WHAT I’M READING: The Jungle Book
REVIEW: I was thoroughly impressed by the Jungle Book. Yes, Kipling has some questionable things to say about Indians, and of course the general premise that Mowgli only lives past infancy because jungle animals are terrified of humans and consider them their masters is as chauvinistic as it gets, but considering what could have been, I’ll count that as a success. Incidentally, if you think Kipling’s book shares much more than names with the Disney movie, you are sorely mistaken. Mowgli here is a pitiless badass, master of the jungle.
Structurally, the book is a series of short stories of varying lengths (my edition is nestled in a multivolume “selected works” from the 50s, so I can’t even be sure I’ve got everything) that trace the foundling Mowgli’s life from when the tiger Shere Khan steals him from his mother’s hut to when he returns of his own accord, ready to put aside the boyish things like killing antelope with his bare hands in favor of settling down with the first random girl he sees to start a family (the movie got that part right too, I guess). Probably the best story to summarize the whole book is Red Dog (technically in The Second Jungle Book, but who’s counting?): It’s on Project Gutenberg, among other places, so go read it [link to follow]. So, other than that wonderful line at the beginning which really summarizes British imperialism (“…and all the jungle was his friend, for all the jungle was afraid of him.”), the story is simple. A new threat, the dhole, or red dogs, has moved into the wolf pack’s hunting ground, and they have a reputation for single-minded aggression and general viciousness. Mowgli figures out how to defeat them given his limited resources: forty wolves versus two hundred dhole, no guns, etc. He overcomes the threat with pluck, resourcefulness and being a smarmy shit: he pisses the dhole off, runs them into an enormous beehive and then kills the stragglers with the wolves. Then, everybody says Hooray Mowgli, master of the jungle! But one person hints that Mowgli will return to his own people in due time. Incidentally, this particular story shares a lot of beats with a chapter of The Hobbit. But in “Flies and Spiders,” the stakes are much higher. Bilbo Baggins is not the master of the jungle he’s just a poor little hobbit, alone and terribly far away from his comfort zone. Of course, Tolkien has his own set of issues to deal with, but as good as Kipling is, Tolkien is better.
RECOMMENDED: With reservations. My copy of the book definitely left out about eight Jungle Book stories between the two original volumes. There’s also very troubling thematic elements scattered throughout. I’d bet if Kipling was born twenty or thirty years later, he’d be more palatable. The problem is, he’s still a good writer. He just has a whole lot of baggage.
WHAT’S NEXT: A playwright or two before National Poetry Month.