We mostly know The Jungle Books from the Disney film which I have seen and loved – especially the soundtrack. The film, however, is a limited adaptation of the books by Rudyard Kipling – there are two volumes of stories. The story we know of Mowgli and his upbringing by jungle animals is told in a series of short stories dotted around the two books with other, animal related, stories interspersed with them. Each story also has a short poem attached to it as Kipling was also a poet as well as a storyteller.
These books were originally written for children at the turn of the nineteenth century. Kipling, who was mostly brought up in India and spent his early working life there, was a journalist and the stories were published in newspapers and magazines. I own them in pocket versions published between the wars and mine have copies of the original illustrations as well. The stories are set in India and I understand that some of them are derived from Indian folk stories.
The stories are all fables. They are designed to give a moral lesson and they are darker than the Disney film. The Mowgli stories particularly emphasise that there is a “law of the jungle” and that every animal has its place and that there are consequences if that law is broken. They are designed to teach obedience to authority – the monkeys, who are not compliant, are seen as friendless, lazy and noisy. The snake is shown as a sly predator. There is a message about the importance of good behaviour, fitting in and the dangers of trusting people who are not part of your society. The writer is also very keen that people stay with their own kind. The morals are not over the top and the stories are very enjoyable. Other stories include one about a mongoose who saves a family, a seal who finds a new home for his family (that one isn’t set in India) and a conversation between horses which are part of the British Army and obey the queen.
The animals in the books don’t behave like animals. The author ascribes to them human characteristics and behaviour in order to tell his story and even assigns a sort of moral hierarchy to the animals with humans on top. Kipling is obviously not the only writer to do this but don’t expect to learn anything about animal behaviour from these stories.
Regular readers of this blog, and there are a gratifyingly large number of you, will have noted that I have long been a Kipling fan and I write often of Kim being a favourite book as a child. Kipling has his problems as a writer because many of his attitudes are dated but he is a writer who obviously loves words and uses them beautifully in his stories. I think he is still worth reading and The Jungle Books are a joy. There is a wide vocabulary used and each story is nicely self-contained. If you haven’t read Kipling before I recommend him and suggest that this is a good place to start.