First published in Pall Mall Magazine and St Nicholas Magazine, November 1893, with illustrations by W K Drake, and a twelve-line verse heading: ‘In the hole where he went in…’, collected in The Jungle Book, 1894.
The Jungle Book and The Second Jungle Book have never been out of print since they were written, and they are available in numerous paperback editions, including annotated editions from Penguin and Oxford, and on Kindle from Amazon.
This story is an epic, in which courage and skill defeat the forces of evil.
An English couple and their son, Teddy, have recently moved in to a bungalow with a big overgrown garden. On the path one day they find a young mongoose, Rikki-Tikki-Ravi, who has been washed out of his burrow by a flood. They think he is drowned and dead, but he soon recovers and, after the manner of mongooses, makes himself thoroughly at home with the family. In the garden he encounters a pair of big cobras, Nag and Nagaina, who try to kill him, but fail. He finds a karait, another deadly snake, on the path where Teddy is stooping, and kills it. He then overhears the cobras planning to kill Teddy’s father, and Nag lies in wait for him in the bathroom. Instead he encounters Rikki, who boldly attacks him, and makes so much noise that Teddy’s father comes in with his gun. and blasts Nag to death.
Then Rikki finds out where Nagaina hides her eggs, destroys all but one, and finds the big snake threatening Teddy at the breakfast table. To save her last egg she turns away, seizes it, and flees. But Rikki follows her down into her burrow, and kills her there. There will be no more danger from cobras in that garden.
Angus Wilson (p. 123) writes of this story:
“Rikki Tikki Tavi” has rightly commanded some attention because the fight between the mongoose and the snakes takes place in that clearly seen backyard bungalow compound which is Kipling’s visual forte; but it is marred surely for modern readers by the whimsical intrusion of the human family.
Mark Paffard (p. 91) sees this as a parable of the British in India:
… the story of the adopted mongoose who loyally fights off the cobras which threaten the English family in their bungalow. The balance that has to be struck here is between the White liberal’s refusal to look death in the face, and the mongoose’s (i.e. loyal native’s) utterly casual acceptance of it.
Harry Ricketts (p. 207) also sets the tale, first presented alongside the Mowgli stories, in the context of British India:
The non-Mowgli stories in the volume offered variations on the main themes. `Rikki-Tikki-Tavi’, for instance, replayed the basic pattern of abandonment, fosterage and victory, but here the orphaned hero, the quick-witted mongoose, found loving human foster-parents; and, unlike Mowgli, he was personally allowed to kill his enemies, the cobras Nag and Nagaina and their offspring. In most of the tales the British presence in India was either minimal or simply not an issue…
Elliott Gilbert sees the story as expressing a theme that is central to The Jungle Books:
…the theme of expulsion from Eden runs like a leitmotif through the whole of The Jungle Books. Mowgli, for example, is thrust by accident out of the bosom of his family into the hard jungle, there to survive or not as chance and his own talents may determine. The same is true of Rikki-tikki-tavi, a mongoose who is washed away from his parents in a summer flood and who must try to make a place for himself in a new world, to find love and acceptance in a new and different society.
W W Robson in his Introduction to the Oxford World Classics edition of 1987 (p. xxviii) writes:
…”Rikki-tikki-tavi” seems to be a story that was born, not made. The adults and children who enjoy it together are enjoying the same things. Also the story may be more obviously attractive than the Mowgli stories, though they are deeper and more powerful. Rikki has the moral virtues Kipling wants us to admire, but he is less part of the official machinery than Mowgli. There are no bears, etc: lecturing on civics; and the Law is only present by implication.’ The mongoose has his own law, he is an empiricist.
The story beautifully creates the world of the Indian bungalow and the garden. The sinister Nag and his wife Nagaina render the Kipling aphorism: ‘the female of the species is more deadly than the male.’ There is humour in Darzee.and his wife. The balance of sympathies is well held, the fallacies of Darzee, the realism of his wife, the timidity of Chuchundra versus the bravery of Rikki, the evil Nag, and Nagaina even more savage but more sympathetic, trying to save her children.
©F A Underwood and John Radcliffe 2008 All rights reserved