Wednesday, May 20, 2015

May's Book: The Jungle Book

The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling
Literature (1895 - 336 pp.)

Continuing my tradition of Victorian and natural world-inspired fiction, I come across a story that is simultaneously one of the most familiar yet unfamiliar to audiences my age up to about my parents' age. The Jungle Book, for all its notoriety in popular culture, is a quite possibly misunderstood collection of short stories that span the globe. Most are set in Rudyard Kipling's native India, and most of those contain all our favourite characters (Mowgli, Bagheera, Baloo, Shere Khan, et al.) but that is simply most of the most, not nearly all.

Anyone familiar with the 1967 Disney movie would barely recognize this book, to the point that I think the filmmakers should have started from scratch instead of appropriating an existing book. A particularly flagrant example is in the relationship between Bagheera and Kaa, the python. In the movie, Bagheera rescues Mowgli from Kaa. In the book, Bagheera and Kaa are friends. Akela, the leader of the wolf pack, also barely appears in the movie, and is a crucial figure in the book. More examples abound but would unfortunately be spoilers. Suffice to say that the central theme of the Law of the Jungle, in which the predators align themselves in a hierarchy based on military control, is probably not what the writers of "Bare Necessities" had in mind.

The core stories concern everything from Mowgli's adoption by the wolves ("Mowgli's Brothers"), to demonstrations of Kaa's power ("Kaa's Hunting", "The King's Ankus"), to the battle with Shere Khan ("Tiger! Tiger!"), to vengeance against man ("Letting in the Jungle"), to an attack by dholes ("Red Dog"). "How Fear Came" is an exercise in jungle history, narrated by Hathi the elephant. The world Kipling creates is one in which talking animals frequently go into expositions on the nature and laws of the jungle, which are interspersed with fight scenes. Mowgli is not a particularly nice character, as he often taunts creatures, but the animals are generally good at keeping him in line. Whether Mowgli's claimed superiority in light of Bagheera, Kaa and Akela watching over him is a commentary on human attitudes toward nature, I will leave to academia to debate.

The non-core stories occur around the globe. One of my favourites is the first non-core story to appear, "The White Seal", about a brave young seal who searches for a new home for his clan/tribe/group/pack. "The Undertakers", about a jackal, heron and crocodile trio having a conversation on the nature of man, has a dark sense of humour to it. "Toomai of the Elephants" was the only story I did not like - it utterly lacks action, consisting of 20 pages of a boy watching elephants dance. A pleasant surprise was "Quiquern", the only story set in Canada. Kipling's knowledge of Arctic geography is impressive, and the canine characters he creates are effective stand-ins for friendship in an unforgiving north.

The edition I read has some very helpful footnotes, mostly on points like geographical references and nomenclature. Although Kipling makes up some names, Mowgli and Kaa being the main ones, most characters are named after their species or some trait they possess. For example, Bagheera is a South Indian word literally meaning "panther", and Shere Khan is Hindi for "sovereign cat".

At the end, editor Arthur Pober includes a short list of questions useful for anyone teaching The Jungle Book to an elementary school class. The questions are far simpler than the ones I pondered while reading, such as how the book comments on human-animal or British-Indian relations, but they appear like the sorts of things one would ask an introductory reader. Whether I would expose young children to a book in which characters frequently cut each others' throats out is another matter but hey, it has less gore than White Fang.

Ease of Reading: 8
Educational Content: 4

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