Thursday, October 3, 2013

Reading with my Kids: The Jungle Books by Rudyard Kipling

Source of book: I own both Jungle Books

As regular followers of this blog recall, I participate in an online book club, hosted by my friend Carrie at This is our second year, and we are focusing on classics - an even mix of adult and children’s books. This month’s selection was the The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling. Although only the first book was officially selected, I and others decided to read both books..

My first experience of The Jungle Book came as a small child, when my mother read “Rikki-Tikki-Tavi” to us. With all the good sound effects.

I believe this was before I had even seen the Disney movie based on the stories. (Yes, back in the dark ages when I was a kid, Disney movies were re-released in the theaters occasionally, but were difficult to find - even as video rentals - otherwise. Now, Disney has realized that immense sums of money can be made off of their back library.)

I later read through both books a couple of times. This time, I decided to read them to the kids.

The books were a little bit of a stretch for my two youngest, but the older kids thoroughly enjoyed them.

Kaa in particular was popular with my snake-loving older son. He was laughing uproariously during the scene in “Kaa’s Hunting” when Kaa paralyzes the chattering monkeys.

Kaa glided out into the center of the terrace and brought his jaws together with a ringing snap that drew all the monkey’s eyes upon him.
“The moon sets,” he said. “Is there yet light to see?”
From the walls came a moan like the wind in the tree-tops: “We see, O Kaa.”
“Good. Begins now the Dance - the Dance of the Hunger of Kaa. Sit still and watch.”
He turned twice or thrice in a big circle, weaving his head from right to left. Then he began making loops and figures of eight with his body, and soft, oozy triangles that melted into squares and five-sided figures, and coiled mounds, never resting, never hurrying, and never stopping his low, humming song. It grew darker and darker, till at last the dragging, shifting coils disappeared, but they could hear the rustle of the scales.

In the Disney cartoon, Kaa’s hypnotic powers are used against Mowgli, of course, rather than the monkeys; but they took inspiration from the book. (See below.)

In general, those expecting Kipling’s original to resemble the cartoon will be disappointed. Kipling isn't generally known for being a humorist. There are moments here and there, but in general one is more likely to find excitement and earnest adventure than comic relief. This isn’t a bad thing. Kipling writes a good short story, and his novels are also fun - particularly for boys. (I’ll particularly recommend Captains Courageous and Kim for children. Puck of Pook’s Hill for high schoolers - an underrated book.)

Also, the books are roughly half “Mowgli” stories, and half other, unrelated stories. Some of the stand-alone stories are set in India, while others are set in the Arctic - which seems a bit funny for a “jungle” book, but there you are. With the exception of “Rikki-Tikki-Tavi,” I think the Mowgli stories are stronger than the others.

An Adjutant Bird, which features in “The Undertakers.”
Because I think it is a really cool bird.

Ones I particularly like are “Letting in the Jungle,” “Her Majesty’s Servants,” and “The King’s Ankus.” I appreciated “Red Dog” more than I did when I was young, and was rather surprised that the kids liked it. It is pretty darn scary, and has more death in it than most of the others. That whole scene with the bees, though. That is one well written and paced, tension filled tour-de-force. Perhaps too dark for Disney, but that seems made for the movies.

The kids, though, adored the unforgettable mongoose. I think I did the sound effects pretty well. Maybe as well as my mom. Maybe. The kids liked them well enough. Again, filled with suspense and danger - and some pretty good trash talking too.

I will have to complain just a little, though, about having to explain Colonialism to the kids. I didn’t pay that much attention when I was little to the constant use of the term “white man.” Kipling is well known, of course, for his Colonialist attitudes. He was even a bit controversial in his own day. Still, it felt weird the way that “white man” stood in for “English.” He used that term too, but often, the color was enough to denote all the glory of the British Empire. Likewise, he tends to use his opportunities to contrast the civilized English with the “savage” ways of the Indians. He’s not entirely wrong. I could write quite a bit on India’s ongoing and longstanding problems with class and gender. (From the Caste system, which still classifies some as “untouchable” to the custom of “Suttee” and the modern gang rapes which make headlines. Also, for a compelling account of the transition from British rule to self government, I highly recommend Nirad Choudhury’s second autobiography, Thy Hand, Great Anarch. Hands down one of the best non-fiction works I have read in the last five years.)

Still, it seems a bit gratuitous in the context of the stories. (I particularly dislike “The White Seal” - in which it is the white seal that leads his darker brethren to paradise, because they lack the ability to look beyond their day-to-day life to the possibilities of establishing a civilization.)

I’ll also complain about the fact that in “Quiquern” - and, come to think of it - the only females who get names are the mothers. It is Kotuko and “the girl,” even though she is a key part of the adventure. Couldn’t she at least get a name?

On the other hand, Kipling does create imaginative renderings of his animal characters. (One of the reasons I like “Her Majesty’s Servants” is the way he translates the animal characteristics into personalities and dialogue. You really can imagine each animal talking that way. Likewise, in the advice and illustrations Baloo and Bagheera and Kaa give fit with their natural characteristics. Here is some of “The Outsong,” the poem of the final words given to Mowgli as he leaves the jungle.


Anger is the egg of Fear--
Only lidless eyes are clear.
Cobra-poison none may leech.
Even so with Cobra-speech.
Open talk shall call to thee
Strength, whose mate is Courtesy.
Send no lunge beyond thy length;
Lend no rotten bough thy strength.
Gauge thy gape with buck or goat,
Lest thine eye should choke thy throat,
After gorging, wouldst thou sleep?
Look thy den is hid and deep,
Lest a wrong, by thee forgot,
Draw thy killer to the spot.
East and West and North and South,
Wash thy hide and close thy mouth.
(Pit and rift and blue pool-brim,
Middle-Jungle follow him!)
Wood and Water, Wind and Tree,
Jungle-Favour go with thee!

In fact, the poems are an underrated facet of this book. Kipling was a skilled poet, and his best poems are memorable. As with the stories, some have aged poorly, but ones like “If,” his paean to stoical self control and dedication to principle are still relevant today.

The Jungle Books are imaginative and original, and do make a good read-aloud selection for older kids. Like Tom Sawyer, they also can spark a bit of a discussion about race and privilege; and also the importance of separating out the messages from the excellent writing. Because Kipling really does write very well. A little critical thinking can tease out the thrill of the story and the excellent ideas of honor, loyalty, truth, and disregard for the false promises of wealth from the cultural dross.

And really, go read your kid “Rikki-Tikki-Tavi” today. Rikk-tikk-tikki-tikki-tchk!

Note on Sterling Holloway:

Kaa has always been my favorite character from the Disney movie. (My mom’s too. She talked about him before we got to see the movie in its theater re-release.) Here is the key scene:

I love how Kipling’s vision of the coils which are ever changing in shape are rendered in the animation.

The character is voiced by Sterling Holloway, who is probably my favorite voice actor of the era. (Yeah, even beating out Mel Blanc by a hair. Maybe. I’m on the fence.)

In addition to Kaa (and his counterpart, Sir Hiss from Robin Hood), Holloway also voiced the grownup Flower in Bambi, the original Winnie-the-Pooh, Roquefort in The Aristocats, and the Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland. That’s a pretty unforgettable bunch. And they will always sound like Sterling Holloway in my head.

Note on “The White Man’s Burden”:

Probably this poem caused more problems for Kipling’s reputation than any of his other works. (Indeed, this poem brought the phrase into the lexicon.) He wrote it as an encouragement to Theodore Roosevelt to colonize the Philippines. There is one school of thought that says that he intended it more ironically than it appears on its face. However, the bulk of Kipling’s work would tend to support the idea that he meant it exactly as it reads: fully in favor of the White Man’s duty to dominate the world.

Opinions differ on whether American involvement in the Philippines was predominantly negative or positive, of course; particularly in light of the prior Spanish colonization. History is messy in any case, and the “what ifs” can never truly be answered. Regardless, the poem is pretty striking in its arrogance. Read it for yourself and make up your own mind.

Take up the White Man's burden--
Send forth the best ye breed--
Go bind your sons to exile
To serve your captives' need;
To wait in heavy harness,
On fluttered folk and wild--
Your new-caught, sullen peoples,
Half-devil and half-child.

Take up the White Man's burden--
In patience to abide,
To veil the threat of terror
And check the show of pride;
By open speech and simple,
An hundred times made plain
To seek another's profit,
And work another's gain.

Take up the White Man's burden--
The savage wars of peace--
Fill full the mouth of Famine
And bid the sickness cease;
And when your goal is nearest
The end for others sought,
Watch sloth and heathen Folly
Bring all your hopes to nought.

Take up the White Man's burden--
No tawdry rule of kings,
But toil of serf and sweeper--
The tale of common things.
The ports ye shall not enter,
The roads ye shall not tread,
Go mark them with your living,
And mark them with your dead.

Take up the White Man's burden--
And reap his old reward:
The blame of those ye better,
The hate of those ye guard--
The cry of hosts ye humour
(Ah, slowly!) toward the light:--
"Why brought he us from bondage,
Our loved Egyptian night?"

Take up the White Man's burden--
Ye dare not stoop to less--
Nor call too loud on Freedom
To cloke your weariness;
By all ye cry or whisper,
By all ye leave or do,
The silent, sullen peoples
Shall weigh your gods and you.

Take up the White Man's burden--
Have done with childish days--
The lightly proferred laurel,
The easy, ungrudged praise.
Comes now, to search your manhood
Through all the thankless years
Cold, edged with dear-bought wisdom,
The judgment of your peers!

Note on “If”:

I can’t leave a review of Kipling on a sour note. I really do love reading his works, both prose and poetry. I loved “If” the first time I read it, and still think that we would do well to impress its thoughts on our sons - and our daughters too.

IF you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don't deal in lies,
Or being hated, don't give way to hating,
And yet don't look too good, nor talk too wise:

If you can dream - and not make dreams your master;
If you can think - and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you've spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build 'em up with worn-out tools:

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: 'Hold on!'

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings - nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds' worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it,
And - which is more - you'll be a Man, my son!


  1. I enjoyed the poems you wrote up, Kipling is such a diverse writer but you can count on him for being interesting.
    Kaa is definitely a colorful character, on page and in Disney animation!
    I like to read Kipling alongside H Rider Haggard and T.E. Lawrence. A highly complimentary buffet of thought!
    I disliked "The White Seal" for the same reason.
    I'm glad your kids enjoyed the reading!

    1. I've never read Lawrence - but I should. I love Haggard. In fact, would Indiana Jones ever exist without him? How many scenes and ideas were "borrowed" from She and King Solomon's Mines?

      I didn't have time to explore it in this post, but it is interesting that Kipling, Haggard, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and Henry James were all close friends. Quite a group, that.

  2. Tried getting my kids interested in the audio book (Jungle Book) but don't think they were really following. I'll have to try again in a few years ...

  3. Shamefully, "The White Seal" was my 2nd favorite story. I didn't make the "white" connection, though, so I'm not so fond of it anymore. Thanks for clearing that up!