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May 31, 2011

The Jungle Book

The Jungle Book is one of the works for which Rudyard Kipling is best remembered. The Jungle Book falls in line with works like Flatland and Alice in Wonderland (which offer satire and political commentary, underneath the genre title of children's literature). Likewise, the stories in The Jungle Book are written to be enjoyed by adults as well as children--with that depth of meaning and symbolism that delves far beyond the surface. Relationships and events related in The Jungle Book are important to any human being, including adult men and women, with or without families. While the tales can be read, or children may listen to them from an older reader, these stories need to be re-read later, in high school, and again in later adult life. They are enjoyable in every subsequent reading and the longer one lives, the broader is the frame of reference one has against which to draw the stories into perspective.

The Kipling stories offer a marked perspective of a reminder of human origins and history as well as animal. As the Native American and other Indigenous Peoples often state: All are related under one sky. A reading of The Jungle Book at age 90 will reach several more levels of meaning than a childhood reading and both are just as brilliant an experience. The stories can be shared inter-generationally, with interpretations shared by all. The book is a group of stories that are actually quite good for “Grandparents in the School” types of family literacy programs of the current day.


Importance of the Tales
Kipling is still much quoted, via Gunga Din and his famous poem “IF,” but The Jungle Book is also important. They are important because they address the prime relationships in one’s life – family, coworkers, bosses – and everyone’s relationship with Nature. For instance, if a boy is raised by wolves, then wolves are his family until the last one dies. The themes of The Jungle Book revolve around noble qualities such as loyalty, honor, courage, tradition, integrity, and persistence. These are good to discuss and ponder in any century, making the stories timeless.

My favorite Jungle Book story is of a young mahout and his elephant and the legend of the elephant dance in the middle of the forest. This is "Toomai of the Elephants." From woolly mammoths and mastodons to our zoological parks, to the Elephants Sanctuary in the American South to Disney’s Dumbo, and Seuss’s Horton, elephants are magical creatures. They know friendship and heartache and can cry. Kipling may have been the first to show that they can also dance.

The young mahout, Toomai, believes the tale of the infrequent event of Elephant Dance, even when the seasoned elephant trainers try to dissuade him. He is rewarded for his belief by being taken to that very dance by his own elephant, spending time in another world that few can enter. Faith makes entrance possible, so Kipling tells us, and there is the possibility that childlike faith can be translated to any number of human events.

“Tiger-Tiger”
After Mowgli left his Wolf Pack, he visited a Human village and was adopted by Messua and her husband, who both believed him their own son, previously stolen by a tiger. They teach him Human customs and language and help him adjust to a new life. However, the wolf-boy Mowgli hears from Grey Brother (a wolf) that trouble is afoot against him. Mowgli does not succeed in the Human village, but makes enemies of a hunter, a priest, and others, because he denounces their unrealistic comments about the jungle and its animals. For this, he is reduced to the status of cowherd. This story suggests that perhaps the animals are more just than Humans.

The tiger Sheer Khan enters the village, while Mowgli takes half his cattle to one side of a ravine, and his wolf brothers take the rest to on the other side. Mowgli lures the tiger into the middle of the ravine and the cattle trample him to death. The envious hunter broadcasts that the boy is a wizard or demon and Mowgli is exiled to wander the countryside. This certainly shows the dark side of human beings, again suggesting that animals are nobler creatures.

"The White Seal"
Other favorites from this collection are “The White Seal”, the tale of a Bering Sea’s seal pup that saves 1000s of his kindred from the fur trade, and “Her Majesty’s Servants”, a story of the conversations heard by a man among the camp animals of the Queen’s military. The entire collection observes mankind from a stance of needing improvement that is possible if they listen to animal wisdom.

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