Student Question

In Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book, what role do the wolves play?

Quick answer:

Rudyard Kipling’s use of wolves in The Jungle Book emphasizes the social nature and roles of wolves relative to other predatory beasts.

Expert Answers

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Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book is not one book, per se; rather, it is a collection of stories and poems each of which is connected to the wild. The first such story is titled “Mowgli’s Brothers” and tells the tale of a young orphaned boy raised by a family of wolves—a pack of wolves, to be more technical.

The leader of this clan is Father Wolf and, needless to say, there is a Mother Wolf. It is a family given human characteristics in terms of socialization. Why did Kipling give such a prominent role in his story to wolves, rather than to other species? The answer almost certainly lies in the roles Kipling observed among wolf packs.

Wolves live and hunt as a group, or family, with a dominant wolf filling the role of head of the pack. In The Jungle Book, that role belongs, unsurprisingly, to Father Wolf. By placing wolves at the center of this story—a story involving a sort of custody battle between the wolves, adopting the young boy as their own, and a tiger called Shere Khan—Kipling was emphasizing the social nature and roles of wolves relative to other predatory beasts.

Kipling, however, went beyond his emphasis on the nature of the pack; he attributed to the wolves in his story a code of conduct that assumes a condition of primal importance to these animals. Father Wolf says with respect to the pack’s dispute with Shere Khan over the rights to the orphaned boy Mowgli:

“The Wolves are a free people. . .They take orders from the Head of the Pack, and not from any striped cattle-killer. The man’s cub is ours—to kill if we choose.”

An important part of Kipling’s story is the “Law of the Jungle,” also known as “The Law for the Wolves,” which is set forth in a poem within The Jungle Book. As the title suggests, Kipling’s poem sets forth the guiding principles of wolves:

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.

. . .

When ye fight with a Wolf of the Pack, ye must fight him alone and afar,

Lest others take part in the quarrel, and the Pack be diminished by war.

The Lair of the Wolf is his refuge, and where he has made him his home,

Not even the Head Wolf may enter, not even the Council may come

The “Law of the Jungle,” described by Kipling's poem and prevalent throughout “Mowgli’s Brothers,” provides the wolves a form of civilization that extends from the wolf culture and that provides the basis for Kipling's approach to a story of a boy raised in the jungle by wolves. The significance of the role of wolves in The Jungle Book, then, derives from the communal roles Kipling observed then embellished for narrative purposes.

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