The Jungle Books

The critics

(notes edited by by Alan Underwood and John Radcliffe.  Since their first publication in 1894 and 1895 The Jungle Books have been extensively commented on by critics, biographers, and students of literature. A selection of critical comments is set out below. There are also selected extracts from the critics in our pages on individual stories)   


Harry Ricketts, in his biography of Kipling published in the year 1999, describes (p. 206) the reception of The Jungle Book in 1894:

Rivalling The Yellow Book as the literary event of the summer was the publication of The Jungle Book on 24 May. The individual stories had been appearing in St Nicholas Magazine and other journals over the previous nine months, and Kipling had been alerting friends that a ‘book of children’s beast-tales’ was on the way.

When the book appeared, he felt he had again flummoxed the critics. ‘The reviews are rather funny,’ he told an American friend. ‘They don’t know how or at which end to pick the thing up.’ In fact, the reviews could not have been more positive.
On 16 June Punch carried an appreciative notice by ‘Baron De Book-Worms’, which dubbed him:

‘Sir RUDYARD KIPLINGO, the Laureate of The JungleJingle and the Bard of the Bandar-dog’

with an accompanying cartoon of a turbaned, banjo-strumming Kipling, surrounded by his animal characters.

The same day, at the other end of the scale, the Athenaeum gave him two laudatory columns, concluding with:

`our sincere thanks to Mr Kipling for the hours of pure and unadulterated enjoyment which he has given us, and many another reader, by this inimitable “Jungle Book” .


One of the warmest responses was from Andrew Lang, writing in Cosmopolitan for August 1894 (vol XVII p. 503):

Of new books here, Mr. Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book is perhaps the most interesting, certainly the most original. One likes to hear dull owls hoot that Mr. Kipling will `write himself out’. Nobody is less likely to exhaust his stores of reflection, humour and observation … [Mowgli and the wolves] are delightful to read about, for `grown-ups’, and the pretty volume is a paradise for children … Oh, blessed province of fancy, and dear jungle of the imagination, whither we can flee and be at peace, if he who guides us, like Mr. Kipling, has the secret of the branch of gold.
[quoted in R L Green, Kipling, the Critical Heritage]

Forty years later, George MacMunn, in Rudyard Kipling, Craftsman, wrote (p. 202):

Love of animals, imagination about animals, the placing of anthropomorphic words in their mouths, is the prevailing whim of the English, and The Jungle Books, for that reason, have brought joy and enthusiasm to many a heart. Mowgli, the wolf-child, and wolf-reared children are true things. Baloo, and Bagheera and Kaa are not only household words in our nurseries and school-rooms, they are the wisdom of the ages and the pleasure of the hour in the studies and boudoirs of the parents. Rikki-tikki-Tavi is supreme in the hearts of our old ladies. Toomai of the Elephants is sheer Kheddah lore. A great mastering of the wild forest and its fauna, of the aboriginal folk whom Jan Chinn controlled, is herein displayed, a lore before which the scientist will bow down.

In the 1930s and after, when Sir George MacMunn was writing, Kipling’s reputation had suffered a decline, and he tended to be dismissed in literary circles as an unregenerate imperialist. Hilton Brown, writing in 1945, commented (p. 111):

…far too much has been made of his “Imperialism” by those with good political reasons for purveying a distorted version. There is much to be said for the view of the New York columnist twenty years later who wrote, at a time [in the 1920s] when his countrymen were smarting under Kipling’s criticism of their part in the last war: ‘What difference does it make if he is an insufferable Tory? He wrote the Jungle Book. Has everybody forgotten that?’

Edmund Wilson, quoted by Andrew Rutherford (pp. 53/4), noted that after settling in Vermont Kipling had published as many as nine ‘children’s books’:

It is as if the natural human feelings progressively forced out of his work by the rigours of organisation for its own sake were seeking relief in a reversion to childhood, when one has not yet become responsible for the way that the world is run, where it is enough to enjoy and to wonder at what we do not yet understand. And, on the other hand, the simplified morality to which Kipling has now committed himself is easier to make acceptable to one’s readers and oneself if one approaches it from the point of view of the child.

Professor J I M Stewart, however, writing twenty-five years later, sees this as a superficial view (p. 113):

The Jungle Books (1894-1895) were written in Vermont and initiate a phase of Kipling’s career in which he can be considered as having become a writer for children. On a superficial view, one might regard this development as being
the consequence of some failure of confidence in himself as a ‘serious’ author. He certainly did not so estimate the situation.
Writing retrospectively in Something of Myself, he has more to say about the group of children’s books than about any other. Indeed it is his main point that only in a limited sense ought they to be regarded as children’s books at all. Most
mature readers who like Kipling will be found to agree with
him in this. And the books are most keenly appreciated by those
read them first in childhood (or listened to them being read) and have then come back to them in later life. This is the road to finding those layers of significance which Kipling, in fact, claimed to have put into them.

TS Eliot, in an address to the Kipling Society quoted in KJ 129/9 for March 1959 noted:

In an essay written many years ago, which remains one of the best
studies of Kipling that we have, Colonel Bonamy Dobrée pointed out
how constantly worldly success is disparaged ; and that even the man
who is an utter failure in life (and a gallery of such human wreckage
can be assembled from among Kipling’s characters) may be a nobler
figure than the man who has successfully feathered his own nest. The
moralist is always present, even in those tales of The Jungle Book
which are taken by many readers to be merely fantasies to amuse the
very young. It may be the moralist in Kipling that is displeasing to
those intellectuals who have belittled him in my time. He was well
aware that the moral is unwelcome, and must be insinuated, or
conveyed (as we say nowadays) subliminally.

Shamsul Islam in 1975 stresses this moral role:

The Jungle Books and the ‘Puck’ books, while primarily
children’s books, are secondarily educational manuals and
thirdly a mixture of unsustained allegory, fable, myth, history and romance. The continual shift of perspective in these tales complicates the task of analysing them, but the main outlines of what Kipling is doing are very clear to see. Here Kipling is a teacher of young children, didactic as well as entertaining, getting across a message in every case in the tradition of a series of school lessons through stories or
parables or exemplars.

And W W Robson in his Introduction to the Oxford World Classics edition of the Jungle Books (p. xiv) writes in 1987:

The thoughtful reader of the stories is reminded from
time to time that not all the Law is natural law, the eternal
law ordained by God. Some of it is positive law, and
therefore requires law making, authority and promulgation. This aspect of the Law is shown by the proviso that
the leader of the Pack can make new rules for a situation
not already dealt with. `The word of the Head Wolf is
Law.’ Finally, there is a good deal in the stories about the
importance of custom and tradition. As Noel Annan has
said, Kipling in much of his work is preoccupied with
‘what holds society together’. In The Jungle Books it is
clear that religion and custom, convention and morality, and
laws, are forces of social control. The individual breaks
these rules at his peril.

All this is communicated to the youthful reader in
language which he can understand, and in terms of a
morality which is second nature to him, a morality of
`just deserts’ and `just reward’. Yet it is conveyed by way of a
masterpiece of story-telling, which can be enjoyed
without a thought of the didactic content. Imaginative, aesthetic,
and sensuous, the jungle is `there’ as a complex evocative
symbol, of which the full significance cannot be para

From an early age Kingsley Amis (p. 73) felt uneasy with the didactic aspect of The Jungle Books :

The Jungle Book and The Second Jungle Book were once enormously popular with children, and even today not many people need to be told who Mowgh and Shere Khan are, though this knowledge must sometimes come only from having seen the Disney film. The judgement of an adult in such cases is not worth much; I can say little more than that I remember not liking them in my childhood. If memory serves, what put me off was something I would now try to define as paraded wisdom. I may have sensed what must be true, that they are very much the sort of books adults give children. Perhaps there ought to be an ‘it might seem’ before the ‘enormously popular’ above.

But J M S Tompkins, who had loved the stories since childhood, writes eloquently (pp. 66-9) about what she sees as their peculiar quality, consisting of their ‘fusion of three worlds’:

First of all, there is the child’s play-world, where all is really subject to his pastime. It is essentially a homely world, and the good beasts have prototypes in the child’s daily life. The identification of the similarity in the difference is part of the pleasure. Baloo is the conscientious, solicitous, elderly schoolmaster; but what enchanting lessons he teaches. From him Mowgli learns the master-words of all the tribes in the jungle. Mother and Father Wolf live in recognizable domesticity with their four cubs – who, apparently, like grown-up Victorian sons, remain under the family roof for years – but their delightful home is a cave. The heavy SeaCatch, with his bristling moustache, and his gentle mate, Matkah, reflect another kind of parental grouping, and it is with warm satisfaction that the child reads how SeaCatch flings himself into the battle on Kotick’s side with the shout: `Don’t tackle your father, my son; he’s with you.’ To this world belong, in the first instance, the pass-words and taboos of the jungle, which are entirely congenial to a child’s imagination. This is the part of the books that grew from the remembered children’s stories of Kipling’s youth, the Freemason lions and the boy who lived with wolves.

The second world, which it is impossible to distinguish from the first by the material it is built of, is the world of the fable proper. The elements of moral instruction, which are certainly not alien to a child’s world, are systematized. The beasts, without discarding pleasingly incongruous habits of their own, are plainly representative of human traits and conditions, and we are never oblivious of their counterparts in the world of men. They are grouped into arrangements that point a moral, and the moral may extend beyond a child’s comprehension, though it should not lie wholly outside it. In The Jungle Books the fable comes and goes, and sometimes lies like a transparent glaze over the adventures….

More important than these two worlds, however, is what I can only call the world of the wild and strange, the ancient and the far… The realm of wonder extends beyond the limits of myth. The magical distance and strangeness, of wich there are hints in the Just So Stories, are here all around us. In the midst of the jungle there is a vast ruined city, and uder it an abandoned treasure-house, where a sacred white cobra still guards the jewels; there are glades too, where the axe of the little Gond hunter flies across the clearing like a dragon-fly. Up in the Arctic the pack-ice grinds and roars round the unseen shores, and the sorcerer sings charms in his snow-hut… And in all these places people live with strange skills and strange beliefs.

A list of the critics we have cited on individual stories