Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Review of The Jungle Books, by Rudyard Kipling

I first read The Jungle Books (first published 1894) as a kid of about twelve or so, though perhaps "delved into" is a better verb; I certainly don't remember some of these stories, especially from the second book. I imagine that, like most people, I was, until I actually read the thing, much more familiar with the tales from the 1967 Disney film than the original source material. I was pleased to see that the film is more or less faithful to the spirit and some of the events of the book. (The movie is nothing to sneeze at --- funny and dramatic, it's probably my favorite Disney film, and it certainly has some of the best songs. "I Wan'na Be Like You," "Bear Necessities," "Elephants On Parade" --- so much better than the pablum AOR ballads Disney feels obligated to slap onto its films since the last decade.)

The Jungle Books isn't a novel, but a series of stories. It may come as a surprise to some 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.)

Between these covers are featured other stories of India as well, some well-known ("Rikki-Tikki-Tavi," of the cobra-killing mongoose, also made into an animated film) 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 incongrous 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.

The Bombay-born Kipling was, of course, a child of colonialism, and his critics can't help but at least entertain charges that his works are an apology for "the white man's burden." As I've noted before, I'm an ardent admirer of Kipling, and making allowances for the epoch and mileu in which he lived, I can't buy that wholesale. I do see why some people argue that his works, including The Jungle Books, are an allegory for colonialism. "The White Seal" in particular appears to be a particularly blatant suggestion of the superiority of the white man. But it's also clear from reading Kipling that he loved India. He was born and worked there, and he wrote so extensively and in such detail of a wide variety of India's peoples and customs that it's hard to believe he did it all to push an agenda.

Even if it is an extended allegory (which I don't believe) The Jungle Books is 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 hidding 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 (as with another of Kipling's animal tales, Thy Servant a Dog) not at all the neatly-tied happy resolution that the majority of non-series children's stories seem to require today. That said, I think that a reasonable parent could easily find much in these pages to read to even a very young child --- 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?

No comments: