and lives for a while in a village with a woman who may or may not be his mother.

The three Mowgli stories in the first Jungle Book are particularly good, being deftly told and having a satisfying organic unity. The remaining Mowgli stories are in the Second Jungle Book and add non-essential details that occurred within the span of the first three.

The stories are a little darker than the movie versions. There are other differences as well. Kaa the rock python is a wise and important friend, not an enemy. There is no King Louie in the books, he is a Disney fabrication.

Of the non-Mowgli stories, "Rikki-tikki-Tavi" is probably the most well-known. In "The Undertakers" there is an interesting Dickensian character, a crocodile called the Mugger. The tales I liked least are the two that take place in the Far North, one of them in the Canadian High Arctic.
Kipling was the first writer in English to win a Nobel Prize for literature, but is now somewhat out of fashion for his dated views on empire. Nevertheless, these stories are classics, and we cannot seem to get enough of Mowgli and his literary descendant, Tarzan. A new movie for each was released this year, and another version of Mowgli comes out next year.


1. Mowgli’s Brothers

The wolves take in Mowgli despite the protests of Shere Khan. Ten years later years the tiger turns most of the pack against Mowgli. Forewarned by Bagheera the panther, Mowgli steals a glowing coal from a village and uses a fiery brand to drive away Shere Khan. “Up, dog!” Mowgli cried. “Up, when a man speaks, or I will set that coat ablaze!”

2. Kaa’s Hunting

When Mowgli is imprisoned by monkeys in the Cold Lairs (a lost city), a rescue attempt is led by Baloo and Bagheera, but it is only with the timely aid of Kaa that he escapes. It is the monkeys that Kaa hypnotizes with his eyes, not Mowgli.

3. “Tiger! Tiger!”

Mowgli spends time in a village with a woman, Messua, whose baby was taken by a tiger. When he learns that Shere Khan is planning to lie in wait for him at the village gate, he orchestrates a stampede of water buffalo that kills Shere Khan. As he skins out the hide, he is accused of being a shape-changing sorceror, and returns to the jungle. The story ends this way:

    “Man-Pack and Wolf-Pack have cast me out,” said Mowgli.  “Now I will hunt alone in the Jungle.” 
    “And we will hunt with thee,” said the four cubs.
    So Mowgli went away and hunted with the four cubs in the Jungle from that day on. But he was not always alone, because years afterwards he became a man and married.
    But that is a story for grown-ups.

4. The White Seal

A seal in the Pribiloff Islands leads others to a place safe from hunters.

5. “Rikki-Tikki-Tavi”

A mongoose protects a human family from a pair of vengeful cobras.

6. Toomai of the Elephants

The son of a mahout, Little Toomai, accompanies elephants one night when they meet in the jungle to dance.

7. Her Majesty’s Servants

A man overhears a conversation by military pack-animals: a baggage-camel, a troop-horse, an elephant named Two Tails, a pair of gun-bullocks, two mules (and at the very end a dog named Vixen).


1. How Fear Came

During a drought, Hathi the elephant proclains a water truce. When Shere Khan boasts of having killed a man, Hathi tells a tale of how the First Tiger killed a man, thus teaching men how to kill.

2. The Miracle Of Purun Bhagat 

The Prime Minister of a state in India renounces society and takes up a begging bowl. He ends up in a mountain village where his friendship with animals -- “as often as not he would find a furry ape sharing his blanket” -- gives him advance warning of an avalanche.

3. Letting In The Jungle

People respond to the events in “Tiger! Tiger!” by planning to kill Messua and her husband. They are freed by Mowgli and escape to safety, after which he organizes the destruction of the village and its cultivated fields.

4. The Undertakers 

A very old crocodile reminisces with a jackal and an adjutant stork. He talks about the fat times during the Mutiny when the river was full of bodies, and longs to meet again a child whose hand slipped away unharmed from his bite. He gets his wish but the child is now a man and has a gun.

5. The King’s Ankus

Kaa and Mowgli visit an old white cobra who guards ancient treasure beneath the Cold Lairs (the once great “City of Twenty Kings”). Mowgli takes a bejewelled ankus, which as the cobra warned is cursed.

6. Quiquern

Set near Bylot Island starving Inuit are saved by what appears to be a two-headed eight-legged creature. (Kipling misuses the word "Inuit," which is plural, not singular.)

7. Red Dog 

Kaa and Mowgli execute a plan to stave off an attack by a large pack of dholes.  After much blood-shed, the dholes are defeated. Before he dies, Akela, the old leader of the pack, urges Mowgli to return to his people.  

8. The Spring Running 

Mowgli, now just short of 17 years old, is "strong, tall and beautiful, his long black hair sweeping over his shoulder" and "might easily be mistaken for some wild god of a jungle legend." By this time his wolf parents have died and Baloo is nearly blind. Unsettled by the spring mating season, Mowgli leaves the jungle and returns to live among humans.