The jungle book
Written by a member of the 19th century British imperial elite, this series of short stories examines how the actions of humans affect the natural order among the animals. Almost every story has both animals and humans in it and Kipling describes their many and varied interactions. Many of the stories, though not all, are set in India. Although written towards the end of the 19th century, the stories are timeless, being predominantly about how the animal world behaves in the presence of humans, and how humans consistently corrupt the natural order through greed, fear and ignorance.
This encourages us, the readers, to think how our actions affect those around us. Most obviously, we are encouraged to think how we affect the animals in our lives. In Victorian England, that meant dogs and horses. Nowadays, perhaps, it means gerbils and hamsters and cats. By extension, Kipling suggests we also affect the lives of other people around us. To put a concrete example on it, when we, with the best will in the world, try to help a distressed animal, the effects often backfire and make life more difficult for that animal. One suspects that Kipling is writing about how we interact with our fellow humans; indicating that even though we act from the best of intentions, the results are what matter, and if by our well-intended actions, we end up causing pain and anguish, perhaps it would have been better not to have acted at all. Even though that may seem cruel, he seems to suggest, the kindest course of action might be to let nature take its course.
Kipling is an odd combination. Part of the British establishment in India, he was educated among the elite military students of the day, but poor health prevented him from taking up a career in the Army. Kipling wrote these stories in the USA, in Vermont just a few years after the civil war there. He won the 1907 Nobel prize for literature, but declined all the honours Britain wanted to throw at him: the order of merit; the Poet Laureate and others. His only son was killed, in 1915, as a soldier in the 1914-18 war.
Some of Kipling's books, read in today's climate, appear imperialistic and racist, declaring the white man naturally superior to every other type of life. While such crass attitudes might detract from his other messages, I do not feel we should ignore Kipling just because of his Imperialistic viewpoint.
These stories were written towards the end of the 19th century, as Victorian Britain was at the peak of Imperial power, with India becoming subjugated to British rule, and shipping its wealth back to London's high society. The stories bring with them the natural sense of superiority which educated English men of that time took for granted. At the end of the 19th century, any other position would have appeared inconceivable to the white, educated Englanders who read the stories. Nevertheless, remember that Kipling had chosen to live abroad, not in the land of his birth; not in his fatherland, but in the upstart, and unstable, United States. The man was no automaton, thoughtlessly following the fashions of the day. The man was to win the first Nobel Prize for Literature ever awarded to an Englishman. The man wanted to make a point.
More than a boy scout code
There are few reviews or analyses around of Kipling's Jungle books. What reviews there are talk about the characterisation of the animals and the lessons they teach about loyalty, courage and friendship. Lord Baden-Powell, founder of the Boy Scout movement took these ideals of jungle law and friendship, and built a whole code of conduct around them. I can see the attraction of that interpretation, but I do not read the stories that way.
You can look at the books at any level. At the most superficial level, the books are slightly anachronistic, but innocent portrayals of English superiority over the natives and humanity's superiority over animals and the rest of the world. At a slightly deeper level, the stories celebrate nature and how she is red in tooth and claw, sparing us few details of the the natural order of killing and eating, but giving us a natural history lesson from a first-hand observer of jungle life.
My own interpretation is that the books have deeper meanings still. Many amateur reviewers have puzzled about how the later stories fit with the early, wonderful adventures of Mowgli in the forest, raised by wolves and making friends with bears and panthers. The later stories tell us how an orphaned mongoose kills some cobras and describes a seal prophet persuading his flock to find nirvana and English cavalry horses exchanging notes with their Afghan equivalents.
Early Gaia apologist?
I see these later stories as early treatises on how man upsets the balance of nature by interfering with his environment. In the early stories about Mowgli, Kipling establishes the natural order. He sets out the laws of the jungle and shows why and how those rules grew up, with specific examples to spell them out. He also shows us briefly, what happens to creatures who transgress those rules. The later stories use these established rules to show us how man's increasing remoteness from jungle life makes it more and more difficult to follow the laws of the jungle, and leads us into conflict with life's natural laws.
In the early jungle stories about Mowgli and his friends, Kipling introduces us to the jungle and its laws. We meet many of the jungle animals, and Kipling gives them characters to suit their real-life characteristics. While this may appear anthropomorphic, it is not cloyingly so. The characters Kipling assigns to the various creatures reflect their styles of living and killing. The chief baddie in the Mowgli stories, Shere Khan, is a cowardly tiger with a lame foot. Shere Khan starts attacking men, in violation of one of Kipling's prime jungle laws, and so turns himself into an outcaste. Describing Shere Khan, Kipling does not go all mushy on us, pretending that tigers are over-sized cuddly pussy cats with pretty stripes; he celebrates their power and terror in all its blood-soaked, bone-crushing glory. Everything in the jungle is afraid of the tiger. Only Hathi the wild elephant and Mowgli, the naturally-superior man-spirit, can face up to Shere Khan.
Deathmatch: Mowgli and Shere Khan
Mowgli, initially at least, is a baby, but a human baby. In Kipling's world, the mere fact of being human makes him naturally superior to the animals. Mowgli is raised by wolves but while still a boy, he forms a fast friendship with Bagheera, the panther. This is not a friendship of equals. Mowgli is the unquestioned leader. Bagheera and all the other animals pay tribute to his human nature by protecting him and doing his bidding, provided he remains sympathetic to the laws of the jungle. Bagheera is a full-grown, silky black panther in the prime of his life. He could kill Mowgli with a single, lazy swipe of a paw, but he cannot look Mowgli in the eye. Heck, even Shere Khan cannot hold 10-year-old Mowgli's gaze.
"Mowgli looked--stared, rather--as insolently as he knew how, and in a minute Shere Khan turned away uneasily. "Man-cub this, and Man-cub that," he rumbled, going on with his drink, "the cub is neither man nor cub, or he would have been afraid. Next season I shall have to beg his leave for a drink. Augrh!"
The way I see it, the stories about Mowgli are there to show the natural balance of nature, with the predators attacking and eating prey only when their bellies are empty and they have young to feed. Mowgli lives with wolves, bears and panthers, all predators at the top of the food chain. The stories describe a harsh society in which killing is a real present part of life.
For a predator, life depends on killing and eating its prey. In Kipling's jungle, however, there is a code to killing, and those who break the code are outcaste. Killing for mere sport is despised as pointless and wasteful. There is no killing at the depleted water hole when drought parches the forest, for that breaks the rule of the jungle. Kipling gives us Hathi the elephant, long-lived, wise and physically stronger than any other creature. Hathi is the guardian of the jungle law, remembering past droughts and floods and dictating to the other flesh-eaters how and where they may attack their prey.
When Shere Khan attacks a man for choice, and chases the baby Mowgli into the jungle, Kipling shows how the animals react to his kill.
"I killed for choice--not for food." The horrified whisper began again, and Hathi's watchful little white eye cocked itself in Shere Khan's direction. "For choice," Shere Khan drawled. "Now come I to drink and make me clean again. Is there any to forbid?"
No-one forbids, but we see from the reaction of the other animals that Shere Khan has broken three of the jungle's most sacred laws. First, you do not kill a man, (except to show a cub how to kill). Second you only kill for food; and third, when you do kill, you do not wash the blood and gore in a communal watering hole, making it unclean for other animals who want to drink.
Kipling tells us that even the biggest, most powerful predator has some responsibility to the other animals and the well-being of the community. My take on that is that humanity is the Shere Khan of the books and humanity has a responsibility to live by natural laws, as well as those which we might ourselves construct. Humanity is going wrong when it breaks the natural laws and Humanity will have to face the consequences of its actions.
Taking the analogy a step further, Mowgli becomes the spirit of mankind, noble, strong, in tune with both the human world and the animal world. It is a common technique among authors (Think of Brave new World, or Tarzan), to introduce a noble savage who sees modern society for what it really is, rather than how we like to think of ourselves. Authors can use this device to comment on the ills of society through a seemingly innocent channel.
Through a series of apparently simple tales, Kipling shows us how nature lives; how the animals live together and highlights how man's behaviour is different from that of the animals. To his Imperialist audience, with their prejudiced sense of superiority, that would ring true. Looking at it the same work through modern eyes, however, we can see that Kipling was setting out a warning that behaviour grossly in opposition to the laws of nature will bring harm on the perpetrator. Humanity, by killing for sport, burning the jungle and fighting over trivialities, will eventually reap the rewards of transgressing the natural law.
Not just the Mowgli stories
I think the later stories do form a natural integration with the early Mowgli stories, because in those later stories, Kipling takes the laws of the jungle as given, and show us how man's actions contravene those laws, and some of the effects of such behaviour. In my favourite story, Rikki-tikki-tavi, the mongoose is saved from death by a young English family. Rikki-tikki then kills Nag, the local black cobra, incidentally saving the life of their young daughter.
In their gratitude and ignorance, the English couple offer the animal all sorts of delicacies which, if eaten, would make him too slow to hunt other snakes. Fortunately, Rikki-tikki is too clever to fall victim to their temptation, and remains hungry and alert, true to jungle law. When the snake's mate, Nagaini, threatens the baby daughter by way of revenge, Rikki is clever and sharp enough to run into her nest and kill each of her eggs, bringing the last egg out preparing to bite the top off it in front of her. This brings Nagaini slithering away from the girl to rescue the last egg. He kills Nagaini deep in her own territory, and then bites the last egg. Only then does Rikki accept his reward from the grateful, but ignorant humans.
In another story, the fur seals are being slaughtered to oblivion by men in hunting boats, and a prophet-saviour emerges to bring them to sanctuary, out of the reach of man. The only men to appear directly in the story are two superstitious seal hunters who drive hundreds of young seals to the killing ground. That's barely even a metaphor. The whole message is that men are hunting animals to extinction against the laws of the jungle; against the balance of nature.
Far from reinforcing the White-men-are-always-right mentality, Kipling is questioning the behaviour of his fellow men at a time when few others had any thought or concern for the environment. The common view at the time was that natural resources were there for the taking and all but inexhaustable. If this interpretation stands, then The Jungle book has to be re-appraised as a brave and prescient piece of environmentalist work, rather than a shallow, yet endearing piece of childrens' writing. Perhaps it is no bad thing that the Boy Scouts movement took its core values from the book.