Last time I read The Jungle Book was years ago, to my son, when he was a preschooler. I didn’t remember much before I started this read. It might be that I only read him selective stories, because my memory of the stories was sketchy. Mowgli – aye, all of them, even the ones included in the other Jungle book. Rikki-Tikki-Tavi – yes, of course. But I don’t remember ever reading The White Seal or a couple other stories, so my impression of them is fresh.
The entire book is simplistic on the surface: children stories mostly set in India, where animals assume human characteristics. Anthropomorphism is not a new literary device. It was first employed by Aesop, but Kipling wields it with skills unsurpassed by any writer who came after him. His stories are philosophical and many-layered – a layer for any age or point of view, which is a definition of classic literature. Many stories, despite their artless beauty, are focused on a conflict between a person and a society.
Mowgli searches for his true identity but doesn’t find it. He belongs to two tribes – the jungle and the humans – but is fully accepted by neither.
The white seal Kotick in his eponymous, Russian-flavored tale searches for a better, safer home for his people, but even when he finds it, he has to fight his conservative-thinking kin, to force them to change. Like Mowgli, Kotick doesn’t belong among his peers. He is a loner and a leader. The children see him as a noble hero, but I must ask: is Koitick a hero or a dictator? Is there a difference? Was it a coincidence that the story is infused with Russian influence? In my opinion, this story is the most profound in the collection. Incidentally, it’s the only one set outside of India.
The elephant story is a story of exploitation. English exploit Indians. People exploit elephants. Nobody feels even a tad sorry, and everyone feels entitled. Although the esthetics and the metaphors are fantastic, the morals are…questionable.
The last story, Her Majesty’s Servants, is the most ‘imperialistic’ of all and surprisingly stark for a children story. It lists all the ways an animal could fight for the British army – with pride! It spoiled the taste of the entire book for me. I don’t think this story belongs in this collection. Or maybe it does, which makes me even sadder.
The only undisputed hero in the book was Rikki, the mongoose. His goal is to keep his adapted family safe, and he risks his life to achieve that goal. His story is light-hearted, very optimistic, and his bravery is as simple as his goal. His mental process caused me to smile.
It is the hardest thing in the world to frighten a mongoose, because he is eaten up from nose to tail with curiosity.
The political views of the author are on display in this book, perhaps unintentionally, and while I disagree with them, I have to admit that all the stories were written by a master of the craft. I happened to read this book right after some mediocre indie novel, and the comparison – oh, boy! Like a pebble and a diamond. I luxuriated in the clean, sparkling water of Kipling’s language. It flowed and washed away the sticky residue left by bad writing.
Most historical writers I’ve ever read tend to rhapsodize, but not Kipling. He was trained and worked as a journalist, and it shows. Not an extraneous word in the entire book. What’s even more interesting: Kipling’s expressive, almost ‘visual’ narration was accomplished with very few adjectives. The book could serve as a writing teacher’s example of what could be achieved with verbs and nouns.
Sarcasm is another instrument in Kipling’s arsenal. The writer is sensitivity to human follies. He doesn’t condemn openly but he mocks mercifully. In the Mowgli’s stories, the comparison of monkeys and humans is uncanny and spot on.
No sooner had he walked to the city wall than the monkeys pulled him back, telling him that he didn’t know how happy he was, and pinching him to make him grateful.
‘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,’ they shouted. [underlining – mine]
Recognizing anyone, my friends? Maybe Kipling was not as ‘imperialist’ as his critics say. Or maybe his honesty overrode his political convictions. It happens with great writers.
A mandatory read for everyone.