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Jungle Book: look closely, there’s more to Rudyard Kipling than colonial stereotypes

Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Books were first published in 1894 and 1895, and they feature stories about Mowgli, a boy raised by wolves in the Indian jungle. The stories have remained popular and have inspired numerous adaptations – but their attitudes have been questioned by some parents and critics, who see them as a relic of Britain’s colonial past.

Indeed, a classic way of reading the tales is as an allegory for the position of the white colonialist born and raised in India. Mowgli – the Indian boy who becomes “master” of the jungle – is understood to be – as Kipling scholar John McClure interprets it: “behaving towards the beasts as the British do to the Indians”.

So its interesting that among the wide variety of music to be performed at the 2019 Proms is Charles Koechlin’s Les Bandar-log. It’s a piece that he wrote in the first half of the 20th century as part of his nearly life-long effort to set the whole of Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book to music. As a scholar whose focus has been both on Kipling’s children’s literature and, more broadly, the representation of animals in children’s fiction, I’ve been asked to take part in a BBC Radio 3 Proms Plus talk on the subject.

The classic account of Kipling, while persuasive in many ways, seems to me to be a bit limited. It misses some of the interesting questions the stories raise about notions of belonging and identity.

The standard account relies on the idea that the human and animal identities within the stories are clearly distinguished from each other and fixed – and that this fixed distinction extends via allegory to white colonial and Indian identities.

Fluid identities

But what happens to our understanding of the stories if we don’t treat the human and animal identities as distinct? I would argue that a species name doesn’t necessarily fix a character’s identity in the reader’s mind’s eye.

For example, Bagheera, the black panther, is described in terms of a series of other animals: he is “as cunning as Tabaqui [the jackal], as bold as the wild buffalo, and as reckless as the wounded elephant”. Attributes that are supposedly intrinsic to one animal can be found in another. Like Bagheera, Mowgli describes himself in terms of other animals: “Mowgli the Frog have I been […] Mowgli the Wolf have I said that I am. Now Mowgli the Ape must I be before I am Mowgli the Buck,” and it is this process of transformation that will lead to the end in which he will become “Mowgli the Man”. In this way he blurs the distinction between himself and the other jungle inhabitants.

This undermines narratives of essential difference between species. If we follow this through with respect to the common allegorical reading that sets Mowgli apart from the animals, it also undermines claims that there are absolute differences between white colonialists and Indian “natives”.

Also take a closer look at the relationship of the child Mowgli to the inhabitants of the jungle and you’ll see the way this complicates accounts of the Jungle Books as straightforwardly imperialist in character.

Belonging

The Jungle Book stories focus a great deal on the issue of belonging, raising questions about the grounds on which one may claim to belong to a particular group or community: is belonging a matter of being born a member of a group, or is it a matter of convention and social agreement?

Shere Khan, Mowgli’s implacable enemy. Netflix

Because Mowgli is raised by wolves and initiated into their society he has a hybrid identity. Shere Khan, the tiger, resists Mowgli’s hybrid identity, referring to it as “man-wolf folly”. He claims that his hatred of Mowgli is justified because Mowgli is intrinsically “a man, a man’s child”. On the other hand, Akela, the leader of the wolves, claims kinship with Mowgli on the basis that:

He has eaten our food. He has slept with us. He has driven game for us. He has broken no word of the Law of the Jungle. … He is our brother in all but blood.

For Akela, Mowgli’s belonging is secured by his actions and his conformity with wolf society. Meanwhile, it’s worth noting that the most strident advocate of the idea that identity and belonging are a matter of “blood” is Shere Khan, the villain of the piece.

Nuance and ambiguity

By the end of the first Mowgli story it may seem that those, like Shere Khan, who claim that one’s identity is what one is born to be, carry the day – since Mowgli is cast out of the jungle. Though he speaks of leaving the jungle and going to “his own people”, he also qualifies this with: “if they be my own people” and he also goes on to reassert his claim to be part of the wolf pack when he follows this with the promise: “There shall be no war between any of us in the pack.”

As Daniel Karlin points out in his Penguin Classics edition of The Jungle Books (1987), Kipling changed this in his final collected edition of the stories to: “There shall be no war between any of us and the pack,” and so in the later edition “he already identifies with men”.

Either way, Mowgli does go on to rule the jungle rather than just remain a member of the jungle “family” as seems to be suggested by the recent Disney live-action/CGI film based on the stories. So there are ambiguities there, but a close reading of the Jungle Book stories leads me to feel that there is more to them than an imperialist narrative.

After a century or so during which Kipling has frequently been painted simply as a cheerleader for the “white man” and his burden – and at a time when questions of identity and belonging are particularly relevant for Britain – perhaps it’s time for a more nuanced reading of his classic works that allows their ambiguities and ambivalences to come to the fore.