Hunting for a Home After Destruction and Loss: Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book

These two things fight together in me as the snakes fight in the spring. The water comes out of my eyes; but I laugh while it falls. Why?

–Mowgli in The Jungle Book

Unlike most of the other works covered in this Read-Watch, Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book is not one work or story, but rather a collection of short stories and poems first published in the late 19th century. The first half of the book contains stories about Mowgli, a young boy raised by wolves, a bear and a panther in the jungle, and his great enemy Shere Khan the Tiger. The second, better half of the book tells tales about a fur seal searching for an island free from hunters; a fighting mongoose; a young boy who witnesses an elephant dance; and a story that involves a lot of horses complaining about their riders. Only two things connect the stories: all of them include animals, and all focus on the struggle to find a place to belong.

Rudyard Kipling was very familiar with that theme. Born in India to British parents, he was sent to Britain when he was only five, an experience he remembered with misery for the rest of his life. He did not do well in school, so his parents recalled him to British India at the age of 16, finding him a job in Lahore, now in Pakistan. Just seven years later, he found himself heading back to London, and then to the United States, then back to London, and then to Vermont, before returning again to England. It was not quite a rootless life—the adult Kipling found houses and homes—but Kipling was never to feel himself entirely English, or, for that matter, entirely Anglo-Indian, and certainly not American, though later critics were to firmly label him as imperialist, and definitely British. Having Conservative British prime minister Stanley Baldwin as a cousin helped that label stick.

That seeming rootlessness drove much of his writing, something he was virtually addicted to. From his return to India until his death in 1936 at the age of 70, Kipling wrote almost constantly. He won the Nobel Prize in 1907 for his often controversial novels and poems (most notably “White Man’s Burden,” which has alternatively been read as pure propaganda or satire). The stories in The Jungle Book were largely written in Vermont, with Kipling reaching back to his past for inspiration, and they have, at times, almost a nostalgic feel.

I’ll confess it right now: I’ve always found it difficult to get into The Jungle Book, and this reread was no different. Part of the problem might be the thees and thous that litter the first part of the book: this tends to be something I have little patience with in more modern books (that is, the 19th century and onwards) unless the text provides good reason for it, and “Talking animals” doesn’t seem like a particularly good reason. (I came to this book after Oz, Narnia, and Wonderland had introduced me to the idea that animals could talk, even if they usually did so in other worlds, not ours.) As proof of that, I’ll note that the thees and thous used in the final story, “Toomai of the Elephants,” for instance, are somehow a little less annoying because they are voiced by humans. But they are still mildly annoying.

I also find myself flinching at this:

So Mowgli went away and hunted with the four cubs in the jungle from that day on. But he was not always alone, because, years afterwards, he became a man and married.

But that is a story for grown-ups.

First, Kipling, of course Mowgli wasn’t alone—you just told us that he was with four wolf cubs who could speak, if, admittedly, only with a lot of thees and thous! That is the definition of not alone! Second, as a kid, nothing irked me more than getting told that something was a story for grown-ups, and that, everyone, is the story of how and why I read a number of books not at all appropriate for my age level. As a grown-up, that remembered irritation still colors my reading. If you have a story, Kipling, tell me. Don’t tell me it’s a story just for certain people.

Other editorial asides are equally annoying: “Now you must be content to skip ten or eleven whole years, and only guess at all the wonderful life Mowgli lived among the wolves….” No, Kipling, I’m NOT CONTENT. If it’s a wonderful life, let me hear about it. Don’t just tell me it would fill many books—that just makes me want it more.

The presentation of the Mowgli tales doesn’t really help either. For instance, the initial story, about Mowgli’s introduction to the wolf clan, ends with the haunting sentence:

The dawn was beginning to break when Mowgli went down the hillside alone, to meet those mysterious things that are called men.

Except that rather than getting this meeting, we get a poem and a story that functions as a flashback. It’s not a bad story, as it goes, but since I already know that Mowgli lives to the end of it, the attempt in the middle of the chapter to leave his fate in suspense is a failure from the get go.

The third story, however, gets back to the more interesting stuff: Mowgli’s meeting with men. It’s something that absolutely must happen, since Mowgli never quite manages to become fully part of the wolf world: he needs additional lessons from Baloo the bear just to understand the animal language, and the Laws of the Jungle, and even with a wolf family and two additional animal tutors, he still misses important lessons like “Never Trust Monkeys.” I summarize. But as the third tale demonstrates, Mowgli is not quite part of the human world, either: he has lived for far too long among wolves to understand humans and their customs, in an echo of Kipling’s own experiences.

Kipling, of course, had hardly invented the idea of a child raised by wolves or other animals—similar stories appear in folklore from around the world, often as origin tales for heroes or founders of great cities and empires, common enough that we’ll be encountering two such figures in this reread alone. But though couched in mythic language (which, I guess, partly explains those thees and thous), his take on these tales is slightly different. The stories are less interested in Mowgli’s strength and potential heroism, and more in discussing his position as outsider in nearly every culture: wolf, monkey, and human, with law, control, and allegiance as important subthemes. And they end on a somewhat ambiguous note: Mowgli chooses to leave humanity and return the jungle, to run with wolves, but the narrative immediately undercuts that, assuring us that eventually he returns to humanity. In other words, leaving us with a character still shifting between two worlds.

Other characters in the later stories are a bit more successful at finding their place in the world, and a home: the mongoose fights his way into a home and a place; the fur seal finds an island untouched by human hunters; the young boy earns a place among the elephant hunters. It’s probably important to note, however, that the mongoose needs to do this in part because he’s been displaced—he lost his home and parents through flooding. The fur seal, too, finds a home—but only after his fellow seals have been brutally slaughtered. The elephant overseers work under white overseers, in continuous danger of losing their homes. The animals brought to India to serve as mounts for the British army never do completely lose their uneasiness. Each tale offers an ambiguous, nuanced look at displacement from a writer who was all too familiar with this.

And now for a slightly less comfortable topic: The Jungle Book features many non-white characters along with animals. Not surprisingly for a 19th century book written by a British citizen who was to pen a poem titled “The White Man’s Burden,” however, Kipling does occasionally use some words that are or can be considered offensive towards these characters—most notably when describing the young Toomai as “looking like a goblin in the torch-light,” and in a later statement, “But, since native children have no nerves worth speaking of,” drawing a sharp divide between British and native children—in context, not in favor of the Indian children.

Kipling was certainly aware of and sensitive to racial distinctions in colonial India, and aware that many Indians strongly disagreed with British laws and regulations. This is even a subtheme of the final story, “Toomai of the Elephants,” which includes Indians criticizing British hunting practices: one Indian character openly calls the white character (his employer) a madman. The criticism seems deserved. The white character also tells jokes at the expense of his employees and their children, and although they laugh, their resentment is not that well concealed. The story also contains a later hint that the father of the main character, Toomai, does not want his son to come to the attention of white supervisors.

“Her Majesty’s Servants,” while focused more on the issues faced by horses and mules in the British Army, and which has a crack at the Amir of Afghanistan, also contains the sidenote that non-British elephant drivers weren’t paid on days where they were sick—something that does not happen with British cavalry officers, another stark disparity between the two groups. Kipling also includes the quiet note that in war, people and animals bleed, and in this war, led by British officers, native people are among those bleeding.

The Mowgli tales also contain multiple hints of racial conflicts, notably in the way that the jungle animals have created rules to help prevent further attacks and encroachments from invaders and colonists. Many of these rules frankly make no sense from a biological point of view, or even from the point of view of the animals in the story, but make absolute sense from the point of view of people attempting to avoid further subjugation. As do their efforts to cloak these rules in self-pride: the animals tell themselves that animals who hunt humans become mangy and lose their teeth, and that humans are too easily to kill anyway. But the real reason they don’t: they fear reprisals from humans if they do. It’s a legitimate fear, as the next stories show: Mowgli might have been raised by wolves, and he needs the assistance of his fellow pack members and a bear and a panther and a snake from time to time, but he is still superior.

A few other related points before we leave this: Kipling very much believes in the power of genetics over training. Mowgli, for instance, is skilled at woodwork not because anyone has taught him (until he heads to a human village, no one could), but because he’s the son of a woodworker. It’s strongly implied that Toomai is able to attend an elephant dance because his ancestors have always worked with elephants, creating an almost mystic bond, though it also helps that Toomai has basically been raised with elephants. And, well, the fur seal that just happens to lead all of the other little fur seals off to a safe island? Is a fur seal with pure white fur. This is not always a good thing for the fur seal, though it later helps to save his life, since the hunters think that a white seal is unlucky and decide not to kill him.

Given the rather large numbers of pure white harp seals killed then and now, this superstition seems, how can I put it, unlikely. Then again, my sense is that Kipling did not research fur seals or seal hunting in any great depth before writing his story—for instance, he briefly mentions that the Galapagos Islands are too hot for fur seals, apparently unaware of the Galapagos fur seals that haul out on those islands on a regular basis. It’s not, after all, really a story about seals, but rather, like the other tales here, a story about finding safety and home.

As universal as that theme might be, I can’t quite say that The Jungle Book is written from a universal, or even a non-British, point of view. But it’s also a book sharply aware that growing up, and changing worlds, is not always easy or safe, a book aware of inequities, and a book of quiet horrors, where the worst part may not be the scenes of stripping seals for fur.

Disney was to ignore almost all of this, as we’ll see next week.

Mari Ness lives in central Florida.

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