The Jungle Books

An introduction


(This Introduction by Dr Daniel Karlin was originally written for the 1987 Penguin Classics Edition of The Jungle Books, and is reproduced by kind permission of PENGUIN CLASSICS.)


The appeal of the Jungle Books

The Jungle Books have always given me pleasure. As a child between the ages of eight and twelve, when I must have read them dozens of times, this pleasure was strong and deep, but narrow. It consisted of little more than self-identification with Mowgli in his adventures as an orphan, a little boy lost. Separated from his real parents as every child both dreads and longs to be, Mowgli is adopted and nurtured by a magically `other’ family, which yet retains the names and ties of the human original. (Father Wolf and Mother Wolf: what a binding of the familiar and the strange!) This theme persists in the non-Mowgli stories. In ‘Rikki-tikki-tavi’, for example, the human-to-animal pattern works in reverse – Rikki the mongoose is another foundling, washed by a flood ‘out of the burrow where he lived with his father and mother’, and adopted by a human family. Connected with it is the theme of strangeness, also attractive to children. To be strange is to be exceptional, like Kotick the White Seal – `There never has been such a thing in the world’, his father says – or like Mowgli, who is neither Man nor Wolf. Such strangeness is a source of alienation and suffering, but also of heroic status and prowess. Mowgli, at first rejected by the pack, finally saves it from Red Dog and is acknowledged as the Master of the Jungle; Kotick, at first mocked by his fellow-seals for his visionary project, eventually leads them to the haven `where no man comes’. “Kaa’s Hunting”, “Rikki-tikki-tavi”, “Quiquern”, “The Miracle of Purun Bhagat” … these stories are dominated by plot-patterns, dear to children, of rescue, salvation, and return.

In part, the pleasure the Jungle Books give me now is also that of return, of re-visiting and – re-interpreting this earlier pleasure – a pleasure taken in that solitary and jealous retreat where children read to and for themselves, wilful, perversely indifferent to literary or other contexts. I knew nothing of India, or of Kipling (except the Just So Stories), and swallowed many words and allusions whole which my understanding never bothered to digest. Why should it? And certainly no reading is stronger, strikes more tenacious roots than this; in the case of the Mowgli stories, for me, unspoiled by the preposterous versions peddled successively by Baden-Powell and Disney.

There is more to the Jungle Books than this: more for the reader and student of Kipling, of rhetoric (the skills of description and evocation), of myth and tales of the `primitive’; more, especially, for readers who also `read’ what they read, who are as interested as Kipling was himself in the art of fiction, for the jungle, like other `worlds’ in Kipling, is alive with stories and storytelling. There is more, in short, for the ‘grown-ups’; but readers who come prepared to `see’ the Jungle Books in these and other adult ways need to recognize, imaginatively if not from their own experience, the primacy in them of fantasy, of dark inward play. In this, besides, the Jungle Books are typical: a journey through Kipling’s best work, no matter where it takes you in analysis or judgement, must begin and end with naming one or another energy, one or another primary colour of the creative mind.

The Mowgli stories and the rest

The Jungle Books have traditionally been divided between the Mowgli stories and the rest. Kipling himself decided, for the Outward Bound edition of 1897, to redistribute the stories of The Jungle Book and The Second Jungle Book so that the first contained all the Mowgli stories, in `chronological’ order (that is, in the order of his career), and the second contained the others. This re-arrangement is more tidy than satisfying, especially in the case of The Second Jungle Book, a carefully structured collection in which the successive stories, whether they concern Mowgli or not, echo and comment on each other.

It may be argued that the Mowgli stories are the core of the Jungle Books, and that Kipling was doing no more than acknowledging their primacy. Certainly they possess a collective imaginative power which is greater than that of any of the other stories, though two of these – “The Miracle of Purun Bhagat”, its pathos and the grandeur of its descriptions anticipating the triumphs of the Himalayan scenes in Kim, and “The Undertakers”, that masterpiece of macabre comedy in which a crocodile remembers the days of his youth – have claims to be better individual tales. (Both are heroically ‘unsuitable’ for children; Kipling does not talk down.) But one of the central questions raised by the Mowgli stories is what kind of stories they are, and in both the original volumes the presence of widely differing kinds of animal story is an important part of the answer.

The gift of tongues

In all the stories, animals talk to each other, and people and animals communicate, but only in the Mowgli stories does a human being speak the language of animals. The narrator of “Servants of the Queen” understands beast language, but he is careful to emphasize that it is `not wild-beast language, but camp-beast language, of course’ – the language, in other words, of beasts who live within the dominion of people – and he does not let on even to these animals that he can understand them. Conversely, the Mugger in “The Undertakers” understands, but does not speak, the language of the villagers with whom he is so ravenously familiar. In stories such as “Toomai of the Elephants” and “The Miracle of Purun Bhagat”, people and animals communicate by gesture and intonation; for all his close communion with the `wild things’ who share Kali’s shrine with him, Purun Bhagat, at the end of the story, must puzzle out from their behaviour, not their `speech’, their warning that the hillside is about to fall.

Again, in “Quiquern”, when Kotuko and the girl find the two dogs who went mad and ran away, `they fell into his arms, yellow and black together, trying to explain how they had got their senses back again’. Mowgli’s gift of tongues sets him apart from all other animals and people, even in his own stories; the wolves in “Letting in the Jungle”, for example, cannot understand the mutterings of Buldeo. A human being may `become’ a wolf (in whatever sense we want to take it), but a wolf may not become human.

Human and animal life

Mowgli’s double identity – ‘As Mang the Bat flies between the and birds so fly I between the village and the jungle’ (“Mowgli’s Song”) – is denied to the animals even – indeed especially – when their own speech and actions are rendered in human terms. The most graphic example of this comes in “The White 5eal”. The seals in this story seem fully `human’ in their character, and Kipling deliberately altered his sources to give this impression – notably by changing the fur-seal’s seasonal polygamy into bourgeois marriage. (‘How thoughtful of you,’ says Matkah to her `husband’, Sea Catch, when she meets him on the Novastoshnah beach. `You’ve taken the old place again’ just as though it were their annual holiday in Cornwall.) At the same time, as the notes to the story make evident, Kipling used every scrap of natural history that he found in his source, so that Kotick has the emotions of a human being and the physical experiences of a seal. The technique is quite dissimilar to that employed in, say, Henry Williamson’s Tarka the Otter, where the life of a wild creature is evoked from the inside and the analogy with human life is oblique and ambivalent; a modern example of Kipling’s method would be Richard Adams’s Watership Down, where the descriptions of rabbits and other creatures also blend anthropomorphism and natural history.

But Kipling’s story has a twist to it. Kotick figures in the story as a prophet who, after a lonely and heroic quest for an island where seals will be secure from hunting, finally succeeds in finding it, overcomes the mockery of his fellow-seals, and Ieads them to the Promised Land. The feelings Kipling attributes to him and to the other seals are human; they spring from consciousness and are expressed in speech. But what of Kotick’s mission itself? Henry W. Allot, Kipling’s authority for the descriptions of the seal’s habitat and life in the story, wrote confidently in 1886 that the numbers of the fur-seal would never diminish. Six years later, Kipling knew or guessed better. “The White Seal” ends with a lyrical picture of ‘the quiet, sheltered beach where Kotick sits all the summer through, getting bigger and fatter and stronger each year, while the holluschickie play round him, in that sea where no man comes’. The song which follows, however, “Lukannon”, is `a sort of sad Seal National Anthem’, and it tells not of escape and survival, but of destruction:

I met my mates in the morning, a broken, scattered band,
Men shoot us in the water, and club us on the land.
Men drive us to the Salt House like silly sheep and tame,
And still we sing Lukannon – before the sealers came.

But in truth, survival and destruction are the same thing – that is, the new life to which Kotick leads the seals is an image of death. For Kotick is himself led to the paradisal beaches by Sea Cow, the Northern manatee, a species which was already extinct when Kipling wrote the story. The way to these beaches is through a long, dark tunnel under sheer cliffs, a passage of death and re-birth; the beaches themselves are a duplication of the beaches of Kotick’s home island – `before the sealers came’. A dead creature is Kotick’s guide to this world beyond the real world, which the story creates but whose fictionality it also exposes. `Year after year’, the story tells us, `more and more seals went away from Novastoshnah, and Lukannon, and the other nurseries, to the quiet, sheltered beaches’; salvation has become a figure of speech for the seals’ gradual extinction.

The paradox can only work if the seals – Kotick especially – do not cross the borderline which Mowgli crosses. The humanity of feeling which the fiction confers on them is pathetically and fatally circumscribed by the very nature of that fiction. They cannot realize the make-believe of their escape; unlike Mowgli, they cannot be the readers of their own story.

The making of Mowgli, distance and recollection

The Mowgli stories are the product of a multiple displacement. Kipling wrote the first of them, “Mowgli’s Brothers”, in November 1892 in Brattleboro, Vermont. He and Carrie, his American wife, were expecting their first child, and they were planning to build a house on a plot of land which they had bought from Carrie’s brother, Beatty Balestier. The quarrel with Beatty which ended their residence in America lay more than three years off; it seemed as though they were settled for good. Kipling had left India for (as it turned out) the last time at the end of 1891; the Anglo-Indian had become an Anglo-American.

Distance did not, of course, mean that Kipling stopped writing about India. Many of his best Indian stories (“The Bridge-Builders”, for example, which is linked to “The Undertakers” in The Second Jungle Book, and “Love-o’-Women”, the most complex and sombre of the Mulvaney stories) date from the period when he was working on the Jungle Books; in fact Kipling’s major writing on India was not completed until the publication of Kim in 1901. But there is a difference between these stories, which are set in the India Kipling knew, and the Mowgli stories in the Jungle Books. The banks of the Waingunga River, in the Seoni district of Central India, were doubly distant, since Kipling had never been there. In spite of every impression to the contrary – impressions he was supremely skilled at giving – the main landscape and figures of the Mowgli stories (and, for good measure, those of the two stories set in the Arctic region, “The White Seal” and “Quiquern”) are drawn not from life but from books. One of them was his own, as he wrote in Something of Myself (p. 113):

It chanced that I had written a tale about Indian Forestry work which included a boy who had been brought up by wolves. In the stillness, and suspense, of the winter of ’92 some memory of the Masonic lions of my childhood’s magazine, and a phrase in Haggard’s Nada the Lily, combined with the echo of this tale. After blocking out the main idea in my head, the pen took charge, and I watched it begin to write stories about Mowgli and animals, which later grew into the Jungle Books.

The ‘tale about Indian Forestry’ is “In the Rukh”, which was to be published in Many Inventions (1893). It is told through the character of Gisborne, a Forest Officer in Northern India, who meets Mowgli some years after he has left the jungle, befriends him, and eventually enrols him as a ranger; Mowgli marries the daughter of Gisborne’s servant. Gray Brother and the other cubs appear in the story – I am sorry to have to say that Mowgli shows off with them by getting them to drive game for Gisborne. Notice that Kipling does not attribute to the writing of “In the Rukh” the sign of the presence of his `Daemon’, his true creative power – that sense of `the pen taking charge’ – rightly, in my view, because next to the other Mowgli stories it looks desperately thin.

To go from “Red Dog” to a story where Mowgli’s wolves have lost dignity and pathos, and dance for him to the music of his flute in order to assist his courtship, or to go from “The Spring Running” to a story where Mowgli ends up in the Indian Civil Service, married and looking forward to his pension, is almost unbearable. Is there a lover of Kipling who never blushes for him? But we must remember that, as he makes clear, “In the Rukh” was not a betrayal of Mowgli but a half-baked anticipation of him. Nor is it the only piece of indifferent writing which contributed to the making of Mowgli.


Kipling had already mentioned the `Masonic Lions of my childhood’s magazine’ in the first chapter of Something of Myself as part of his childhood reading: `I came across a tale about a lion-hunter who fell among lions who were all Freemasons, and with them entered into a confederacy against some wicked baboons’, which `lay dormant until the Jungle Books began to be born’.

The allusion, traced by R. L. Green, is to James Greenwood’s story, “King Lion”, which was published in the Boy’s Own Magazine in 1864:

It tells of the hunter Linton Maberly who meets a lion suddenly when out shooting, and, having no time to reload his rifle, makes in a mad moment of terror `the ever potent sign known to all Freemasons’, and, to his astonishment, the lion ‘made the dread COUNTER-SIGN known only to those who have passed through the Three Degrees of the mystic order’. The lion, Prince Zambanie, son of King Lion, befriends Maberly, teaches him the Lion language, and conducts him to the leonine court at Liondens. On the way occurs the brush with the Baboons which culminates in the concerted attack by the Lions on the baboon stronghold, and the defeat and chastisement of these rebellious subjects of King Lion.’

Nada the Lily, H. Rider Haggard’s romance, published in 1892, relates an episode in the career of Umslopogaas, one of the heroes of Haggard’s Alan Quatermain. In the course of the story, Umslopogaas is rescued from a lioness by Galazi the Wolf. Galazi tells Umslopogaas how he became King of the Wolves; these wolves are ghost-wolves, encountered by Galazi on Ghost Mountain. Galazi describes finding the skeleton of a man sitting on a ledge of rock inside a cave, with two wolves, one female and one male, forever leaping up at it, trying to get at the bones; and it was specifically from this passage, Kipling wrote to Haggard, that he `got the notion’.

Realism and fantasy

Something of Myself is an elliptical and allusive book, and at times a misleading one, but nothing in it is casual. Kipling, I suggest, has given us not just the `sources’ of the Mowgli stories, but a hint on how to read them. He mentions three things – his own story, Rider Haggard’s romance, and the Masonic lions. What characterizes the first, “In the Rukh”, is that it is a botched attempt at a `realistic’ Mowgli – one based on the stories of wolf-children which Kipling would have found in, for example, Sir William Henry Sleeman’s pamphlet, “An Account of Wolves Nurturing Children in Their Dens.” The ‘gigantic German’ Muller, the Head Ranger, guesses that Mowgli is a wolf-child from the calluses on his knees and elbows, a detail mentioned several times by Sleeman; and Muller remarks:

`Normally they die young – dese beople … Sometimes you hear of dem in der census reports, but dey all die’, another of Sleeman’s observations.

“In the Rukh” remains a fantasy (Mowgli is `impossible’, in Sleeman’s terms, not just in having survived to maturity, but in other ways, as we shall see), but it is based on this framework of nominal verisimilitude, of physical evidence and census reports; and this is reinforced by the narrative orientation of the story, whose focus is not Mowgli himself but Gisborne, the Forest Officer to whom Mowgli attaches himself.

Nada the l.ily, by contrast, is a full-blooded romance, with a strong element of the supernatural. The pack of ghost-wolves who figure in it are spirits of evil human beings, and Galazi, the King of the Wolves, rules over them by magic. In fact they correspond to the creatures who figure in Buldeo’s village stories in “Tiger-Tiger!” and “Letting in the Jungle” – stories for which Mowgli has nothing but contempt. When Buldeo explains that Shere Khan `was a ghost-tiger, and his body was inhabited by the ghost of a wicked, old moncy-lender, who had died some years ago’, Mowgli declares that such tales are `cobwebs and moon-talk’, and that Buldeo `has not said one word of truth concerning the jungle, which is at his very doors’. Haggard is firmly rejected as a model here: if the Mowgli stories do not belong to realism, neither can they be claimed by romance.


What of the `Masonic lions’? `There is undoubtedly some foreshadowing of Mowgli’s jungle world in King Lion,’ says R. L. Green, pointing out that the lions’ Parliament `meets on a rocky hill very like the Council Rock’, and that the bad Baboons resemble Kipling’s monkeys, the ‘Bandar-log’. But the importance of King Lion – the reason why Kipling took the trouble to mention it – must surely lie in its use of Freemasonry. Kipling had been initiated in the Lodge `Hope and Perseverance 782 F.C.’ in Lahore in 1885, and Freemasonry is continuously present in his fiction, most famously in “The Man Who Would be King”. In India, as has often been pointed out, Freemasonry was one of the few meeting-grounds for people from different races and castes; Kipling wrote in Something of Mself (pp. 52-53) of his Lodge:

Here I met Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, members of the Araya and Brahmo Samaj, and a Jew tyler, who was priest and butcher to his little community in the city. So yet another world opened to me which I needed.

Mowgli undergoes two initiations: first when he is accepted into the Seeonee Wolf Pack (who call themselves the `Free People’), and second, later on, when Hathi teaches him the Master-words of the Jungle. Once he has learned to cry `We be of one blood, ye and I’ in the language of the various tribes or peoples of the jungle, Mowgli can move among them with the same freedom as Kipling among India’s heterogeneous social and religious groups. Each of them has a code, a sign-system, by which they can be known, and their worlds open to Mowgli’s understanding. The only ones with whom he is forbidden to have anything to do are the Bandarlog, because their code is not fixed: they are irresponsible, playful, a threat to the ordered discourse of the jungle. They are constantly picking up bits and pieces of other people’s codes, inventing or appropriating a series of identities … in some ways, in fact, they are disturbingly like the kind of writer Kipling was.

The jungle as a crossing-point


Kipling’s three ‘sources’ suggest to us, then, that the fictional world of Mowgli’s jungle is a border area, a crossing point between genres (natural history, fable, romance); we must be alert to the special codes and ceremonies which apply in such places. To begin with, we need to take account of the peculiar effect which Kipling’s choice of genre (or rather refusal to choose between genres) had on his use of the wealth of secondary literature available to him. The Mowgli stories are profoundly at odds with the `sources’ from which they both derive and deviate. They are artful and artificial – a confection, a `theatre’. (The more natural, the less convincing they would he in their own terms.) The best example of this is the most obvious: Kipling’s treatment of the wolf-child story.


`India is probably the cradle of wolf-child stories,’ wrote Kipling’s father, John Lockwood Kipling,`which are here universally believed and supported by a cloud of testimony.’ Sleeman’s pamphlet on the subject has already been mentioned; some of its details strongly suggest that Kipling knew it, and used it both for “In the Rukh” and for the Mowgli stories of the Jungle Books. For example, Sleeman has a mother recognizing her lost son, like Messua in “Tiger-Tiger!”, and taking him back into her home. But whereas Mowgli forms an attachment to Messua so strong that he eventually returns to her from the jungle, Sleeman says of the boy in his account:

He followed his mother for what he could get to eat, but showed no particular affection for her, and she could never bring herself to feel much for him; and after two months … she left him to the common charity of the village.

This is part of the picture deliberately painted by Sleeman of the characteristic features o(‘ such cases. His first account begins with a deceptively pastoral scene:

A trooper … was passing along the bank of the river, near Chandour, about noon, when he saw a large female Wolf leave her den, followed by three whelps and a little boy. The boy went on all fours, and seemed to be on the best possible terms with the old dam and the three whelps, and the mother seemed to guard all four with equal care.

Very like Mother Wolf, the cubs, and Mowgli – so far. Then the boy is captured, and the pastoral turns sour:

They took the boy to the village, but had to tie him, for he was very restive, and struggled hard to rush into every hole or den they came near. They tried to make him speak, but could get nothing from him but an angry growl or snarl … When any cooked meat was put near him he rejected it in disgust; but when any raw meat was offered, he seized it with avidity, put it on the ground under his hands, like a dog, and ate it with evident pleasure … His features are coarse and his countenance repulsivc, and he is very filthy in his habits.

The boy was still living when Sleeman wrote this passage; a footnote, however, informs us that he died soon after, and that:

he was never known to laugh or smile. He understood little of what was said to him, and seemed to take no notice of what was going on around him. He formed no attachment for anyone, nor did he seem to care for anyone. He never played with any of the children around him, or seemed anxious to do so … He shunned human beings of all kinds, and would never willingly remain near one. To cold, heat, and rain he appeared to be indifferent, and he seemed to care for nothing but eating.

So much for the benefits of a jungle upbringing! Sleeman’s accounts (there are six of them in the pamphlet) show the wolf children as dumb, savage, filthy and wretched. In only one passage – where wolves follow the child after his capture and play with him – is Sleeman at all close to Kipling in the feel of his narrative. Kipling, on the other hand, can be said to be close to Sleeman: Mowgli is almost the exact inverse of Sleeman’s typical wolf-child. Far from being deprived of language by being brought up among animals, he has mastered many animal languages and has no difficulty picking up human speech. He simply has to learn what things are called; there is no difference between animal and human languages in terms of complexity or expressiveness. Nor is he deprived of nurture – his foster-wolves duplicate the human model – or of education, since he is taught both skills and manners by Baloo and Bagheera (and later by Kaa).

The inadaptability of wolf-children to `normal’ life is treated by Sleeman as a matter of irreversible alienation; Mowgli, however, is not an alien, but simply a stranger. When, in “Tiger-Tiger!”, he refuses to play with the village children, it is not because he is brutish but because he is more mature than they. Kipling also goes to some trouble to emphasize that Mowgli is clean. He eats raw meat, of course, but not, apparently, in a way that need disgust us to imagine (and Baloo the bear is on hand to point out the virtues of a balanced diet). Sleeman’s wolf-children stink; Mowgli bathes every day. He is healthy and handsome, and walks upright – one of Kipling’s most significant rejections of Sleeman, whose wolf-children run on all fours. Above all, Mowgli has a real emotional life, since the feelings which Sleeman finds lacking in his wolf-children – humour, affection, curiosity – are present in full measure in the Jungle.

But if Kipling’s portrait of Mowgli can be read as an inversion of Sleeman, it is not so in the sense of being a rebuttal of the facts or an argument about their bearing on the questions which such cases have traditionally raised. These questions – about language, behaviour, identity – depend on an opposition between the terms `natural’ and `social’, `inherent’ and `acquired’; in a basic sense, are human beings born or made? Sleeman does not address the issue directly, but his account implicitly challenges the idea that our humanity is `natural’, and suggests that we depend on the social environment in which we are born for the twin features – verbal language and selfconsciousness – which are held to distinguish human beings from animals.

With this issue – whether it is defined in terms of anthropology, natural history, psychology, linguistics or philosophy – Kipling has nothing to do. He abolishes the ground of distinction between human and animal environment, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that he destabilizes it; so that when Mowgli, who has been well and truly `socialized’ in the Seeonee Wolf Pack, encounters human society, it is an encounter not between `nature’ and `culture’, but between two forms of culture. Mowgli is `natural man’ not as the scientists deduced him, but as Montaigne ironically depicted the cannibal, a being more honourable, more virtuous, more civilized than the cultured savage of Europe.

Kipling borrows and transmutes natural history

Kipling took up Sleeman’s evidence, but not on Sleeman’s ground; and he did the same with his major source for the descriptions of the wild animals in the Jungle Books, the work of Robert Armitage Sterndale. Sterndale’s Natural History of the Mammalia of India and Ceylon, his autobiographical `novel’ Seonee, and his coffee-table picture book Denizens of the Jungles, all contributed material, and between them virtually every aspect of life in Mowgli’s jungle is covered.

Many of Kipling’s borrowings, some of them literally word for word, are recorded in the notes, but what I want to stress here is the arbitrariness and inconsistency with which Kipling treated the information he found in Sterndale. Shere Khan the tiger, for example, is a cowardly villain, while Bagheera the black panther is noble and daring. Why should it not have been the other way around? Sterndale is uncomplimentary about both beasts; in one place he calls the panther a mean, treacherous, tyrannical bravo’, and elsewhere he alludes to its unpleasant feeding habits and willingness to attack people, both unthinkable in the fastidious and gallant Bagheera. The `fearful symmetry’ of Blake’s tiger is taken away from Shere Khan, who is lame, and awarded to Bagheera by authorial fiat. Such is Kipling’s power of suggestion that you don’t question this as a child, it appears `natural’ and inevitable, and it is a wrench for me now to have to insist that Kipling has chosen it to be so – for a reason.

Wolves, Sterndale says, carry off hundreds of children from villages every year, as a matter of course, but when the wolves of the Seeonee Pack do this it is put down to Shere Khan’s corrupting influence. Then there is the character of the dholes, the wild dogs, in `Red Dog’. Granted, Sterndale has some harsh things to say about the temper of the wild dog, but they refer only to animals in captivity.

What Kipling has done is to take every distinguishing feature mentioned by Sterndale and give it the accent of disapproval. Where he cannot do this he alters the facts. Sterndale, for example, says that the dholes hunt in groups of `six or eight, or more’; Kipling has a pack of two hundred. Sterndale, along with other authorities, comments on the wild dogs’ courage and untiring persistence; Kipling makes the courage into bullying ferocity, and the persistence into a kind of brutal vulgarity. Sterndale remarks that wild dogs hunt deer and pigs, and that they do not give tongue in the chase; Kipling’s dholes are mocked for eating lizards and rodents, and their silence in pursuit is sullen and sinister. Wild dogs make their lairs in “holes and caves in rocks’ (exactly like the wolves), says Sterndale; Kipling’s dholes live out in the open, ‘sleeping and playing and scratching themselves among the little hollows and tussocks that they use for lairs’. Sterndale dispassionately remarks that ‘the wild dog endeavours to seize the quarry by the flank and tear out the entrails’; Kipling puts it that A wolf, you must know, flies at the throat or snaps at the flank, while a dhole by preference bites low’ – the dirty dog! Wild dogs have ‘large, hairy-soled feet; Kipling seized on this detail and converted it into a racial slur, so that to have ‘hair between the toes’ instead of being ‘clean-footed’ is a sign of the dholes’ inferiority to the wolves.

Last but not least, the ominous epithet which supplies the title, `Red Dog’, is Kipling’s inspired invention; Sterndale’s adjective is `golden’. We need only imagine Mowgli brought up among the small, but plucky `golden dogs’ (the larger, bullying wolves are a dirty grey or black), living out in the open (whereas wolves skulk in caves), and hunting in decent silence (whereas wolves howl ignominiously) to see how arbitrary are the values which Kipling has added to the raw data which he found in his sources.

Jungle life as a metaphor


Kipling, then, has cooked his books; but to what recipe? If the Jungle is not nature in opposition to civilization, but is itself another civilization, is one a metaphor for the other? At the end of’ “The Spring Running”, in the exhortation-song which Mowgli hears the animals singing as he finally `goes to Man’, this reading seems plainly indicated by the first three verses. Baloo, Kaa and Bagheera all speak of the life Mowgli is about to lead in terms of life in the jungle:

When thy pack would make thee pain,
Say, ‘Tabaqui sings again.’
When thy Pack would work thee ill,
Say: `Shere Khan is yet to kill.’

But in the last verse, sung by the three together, the implication is quite different; exhortation is displaced by pathos, and the distinction between animal and human is sharply

On the trail that thou must tread
To the threshold of’ our dread,
Where the Flower blossoms red;
Through the nights when thou shalt lie
‘Prisoned from our Mother-sky,
Hearing us, thy loves, go by-,
In the dawns, when thou shalt wake
“To the toil thou canst not break,
Heartsick for the jungle’s sake;
Wood and Water, Wind and Tree,
Jungle-Favour go with thee!

Crossing thresholds


Fire, the `red flower’, defines the `threshold’ which the beasts cannot cross; it is a symbol of dominion, and not just in material terms. The fire which Prometheus stole is an element of
imaginative as well as physical power. So much for what Mowgli gains when he leaves the jungle; but what he loses is equally stressed. He is exiled from the ‘Mother-sky’, from the `loves’ of the beasts, and he is condemned to unending `toil’. The jungle is Paradise, and Mowgli leaves it like Adam for the world of work. It is also open to the ‘Mother-sky’, and Mowgli leaves it for the self-contained and self-containing world of houses and social identity; the self, which was blissfully multiple and dissolute in its relationships (its `loves’) must now adopt a single and uniform identity.

One way of resolving this apparent ambivalence in Kipling’s idea of what the jungle stands for would be to see it as an allegory not of human life or society in general, but of childhood and adolescence in particular. The Mowgli stories, according to this idea, relate the child’s archetypal journey towards maturity, in which the animals he encounters represent his teachers, tempters, companions and enemies. At the same time, the discourse itself (that of play, of make-believe) marks the difference between childhood and adulthood. The onset of puberty is also the onset of nostalgia. This point is finely made towards the end of “The Spring Running” (pp. 288-9), in a moment which glances with unembarrassed delicacy at Mowgli’s sexual awakening:

`And now what is to be?’ said Gray Brother. Mowgli was going to answer when a girl in a white cloth came down some path that led from the outskirts of the village. Gray Brother dropped out of sight at once and Mowgli backed noiselessly into a field of high springing crops. He could almost have touched her with his hand when the warm green stalks closed before his face and he disappeared like a ghost. The girl screamed, for she thought she had seen a spirit, and then she gave a deep sigh. Mowgli parted the stalks with his hands and watched her till she was out of sight.
`And now I do not know,’ he said, sighing in his turn.

Undeniably the Mowgli stories are bounded by this realization of an erotic self, in which the wolf-boy disappears like a ghost into the fertile landscape. But this, persuasive though it is in some respects, is an incomplete reading of the whole. To begin with, it ignores the fact that the world of the jungle includes people – that the adult life towards which Mowgli is meant to be progressing is already present in the nearby village where lie first discovers his human mother, then loses her again before finding her for good in “The Spring Running”. Mowgli undergoes exile twice from the jungle, the first time at the end of the very first story, “Mowgli’s Brothers”, when at the age of about twelve or thirteen he ‘went down the hillside alone, to meet those mysterious things that are called men’. (His relatively young age, and the fact that he returns to the jungle within a mattcr of months, are another of Kipling’s transformations of Sleeman’s material.) In the first episode the jungle casts Mowgli out; in the second, he casts himself out.

Human and animal nature


Second, the idea that the jungle is a proving-ground for adult life assumes that the figures who inhabit it can be interpreted in recognizably human terms. But critics have been too quick – especially in one instance – to draw simple comparisons between the animals and the qualities or characteristics which they are supposed to represent. Only Baloo, perhaps, is all tutor and favourite uncle; perhaps that is one reason why he fades into the background in the later stories and is replaced by Kaa. For the rest, there is something other, something recalcitrantly estranged from human experience, in the silky violence of Bagheera, the silence and lordship of Hathi, and the cold, ageless, fathomless wisdom of Kaa. In “Red Dog”, Kaa, seeking a stratagem to defeat the dholes, tells back to himself the tale of his years, while the ‘light seemed to go out of his eyes and leave them like stale opals’; in his trance of memory he sees ‘all the dead seasons … the great trees and the old elephants and the rocks that were bare and sharp-pointed ere the moss grew’. What `adult’ counterpart is there to this?

It is the monkeys, of course, the ‘`infamous Bandar-log’, who have attracted the most comparisons with people. Not that Kipling can be accused of Sterndale’s racist joke, in the first plate of his Denizens of the Jungles, which shows two Gond hunters and two monkeys in identical poses and with identical facial features, and, on the verso of the print where Sterndale gives the `scientific’ names, has the legend `Homo Sapiens?’ for the Gonds. Kipling’s ground of comparison is more sophisticated; it implies a satirical, a Swiftian view of human nature. Mowgli himself is the first of many critics to make the point, in “Letting in the Jungle” (‘Chatter – chatter! Talk, talk! Men are blood-brothers of the Bandar-log’), and he has been followed by those who see the monkeys as the democratic mob, as the intelligentsia, as the politicians, or simply as all humankind.

But the terms in which the Bandar-log are so convincingly imagined are those of likeness, not sameness. And likeness is shadowed always by an incompletion, an inadequacy, a gap of interpretation; in the half-light we both see the object which is being represented, and sense its refusal fully to be illumined and understood. The Bandar-log occupied Cold Lairs and ‘called the place their city … And yet they never knew what the buildings were made for nor how to use them. They would sit in circles on the hall of the king’s council chamber, and scratch for fleas and pretend to be men (my italics). It is this element of pretence, of feckless play, which banishes the Bandar-log from communion with the jungle people, and which makes them, in the end, so different from the human beings whose activities they mimic, but whose actual purposes and nature they are incapable of realizing. They live from day to day, without law, without memory; they embody, if you like, that part of our nature whose floating, irresponsible and self-absorbed energy is at odds with the principle of ordered and controlled design. Living in this pure element of play, the Bandar-log represent something which we recognize in ourselves, and yet this something is not ourselves, it both exceeds (in its intensity) and falls short (in its scope); and it is proper that it should be so, proper to the fictional nature of Mowgli’s Jungle.


The power of story telling


It would be wrong, also, to soften in outline, and reduce in scale, the actual events and experiences which make up Mowgli’s life in the jungle, and to see them as no more than make-believe episodes which lead up to the moment of magical self-becoming when he sees the girl among the crops in “The Spring Running”. The power which informs the scenes in which Mowgli is kidnapped by the Bandar-log and taken to Cold Lairs, or orders Hathi to destroy the village to take the smell of Messua’s blood out of his nostrils, cannot be so easily accommodated. It is a power which works in the very shape of the stories: for example, the `ancient patterns of desperate valour’ which J. M. S. Tompkins points to in “Red Dog”, with its `threat of a barbarian horde, the sacrificial exploit, the fight in the narrow place, the death of the old leader’ ; or the modelling or ”The King’s Ankus’ on the old fable of self-destroying greed whit It Chaucer had used in The Pardoner’s Tale. It is a power which also works in the articulation of ideas – most famously in the idea of Law, the Law of the Jungle.

Ideas of the Law


As has been often said, this is the very reverse of what it has come to imply in other contexts. Far from being a principle of ruthless and cynical struggle for survival (as in “The Undertakers”, where ‘eat and be eaten was fair law along the river’), it is a principle which embodies the most complex and sophisticated ideas of order. But it is not equivalent to the Law before which Purun Baghat salaams in Simla as he is moved on by a policeman – the law of secular institutions – nor to the higher, spiritual Law which Purun Bhagat is seeking, the `Way’ of enlightenment. In so far as it is a code of conduct which demands obedience, it resembles the authority to which the beasts in “Servants of the Queen” resort, when pushed to answer why they do their duty; as the concluding lines of `The Law of the Jungle’ put it:

Now these are the Laws of the Jungle, and many and mighty
are they;
But the head and the hoof of the Law and the haunch and the
hump is – Obey!

However, in other respects the Law is not a code, which can be kept or broken according to the choice of free moral agents; it is natural law, an overmastering discourse of `the way things are’. (There are limits to this, of course; if the Law of the Jungle were interpreted strictly according to natural history, it could not accommodate Mowgli at all.) In “How Fear Came”, Baloo tells Mowgli that the Law is `like the Giant Creeper, because it dropped across everyone’s back and no one could escape’. In this sense, the Law is not externalized, but internal to every creature, the law of their nature which compels them, for example, to hunt for food, to protect their young, to seek mates in the spring; Baloo’s `maxims’ on such subjects are superfluous, since what they teach is a matter of instinctive knowledge to all the beasts in the jungle; it is hard to see what Baloo did before Mowgli arrived.

Mowgli and the Law


Mowgli’s relation to the Law of the Jungle is richly problematic. His survival depends on his being able to acquire a knowledge of the Law of the Jungle – that is, how the jungle works – which, had he been born a wolf, would have been his birthright. At the same time, his own case is not covered by the Law, despite the boast that it has `arranged for almost every kind of accident that may befall the jungle People’. It has not arranged for the accident of an intermediate being. Mowgli becomes subject to the Law, but subject by adoption; the difference is always there, just as it is between him and the wolves.

Kipling’s language; power, resonance, and energy


Finally, the power of the Mowgli stories, which takes them beyond the grasp of any particular moral or allegorical design, makes itself felt most strongly of all in their language of description. Kipling’s close attention to physical detail, his sympathy with the body and with living things, appears in the opening sentence of “Mowgli’s Brothers”, when Father Wolf `spread out his paws one after the other to get rid of the sleepy feeling in their tips’, and continues down to “The Spring Running”, when Mowgli’s voice, in the spring, `could be heard in all sorts of wet star-lighted blossoming places, helping the big frogs through their choruses, or mocking the little upside-down owls that hoot through the white nights’. In the ruins of Cold Lairs, Kaa the Rock Python performs his hunger-dance; Hathi wheels in the moonlight to show Mowgli the `long white scar on his slaty side’; the Peace Rock lies across the shallows of the drought-shrunk Waingunga River `like a long snake, and the little tired ripples hissed as they dried on its hot side’.

Kipling’s skill at tuning such descriptions is so great that a touch suffices to give them, in selected places, a resonance of meaning far beyond their literal sense. In “The Spring Running” (p.276), Mowgli, running towards the Northern Marshes, receives a warning which might have come to Adonis:

He would hear, very faint and far off, the chug-drug of a boar sharpening his tusks on a bole; and later would come across the great brute all alone, scribing and rending the red bark of a tree, his mouth dripping with foam and his eyes blazing like fire.

Mowgli heeds the warning; he goes to his Venus among the crops. The word `scribing’ surges at you, with the shock of an unexpected precision: the boar literally carves the tree with his raging sexual energy, in a grotesque parody of lovers’ graffiti.

Narrative design and rhetorical intensity, then, along with complexity and ambivalence of ideas, suggest that the Mowgli stories exceed or contradict their purpose, if that purpose is understood as the allegorical representation of a child’s formative experiences. They have what Wordsworth, in the opening passage of “The Prelude”, calls a:

`redundant energy,
Vexing its own creation’.

And it is this redundant energy, self-delighting and self-justifying, which in the end is the reason why the Mowgli stories, and the Jungle Books as a whole, are worth reading. When Mowgli feels the drive towards change and growth which takes him out of the jungle, Baloo responds with a poignant and tender rebuke (pp. 293-4):

‘Listen, dearest of all to me,’ said Baloo. `There is neither word nor will here to hold thee back. Look up! Who may question the Master of the Jungle? I saw thee playing among the white pebbles yonder when thou wast a little frog; and Bagheera, that bought thee for the price of a young bull newly killed, saw thee also. Of that Looking Over we two only remain, for Raksha, thy lair-mother, is dead with thy lair-father; the old Wolf-Pack is long since dead; thou knowest whither Shere Khan went, and Akela died among the dholes, where but for thy wisdom and strength the second Seeonee Pack would also have died. There remain nothing but old bones. It is no longer the Man-cub that asks leave of his Pack, but the Master of the Jungle that changes his trail. Who shall question Man in his ways?’

In the beautiful rhythms of this speech, ending with that rolling Biblical cadence, Baloo makes it clear that Mowgli’s story is over, that what he has outgrown is a fiction which is no longer adequate to sustain and mediate his identity. And Baloo is himself telling one final tale, a tale of death and loss, `old bones’; out of this dead fiction of himself Mowgli steps into a wistful new life, as all backward-glancing readers step out of the framework of their reading.


©Daniel Karlin 1987 All rights reserved