The Jungle Books: Week 2

This post contains spoilers for the stories “Tiger! Tiger!”, “The White Seal,” and “Rikki-Tikki-Tavi”, along with their accompanying songs.

How is the reading going? Do you prefer the Mowgli stories or the non-Mowgli stories?

“Tiger! Tiger!”

Last time we saw Mowgli, he was being kidnapped by monkeys or being kicked out of his pack. While he showed resourcefulness in the previous two stories, in “Tiger! Tiger!” Mowgli appears as much more confident and in control of his situation than before. He’s still like, what, ten years old? “Mowgli made it very clear to the children with him that he was the master.” I’m too scared to meet this kid as a grown-up. Raised by beasts that live by the survival of the strongest, Mowgli “did not know his own strength in the least” until he is faced with other human kids his age.

Mowgli is portrayed as smarter and stronger than the other humans in this story, but he is also more creative than the animals. Mowgli knows how important communication and language is to wielding power – “What is the good of a man if he does not understand man’s talk? Now I am as silly and dumb as a man would be with us in the jungle. I must learn their talk.” So he does, and then he can talk to both animals and humans, but is accepted by neither – he’s already been kicked out of the wolf pack and by the end of this story, he’s kicked out of the village, even though he’s good at his job and kills a tiger. “They are not unlike the Pack, these brothers of thine,” says Akela, who has also been exiled from his people and might be a tad bitter about it.

The human villagers are very superstitious, and this leads them to judge and ultimately reject Mowgli. But I wonder, is their superstition any better or worse than the animals’ ruthless Jungle Law? I’m not sure. Mowgli doesn’t understand the caste system that the villagers live by, but the animals seem to have a caste system of their own: for example, the divisions between predators and prey, and the outcast Monkey People. The People of the Jungle have a very strict hierarchy that keeps each animal in its proper place, very similar to the human castes, and are extremely uninterested in democracy of any kind. Bagheera and Akela, at the end of the story, are observing that the Pack isn’t doing so well now that it’s every wolf for himself; Bagheera comments: “Not for nothing are ye called the Free People. Ye fought for freedom, and it is yours. Eat it, O Wolves.” Yikes.

So far we’ve seen two actual females in this book: foster mom Messua plays a small role in this story, and comes across as a human parallel to Raksha. Both of these moms love Mowgli even though they didn’t give birth to him, which is awesome, but it would be great if there were more ladies. Bagheera and Baloo aren’t really present in this story; instead Grey Brother and Akela are Mowgli’s partners in crime. They are the only ones that appear on equal footing with Mowgli, rather than the adult villagers, the child herders, or the cattle, who are used as pawns in the fight against Shere Khan.

Shere Khan’s death was really abrupt, but it seems to be real, since Mowgli has his skin and everything. Again, I find it strange that Shere Khan is always portrayed as a frightening and powerful villain in the adaptations of the book, whereas in these stories Mowgli almost always has the upper hand on the tiger. I mean, Shere Khan doesn’t even have hands.

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What’s next for Mowgli now that he’s defeated his enemy? I’m curious to find out.

Related poem: “The Tyger” by William Blake

“Mowgli’s Song”

I really like this song. It’s a perfect example of oral storytelling – boastful, legend-making, emotional and evocative. We just read the story of Mowgli killing Shere-Khan, and here’s another version of it that is just as true but more poetic, just as victorious and just as sad. I like how it emphasizes Mowgli’s realization that he is part of two different worlds and therefore “I am two Mowglis,” while at the same time acknowledging that he isn’t entirely sure what that means for him.

“The White Seal”

 

Rare-White-Seal_photo_medium.jpg
Source

 

And here we have the first non-Mowgli story. Despite the fact Mowgli is nowhere to be seen and we’re in the middle of the ocean, the white seal has a lot in common with Mowgli. Kotick wants to help his people survive, just like Mowgli, but Kotick’s people a) don’t want help, they’re fine, thank you very much and b) don’t trust Kotick. Kotick stands out, just like Mowgli. Kotick becomes an expert on the ocean and how to survive it, just like Mowgli and the jungle. Kotick has to leave his people for months at a time every year so that he can find a place for them to be safe – not quite like Mowgli being exiled, but there’s still a separation, an emphasis on Kotick being an outsider.

“There never has been such a thing in the world as a white seal.”

“I can’t help that,” said Matkah; “there’s going to be now.”

Other similarities to the Mowgli stories:

  • “the Rules of the Beach” rather than the Law of the Jungle
  • the only speaking female for is Kotick’s mom SERIOUSLY WHERE ARE ALL THE GIRLS

Anyway, I liked this story for the most part, especially the ocean-exploration aspect of it. I liked watching Kotick learn everything there is to know about the ocean, including swimming: “Little seals can no more swim than little children, but they are unhappy till they learn.” Kotick becomes an expert, but not without lots of swimming and exploring. “Matkah told him he was learning the “feel of the water,” and that tingly, prickly feelings meant bad weather coming…”

The scene where the seals get clubbed was really jarring and violent, even though I realize that the sealers are carefully culling rather then getting all genocidal. The humans, of course, are superstitious, just like in the Mowgli stories, believing that Kotick is the ghost of a human in seal form.

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Kotick is special, not only because of his skin – I mean, er, fur color, but because he has innate curiosity, so that he is able to learn how and why seals are being killed, and so that he can look outside of the usual places and try to find a new, quiet place for the seals to live.

“I am the only seal, black or white, who ever thought of looking for new islands.”

My question is, when Kotick finds the old dying seal who is like “oh yeah there is TOTALLY a prophecy about a white seal who saves all of us,” is he just feeding Kotick a bunch of lies? Was there actually a prophecy? I like to think the old seal was just encouraging him.

Kipling’s short stories pack a lot of action, and this story is no exception, but what I really loved in this story was the imagery, and two images in particular: one, the “Fire Dance” that the seals perform through the bio-luminescent phosphorescence of the plankton, and two, Kotick’s new blood-red coat at the end of all his fighting. Yikes. Seals have absolutely no chill.

“Lukannon”

This song is a nice mix of triumphant and melancholy, and fits the previous story very well in mood. The seals are getting killed off a little at a time every year, and it’s both the way of things that they’ve accepted but also a horrifying dark part of their lives. The seals have really embraced the dichotomy of a luxurious life and a grisly death.

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“Rikki-Tikki-Tavi”

“It is the hardest thing in the world to frighten a mongoose, because he is eaten up from nose to tail with curiosity.” 

I’m not sure if I love this story, but I certainly love Rikki-Tikki-Tavi’s attitude. He’s so determined, and curious, and casually badass! That being said, this story is really violent and grim.

Herpestes_edwardsii_at_Hyderaba
Indian Grey Mongoose: Source

The most disturbing part of this story (for me) was that the other animals find no moral problem with Rikki killing not only Nag and Nagain, the cobras, but all of their babies-in-eggs, also. The other animals don’t expect any better from cobras than eating bird eggs and killing humans for no good reason. The reason Rikki goes after the cobras in the first place is because they ate one of Darzee the tailor-birds babies, but maybe Darzee and his wife should take better care of their eggs and not let them FALL OUT OF TREES? The cobras are “wicked” and evil, so why not kill them all off and make the bungalow a cobra-free zone?

The humans aren’t superstitious for once, but they’re white English people so now I’m just getting racist vibes. Am I oversensitive? DISCUSS.

Najacobra
Indian cobra: Source

The other question I have is, does it count as bravery if Rikki is just doing what’s in his nature to do? After Rikki kills his first snake (the little brown one, not the cobra), he is rewarded by the human family, but “Rikki was rather amused at all the fuss, which, of course, he did not understand. Teddy’s mother might just as well have petted Teddy for playing in the dust.” Rikki is enjoying his life of battle and death and is confused as to why he would be rewarded for doing what he wants to do anyway. This makes it tempting to dismiss the courageous way Rikki defends all the creatures that are put in peril by Nag and his wife, but Rikki does put his life on the line, after all. Rikki chastises Darzee for making Rikki’s danger into a song: “You’re safe enough in your nest there, but it’s war for me down here. Stop singing a minute, Darzee!” Like Mowgli in “Tiger! Tiger!” Rikki has an enemy to fight and is irritated by anyone who gets in his way.

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Rikki to Darzee, probably.

How does this story fit into the other Jungle Book stories so far? It’s not set in the jungle, there’s no Mowgli, and Jungle Law isn’t mentioned, but some of the same themes are present. There’s a natural hierarchy to the animals and unwritten rules that they have to follow. Killing humans is against the rules, and Rikki is following his role in the natural order by killing snakes, especially ones that break the no-killing-humans rule. Survival of the fittest (and the smartest) wins the day, and both sides are pretty ruthless.

“Darzee’s Chaunt”

Darzee needs to find some chill. This song performs a similar function as Mowgli’s, above: it retells the heroic actions and turns them into oral legend. How does the choice of narrator determine the “heroes” and the “villains” of the story?

 

 

Don’t forget to check out the conversation on Twitter: #JungleRead

Author: bahnree

just a simple girl trying to read my way through the universe

5 thoughts on “The Jungle Books: Week 2”

  1. I love that you are studying and picking up all this subtext and context while I am just AHHHHH SEAL DUDE COBRAS FIGHT FIGHT FIGHT.

    I am a violent child.

  2. The strong female characters appeared in Mowgli’s Brothers (Rashki) but continue in Rikki. 🙂 Naigaina is identified as more dangerous than Nag, and Darzee’s wife is the more intelligent and industrious of the two. In Tiger Tiger, the foster mother is silly, but no more so than any of the other villagers.

    Remembering that these are stories of fiction, I guess I see Rikki as more of good versus evil story than a survival of the fittest. From a naturalist perspective, the dynamic of the mongoose as one of the few predators of the cobra is unique and worth telling. I agree that the white man is consistently the only human upheld as admirable (but that is a discussion for Toomai?)

    The White Seal is quite environmental, which surprised me for a reportedly misogynist, imperialist author. Not arguing those, just found the conservationism surprising.

    1. Agreed (to all)!!! Good points about the ladies.

      The Rikki-Tikki-Tavi story is very Redwall-ish. I mean that in a good way (anthro animals fighting evil!) and a bad way (certain animals are always good and certain animals are always evil).

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