Mowgli’s Brothers

(Notes edited by F.A. Underwood and John Radcliffe)


Finished in November 1892 before any of the other Mowgli stories except “In the Rukh” (Many Inventions May 1893); published in St. Nicholas Magazine January 1894 and collected in The Jungle Book in the same year. Accompanied by the poem “Hunting Song of the Seeonee Pack”.

The Story


A small naked child, about a year old, pursued by Shere Khan, a man-eating tiger, strays by night into the cave of a family of wolves. He pushes his way among the cubs to feed from Mother Wolf. Touched by his fearlessness, she protects him from the enraged tiger, and adopts him as one of her own, calling him ‘Mowgli, the Frog’. As a new ‘cub’ he is accepted into the wolf pack by Akela, the leader of the pack, despite the protests of Shere Khan. He is spoken for by Baloo, the bear, and by Bagheera, the black panther, who gives the pack a bull for him. The two great creatures then become his teachers in the ways and Law of the Jungle.

The second part of the story occurs ‘ten or eleven years later’, although the ages of Mowgli and some of the animals by then cause difficulties if the tale is taken too literally. Akela is too old to exert his authority, and is in danger of being killed by the younger wolves. Mowgli too is threatened by many of the wolves, and by Shere Khan. Bagheera tells him that he must save Akela by bringing back fire, that all animals fear, from a village close by. He does so, brandishing a flaming branch at the Council Rock, and facing down Shere Khan and the rebellious pack. Now all know that he is a man, and not a wolf. He must leave the jungle and join the world of men, though his brother wolves will always be his brothers.

Kipling’s sources

In August 1892, after Rudyard’s marriage to Caroline Balestier, the Kiplings settled on the outskirts of the little New England town of Brattleboro in Vermont in the north-eastern United States, where Caroline came from. Until their new house was built the following year, they lived in a small stone-built cottage on a farm. As he wrote in Something of Myself (p. 113):

My workroom on the Bliss Cottage was seven feet by eight, and from December to April the snow lay level with the window-sill. 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 memories 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.

So the details of the shadows in the moonlight in “The Spring Running”, of the summer heat burning up the jungle in “How Fear Came”, or the monkeys swinging through the trees in “Mowgli’s Brothers”, came from Kipling’s imagination, in a very different setting. He had, in fact, never been to the ‘Seeonee hills’. But that workroom would have had a great many books, and his reading on the subject was clearly extensive, including Beast and Man in India by his father Lockwood , published the previous year, Thirteen Years among the Wild Beasts of India by G P Sanderson (1878), An Account of Wolves Nurturing Children in their Dens by W H Sleeman (1888), and three books by R A Sterndale, “Seonee, or Camp Life on the Satpura Range (1877), Mammalia of India and Ceylon (1884, later revised by Frank Finn 1929), and Denizens of the Jungle (1886).

The Critics

Critics, biographers and students of literature have commented extensively on the Mowgli stories. The extracts which follow are only the tip of a massive iceberg.

Writing in 1940 of the first Mowgli story, “In the Rukh” in Many Inventions (1893), Edward Shanks writes:

… from this tentative beginning Kipling characteristically went on to something that is much greater. Mowgli ceases to be only a fascinating exhibit in the great anthropological museum that (from one point of view) India is. He becomes a myth, like Brer Rabbit or the Centaur or Reynard the Fox. As I have said before, Kipling has the myth-making genius. It is rare in modern literature but it is a sign of greatness whenever it occurs …

Charles Carrington, Kipling’s first authorised biographer, reports (p. 208):

We have his word for it … that the impulse was derived from a scene in Haggard’s Zulu romance, Nada the Lily, where, in a riot of supernatural fantasy, Umslopogaas is presented as running with a pack of wolves (though there are no true wolves in Zululand). This was but the beginning of a train of thought, and much more is necessary to account for the origins of the new, powerful, and lasting myth which Rudyard was to elaborate in the first and second Jungle Books, the best-sellers among his works.

The fable of the man-child who became master of the jungle, but who could not resolve the dilemma of his ambivalent life, the apparatus of Indian animal lore, the strange ethical concept called the Law of the Jungle, are Rudyard’s own and have no counterpart in Rider Haggard’s work.
It would be a shallow criticism of the Jungle Books to call them animal stories for children, though that is the mode in which they first enthral readers. Like their great original, Aesop’s Fables, or like the Yataka tales which the Kiplings knew so well, they impress themselves on the mind at more than one level.

The fables illustrate truths which – for such is the nature of successful fable – are not made more explicit by being interpreted at second hand. Every reader may find out for himself who is Mowgli, that strong, beautiful youth belonging neither to the village nor to the jungle; what allegory is expressed by his two kindly mentors, Bagheera the panther and Baloo the bear, by Shere Khan the bully whose great strength and ferocity fail him at every test, by the bandarlog, those gentry of the tree-tops whose only ambition is to be noticed, who suppose a thing has been done if it has been cleverly talked about, and what is the nature of `the Law’ which binds the jungle world into an integrated whole while allowing and even enjoining ruthless individual action within admitted bounds – the Law which especially constitutes Mowgli’s brothers as the `Free People’.

Philip Mason, in a later study, writes (p. 171):

It is the essence of the Mowgli myth that here concerns us – a hero who has no parents of his own, but loving foster-parents instead, who grows up strong and beautiful, but a stranger among beings of a lower order who cast him out because he is different. His own natural kind too repel him with stones. He has revenged himself on Shere Khan and now he revenges himself on the villagers by destroying their fields and houses; he goes back to the jungle and lives there again – but now he is the Master of the Jungle…

Mowgli, the odd man out among wolves and men alike, who triumphs over his enemies and accomplishes his revenge, sums up a formula which repeats itself with variations in “Rikki-Tikki-Tavi” and “The White Seal”. It is true that the White Seal did have parents, not fosterparents. But not only was he white, and they were not, which made him different from all other seals, but he asked questions, which no other seal did. He had a mission and could not marry till it was accomplished. He was the genius who is quite different from his parents; he is a more serious version of `The Elephant’s Child’.

In the story of that name (in The Just-So Stories) much the same formula was to reappear later. A young person who is different from his family and relations because he is always asking questions – for which they always punish him – finds a fosterparent in another gigantic python and eventually revenges himself on everyone who had punished him. Fantasy need not believe its own tales. Kipling did not think he was Mowgli. But who can doubt that he put into Mowgli much that he longed for, much that he felt deeply, much that he half suspected about himself?

Angus Wilson (p.122) another distinguished biographer and critic, writes:

For many people Mowgli, Baloo, Bagheera, Kaa and Co. are the Jungle Books – a kind of Greyfriars. But the merits of the individual Mowgli stories vary very much. Only a few, and perhaps only parts of these, show Kipling at his very top form.

The interest in the Mowgli group as a whole cannot really be a literary one. It is connected with his pervasive idea of the Law which is far
from Darwinian; we need note only that no animal will attack another at the pool in time of drought.

Into this world comes the lovable, strong, highly intelligent wolfcub boy, Mowgli, who learns the simple Law which in more complicated form he will have later to follow in human society. And, by his superior human intelligence and compassion, eventually also wins mastery in the animal world. The Law of the Jungle is absolute and can be followed by the animals with comparative ease, for they do not know tears or laughter, the things that make man’s life both more glorious and more complex and far more painfully burdensome among human beings than has ever been known in the Eden of Kaa and Baloo, however bloody and terrible many of the deeds that happen in the jungle.

Marghanita Laski (p. 124) stresses that the purpose of The Jungle Books is not to bring comprehension of animals:

It is to set up some simplified archetypes of humans, made more comprehensible and more – or less – attractive by being typified as animals. The lessons are hammered home: respect the family, the teachers, the overlords, and despise the talkers who never get anything done. It is no surprise that Kipling’s friend Robert Baden-Powell based the junior Boy Scouts, the Wolf Cubs, on The Jungle Books, or that Kipling greatly admired the Scout and Guide movements.

Sandra Kemp notes (p. 12) that Mowgli is caught between dual ‘realities:

‘As Mang the Bat flies between the beasts and birds so fly I between the village and the Jungle.’ But there is more to this duality. If both village and jungle are subject to a highly codified ‘Law’, they also incorporate irreducibly lawless energies. It is a lawlessness which Daniel Karlin sees embodied in the ‘feckless play’ of the Bandar-log: ‘inventing or appropriating a series of identities … 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, a threat to the ordered discourse of the jungle’ .

Mark Paffard, in Kipling’s Indian Fiction, 1989, (p. 91) notes that:

The jungle that Kipling creates for Mowgli is a curious amalgam. It is a place to be explored with the relish of childhood, and yet an evocation of a stereotypical ‘India’ of dark luxuriance and hidden danger … we can observe, clinging to the lessons that are absorbed, the dark and treacherous side of ‘India’ that is only finally dispensed with in Kim.

And Zohrah T Sullivan in Kipling the Night Walker (p. 1) (quoted by Harold Bloom in Rudyard Kipling: Modern Critical Views, 1987) also notes the similarities between Mowgli and Kim:

Kim and Mowgli are both divided between their desire to be loved and their need to control and be feared: ‘all the jungle was his friend, and just a little afraid of him’. Yet Mowgli will
leave the jungle sobbing for the loss of his only family and only home in which he is the acknowledged master. When he leaves the jungle, however, Mowgli enters the service of the British government as a forest-guard. So too will Kim leave his much loved Lahore street life for the British Secret Service.

Meanwhile Harry Ricketts comments (pp. 206-7) that what is most striking about Mowgli’s story from a biographical point of view is watching Kipling once more rewriting aspects of his own childhood:

The pattern of abandonment was repeated no fewer than three times: twice in ‘Mowgli’s Brothers’, which opened with him losing his human parents and closed with him being cast out by the wolf-pack; and again at the end of `Tiger! Tiger!’, when he was rejected by the village. Mowgli became, in effect, a super-orphan. But while the abandonment motif was magnified, so too were the emotional compensations. Kipling provided Mowgli at each successive abandonment with a queue of would-be foster-parents, falling over each other to look after him: Father and Mother Wolf, Akela the Lone Wolf, Baloo the Bear, Bagheera the Black Panther and Kaa the Python. Not only were all these wild animals eager to care for Mowgli, but they competed with each other for his affection and acknowledged his power over them, a situation that has appealed to generations of child readers.

Equally gratifying for Kipling was Mowgli’s eventual outwitting and destruction of Shere Khan the Lame Tiger, the malevolent would-be foster-parent who, like the giant or witch in the fairy story, wanted to eat the hero. Shere Khan stood for Mrs Holloway, and his sidekick, Tabaqui the jackal, for her son. There were, however, distinct traces of her Evangelical influence, suitably `improved’, in the obsession with rules that ran through the stories and was encoded in the `law of the jungle’. While these rules emphasised obedience and knowing your place, they also established ties with others and – one of Kipling’s favourite paradoxes – conferred the freedom to move between different worlds.


©F A Underwood and John Radcliffe 2008 All rights reserved