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”

 

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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.

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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.

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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

The Jungle Books: Chattery

The more research I do on The Jungle Books, the more I’m realizing how crazily controversial Rudyard Kipling is, especially nowadays. Some people dismiss him as an imperialist racist, some say his politics don’t matter at all as long as he can tell a good story, and no one seems to hold a middle ground. I’m interested in discussing this if anyone has thoughts on Kipling’s problematic aspects and whether he / The Jungle Books deserves it.

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Here are a couple of links with articles from wildly different extremes:

In Defense of Rudyard Kipling and ‘The Jungle Books’

How Disney’s new Jungle Book subverts the Gross Colonialism of Rudyard Kipling

The first one, as you can guess, is very defensive, so much so that I worry about his arguments. The second one has a lot to say regarding the new movie but also a lot of Strong Words about Kipling’s beliefs and work.

I’m coming off of vacation and to be honest I’ve had a terrible week so far so I’m not going to manage to say anything articulate about this for now. But hit me up in the comments or on the Twitter tag #JungleRead and let’s chat!

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I hope you’re all enjoying the book, or at least engaging with it in fiery hatred.

The Jungle Books: Week 1

We made it through the first week of The Jungle Books! How is the reading going? Like it? Hate it? Cuddling it?

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

“Mowgli’s Brothers”

I hate the title of this story because you see it and you’re all “Awww yay, jungle family!!!11” and then you read it and Jungle Law is terrifying and Mowgli’s jungle brothers turn against him because he needs to find his human brothers and oh no I’m only 25 pages in and I am having FEELINGS.

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Indian wolf – so scrappy! Source

Mowgli is raised from a very young age by wolves; he thinks of himself as a wolf: “he would have called himself a wolf if he had been able to speak in any human tongue” and he considers the wolves his brothers: “I was born in the jungle; I have obeyed the Law of the Jungle; and there is no wolf of ours from whose paws I have not pulled a thorn. Surely they are my brothers!” Of course, the hand dexterity that allows him to help the wolves is one of the things that sets him apart from them. The wolves are also upset because they can’t look him in the eye for long and find it threatening. Poor Mowgli doesn’t get it, even when his mentor Bagheera tells him point-blank that men are his brothers, not the wolves. In the end, the majority of the Wolf Pack kicks Mowgli out, partly out of fear, partly out of Shere Khan’s meddling, partly out of envy, perhaps. Mowgli is really hurt by this (“something began to hurt Mowgli inside him, as he had never been hurt in his life before” aw babe) and incredibly pissed off: “So I do not call ye my brothers any more,” he tells them, “but sag [dogs] as a man should.” RUDE.

But not all the wolves are disappointing. So far I love Mother Wolf the best out of all of the introduced characters. I loved the part where they’re all hanging out in the cave, and when Shere Khan tries to take her new kid Mother Wolf’s like “hey remember me, my name literally means demon, and it’s not a joke.” Dad Wolf “had almost forgotten the days when he won Mother Wolf in fair fight from five other wolves, when she ran in the pack and was not called the Demon for compliment’s sake. Shere Khan might have faced Father Wolf, but he could not stand up against Mother Wolf, for he knew that where he was she had all the advantage of the ground, and would fight to the death.” What a boss. Raksha for Jungle Queen.

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Bengal tiger: Source

Shere Khan himself is weirdly unimpressive….he skulks around and steals food instead of hunting, and the reason he’s a force to be reckoned with is not because he is prone to murder at any time, but because he’s been politicking among the younger wolves and winning them over with words. Usually I’m leading the Torch Shere Khan Brigade but I find him much more interesting this way. Maybe I just relate to how whiny he is: “[Dad Wolf] heard the dry, angry, snarly, singsong whine of a tiger who has caught nothing and does not care if all the jungle knows it.”

Sidenote: I definitely expected Akela to get ripped apart by tigers and/or wolves in this story.

Overall, “Mowgli’s Brothers” was a good start in terms of piquing my interest and introducing some main characters. Mowgli seems to in tune with the jungle animals in some ways, and not enough in other ways. I have a feeling he will have a bad time in the human world, but hopefully his resourcefulness will carry him through.

The Law of the Jungle (so far):

  • don’t eat humans (it’s unsportsmanlike)
  • new Pack members have to be inspected and accepted by the Pack
  • Pack members can bribe their way in if too unpopular
  • you’re not allowed to eat an animal if you used it as a bribe at some point
  • “Strike first and then give tongue” i.e. beat up your opponents and then tell them how wrong they are and how right you are

 

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Indian Sambar/Sambhur deer Source  Also, if you’re not squeamish, check out this awesome photo of a tiger attacking a sambar

“Hunting-Song of the Seeonee Pack”

Each of the short-stories is followed up by a song, hypothetically sung by a character or group of characters. I haven’t been enjoying the songs as much as the stories, but it is really cool how the songs add to the stories. What is each song adding to its partner story? Which “side” is it supporting? Does the song come into conflict with the story in any way?

This first one is by and about Mowgli’s adoptive wolf-pack, and it was neat because it showed the teamwork of the wolves, their ability to work together, and their bonds with each other. The irony, of course, is that Mowgli has just been thrown out of their pack, in spite of being raised with and among them.

“Kaa’s Hunting”

 

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Source 

Okay I’m just going to say it: I HAVE BEEN LIED TO MY ENTIRE LIFE. I’ve had nightmares of hypnotism and then strangulation for years because of my childhood experience of the animated Kaa in the Disney version, and now this book tells me that Kaa isn’t even a bad guy? Kaa saves Mowgli and Baloo and Bagheera? Kaa is terrifying and wonderful? WHY DIDN’T ANYONE TELL ME? Granted, Bagheera describes him as “not of our tribe, footless and with most evil eyes” but what’s a little evil eye between crime-fighting friends??? What’s a little monkey-murder? What’s a little mind-control as long as it’s being used for good? Okay, yes, Kaa is kind of a bad dude if you judge him based on body count. But anyone who teams up with Baloo and Bagheera can’t be all bad.

Bagheera and Baloo are amazing. I didn’t talk about them in the last story but their constant support of Mowgli is so great. Not that they’re perfect….Bagheera, especially, has a lot of pride, and it’s weird how he’s all annoyed with Baloo beating Mowgli but then beats Mowgli himself to make himself feel better about asking Kaa for help. Especially because it’s not like Mowgli went away with thh Monkeys on purpose: HE WAS KIDNAPPED. Ahem. Besides that, though, Bagheera and Baloo risk life and limb for their tiny foster-son and I’m a tiny bit in love with Bagheera’s velvety voice and killing abilities.

The deliberate separation between the monkeys and all of the other jungle animals was really stark. I found it interesting that Mowgli’s Master Words, “We be of one blood, thou and I” can be used with the birds, the beasts, and the snake, but NOT with the monkeys. Even though Mowgli tells Baloo and Bagheera that in his first meeting with the monkeys, they called him “blood-brother,” and even though Mowgli has some obvious anatomical similarities, the jungle animals consider the Monkey People completely separate from and lesser than themselves. Bagheera calls them “the People without a Law,” so part of it at least is that the monkeys don’t follow Jungle Law, which as we learned in the previous story is a pretty big deal.

Chronologically, this story takes place before “Mowgli’s Brothers.” Based on Mowgli’s knowledge and behavior, this seems consistent. Mowgli doesn’t have a lot of agency in this story, as he’s first kidnapped and then rescued and then beaten for being kidnapped. He uses his Master Words to send for help, but that’s about it. He’s wise enough to realize that the monkeys are not a good long-term bet (and possibly have rabies).

“Kaa’s Hunting” was much more suspenseful than the first (although they both use suspense well), and it was good to see the jungle outside of the wolf pack.

“Road-Song of the Bandar-Log”

The Monkey-Kind are really scary to me, and I think it’s because they combine the silly frivolity of this song with incredibly dangerous and malicious behavior. Aside from their tendency to kidnap kids and swarm panthers, their habit of endlessly talking about all the amazing things they’re going to do because of all the awesome things they know, is really really annoying but also very familiar. The tension between the words in this song like “Be sure, be sure, we’re going to do some splendid things!” and their actual behavior is unsettling.

Check out the different kinds of Indian monkeys here.

The Jungle Books: Introduction

Thanks for joining us on The Jungle Books readalong!

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Trust in me…it’s gonna be fun! 
For today’s post, I will get some disclaimers out of the way (spoilers: The Jungle Book is problematic, all of your faves are problematic, Rudyard Kipling is problematic), I will talk about Rudyard a little, and I will give you some things to think about while you’re reading.

I haven’t read this book before so I know I’m going into this with some assumptions about the story and characters. I have seen the animated Disney movie and the more recent live-action Disney movie, so as we go along I may discuss big differences between book and movies.

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And then I will tackle you. Wait what 

There are two major approaches in reading this book. You can read it as solely a “kids story” about talking animals, with adventure and growing up and terrifying survival lessons; or you can read it as solely an allegory of British imperialism, analyze all of the overt and covert racism, and observe justifications of “might means right”. I’m going to do my best to combine these two approaches. I am not going to argue that this book isn’t problematic and racist at times (because it is) but I’m also going to highlight some of the really excellent storytelling and structure. Just because I praise things about this book doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have flaws. I guess this shouldn’t really need to be said but…IT’S A DISCLAIMER.

Rudyard Kipling had a really tempestuous life. You can read a short biography of him (with pics) here. He lived in India at a couple different times in his life, so he had first-hand knowledge of life there (at least for a white guy). He lived with foster parents in England for a time, but they abused him and his sister so his parents took them back. As an adult, Kipling married Caroline Belestier and had kids, but his daughter Josephine to sickness and his son John to World War I. He also had a nervous breakdown at some point.

Despite or because of the bad times he experienced, Kipling wrote prolifically, mostly short stories and poems. The only other story I have read by Rudyard Kipling is Kim, which has many of the same themes, problematic bits, and excellent storytelling (in my opinion) as The Jungle Books. Rudyard Kipling is best known for these books, as well as Just So Stories and Captains Courageous; his poem “If” is probably his most-quoted work. He was a very popular author during his life, and at 23 he was already a celebrity. Apparently Henry James called him “the infant monster” because of this, which I find hilarious. But James and Kipling did end up as friends.

Kipling was a staunch imperialist, and it shows in The Jungle Books. During the Victorian era, the British took over lots of countries and territories, partly for the lolz, partly for the cool stuff, and partly from a self-proclaimed desire to civilize the natives through British culture and religion. They basically marched in wherever they wanted  and justified it by saying “it’s for their own good! They’re just ignorant savages!” etc etc. Imperialism=not very cool. I’ll point it out occasionally as we go along, but I’ll try not to belabor it. There’s a nice and brief summary of British imperialism here at the Victorian Web.

Things to think about as you read through the book:

  • Mowgli crosses a lot of physical and social boundaries in the book (for example, from the animal to human worlds). Stay alert for characters acting out and going outside of their species, society, language, or crossing boundaries of some kind.
  • Coming of age stories are everywhere in this book (not always Mowlgi’s!). Stay alert for characters growing up (or leveling up) in some way.
  • Who has the most power in this book (a character, a species, or whatever)? What does that power consist of – is it physical? mental?
  • Family – what does a family consist of, according to this book? According to different characters?
  • There’s a lot of violence in The Jungle Books. When (if ever) is the violence justified?

 

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Let the wild rumpus begin! 

Sources:

All of my information can be found in the links above or in the 2004 Barnes and Noble softcover with introduction and notes by Lisa Makman.

 

The Jungle Books Readalong

Our August Readalong is The Jungle Books by Rudyard Kipling! We will be reading from August 1 through September 11 (6 weeks). The Readalong hashtag will be #JungleRead . Please join us; there are no prerequisites for this kind of shenanigan!

JunglebookCoverThere are two collections of stories, so make sure your edition has both of them. Book 1 should start with “Mowgli’s Brothers” and end with “Parade-song of the Camp Animals.” Book 2 should start with “How Fear Came” and end with “The Outsong.”

I’m using the Barnes & Noble Classics paperback. Project Gutenberg has Book 1 and Book 2 . Kindle has a free version here.

I’m looking forward to reading this book with you! I will be hanging out on Twitter and posting here on the blog. If you’re planning to do any Jungle Books-related blogging or projects, let me know. I’m going to try to do a scheduled chat at least once during the month; day and time TBD but it will likely be a Saturday.

 

Reading Schedule

August 7th: You should have read through “Road-Song of the Bandar-Log”

August 14th: You should have read through “Darzee’s Chaunt”

August 21st: You should have read through “The Law of the Jungle”

August 28th: You should have read through “A Ripple Song”

September 4th: You should have read through “Angutivan Tina”

September 11th: You should have finished the book through “The Outsong”