‘Wonderful, beautiful fairy tales’? – or fables? – or lesson-books? Whatever… they are…
The Jungle Books
As a tenderfoot
(is that a correct designation, O Arkela?) I was given a copy of The Wolf Cub’s Handbook . Despite its practical advice I never learnt how to measure the height of a church-steeple with a six-foot stave, nor yet to cook edible dampers, but I remember still chunks of that introductory poem: ‘Now this is the Law of the Jungle / As old and as true as the sky…’ <!–break–>
No need to ask its source,
but when I first encountered it in The Jungle Books I was surprised to find it not as an epigraph to the whole exercise but jumbled in to the second volume as one of the many sets of (often workaday) verses that top-and-tail all the fifteen stories of the complete series. (And just as The Jungle Books were the first of Kipling’s collections of stories told primarily to a child audience so they established his scheme of verse interpolations that would give a distinctive character to such successors as Just So Stories (1902 – dealt with in BfK No. 118), Puck of Pook’s Hill (1906) and Rewards and Fairies (1910 – soon perhaps to follow).
Jumble is certainly a paramount feature
of the jungle tales, some of which are not located anywhere near the Indian forests that were part of Kipling’s early inspiration. Written between 1892 and 1895 they all appeared first in magazines, some in the famous children’s monthly St Nicholas and some in adult journals such as the Pall Mall Gazette . The first seven stories were then strung together as The Jungle Book in 1894 and the next eight as The Second Jungle Book a year later*. They were uniform as to format and design, bound in blue cloth boards gilt, but the earlier volume had a disorderly assemblage of illustrations done by three contributors in various styles, most horribly the monochrome half-tones made to look like photographs which were fashionable at the time. The second volume was an improvement with a more coherent set of designs, including some nice decorative cartouches and initial letters, all by Kipling’s father who had been deeply involved in arts administration in India for most of his working life.
Mowgli, the ‘Little Frog’,
the baby stolen by Shere Khan the tiger and brought up by a wolf pack where he was educated by Baloo the bear, Bagheera the panther, and Kaa the python, may be seen as another unifying element – and is sometimes thought to be the only subject of the books. He features in eight stories spread through both volumes, but in a way, perhaps the result of magazine publication, that suggests a series of thoughts and afterthoughts rather than the making of a coherent fiction. (Indeed, in the penultimate story, ‘Red Dog’, Kipling outlines the plots of six adventures which ‘you will never be told’.) The first and eighth stories do make a satisfying beginning and end to the whole Jungle Book enterprise, but in between you get the fourth and the third which round out the Shere Khan episode (‘How Fear Came’ and ‘Tiger! Tiger!’), the second and the sixth which have a link through Kaa and Mowgli visiting the wonderfully-named Cold Lairs (‘Kaa’s Hunting’ and ‘The King’s Ankus’), the fifth (‘Letting in the Jungle’) which was triggered by the third, and the seventh (‘Red Dog’) which prepares us for the final episode when Mowgli returns to the World of Men. Unsurprisingly, some editions have tried to separate out these tales to make an independent storybook, while the first three tales have recently been published as The Jungle Book: Mowgli’s Story , elaborately produced and with illustrations of great power and beauty by Nicola Bayley.
the windings of the relationships within the Mowgli stories needs must foreground what may be seen as one of the chief qualities of The Jungle Books : the gulf that is fixed between animals and Man. The first of these are bound within their own selfhood. Temperament, instinct, or local usage may inflect this, but tigers, snakes, jackals and the rest cannot escape their given nature. (Rosemary Sutcliff in her monograph on Kipling praises his craftsmanship in portraying this, writing ‘from the inside out’.) Man though is blessed and cursed with reason and imagination which allow him to transcend mere animal nature. Mowgli’s slaughter of Shere Khan and his saving of the Pack from the murderous red dogs is achieved by human generalship, co-opting animal behaviour to a particular purpose.
Outside that sequence,
the remaining seven stories of the books, a miscellaneous bunch, may diverge from, but do not contradict that central thesis. There are two rather embarrassing conversation-pieces where animals converse about their lives and the impact made on them by the presence of men; there are the two tales sometimes singled out for separate treatment: ‘Rikki-Tikki-Tavi’ describing the serial killing of snakes by a mongoose, and ‘Toomai’, about the boy who found a way to see the secret dance of the elephants; and there are the two stories set in the Arctic circle: ‘The White Seal’ telling how Kotik learns from a tribe of Sea Cows where lies a shore upon which his fellows will not be clubbed to death by Men, and ‘Quiquern’, a dramatic tale of Inuit and their dogs surviving a devilish winter in the Far North. But the seventh tale, ‘The Miracle of Purun Bhagat’, regarded by some as the best in the whole shebang, is almost entirely concerned with people rather than animals and especially with the spiritual progress of its central character from scholar and man of affairs to hermit and saviour of his adoptive village.
While recognising in that story
the heights to which ‘reason and imagination’ can take humankind, Kipling knew too the depths, and for persons who think that The Jungle Books are some kind of celebration of the doings of the Raj it is perhaps worth emphasizing their relevance to less transient matters. The Law of the Jungle knew nothing of imperial powers or systems of caste – or even scouting for boys – and its edicts controlled the evolution of its inhabitants, ‘red in tooth and claw’ perhaps but preternaturally innocent. With the incursion of Man, and especially Man with ‘the stinging fly that comes out of white smoke’ (to speak of nothing worse) the balance tipped – not only did Fear arrive, but also its apocalyptic companion Destruction. As we observe now the fate of wolf and rhino, ape and elephant, and even the jungle itself, Rudyard Kipling stands to remind us of our folly.
*Facts about the chronology of the stories’ publication are given in the World’s Classics volume of the two books, edited by W.W.Robson (1992), to which I am greatly indebted You will find there too a reprint of ‘the first Mowgli story’, in which he is already adult and comes to serve as a forest ranger: ‘In the Rukh’, as published in Kipling’s Many Inventions (1893).
The quotation in our title comes from the naturalist Ernest Thompson Seton, excusing Kipling for not writing ‘animal stories in the realistic sense’.
The illustrations by Nicola Bayley are from The Jungle Book: Mowgli’s Story (0 7445 8643 7, £14.99 hbk) published by Walker Books.
Brian Alderson is founder of the Children’s Books History Society and children’s book consultant for The Times .