That’s how long it’s been since I first read Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book. That was the first year we homeschooled, and I was casting about our home library for literature I could teach from without having to buy curriculum at the last minute. My father-in-law had admired Kipling, and my husband had introduced Kipling to me. Well, that, and I’d seen the Disney cartoon more than once.
I’m sure you’ll be stunned to hear that the book isn’t much like the movie. Oh, most of the characters are there in name. Mowgli is the star. Bagheera and Baloo are major players. Shere Khan is the bad guy. However, monkeys are dangerous, but Kaa is not. If you know the secret Words.
I think the basic story is familiar to most people. A small boy is separated from his parents in the jungle and hunted by Shere Khan, the tiger. The man’s cub wanders into the lair of a wolf family who adopt him and protect him. They name him Mowgli, which means The Frog.
The animals are anthropomorphized to some degree, but not to ridiculousness. Baloo doesn’t dance around knocking coconuts on his head. The animals speak and think like humans, but their actions are limited to what animals would be able to do. Most of the animals can speak to each other, and Mowgli learns to speak to most of them. For Mowgli’s safety, Baloo teaches him the right words to communicate with different species. The different species have their natural conflicts, but are also able to cooperate for various reasons. They enlist Kaa’s help in rescuing Mowgli from the Apes, and work together to bring down Shere Khan.
This isn’t just a story about talking animals. It is about the wisdom of the jungle. It is also, at times, a comment on human relationships and societies. There are prejudices among species against other species. They are almost all particularly prejudiced against the monkeys because monkeys are lawless. Kipling makes an especially seering comment come from the mouths of the monkeys when Mowgli ends up in their hands. “We are great. We are free. We are wonderful. We are the most wonderful people in all the Jungle! We all say so, and so it must be true.” Several times, reference is made to free people (animals) being people with laws.
“Lead us again, O Akela. Lead us again, O Man-cub, for we be sick of this lawlessness, and we would be the Free People once more.”
After Mowgli is rescued from the monkeys, he still has to be punished for bringing so much trouble upon everyone by listening to monkeys in the first place.
“Baloo did not wish to bring Mowgli into any more trouble, but he could not tamper with the Law, so he mumbled: ‘Sorrow never stays punishment. But remember, Bagheera, he is very little.’
‘I will remember. But he has done mischief, and blows must be dealt now. Mowgli, hast thou anything to say?’
‘Nothing. I did wrong. Baloo and thou are wounded. It is just.’”
Mowgli learns much wisdom in the jungle, and absorbs some of the prejudices of animals, but when he comes in contact with men, he has none of theirs. “Mowgli had not the faintest idea of the difference that caste makes between man and man. When the potter’s donkey slipped in the clay-pit, Mowgli hauled it out by the tail, and helped to stack the pots for their journey to the market at Khanhiwara. That was very shocking, too, for the potter is a low-caste man, and his donkey is worse.”
Mowgli’s story is only part of the first Jungle Book. It also includes the short stories “The White Seal,” “Rikki-tikki-Tavi,” “Toomai of the Elephants,” and “Her Majesty’s Servants.”
As you might expect, “The White Seal” is about a white seal. It is about the breaking down of the prejudice of “We’ve always done it that way.” The White Seal eventually leads his people to a place where they will be free from the worry of attacks by man.
“‘. . . and then the men clubbed the seals on the head as fast as they could.
“Ten minutes later little Kotick did not recognise his friends any more, for their skins were ripped off from the nose to the hind flippers–whipped off and thrown down on the ground in a pile.”
“Rikki-Tikki-Tavi” is about a mongoose who fights cobras in the home of a British officer in India. This is one of the more well-known and beloved of Kipling’s short stories for children.
There is a 1975 short film of this story.
You can also find the full cartoon on Youtube.
I have not seen the “White Seal” cartoon, and it seems to be more difficult to find by itself.
Toomai of the Elephants is a boy from a long line of elephant handlers who manages to see something no one other human has ever seen before – the dance of the elephants at night.
“Her Majesty’s Servants” records a discussion between several animals on a rainy night before a military review. Mules, horses, bullocks, camels, and elephants all discuss their merits as the best military animals; how they fight and whose orders they follow. In discussing their own merits, they delight in disparaging each other.
The epigraph of each chapter of The Jungle Book is a poem by or about one of the characters in the story. Each chapter ends with another poem. Even if you’re not big on poetry, Kipling’s are usually rollicking enough to be fun or sing-song enough to interest children, and none of the poems in this book are terribly long. They often give more insight into the thinking of the animals, and usually reflect a bit of Kipling’s humor.
Epigraph of “Rikki-Tikki-Tavi”:
At the hole where he went in
Red-Eye called to Wrinkle-Skin.
Hear what little Red-Eye saith:
‘Nag, come up and dance with death!’
Eye to eye and head to head,
(Keep the measure, Nag.)
This shall end when one is dead;
(At thy pleasure, Nag.)
Turn for turn and twist for twist–
(Run and hide thee, Nag.)
Hah! The hooded Death has missed!
(Woe betide thee, Nag!)
The poem at the end of “Rikki-Tikki-Tavi” is a paean to Rikki’s triumph sung by the excitable weaver bird. He goes on for four verse, then “(Here Rikki-tikki interrupted, and the rest of the song is lost.)” Rikki is a creature of action, not of talk!
If you decide to purchase a copy of The Jungle Book, be aware that I have only discussed the first Jungle Book. The Second Jungle Book contains more Mowlgi stories and other short animal stories. Before you buy a book, check to see whether you are getting both or only the first.
A very good Audible version here.