Wednesday, July 27, 2005

The Jungle Books

by Rudyard Kipling

A series of stories, mostly but not always set in India.  I did not know when I first picked this up that not all of these tales feature the most famous character: Mowgli, the baby carried off by a lame tiger and rescued by wolves, who grows to be master of the jungle. (In this, he predates Tarzan by a couple of decades.)  I remember reading some, but not all, of this book many years ago, but I remembered little of it, especially from the second book.

Some of the tales are well-known ("Rikki-Tikki-Tavi”) and some not so well known ("Servants Of the Queen," in which various army pack animals discuss their lot, and by extension, the lot of their masters, in life). For me, the ones that jarred the most were the stories that take place in the Arctic regions of all places ("The White Seal" and "Quiquern"). They seemed wildly incongruous mixed in between the better-known tales of the tropics. The one connecting thread of the tales, no matter what their locale, is that they all deal in some way with an animal's view of the world.  Are these tales allegories of colonialism?  I don’t know.  I can see how one might argue the fact - "The White Seal" in particular appears to be a particularly blatant suggestion of the superiority of the white man - but it's also clear that Kipling loved India, far too much to write about it simply to push an agenda.  Even if it is an extended allegory (which I don't believe) it’s a very poor one, since it's so rich and subtle. Anyone could pick it up and enjoy a tale of adventure, fantasy, heroism, familial love, triumph over tragedy, and sad farewells without ever dreaming there might be some hidden meaning, or considering what the various animals "represent." It's often considered a children's book, but I doubt it would be thought so if it appeared today; the language is complex, there's quite a lot of killing and threats of torture, and, least Disneyfied of all, the end is not at all the neatly-tied happy resolution that the majority of non-series children's stories seem to require today. (Kipling seems to favor ambiguous, rather sad endings; Kim and Thy Servant a Dog are respective examples).  Still, what kid wouldn't want to hear about how Mowgli massacred the pack of wild dogs with the help of a python, some wolves, and about a million angry bees?

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