Sep 3, 2008

The Jungle Books by Rudyard Kipling

Now this is the Law of the Jungle -- as old and as true as the sky;
And the Wolf that shall keep it may prosper, but the Wolf that shall break it must die.
As the creeper that girdles the tree-trunk the Law runneth forward and back --
For the strength of the Pack is the Wolf, and the strength of the Wolf is the Pack.

As I’m sure most of you know, The Jungle Book is a collection of interrelated short stories and poems about Mowgli, a boy who is carried off to the jungle by a tiger when he’s but a baby, and is then saved and brought up by wolves. He befriends Bagheera the panther, Kaa the python, Baloo the bear and Hathi the elephant, among others, and learns to live according to the Law of the Jungle.

Along with stories about Mowgli, there are also unrelated stories about animals set in various parts of the world. They were mostly enjoyable, but my favourites were undoubtedly the ones about Mowgli. For this reason, I was very glad to have picked up an edition with both The Jungle Book and The Second Jungle Book, as the second volume contains five additional Mowgli tales.

I’d been meaning to read The Jungle Books for years, but one thing that made me a bit reluctant to pick them up was the fact that I kept hearing about how moralizing the stories supposedly were. In fact, this assumption was something that kept me away from Kipling at first, but after reading some of his work I began to second guess it. And honestly, the more I read Kipling the more I become convinced that his reputation is unfair.

But I digress. I’m sure that those who look for morals in the stories told in The Jungle Books will find them, but I have to say that most of the time they went over my head. (And it seems that I’m in very good company.) I don’t have much of a taste for explicitly didactic stories, but fortunately these were anything but. Instead, they were simply good stories, stories with characters you believe in and care about, stories that keep you turning the pages, stories that make you want to know what happens next. And I have little doubt that this is the reason why they’re still widely read over a century later.

The tone of these stories was different than I expected. Somehow I expected them to be lighter. There are light and humorous moments, yes, but also sad and dark ones, and several serious themes were dealt with. The Law of the Jungle is balanced and fair, but survival and death go hand in hand, and this is something Mowgli has to learn at a very young age. Also, many of the stories deal with the relationship between humans and nature, and the balance between our way of life and the natural world.

A few highlights:

“Tiger! Tiger!” – a story about Mowgli living among humans in a village, and about how he gets rid of his old enemy, Shere Khan the tiger, once and for all.

“The White Seal” – a story about a seal who travels the world in search of a place where seals will be safe from human hunters.

“Rikki-Tikki-Tavi” – about a mongoose who saves his adoptive human family from a couple of snakes that mean to kill them.

“How Fear Came” – during a draught, Hathi the elephant tells Mowgli and the other animals about how the first tiger got his stripes, and how he brought fear and death to the jungle.

“The King’s Ankus” – a story about a fantastic treasure hidden under the ruins of a city in the jungle, and about its destructive power.

These were my favourites, but except for one or two of the non-Mowgli stories, the whole book was highly enjoyable. I look forward to picking up Just So Stories next.

Other Blog Reviews:
Rebecca Reads
Bookfoolery and Babble

Please let me know if I missed yours.

(I was going to do the mini-reviews post today, but I just didn't have time. So I'll leave that for tomorrow instead. Thanks to everyone who left questions, and rest assured, they will be answered.)


  1. This is another one of those books that I've always meant to read, but never did. I have seen the Disney movie, MANY times though!!

  2. I've always loved this book, which is much better than the movie! My favourite story is Riki-Tiki-Tavi, although I enjoy all of them.

  3. My favorite was always the story about the white seal, and the one of the mongoose. I don't remember The King's Ankus very well, it must have been the least favorite. Several years since I read these books, must open them again soon!

  4. ahhh Jungle Book! the very last movie made of it (not cartoon) ..the tiger in it was the tiger from Tippi Hedren's Shambala Preserve named Kirby!!.. so needless to say I've watched it hehe..

  5. I've always wanted to read this one, but sadly I never have. It sounds incredible though. I've always been interested in Kipling...BBC did a movie on him that took place during the war called My Boy Jack and Daniel Radcliffe is in it. It was really good! I think you'd like it. Quite sad. Great review Nymeth :)

  6. Actually I didn't know that this is a collection of short stories! I've seen the Disney movie--I know the song "The Bear Necessities" but really don't know much about the actual book. The only thing I've read by Kipling is Riki Tiki Tavi (he wrote that, right?). And that was years ago...

    Not big on didactic books either...

  7. I don't remember much about this book aside from the fact it was very different in tone from the animated movie I grew up watching. Almost not even a kid's book.

    Great review.

  8. Nymeth, great review; I've always loved The Just So Stories but never got around to The Jungle Book, but now perhaps I should!

  9. This and The Just So Stories were among my favourites as a child.

    I agree completely. The stories are great examples of good storytelling. If you're looking for morals, you will find them (and that's true of most stories, I think, whether the moral is intended or not), but if all you're looking for is an enjoyable tale, then there they are.

  10. Stephanie: Funnily enough, I think I missed that one growing up.

    Sarah: Riki-Tiki-Tavi was great :)

    Jeane: I think my least favourite was Servants of the Queen, about an officer who overhears a conversation between animals at a military camp at night.

    Deslily: How cool that you "know" the tiger! I think that the fact that you got to work with tigers is beyond awesome :)

    Chris: I hadn't heard of that movie, thanks for the recommendation! And I think you'll enjoy this one.

    Trish: He did write that, and it's in this book! It was my favourite of the non-Mowgli stories.

    Kim: Yes, a lot of it doesn't feel like a kid's book. I really expected it to be lighter.

    Brideofthebookgod: You should, and I should pick up Just So Stories!

    Quixotic: You're absolutely right that that's the case whether a moral was intended or not.

  11. Ooh, I've never read a Kipling!

    (Hides in shame)

    :P I should read this someday.

  12. I just knew you'd love these stories, they are just wonderful (my favorite is "Toomai of the Elephants") - I loved them as a child for the adventure and fun, and I love them as an adult because they illuminate (in a way I can really understand) "...the relationship between humans and nature, and the balance between our way of life and the natural world."

    "And honestly, the more I read Kipling the more I become convinced that his reputation is unfair."
    Kipling is truly one of the world's great writers, and the assumptions about his beliefs and motivations drive me batty...Certainly, he was a product of his times, and the language he used reflects those times, but the ideas espoused are remarkably enlightened. While he was an English Colonialist who had great pride in the accomplishments of his nation, he did not view England as infallible – but he did feel that England had a responsibility on the world’s political stage and he was certainly vocal in his support. This stance ultimately cost him the respect of the literary community and ruined his reputation with much of the general public. It happened like this:
    During the period between the wars, the politics of imperialism lost favor on a global scale. Politicians, journalists, and academia all tried to distance themselves from any hint of support for imperialist ideology by repudiating the empire-building nations. Those public figures who refused to comply with the new political correctness were publicly castigated and then ignored. I’m happy to see that, in recent years, Kipling has been making something of a comeback – several biographies have been written that take a fresh look at his life within the context of the world as it was when he spoke as the voice of British Empire and his reputation as a master of short stories continues to be restored.
    ...I'll quietly climb down off my soapbox now...

  13. I've never read anything by Kipling...bad, bad me. And even worse, I'm not sure I really wanted to. But this really does sound quite wonderful! And I know Annie absolutely adored Just So Stories.

  14. I read thie first book as a child and can barely remember it. I really must read it again as it is one of my grans favourite stories. I can't believe I haven't read the Just So Stories either. Glad you enjoyed it and didn't find it as moralistic as you were expecting.

  15. Ken, feel free to climb onto the soapbox any time :P Thanks for the informative comment. I often hear people dismissing Kipling as an "imperialist", but of course that context is everything. Like you said, he was a product of his times, and the same could be said about so many other authors. I'm happy to hear he's been making a comeback, though! I get the impression that he's one of those authors that even if being completely outmoded among literary circles would never cease to be popular among the general reading public.

    Debi: You should give him a try someday! These stories would make perfect read alouds, I think.

    Rhinoa: We must both read Just So Stories soon!


Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.