The Jungle Book has got to be the classic “Love it AND Hate it” book. On the one hand you get classic storytelling by a Nobel-prize winning author and talking animals. On the other hand, you get to feel uncomfortable in a way that only a 19th-Century white man born under the British Raj in India can make you feel.
Most of us are familiar with Jungle Book by way of the 1967 Disney animated movie, or its 2016 live-action remake. But the original collection of short stories was written in 1894 by a guy who was not only one of the best writers of his day but also a huge fan of British Imperialism. Given his background and upbringing, you can expect to run across some stereotypes in his writing.
Well, that portrait is on the nosey!
If you’re wondering whether the book is anything like the Disney movie, I’d say. . .kinda. . .in the most superficial sense. Your favorite characters are all here: Baloo the lovable bear (though he is less happy-go-lucky and more likely to give Mowgli an ass whooping if he steps out of line); Bagheera the panther, dropping wisdom; Shere Khan the tiger, who is the bad guy of the tale; Kaa the snake, who uses hypnosis to manipulate the other animals (though in one story he helps out Mowgli and his friends). Oh yes, and Mowgli, the “man-cub” who was raised by wolves. As far as I know, Mowgli has never been anybody’s favorite character, but he is the main reason for the telling of the story.
The monkeys who kidnap Mowgli in hopes of stealing the “Red flower,” are also present and, unfortunately, they don’t even have a trumpet-playing, jazz-loving orangutan to at least make them seem kinda cool. Of the Monkey-Folk, Baloo says, “They have no law. They are outcasts. They have no speech of their own, but use the stolen words which they overhear when they listen, and peep, and wait up above in the branches. Their way is not our way. They are without leaders. They have no remembrance. They boast and chatter and pretend that they are a great people about to do great affairs in the jungle, but the falling of a nut turns their minds to laughter and all is forgotten.”
Ok so yeah, British=law, order, efficiency. Natives=no law, disorganization, people who should be happy to be under British rule. The final story in the collection is about war-trained animals (horses, camels, mules, elephants) on the night before a military battle with Afghanistan. The title, “Her Majesty’s Servants,” is especially telling.
But wait, you ask, are there any themes in this book that aren’t racist? Yes, indeed, there are. Family, belonging, freedom, and “coming of age” are themes that span multiple tales and make this collection worthwhile. Mowgli and Rikki-Tikki-Tavi have unconventional families: Mowgli is a human living among the animals while Rikki-Tikki-Tavi is a mongoose living among humans. Both have a fierce loyalty to their adopted families yet are never completely one of “them.” Mowgli, especially, has to span two worlds knowing he can never completely belong to either. In addition Little Tomai and Kotick the white seal are youngsters that have to grow up and leave behind their childish waves and become “men,” often while feeling like an outcast. Other characters, like Kala Nag the elephant, trade freedom for security (hmm, I smell British imperialism again, but at least in this story, there’s an acknowledgement that Kala Nag could crush his captors if he wanted to).
Should you read this book? If you are like me and love classics and enjoy reading books as insight into their history and time period, then by all means, yes. Looking back at the sections I tagged, probably half of them are at least eyebrow-raising, if not outright offensive, so you definitely need to know what you are getting into. As a snapshot into history, though, this collection probably did more for my understanding of the attitudes behind 19th-century British imperialism than a documentary on the topic could have done.