Wednesday, September 5, 2012

The Jungle Book 2 by Rudyard Kipling

As I mentioned in a previous post about Kipling’s first Jungle Book, see here, categories and genres don’t influence my reading habits. I’ve read wonderful children’s books and I’ve read some crummy novels that could’ve been written by children. A decent writer once asked, “… if it’s true you can’t judge a book by its cover, why should we judge a book by the category stamped on its spine?”

For those not familiar, Kipling’s 2 Jungle Books are fantastic, each a collection of short stories, many of which involve the familiar Mowgli and his animal friends – Baloo, Kaa, Akela, Hathi, Bagheera, and others – surviving in the jungle wilds, and exposed to all sorts of dangers. These tales are interspersed with other stories unrelated to Mowgli and the jungle but just as harrowing and exciting. Stories like “The Undertakers,” an amusing exchange between those who put the survival of the fittest and its amoral realities to the grim test, and one of my personal favorites, “Quiquern,” a story of Inuit life, their dog sleds and their desperate measures to survive harsh winters. Though I enjoyed them all, “The King’s Ankus,” an account of what lengths men go to satisfy their greed, is particularly riveting. All these stories will transport you from the comforts of your reading room to an environment other worldly in its hazards and customs. 

Another aspect I thoroughly enjoyed is the jargon. Unlike the casual prose of the narrative, the dialogue assumes a more measured and stilted form with the use of ‘thou’ and ‘thee’ and other pronouns and structure you might associate with the elevated speech of, say, a King’s James version of the Bible. In “Red Dog,” a dhole (wild dog of India) which travels in huge clans, is hunting in a pack of more than one hundred and killing everything in their path. Mowgli, raised by wolves and now nearly an adult, is told of their movement. Rather than fleeing with the rest of the jungle as the animals advise, he calls for a council where he encourages the animals to rally round him and confront and kill the dhole pack instead. He makes vows and stakes his reputation on their success, etc. until the wolves and other jungle animals agree to his stratagem and await his command. At which point Mowgli rushes off to seek the cunning of Kaa, the python. Kaa initially balks at this news, convinced that Mowgli shouldn’t concern himself with the habits of the jungle when the dhole are in such great numbers. A truncated exchange follows:

Kaa: “Let the Wolf look to the Dog. Thou art a Man.

Mowgli: “It is true that I am a Man, but it is in my stomach that this night I have said I am a Wolf. I called the River and the Trees to remember. I am of the Free People, Kaa, till the dhole has gone by.”

“Free People,” Kaa grunted. “Free thieves! And thou hast tied thyself into the death-knot for the sake of the memory of the dead wolves?”

Mowgli: “It is my Word that I have spoken. The Trees know, the River knows. Till the dhole have gone by, my Word comes not back to me.”

Kaa: “Ngssh! This changes all trails. I had thought to take thee away with me to the northern marshes, but the Word – even the Word of a little, naked, hairless Manling – is the Word. Now I, Kaa, say –”

Mowgli: “Think well, Flathead, lest thou tie thyself into the death-knot also. I need no Word from thee, for well I know –”

“Be it so, then,” said Kaa.

The last story “The Spring Running” finishes the character arch of Mowgli as he realizes he has learned all he can from the jungle, has become a man, and ultimately acknowledges, though not without sorrow, that he must finally go live among the “Man-Pack”. Not quite as poignant as, say, when Travis shoots his beloved dog, now infected with rabies, in Old Yeller, or the last line by Samwise Gamgee which closes an entire trilogy, “He drew a deep breath. ‘Well, I’m back,’ he said.” but still lump-in-your-throat inducing. The stories, prefaced with clever poems, propelled by high jinx and chases, full of drama and mayhem, are made classic by Kipling’s profundity, wisdom, and humanity. Highly recommended for all ages.