Is it a shameful confession to reveal that I never read either of the Jungle Books when I was a child (though I loved the Just-So Stories)? The only stories – for the Jungle Books are a series of stories, some featuring Mowgli, the boy brought up by wolves, and others not – I had read before was Kaa’s Hunting, one of the Mowgli stories, and Rikki-tikki-tavi, about the brave snake-killing mongoose, in two separate anthologies. I don’t think I realised that these two stories were connected in any way, or that there were more to be found elsewhere.
To this adult reader, the stories are delightful, showing the eye for detail and observation which is evident in Kipling’s other works. The animals in these stories are generally treated with respect and love – except perhaps Shere Khan, the cowardly tiger in the Mowgli stories, and the monkeys in Kaa’s Hunting, or the crocodile in The Undertakers – and not overly anthropomorphised, except when it comes to sexual relations: polygamous seals of The White Seal, for example, are changed in Kipling’s version to staid married couples. Their behaviour is, generally, very animal-like.
The Mowgli stories are perhaps the best known, partly making up as they do the plot of the Disney film of the same name, but Kipling’s stories have more power and depth to them. When Mowgli is driven out of the wolf pack and returns to his village, he is bemused by the games the children play, and hates to sleep indoors in a trap of a house. His anger on learning how the villagers have treated his foster-mother, Messua (who may or may not be Mowgli’s real mother) in Letting in the Jungle is terrible and understandable, but Mowgli does not ask the animals to kill, for that would be a vengeance he does not understand, but to ‘let the jungle in’ to the village; the single-minded destruction of crops, and scaring of villagers which ensues is rather frightening in its thoroughness.
While the Mowgli stories are generally more serious in tone, there are moments of light relief. In some of the other stories there is downright comedy: in The Undertakers, for example, or Servants of the Queen. Rikki-tikki-tavi is also, despite its menacing villains (the snakes), rather light-hearted in tone: the way Darzee the tailor-bird hymns Rikki-tikki-tavi’s great deeds at inappropriate times is amusing.
Animals are the major characters in all of these stories, from the Inuit sled dogs of Quiquern to the dhole dogs of Red Dog, and the elephants of Toomai of the Elephants, but human beings do feature – primarily Mowgli, and the villagers, in the Mowgli stories (which end with him aged about seventeen). The Miracle of Purun Bhagat is unusual in that the main character is a man, the former Prime Minister of an Indian state, who gives up his life of power and ease for that of a wandering holy man, who eventually settles in the high hills and makes friends of the animals there: but he cannot speak to them as Mowgli can speak to the jungle animals, nor understand them as the narrator of Servants of the Queen can understand camp-beast language.
The stories themselves are beautifully written, humane and wry, never glossing over the cruelties or harshness of animal life, but showing how man and animal can live and work harmoniously side by side (or not, in the case of The Undertakers!).
This Penguin Classics edition is edited and glossed by Daniel Karlin, who provides the sort of introduction and notes of interest to the adult reader – Kipling’s sources, for example (for by the time he wrote the stories, he had left India for good and would never return), and how he altered some details or disregarded others – but are, perhaps, comically detailed for the child reader. Still, this is fun for the inveterate footnote reader (as I am). This edition also has a lovely front cover, such that one could forget that the only tiger portrayed in the stories is the unpleasant and vindictive Shere Khan.