Friday, February 24, 2012

Adventure classics -- Rule of the lame tiger

The Jungle Book

by Rudyard Kipling

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Who wouldn’t have qualms about including a work by that apostle of imperialism, Rudyard Kipling, in a collection of classic adventure stories? Even admirers have been embarrassed by Kipling’s beliefs, as David Gilmour describes in his biography, The Long Recessional.

But when writing about books that have stood the test of time, I couldn’t ignore The Jungle Book. It’s a cultural staple and, among Americans at least, greatly loved in its Disney animated movie incarnation.

(Although I suspect Kipling would have hated the Disney version, whose jazz sequences are my favorite parts. He was no fan of things American in spite of -- or perhaps because of -- his difficult marriage to American Caroline Balestier.)

I was surprised, as often on a re-reading, to find the Mowgli stories comprised less than half of the first Jungle Book. The remainder is filled with unrelated stories, including one bizarre insertion about Arctic seals, and with the exception of “Rikki-Tikki-Tavi,” all deservedly forgotten now. (Not that writing lesser stories is a reflection on Kipling’s ability. Any writer so prolific is entitled to off days.)

However, upon considering the allegories Kipling deliberately inserted, I was still more surprised by the implications of his insistence on the heroism of the wolves as “free people” and the role of the lame but villainous tiger, Shere Khan.

“Free people” in India, a country then ruled by a foreign power? Smaller animals threatened by a huge single one? Could Kipling have channeled the wolves as
representatives of Indians and Shere Khan as the British Empire?

No doubt he’d have denied it. But the decade of the 1890’s that gave birth to the Jungle Books also saw the publication of his most famous poem, “Recessional.” The title is at first sight an odd one for a celebration of Queen Victoria’s reign. But it makes sense, in the words of biographer Gilmour, from a writer whose life encompassed the decline, nearly to its end, of the British Empire.

It seems unlikely Kipling could fail to recognize Britain’s fatal flaw, at least from the standpoint of imperial domination. A country propounding rule by representatives chosen by the ruled -- what colonial people could fail to see the conflict between the Empire’s talk and its walk? No wonder the tiger was lame from birth.

(The Jungle Book is in the public domain, which allows me to adapt an illustration from an early edition for this blog. The books and movie discussed here, including Gilmour’s biography, is available at
www.amazon.com/.)

(Next Friday Adventure classics starts a new month of classic thrillers with another look at aspects of the British Empire, H. Rider Haggard’s “imperial” -- his adjective, not mine -- She.)

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