Friday, April 15, 2016

Fantasy Literature Rewind: The Jungle Books.

Hey, it’s the return of Fantasy Literature Rewind!  This is the column that looks at classic children’s fantasy literature that may not be fairy tales but might as well be by association.

Today we’re going a little farther from the fairy tale well than usual and celebrating the release of Disney’s newest adaptation by shining the spotlight on Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book as well as a little bit of The Second Jungle Book (I’m actually still reading that one, but the review must go on).  Before I go on, I’d like to say that this book actually holds a pretty important place in my heart.  I may have mentioned once or twice that I discovered folklore through a unit about tall tales and legends that my troop did while I was a Cub Scout.  Now, the Cub Scouts are called Cub Scouts because they draw a whole lot of their imagery from The Jungle Book.  I believe the founder of the Boy Scouts may have actually been a friend of Kipling’s.  I read the first book when I was a child, but didn’t know the second one existed until rather recently.
Now first we should look into the history of the author.  Rudyard Kipling was born in Bombay in 1865.  He spent his earliest years in India until at the young age of five he was sent to his home country of England to be educated.  These are generally accepted to be some of the most miserable years of his life.  At age twelve he started going to United Services College at Westward Ho! (“college” being an old-fashioned term for a boarding school) and began developing his writing ability.  At age sixteen he returned to India, where he started work as a journalist and wrote stories and poems in his spare time.  Kipling’s life knew all sorts of travels as well as tragedies including the loss of a wife and a son.  He wrote a number of stories and poems including his works for children, which includes both Jungle Books, Just So Stories, Kim and Captains Courageous.

Though many people may not know it, both Jungle Books are anthologies.  They contain numerous different stories, most of them featuring nature or animals in some ways.  The centerpieces of both books are the Mowgli stories (note: according to Kipling’s daughter, Mowgli is pronounced “Mow-Glee” with a distinct “ow” sound, not “Moe-glee”).  The Mowgli stories center on a young boy who is raised in the Indian jungle by wolves.  He is also mentored in the ways of the jungle by Baloo the bear, Bagheera the panther and Kaa the rock python.  His antagonists include the tiger Shere Khan and the Bandar-log, a tribe of lawless monkeys.  People may not realize it, but the Mowgli tales are very influential.  There have been any number of stories of wild-men or people raised by animals.  For example, just like Mowgli, Romulus and Remus were raised by wolves for at least a little while.  The epic of Gilgamesh had its own wild-man named Enkidu.  And let’s not forget the Grimms’ own wild-man “Iron Hans”.  However, Kipling kind of brought the idea back.  Without Mowgli there likely wouldn’t have been a Tarzan or Rima or Sheena or Ka-Zar or any of the other wild-person jungle heroes in adventure fiction of the late 19th and early 20th century.  It was the Mowgli stories that also introduced the notion that there is a “Law of the Jungle”.  The impact of these stories may also be seen through the number of times they have been adapted.  One notable adaptation came out in 1942 starring the actor Sabu.  Disney would adapt it again in animated form in 1967, as well as in 1994 and now again in 2016.  They also would create some spin-off properties like Talespin and Jungle Cubs (didn’t think I’d remember Jungle Cubs, did you?).  If I were to recommend any adaptations though, it would be the very faithful ones that Chuck Jones made of Jungle Book stories “Mowgli’s Brothers”, “Rikki Tikki Tavi” and “The White Seal”.
Mowgli in the Cold Lairs with the Bandar-log.
However, now that I’ve read these stories for the first time in years, what do I think of them?  I think they’re still great.  I liked a majority of the stories.  I loved pretty much all the Mowgli stories.  I loved “Rikki Tikki Tavi”.  I loved “The White Seal”.  I thought “Toomai of the Elephants” was pretty good.  I could maybe have done without “Her Majesty’s Servants”, but that’s one story out of seven.  The Mowgli stories are essentially just a good coming-of-age story.  They’re the tale of Mowgli as he comes into his own and goes from man-cub to man.  One would think that this would be a very simple progression.  That’s not the case here.  In “Mowgli’s Brothers”, we see the first arc of this journey.  It starts with him as a baby getting taken in by the wolves and ends with him attaining the power of fire and chasing off Shere Khan.  At that point he realizes that he is a man and has to go off to the man-village.  In the case of coming-of-age stories, adulthood is often signaled by some sort of sexual awakening (Interestingly, it’s Disney’s version that does that bit).  The character falls in love or is awakened in some symbolic way.  Instead, Mowgli becomes a man when he gains power over fire.  He gains the ability to destroy and alter his environment and that marks him as a man (manhood for the Imperial age, perhaps).  It’s still not that simple, though.  When he tries to live in the man-village in the story “Tiger!  Tiger!”, he finds he does not belong there either.  He disdains man’s superstitions and tendency to hunt out of boredom or for sport.  It’s when he’s finally killed Shere Khan but is nearly denied his prize by a human hunter and is later turned on by almost the whole village that he turns his back on man.  He returns to the jungle and leads his own pack, becoming his own kind of man, a “man of the jungle” if you will.  That’s the main arc for Mowgli, but there are more stories about him.  One personal favorite and a story that can be kind of controversial comes from The Second Jungle Book.  It’s entitled “Letting in the Jungle”.  This is the story of what happens when he gets his revenge on the village that cast him out.  Basically, after freeing the couple that took him in and was kind to him, he has Hathi the elephant and others “let in the jungle”.  Basically, while avoiding killing any humans, he has the jungle claim the village over the course of days.  The prey animals eat all the humans’ crops.  The predators either eat or set free all their livestock.  Finally, the elephants knock down all the buildings and drive all the humans out.  It’s such that in a year’s time the entire village has been overgrown by the jungle once again.  The story serves as a reminder that nature will reclaim what it can.  Mowgli just sped up the process.  There’s so much good to talk about.  For example, I found that certain stories like “How Fear Came” show that even while these may not be fairy tales, Kipling does understand the power of traditional stories.  I was also impressed by how much these stories often hinged on the power of the outsider.  Not just Mowgli, but also Kotick the white seal and the mongoose Rikki Tikki Tavi who is a newcomer to the garden he protects.  Heck, Mowgli’s presence in the wolf pack is secured by the actions of Baloo and Bagheera, two characters who themselves are not wolves. 

Rudyard Kipling
I do have to acknowledge the Indian elephant in the room.  Kipling’s politics were always a bit . . . imperialistic.  I mean, this is the guy who wrote “The White Man’s Burden” after all.  It’s hard to blame him when you consider that he was practically born into it.  His earliest memories are those of enjoying the perks provided to a White British child living in India.  It can still be a bit hard to swallow.  It does create a rather obvious blind spot in The Jungle Book.  Throughout all of the Mowgli stories, he’s almost constantly being critical of human society.  But the minute the British show up (usually in the non-Mowgli stories) he lets that all slide.  It makes it seem like he believes that both animals with their Jungle Law and the English with their British Law were more civilized than the native Indians.  Who knows?  Maybe he did.  It is something that has affected the reception of his work in the past, even while he was still alive if my research is correct.  Overall though, how much it bothers the reader is going to be based on their own sensitivities to such things.  I wrote it off as a result of the era and culture and left it at that.  Kipling's writing skill is still obvious beyond his now-outdated socio-political ideas.
The mongoose Rikki Tikki Tavi chasing Nagaina
 So far, I’ve had a great time revisiting The Jungle Book and I look forward to finishing The Second Jungle Book.  I highly recommend revisiting this book and the vast Indian jungles if you should ever get the chance.  You may find elements of it that you didn’t notice before.  You may discover stories and characters that you never knew you loved.  You will also most certainly be guaranteed an adventure.


  1. The "Law of the Jungle", which makes Mowgli morally superior to his human peers, is much closer to British values than Indian ones, which creates quite a bit of unfortuate subtext. However there is unfortunate subtext in pretty much any work that is a few decades old, so while problematic believes need to be discused, so completely avoiding works that are problematic at least fr me personally is not an option.

    By the way, Kipling and his daughter were wrong. The Indian word for frog, which Mowgli is named afer is pronounced [mɔ:ɢli] with a short open "o" like in "log" for instance, not a long "cow-ow" sound like Kipling intended. However his daughter is correct in that the Disney pronounciation is just as wrong.

    1. The footnotes in my version say that Kipling invented the word "Mowgli". Perhaps the researchers were looking at the wrong Indian language. There are a number of them. It also says he invented the name Kaa. Any insight on that?

  2. I just saw the new Jungle Book movie! Have you seen it yet? Would love to know what you think!

    1. I saw it and thought it was rather good. It's not a patch on the book, but it wasn't going to be. What it really was, and what the best Disney remakes seem to be is compromises between the books and movies that bring more character to the leads and step away from some of the more dated aspects. The original Disney Jungle Book movie was a story about Bagheera trying to bring Mowgli back to the man village and Mowgli trying to avoid it by going along with every silly talking animal he came across. The new movie sticks with the original "escort mission" story of the cartoon but gives Mowgli more agency, has him accept what makes him a man-cub among wolves and has him ultimately use his ingenuity to save the day. The new version is about Mowgli and what he's going to do than about what the animals are going to do about Mowgli. Also, if you know your Kipling there are some nice scenes taken from the book that weren't in the cartoon.

    2. I also liked how they stuck with the same skeleton plot but really changed the messages to make it about embracing your own talents and even your differences. I wasn't sure at first how I felt about him not ending up in the human village, but then I reread this post and Mowgli doesn't end up with the humans in the book. If you live in a jungle where you can have meaningful conversations with the animals who love you and sacrifice for you and you've already eliminated Shere Khan, why not stay in that jungle?