Notes on the text
These notes, by Alan Underwood, are partly new, and partly based on the ORG. The page and line numbers below refer to the Macmillan (London) Standard Edition of The Jungle Book, as published and frequently reprinted between 1899 and 1950.
"The Law of the Jungle" is the first of Kipling's experiments in a type of poetry with which his name would become closely, and sometimes embarrassingly, associated. Its purpose was to inculcate fundamental values and beliefs by means of epigrammatic lines which would be easily memorised. Within the context of the Jungle Books Kipling's main concern was to compose moral precepts which had a suitably ancient or primitive feel to them. Baloo, we are told: 'always recited them in a sort of sing-song.'[Page 45, line 5] heavy-browed Sanbhur a large Indian deer, genus Rusa. The best known of the five species within this genus, Rusa unicolor is a very massive animal standing as much as 54 inches at the shoulder, with, in the case of some stags, antlers up to 45 or 50 inches in length.
If Kipling had an ancient model in mind, it may have been the Biblical Proverbs: nearer at hand there were such varied examples as Walt Whitman and Martin Tupper for him to draw on. In comparison with some of his later poems of this kind, the "laws" of the jungle are of limited or indirect relevance to human life: the original title of "The Law of the Jungle" was the more specific "The Law for the Wolves". However, two of what Kipling calls "rulings" are particularly important. First, the assertion that all communities are compact units, in which individualism must thrive but never be allowed to fragment the whole: "For the strength of the Pack is the Wolf, and the strength of the Wolf is the Pack." Secondly, the insistence that the well-being and safety of a community rest on all of its members accepting the primacy of "The Law" and "obeying" it. Those who are outside the law are portrayed as the "Bandar-log" or monkeys whose "Road-Song" [see the note on page 84 below] is one of Kipling's more flamboyant rhythmic exercises.
'At one moment a creature is in tranquil meditation on the creation of the world or the origin of evil, at the next it has thrown itself backward apparently into illimitable space, but at the right instant a bough is seized and the animal swings to another and another with infallible certainty'.[Page 59, line 14] Kaa the Rock Snake See Kipling's list of names. Kaa is referred to later as 'Rock python' or 'python'. The Indian python is Python molurus.
... over all — over rent and bastion, split temple wall and prone pillar — lay the 'shadow of its beauty while it flourished in its pride.' The Englishman walked into a stately palace of many rooms, where the sunlight streamed in through wall and roof, and up crazy stone stairways, held together, it seemed, by the marauding trees...[Page 66, line 11] By the Broken Lock a reference to Bagheera’s escape from captivity in the King’s cages at Oodeypore (Udaipur).
[The passage quoted by Kipling ('shadow of its beauty...') is from The Embassy of Sir Thomas Roe to the Court of the Great Mogul, 1615-1619", published in 1899, for the Hakluyt Society.]
The rhythm of the lines follows the movements of the monkeys as they swing through the trees, reach for the moon, or drop to earth with their regular taunt thrown at anyone who is not with them: 'Brother, thy tail hangs down behind!' So perfectly are sound and sense blended that even the curve of the monkey's tail, of which they are so proud, is reproduced in the movement of the lines. In the poem's final stanza, the monkeys continue to play, but the rhythm collapses into a clumsy prose which reflects the emptiness and vanity of their boasts.The mysterious word 'scumfish' occurs in the first line of the final quatrain:
They may seem as light and graceful as flying-fish as they "scumfish" through the trees, but they are really the "scum" of society, feckless, irresponsible, lacking individuality, capable only of acting as a pack, dreamers who will never be doers. They are not only outside the Law: they are beyond it, and its enemies ... in the Jungle Books the chattering Bandar-log are only silenced by Kaa the python's sinister hypnotic dance of death. For Kipling, as for Conrad, civilisation is a fragile crust which barely manages to keep suppressed the destructive powers of darkness...
'Then join our leaping lines that scumfish through the pines...'This was the subject of a lively correspondence in KJ 243, 244. 246, and 247 in 1987 and 1988, initiated by Lord Ferrier, who asked: 'What ... is the derivation and meaning of the expressive but strange word, 'scumfish'?'
My own guess, which is simply that Kipling liked the sound of the word and thought it expressive in describing the way monkeys swing and rush through treetops, was strengthened by a conversation I had with Lord Ferrier after he had written the letter above. Had I, he asked, ever heard monkeys scurrying through leafy trees overhead? (Yes, often.) Did I recall that although they might well be invisible from below, they could be identified at once by the highly characteristic noise of their movement through the foliage — a smoothly scurrying, skimming, brushing sound? (Certainly, though I had not thought of it for years, I now remembered clearly.) Was 'Scumfish' not a very adequate piece of onomatopeia for this? (Yes: why not?) — Ed.]