First published in St. Nicholas Magazine, March 1895 with illustrations by W.A.C. Pope. Collected in The Second Jungle Book, 1895.
Kaa, the great python, takes Mowgli to the ruined city of Cold Lairs (see the notes on “Kaa’s Hunting”) to see a priceless underground treasure of gold and silver and gems. It is guarded by a huge ‘White Hood’, an old white cobra, whose bite—he believes—is death. The cobra has told Kaa that ‘a man would give the hot breath under his ribs for even the sight of these things’, but Mowgli—knowing little of values in the world of men—is not impressed. He is, though, fascinated by an elephant goad, an ankus of steel and ivory studded with jewels, and asks the White Hood if he can take it away. The cobra threatens to kill him, but Mowgli pins it to the floor with the ankus, and shows Kaa that its poison-fangs are dried up with age.
They climb out of the vault, carrying the ankus, with the furious cobra striking vainly, and warning that it is Death. Mowgli shows it to Bagheera, who—from his experience in captivity in Oodeypore—confirms the cobra’s warning. Mowgli, finding the ankus heavy, throws it away, but it disappears while he sleeps. He and Bagheera follow the trail of the man who has taken it, and come upon his body after a Gond tribesman has killed him for it. Tracking on, they find the body of the Gond killed by four villagers, then the body of one of the killers, and then those of the other three, who have been poisoned by their companion. Mowgli returns the ankus to the treasury in Cold Lairs. It is indeed Death.
Nora Crook (p. 114) notes the similarities between “The King’s Ankus” and Chaucer’s “The Pardoner’s Tale”, in which three rioters take an oath to find and kill Death:
There has been some dispute as to whether “The Pardoner’s Tale” was a source for “The King’s Ankus” , since there is a closer analogue in the Jatakas. Given Beresford’s testimony, however, the question-mark is an unnecessary one. It is obvious that Kipling knew both, and that the plurality of sources served to confirm for him the universality of the tale. In a sense he was returning Chaucer to his origins.
And J M S Tompkins confirms this judgement:
In “The King’s Ankus” Kipling takes a version of a widespread moral apologue, which Chaucer had used for his “Pardoner’s Tale”, and combines it with a tale of hidden treasure and the following of a trail. The failure of Mowgli, the fosterling of wolves, to comprehend the value of the cumbrous jewelled ankus, for which men kill each other, serves the same purpose as the Pardoner’s sermon. The power of the ancient tale sends a cold breath of awe through the narrative
Angus Wilson (p. 95) sees the setting of this story as one of the most deeply felt of all Kipling’s imagined scenes:
The ruined city of Amber above Jaipur and the ruined city of Chitor, seventy or so miles from Udaipur, have both been claimed as the originals. Chitor, although under the Indian Archaeological Department and served by a guide, is still more ruinous than the tourist-haunted Amber with its elephant bus. But I do not think that that is the only reason why a visit to Chitor so powerfully conjures up Cold Lairs. (Who, by the way, but Kipling would have found so threatening a name?)
At Chitor still come pythons and cobras in season; and the ruin of the Queen’s palace, in particular, abounds in crevices and pits beneath the floors that are made for evil lurking, and the stupid monkeys still gather there at nightfall. Even so, to get the full idea of what dreams Chitor in its then ruinous state roused in Kipling, I think a visitor must go to a more deeply buried city like Tughlaquabad, outside Delhi, where as yet no one has conserved or guided and where no visitors save tribes of monkeys come.
Angus Wilson greatly admires this story:
The crown of the two books is “The King’s Ankus”, Kipling’s best use of myth in all his work. The story opens deceptively and purposely as the most sensually idyllic of all the scenes in this Eden, with Mowgli “sitting in the circle of Kaa’s great coils, fingering the flaked and broken old skin that lay looped and twisted among the rocks just as Kaa had left it … It is then that Kaa, who loves the boy, as all his animal protectors do, pours into Mowgli’s ear (serpent-like) the knowledge of something new … It is, of course, the treasure of the kings who once ruled in the ruined city…
The white cobra is one of Kipling’s most fascinating creatures. In it he suggests that sense of something repulsive and frightening that, if we are honest, we must admit to find in some very old people. His situation is immediately pathetic to us – an old lost creature, faithful to his duty, not understanding that the world above is not still a wonder city of kings and palaces and royal elephants, not knowing that the jungle has taken over…
Mowgli scorns to kill him, as he also scorns the royal jewels and coins he does not understand. His curiosity only bids him take the jewelled and golden ankus or royal elephant yoke. And in a day, he sees four men lose their lives in lust for it.
James Harrison notes in his chapter on “Stories for Children” that both adults and children can respond to this and other tales in The Jungle Books:
Child and adult alike shiver at eerie spell cast by Kaa over the monkey people, even Baloo Bagheera having to be rescued from falling under it by Mowgli’s touch, in “Kaa’s Hunting.” Child and adult alike glow with pride at Mowgli’s clever generalship in “Tiger! Tiger!” and at Bagheera’s perturbed awe at his sustained fixity of purpose in “Letting in the Jungle.” Adult and (with a little help, perhaps) alike admire Bagheera’s skill and sympathize with his incredulity as he unravels the mysteries of that jungle version of the Pardoner’s Tale, “The King’s Ankus”.
And Mark Paffard hears an echo of another old theme:
“The King’s Ankus”, on the other hand, is a reworking of another ancient theme, in which the jungle is innocent of the evil brought about by acquisition, with Mowgli as its ‘noble savage’
©F A Underwood 2007 All rights reserved