Although originally published separately, The Jungle Books are usually combined into one volume. For most readers, The Jungle Books tell the story of Mowgli, the boy raised by wolves to become ruler of the jungle, only to have to return to the human world as an adult. Mowgli’s adventures in fact take up only eight of the fifteen stories that make up The Jungle Books, but those eight stories captivate the reader’s imagination in a way that the others do not. Mowgli’s story is essentially a reworking of an ancient folklore theme, the child raised by animals. In most versions of this motif, human society remains the frame of reference; the child’s animal existence is simply a prelude to his or her reintegration into humanity. In contrast, Kipling places Mowgli in the context of a complete jungle society, which appears more attractive than the few glimpses of the human world allowed into the stories. Although Mowgli’s return to the outside world is predicted in the first of the stories, it is his development within the animal world that interests the author. Kipling wrote one story about Mowgli as an adult in the human world, but he did not choose to include it in The Jungle Books.
The animal world in the Mowgli stories has been described as a post-Darwinian Eden, with Mowgli as Adam given dominion over the animals. Animal existence is rough, with survival dependent on the individual’s strength and cunning, and even the revered leader of the wolf pack, Akela, must constantly demonstrate his fitness. That a helpless human child in such an environment could survive infancy, let alone grow to dominate all other jungle creatures, seems an impossible fantasy. Kipling makes it more plausible by reversing expectations. It is the savage jungle that is governed by order and law, while the “civilized” humans are bound by no law and little morality. Humans attack their own out of superstitious fear of witchcraft or out of greedy desire for gold. To Mowgli, gold seems useless—it cannot be eaten and is too soft to use as a tool or weapon.
In contrast, each animal has its place under the law of the jungle. All know what is required and what is prohibited, both for themselves and for others. With the singular exception of Shere Khan, each animal obeys the law with scrupulous care. The law, with its prohibition on killing humans, protects the infant Mowgli. His eventual mastery of the law in all its nuances grants him authority over the jungle animals.
Kipling’s jungle law is in many ways little more than a codification of (carnivorous) animal instincts, which accounts for its universal applicability. As various critics have written, the insistence on law and order reflects late-nineteenth century concepts about the formation of stable societies and the legal basis of imperial rule.
Born to English parents in India, learning Hindi before he learned his mother tongue, Kipling found himself as child and adult without a stable place in either Indian or British society. At the age of six, he was sent away from his family to be schooled in England, where he lived with an abusive caretaker. Later, he endured life in an English boarding school designed to prepare boys for military life, for which he was personally unfitted. As a young man, he returned to India as a newspaperman, reporting on the Anglo-Indian community.
To Kipling, personal experience and professional observation demonstrated the vulnerability of the individual in an unregulated, chaotic world. The law, with its strictures on behavior and on social relationships, offered a means to...
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offset the precarious condition of life as he knew it and incidentally provided a place for everyone regardless of background.
Mowgli is accepted by the animal world, but he can never completely become part of it. In the final Mowgli story, the python Kaa cites the law: “Man goes to man at the last, though the jungle does not cast him out.” Mowgli, caught between two worlds, is an extension of the author into his work. Kipling’s own childhood was less than idyllic; Mowgli’s life would compensate. In the jungle, Mowgli experiences a world of freedom made possible, ironically, by the strictness of a law that grants even an in-between child protection. Moreover, Mowgli’s position as an outsider enables him to learn as much as the jungle can teach; he masters far more of the jungle law than any animal.
The Anglo-Indian community into which Kipling was born and which he chronicled as a journalist also had reason to feel its position precarious. On behalf of the crown, a comparative handful of British soldiers, bureaucrats, and ordinary citizens ruled millions of Indians. Just how tenuous that rule could be was demonstrated by the Indian Mutiny of 1857-1858, an event that continued to reverberate forty years later. Kipling alludes to the Indian Mutiny in “The Undertakers,” one of The Jungle Books’ non-Mowgli stories.
Only by a strict adherence to imperial law, and by the subject peoples’ recognition of the laws, could order prevail in such a colonial empire. Kipling’s jungle law serves as a model for effective colonial administration, just as Mowgli’s complete immersion in and knowledge of the culture of those he will later rule is Kipling’s model for the ideal colonial education. The other stories in The Jungle Books elaborate the vision of a hierarchical world, one in which harmony prevails when socially ordained boundaries are respected. Still essentially beast fables, these stories are more realistic in depicting animal protagonists without the ability to communicate with humans. While several, such as “Rikki-Takki-Tavi,” are interesting in their own right, they function in the context of The Jungle Books primarily as foils to Mowgli’s experiences.