Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The Tragedy of Mowgli

I love Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book, and The Second Jungle Book as well, and though they both contain several fine independent tales (Rikki Tikki Tavi, The Undertakers, and The Miracle of Purun Bhagat come to mind) it's the Mowgli stories that justifiably make these two volumes famous. They're dangerous, magical, mythic, and beautifully written, and as a hero Mowgli puts Tarzan to shame (in more ways than one- Burrough's derivative work is disturbingly racist in parts).

There is also a current of death, loss, and conflicted loyalty that runs through them like a dark jungle river, a current I barely noticed as a child and, judging from Kipling's consummate skill as a writer, most likely wasn't meant to. As an adult, however, I found this hidden layer of nuance to be a thrilling find, a validation of the substance in my nostalgic revisiting of a childhood memory.

Then I read In the Rukh. This is a Mowgli story told through the eyes of a British Forestry Service officer, set in the years after Mowgli left the jungle. It is not part of the Jungle Books and indeed, it is nothing like the other stories. It is naturalistic, adult in its themes, and completely lacking the wonder of Mowgli's childhood adventures. It's damn depressing, and in fact, I would go so far as to say it very nearly undermines the stories that precede it. In the Rukh is, in this respect, postmodern, or it would be, if not for one thing: It was written first, before The Jungle Book.

So, Kipling's obviously not an early postmodernist. Nevertheless, he chose to include In the Rukh within All the Mowgli Stories and he never felt any need to rework it to make it fit more comfortably, which makes me suspect that he might not have been entirely displeased with the dissonance between it and its brothers. I certainly found it a rewarding kick in the teeth.

I'm not sure The Jungle Book and its sequel are in fashion anymore, aside from the insipid (yet undeniably catchy) Disney version of the stories, but I hope that the popularity of Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book (which was heavily influenced by Kipling's work) will spur a greater interest in these classics. I would encourage anyone, young or old, to seek them out, and afterward, to read the last, which is actually the first, Mowgli story.

Notes on In the Rukh

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