The Jungle Book is a collection of short stories set in the jungles of India. The first three stories are about Mowgli, whose father had run from his camp when Shere Khan, the tiger attacked. A wolf family rescued Mowgli and defied the tiger who claimed him, prophesying that although Shere Khan wanted to kill Mowgli, Mowgli would kill him. The pack was hesitant to accept a Man, but Baloo, the bear who taught all the wolf cubs sponsored him, and the panther Bagheera purchased his acceptance with a dead cow. So Mowgli grew up with the pack. He was too small to actually kill a deer, but he was effective at driving them towards the wolves. As Mowgli became a teenager, Akela, the aging leader of the pack, failed to get his kill one night. This is the beginning of the end for elderly pack leaders, who are eventually killed in their weakness. Shere Khan used this opportunity to stage a coup. He had been poisoning the minds of the younger wolves against Mowgli, whose pride is hurt that they cannot withstand Mowgli’s Man-stare, and the younger wolves cast Mowgli out from the pack. Mowgli defends himself with fire, and leaves for a village of Men, vowing that he would return with the hide of Shere Khan.
There is an interstitial story about Mowgli’s training while he was in the wolf pack. Baloo taught the wolf cubs the Law of the Jungle, and Mowgli, too, but since Mowgli was a Man, he had to learn a lot more. The Law of the Jungle was how you kept safe from the myriad of dangers, and included things like passphrases so that different species would not harm you. One day Baloo cuffed Mowgli for poor performance in his lessons, and he ran away upset. The monkeys found him, and realized that they had an opportunity to get him to show them how to weave things, and then they would be respected in the jungle. (They were not respected because they never actually finished what they started, plus they lived in the trees out of sight, so it was easy to ignore them.) The monkeys kidnapped Mowgli and swiftly took him to a ruined city in the middle of the jungle, leaving Bagheera and Baloo panicked. Mowgli remembered his lessons, and asked a kine to tell Baloo where he was being taken. Unfortunately, the only help Bagheera and Baloo could find was Kaa, the thirty foot rock python. One monkey would not be a match for a bear or panther, but hundreds of them made for a difficult battle, which was only really won when Kaa managed to climb the wall and make an appearance. The monkeys were terrified of him, and for good reason, as the story ends with Kaa hypnotizing the monkeys, and presumably eating them.
Mowgli’s story resumes as he enters a human village, where he is given to a wealthy woman as replacement for the son that the tiger had taken many years ago. Mowgli starts learning human language, and is given the task to shepherd the water buffalo with the other children. He make it known that he is in charge, and he plots how to get revenge on Shere Khan. One of his wolf brothers visits him, and they make a plan to warn Mowgli when Shere Khan comes to find him. The day he returns, Mowgli sees the warning, and has his wolf brother help him divide the buffalo herd in half, and take them to the two ends of the ravine where Shere Khan is sleeping. The resulting stampede kills Shere Khan since he cannot escape up the cliff. The villagers see that Mowgli can communicate with the wolves, so they cast him out as a demon. Mowgli skins Shere Khan, takes it back to the wolf pack’s rock and gives the call for a meeting. The leaderless pack had not been doing well, so they ask for Akela and Mowgli back. Mowgli refuses to come back, and leaves the pack, forming a small pack with his wolf brothers. Kipling commented that Mowgli eventually meets a girl and gets married, but that does not come into the story.
The next story is about a white seal, Kotick, who grew up in the nursery on an arctic island with hundreds of thousands of other seals. The next year when he returned, he got to hang out with all the bachelors, and discovered some Men who a round up some seals every year and kill them. He escaped because they didn’t want an albino seal. Kotick was traumatized by the killings and spent the next year trying to find an island where there are no Men. He tried several leads from a seagull and a grumpy walrus, with no success. The other seals laughed at him that winter, but he searched harder. Eventually he met Sea Cow (manatees), who were ugly and had terrible manners, and remembered that the gull had suggested that such a creature might know of a place. Sea Cow cannot talk, but he followed them, and they led him to an island with an underwater passage to a beach surrounded by land, and it was obvious that Man had never been there. He went back that winter and reported his finding, but no one wanted to join him except one adventurous female. So he fought them all and every one he bested had to come with him. That is how the seals ended up on St. Paul’s island. (Unfortunately, the poem at the end suggests that Man came to the island and slaughtered most of them.)
After this is “Rikki-tikki-tavi,” the famous story about a mongoose who happened into an Englishman’s home in India. The family took a liking to him, and his mother had raised him to behave well around white people, because living among white people was the height of living. So he was polite and enjoyed himself. He soon made the acquaintance of the cobra Nag and his wife, Nagaina. It was hate at first sight, for a mongoose kills cobras and they are natural enemies. The snakes plot to kill, and Nag slithers up the bathroom drain so as to be able to kill the unexpecting bather in the morning, but Rikki finds out and bites its neck, hanging on while the snake thrashed him around. The noise woke up the family, who was ever so grateful to Rikki for saving their lives. Rikki knew he had to get rid of Nagaina as well as her clutch of eggs that was about ready to hatch. He found the eggs, killed the young snakes, and used that as bait to draw Nagaina. She escaped to her tunnel as Rikki bit her tail, but Rikki hung on and killed her, too, dragging her to the trash heap, where the humans saw what he had done. So Rikki saved the family and lived happily in the house.
The penultimate story is “Toomai of the Elephants,” a story about a child of an elephant driver. Elephant drivers stay with their elephant, and the job is passed down from father to son. Toomai’s elephant, Kala Nag, was a particularly docile elephant, and therefore well liked by the humans. Toomai liked the excitement of breaking in the wild elephants every year, but the head of the entire Elephant workforce, Petersen Sahib told him he would only be able to join when he saw the elephants dance. Elephants were well-known by the adults to never dance. One night shortly after this, Kala Nag became restless, and broke loose. At Toomai’s request he picked him up, and Kala Nag set off through the jungle. He arrived at a clearing, where hundreds of elephants stamped down the trees all night to create a larger clearing. When Toomai and returned, both he and Kala Nag tired out, the adults at first did not believe his story. But Petersen Sahib’s elephant had also been there, and showed signs that corroborated what Toomai said. So he was hailed as the first person to ever see the elephants dance, and was prophesied that he would be the greatest of all elephant handlers, even better than Petersen Sahib, who previous to that night had known all there was to know about elephants.
The final story is a nocturnal conversation between pack animals in the Indian army. The army was gathered so it could parade itself before the visiting commander from Afghanistan, but it kept raining, preventing the spectacle. And the camels kept having bad dreams and panicking throughout the army. This night they panicked, and it led to several animals from different divisions discussing the role they had in the war. The war horse was proud of always obeying his human and going into battle (although he had been slashed with a knife once). The mule thought that the most important part of the war was dragging the mobile cannons through the mountains to get the advantage of terrain. The elephant, who pushed the big gun until he was too afraid of the battle to push it forward, was thought a coward by the oxen who pulled it when he refused. The oxen did not grasp the idea that the oxen that inevitably died each battle might be them some time; the elephant was able to understand this, so he refused. And the camel had bad dreams, and got to kneel down during the battles in the cities, being safe in the middle as the humans shot at each other. The next day the human observer of all this saw the parade and saw the animals’ places in it, and the Afghanistan commander was very impressed as the order, as everyone in his country did as they saw fit. His counterpart in the Indian army noted that it was because they did not obey their commanders that he had to come and take orders from the British commander in India.
Kipling always has such rich details in his books that you can almost feel like you are in India. In these tales, you see life in India from the perspective of the animals. Even here, Kipling is a great observer and while he obviously takes artistic license, each animal is within the character of the animal itself and the Indian mythos surrounding it. Each animal has just as much a personality a person, with Kaa and Rikki-Tikki-Tavi being the most memorable characters. Kaa is never entirely safe, and Kipling skillfully weaves in rumors about Kaa that inspire a nameless fear in both the monkeys. When we see Kaa hypnotize the monkeys, the fear is identified, and actually made more intense. Rikki-Tikki-Tavi is a playful and cunning mongoose, lovable even in text, so richly is the portrait painted. I wish more Mowgli stories had been included, as they are the richest both in plot and in the depth of the world; they leave you with the feeling that there is a lot more out there in the jungle and a curiosity to find out what it is. Rikki-Tikki-Tavi is equally good. The others are good, but not as exciting. Even so, The Jungle Book is a rich fantasy world set within the real world and will delight any reader.