The Law of the Jungle

(notes by John McGivering and John Radcliffe)


First published in the Pall Mall Budget on June 7th, 1894, under the title “The Law for the Wolves”, with the story “How Fear Came”. The poem is listed in ORG as No. 605.

It is collected, as “The Law of the Jungle” in:

  • The Second Jungle Book (1895)
  • Songs from Books (1913)
  • Inclusive Verse (1919)
  • Definitive Verse (1940)
  • The Sussex Edition vols xxii and xxxiv (1939)
  • The Burwash Edition vol x1 and xxvii (1941)
  • Collected Poems of Rudyard Kipling Wordsworth poetry Library (1994)
  • Cambridge Edition (2013) Ed. Thomas Pinney, p. 1739.

The poem

The poem lists a set of rules for the Seonee wolf-pack, designed to ensure harmonious relations between the wolves, and effective common action. There is a strong stress on loyalty and obedience, qualities greatly valued by Kipling since his school days.

At the head of the poem Kipling writes:

Just to give you an idea of the immense variety of the Jungle Law, I have
translated into verse (Baloo always recited them in a sort of sing-song) a few of the laws that apply to the wolves. There are, of course, hundreds and hun­dreds more, but these will do for specimens of the simpler rulings.

At the beginning of “How Fear Came” he goes further:

The Law of the Jungle—which is by far the oldest law in the world—has arranged for almost every kind of accident that may befall the Jungle People till now; its code is as perfect as time and custom can make it. You will remember that Mowgli spent a great part of his life in the Seeonee Wolf-Pack, learning the Law from Baloo, the Brown Bear; and it was Baloo who told him, when the boy grew impatient at the constant orders, that the Law was like the Giant Creeper, because it dropped across every one’s back and no one could escape.

In the story, when there is extreme drought, measured by the emergence of the Peace Rock when the river waters are at their lowest, Hathi, the great elephant, who is the Master of the Jungle, declares the Water Truce:

By the Law of the Jungle it is death to kill at the drinking-places when once the Water Truce has been declared. The reason of this is that drinking comes before eating. Every one in the Jungle can scramble along somehow when only game is scarce; but water is water, and when there is but one source of supply, all hunting stops while the Jungle People go there for their needs.
[The Second Jungle Book, p. 7]

As Shamsul Islam [pp. 122-131] explains, Kipling’s “Law of the Jungle” asserts principles of social order in a world full of dangerous conflicts.

This is in marked contrast to the current use of the expression as meaning “every man for himself”, “survival of the fittest”, “kill or be killed”; or as in The Oxford English Dictionary, which defines it as: the code of survival in jungle life, now usually with reference to the superiority of brute force or self-interest in the struggle for survival.

Kipling believed that without a degree of order, provided by law, life would be nasty brutish and short, in the world as well as the jungle.

Notes on the Text

[Verse 2]

creeper: probably the karela. In “Mowgli’s Song against People” over “Letting in the Jungle”; momordica charantia, known as bitter melon, bitter gourd, bitter squash, or balsam-pear.

[Verse 4]

Jackal: a wild dog that feeds on carrion. found in Africa and southern Asia. Genus Canis. In The Jungle Book a jackal called Tabaqui, the Dish-licker, follows Shere Khan, the tiger, spies out prey for him, and lives on what is left when the tiger is satisfied.

[Verse 5]

Tiger: In The Jungle Book Shere Khan, the lame tiger, is Mowgli’s enemy, and is eventually killed by him. See “Tiger! Tiger!”.

Panther: Bagheera, the black Panther, befriends Mowgli, and becomes one of his teachers and surrogate fathers.

Bear: Baloo, the brown bear is another father-figure from Mowgli’s childhood, who teaches him the Law of the Jungle and the Master Words that keep him safe: ‘We be of one blood. ye and I’. See “Kaa’s Hunting”.

Hathi: the Elephant, the Master of the Jungle. In “How Fear Came” he declares the Water Truce. In “Letting in the Jungle”, with his sons, he wrecks the village where Mowgli’s mother has been mistreated, though without any killing:

I will let loose against you the fleet-footed vines –
I will call in the Jungle to stamp out your lines !
The roofs shall fade before it,
The house-beams shall fall;
And the Karela, the bitter Karela,
Shall cover it all.

Boar: The wild boar is a familiar jungle animal in India. See the poem “The Boar of the Year”, and “The Spring Running” (p. 276):

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

[‘Verse 9] The Lair of the Wolf is his refuge:  This echoes the saying: ‘an Englishman’s house is his castle’ used as early as the sixteenth century. [D.H.]

[Verse 15]

Yearling: a wolf in its second year of life. [D.H.]

Full-gorge: to eat as much as possible.

[Verse 16]

haunch: the leg and loin of an animal, often referred to of deer.

[Verse 18]

Gripe: a word of several meanings, here, perhaps the archaic ‘grip strongly’.

[Verse 19]

Obey!: This is also the theme of “Her Majesty’s Servants” where the chain of command, from the Empress of India down to the draught bullocks, is explained at the end of the story.

See also “A Boy Scout’s Patrol Song”, and “The Laws of the Navy”.

©John McGivering and John Radcliffe 2017. All rights reserved