Read an Excerpt
From Lisa Makman’s Introduction to The Jungle Books
Like his contemporary, American animal fabulist Joel Chandler Harris, whose “Uncle Remus” stories were popular in England in the 1880s, Kipling told animal stories that diverged from the tradition of moral English and American animal tales. In The Jungle Books Kipling generates a new breed of animal tale, one that combines the didacticism of earlier English animal stories with a new vision of nature influenced in part by the popularization of Charles Darwin’s ideas following the appearance of the groundbreaking On the Origin of Species (1859). The wolves that populate the Mowgli stories are not the denizens of Grimm’s fairytales or Aesop’s fables—that is, expressions of human foibles. They are unabashedly lupine: more hungry hunters than crafty deceivers of girls in red capes. Their primary focus in life is food, and food for them means frequent hunting. The Mowgli stories chime with the refrain “good hunting”—the phrase with which animals who follow what Kipling calls “Jungle Law” hail their fellows. Most of the numerous “songs” in the books deal with hunting or with another sort of violence. The animals in The Jungle Books (and, in places, the humans) don’t only discuss hunting—they do it. They do so much of it that Henry James, a lone critical voice when the books first appeared, remarked in a letter to Edmund Gosse: “The violence of it all, the almost exclusive preoccupation with fighting and killing, is . . . singularly characteristic.”
Kipling’s wolves do, however, adhere to a strict code of ethical behavior, which Mowgli—and the hypothetical child reader—learn. The violence in the books is tempered by this code of Jungle Law. In fact, what is most striking about Kipling’s depiction of nature is that it is not a place of wild savagery but of sensible adherence to this law. For the Law of the Jungle is not simply a Darwinian “survival of the fittest,” but rather a complex set of precepts by which a society regulates its members. Kipling uses nature metaphors to describe the Law, suggesting that it simply grows in the jungle, like a plant: “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.” The Law clearly “girdles” the pack, and as the stories show, it links together all the animals of the jungle. It seems that the Law compels the creatures to act in consort, like a single animal. In fact, the poem or song in which it is described, “The Law of the Jungle,” concludes with an image of the Law as a single beast. These lines also serve as an epigraph for The Second Jungle Book: “Now these are the Laws of the Jungle, and many and mighty are they; But the head and the hoof of the Law and the haunch and the hump is—Obey!” For Kipling, the central precept of this law, which establishes and maintains the social order, is submission.
Law is specifically contrasted with savagery in the story with which Kipling concludes the first Jungle Book, “Her Majesty’s Servants.” Here the law that is followed by animals has been created by men—the British military in India—and the rule of the British is glorified. In this story the narrator recounts a conversation among animals that he overhears on a night passed in a military camp where the Viceroy of India is meeting with the Amir of Afghanistan. As a young journalist, Kipling himself attended such an event. In the story, the Amir, described as “a wild king of a very wild country,” has brought with him an entourage of “savage men and savage horses.” “Her Majesty’s Servants,” animals who serve England, grumble about these uncultivated horses who stampede each night through the camp, disrupting their sleep. Throughout the narrative, various beasts speak in turn about how they fight for the British in colonial wars, each asserting that his manner in battle is best. When a youthful mule asks why the beasts must fight at all, the troop-horse, who has been established as a superior fighting animal and “servant,” responds, “Because we are told to.” This story and the first Jungle Book as a whole conclude with a clear message: Obey orders and all will be well. At the end of the tale, the narrator listens to another conversation, this time between a “native officer” and a Central Asian chief, who watch 30,000 British soldiers and their animals parade for the Amir, among them the beasts overheard on the previous night. When the chief marvels at the obedience of the men and animals, asking, “In what manner was this wonderful thing done?” the officer responds, “There was an order, and they obeyed.” The story is then punctuated with the “Parade-Song of the Camp Animals”: The animals sing, “Children of the Camp are we, / Serving each in his degree.” All in all, the lawlessness of “savage” beasts is contrasted with the orderly hierarchy of English-trained animals. Creatures ruled by the English are presented as models of self-regulation and submission. The animals seem to stand in for the Indian people whom the British govern. The rule—and the Law—of the English is thus hailed without ambivalence. This celebration of British rule in India can be seen in other Jungle Book stories as well, such as “The Undertakers” and “Letting in the Jungle.”