Friday, May 6, 2016
The Jungle Book, by Rudyard Kipling
I've been watching every Jungle Book movie clip I can lay my hands on from the new film over the last few weeks. There's something thrilling and exotic about jungle creatures, and what I've seen of the live-action film gives me delicious chills. So I thought I'd pick up the real Jungle Book and give it a read. Since it's free on Amazon Kindle, and fairly short, I whipped through it in no time, and enjoyed my first foray into Rudyard Kipling's fiction.
Saved from death at the hands of the greedy tiger, Shere Khan, young Mowgli grows up with a pack of wolves learning the laws of the jungle. As he encounters adventures and perils with his friends, Baloo the bear and Bagheera the panther, hanging over his head are twin dangers: one that he is a man and will never completely be part of the animal world. And two, Shere Khan has not forgotten his secret desire to kill the man-cub who is rightfully his.
Coupled with stories of the Jungle, Kipling includes other tales of the animal kingdom in Kotick the seal searching for a safe home, Rikki the mongoose battling the cobra family, and a beautiful collection of poetry pertaining to the stories. The Jungle Book is a book of adventure and celebration, with darker strains of grief winding through the war between men and animals.
The Jungle Book is such a fun twist of deep thoughts, talking animals, and rollicking adventures. Baloo the bear has always had a soft spot in my heart from the Disney Jungle Book, and while the original is slightly different, I still enjoyed him. I enjoyed the exotic jungle setting with panthers and wolves instead of more traditional animals. I never knew that Mowgli meant little frog. The fight between the apes and Bagheera and Baloo and Kaa the snake makes for a gripping tlae, and the gatherings of the wolves were deliciously shivery. Akela is such a noble wolf, and might have been my favorite character of them all. This book makes me want more jungle books, and if any readers know of any, I'd love suggestions.
It's interesting how darker, more disillusioned threads run through a book where a child is the main character. More than once in the stories of Mowgli and Kotick the seal, there's the theme of an outcast leader. Faithful followers grow corrupt or greedy, unwilling to change, throwing off the constraints of government. In every case, the other option of government is downfall and death, and the supremacy of the jungle declines in the years where lawlessness reigns. As Bagheera says to them when they plead for a return to their old ways, "Ye fought for freedom and it is yours. Eat it, O wolves." The outcast savior makes for a fascinating story theme.
I also thought a lot about animal treatment as I read this story. Before I was ever interested in The Jungle Book, I heard conservation thoughts from Prince William in my fangirl following of the Duchess Kate blog. He's passionate about saving animals from being hunted to extinction, and when you read the Jungle Book, you see a lot of similar themes as animals enounter the danger of man.
There are some things I wasn't sure of in Kipling's treatment of the theme. In some cases, animals are wiser than humans in their view of what is just and good, seemingly more in touch with the "laws of the jungle" or the right way things should go. When they respect each other's territory, they can exist in peace with one another, and they have rules for what can be hunted. In contrast, Mowgli, when he encounters men, encounters rather foolish people or people twisted by greed and false religion. He likes the animals better.
While it is interesting to read a book from a non-traditional perspective (animals instead of men) and think about the insights it offers, it doesn't offer a particularly robust view of the dominion of the earth that God has given humans. If anything, it would make you feel rather guilty for doing anything to disturb them.
However, there's another side of the coin to man's dominion. Often in our use of animals, we've gone far to the other side of cruelty. Animal abuse and excessive hunting, as Kipling dramatizes in the story of Kotick the seal, are a dark spot on man's dominion calling. We're made above the animals according to Genesis, but that doesn't mean we should freely use and mistreat them however we wish. Jungle Book reminded me of what Prince William speaks out for, the wise stewarding of endangered species, and the tragedy of harsh killings for profit.
My favorite story out of the bunch, one that made me squee with happiness (ahem, professional review, this) was Rikki Tikki Tavi. That mongoose is so adorable and brave, with a cute sense of ego. I love him to bits, and my heart was in my throat during the climax. I also loved the short story "Her Majesty's Servants" as a soldier overhears a conversation between various animals who serve in the army, and what they are afraid of, and what they do best. It was a fascinating piece about how different strengths and weaknesses can be used for a powerful force of good when they are united together.
Not to be forgotten is Kipling's wonderful poetry. I'd read his poems before, and love "Recessional" and "The Gods of the Copybook Headings", but Jungle Book gave me even more to treasure. Kipling bookends most of his stories with a poem about some element of the story we've just read. I love the rhythm and the animal perspectives in each one.
I highly recommend Jungle Book for a short and enthralling read of jungle stories and fun poetry. If you haven't tried Kipling before, this is a great place to start.