Tuesday, 1 May 2001

Rudyard Kipling: The Jungle Book (1894)

Edition: Penguin, 1987 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 810

Strangely enough, the text of even such a well known story as The Jungle Book can be quite complicated. In the original publications of this and its sequel, The Second Jungle Book, each collection contained a number of Mowgli stories and others not related to them. Then, when the first collected edition of Kipling's work came out a few years later, all the Mowgli stories were printed together in The Jungle Book, and all the others as The Second Jungle Book. This Penguin edition, which contains both books, replaces the stories in their original order.

One of the problems with The Jungle Book is that most people first encounter them through the Disney film, or through the distortions used by Baden Powell in the Scout movement. Neither of these really equal the original stories, which must rank as one of the greatest pieces of children's literature ever written. The original collection includes three Mowgli stories and four others, two of which are among my favourite pieces of Kipling's writing, The White Seal and Rikki-Tikki-Tavi.

The reasons that the stories are so successful are several, and include Kipling's great strengths of atmospheric background and characterisation of the animals. (This only fails to work in Servants of the Queen, he last story in the collection.) The Mowgli stories and The White Seal, in particular, hint at something more than enjoyable children's tales, with the idea of moving from one world to another (childhood to adulthood?) prominent in the first and death in the second. (It is no accident that it takes a creature already extinct to direct Kotick to a place where the seals can be safe from the hunters.) Few writers today would dare write in this kind of way for children, though much of it is probably aimed more at adult readers.

One thing that is really amazing about the Mowgli stories is that they are set in a part of India that Kipling never visited. He creates an atmospheric narrative really out of our expectations of what a jungle should be like; he even takes liberties with the natural histories that he used as sources of information (the wild elephant, for example, not being native to the area).

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