The Jungle Book has been on my to-read list for a long time. The Disney film adaptation has always been one of my favourites owing to its unique setting, excellent cast of characters and great soundtrack, (I’m the king of the swingers, oh, the jungle VIP!) and with not one but two new film adaptations currently in the works, now seemed like the perfect time to stop monkeying around and get down to some reading.
The book is a collection of short stories set in India during the rule of the British Empire. I’ve always been fascinated by this setting historically, and the author, having grown up as an English child in India during that time period, is uniquely positioned to write about the it with insight. Kipling was obviously fascinated with animals and the natural world, and his observations are evocative and beautiful.
The tales describe the adventures of a wide cast of people and anthropomorphized animals, the most famous of which are the three short stories revolving around Mowgli, an Indian child who is raised by wolves after his parents are killed by a tiger. There are also stories revolving around a young elephant-handler, a white seal, a group of parade animals, and a plucky mongoose named Rikki-Tikki-Tavi.
Each story aims to teach the reader a set of moral values. The leading characters are usually brave, dutiful, and altruistic. As an ex-boy scout, I can see why they chose to use the world presented in this book to set an example to the boys.
I found the books to be incredibly enjoyable, with a sense of heroic naivete to them that I found highly refreshing. However, that isn’t to say that the books sidestep difficult subjects. In one chapter, a young seal watches a group of his friends herded away, clubbed to death and skinned; an act that sparks a quest to find a new home for the seals, away from human influence. Anyone expecting a tale that matches the whitewashed Disney adaptation will probably be somewhat shocked by scenes like this, however, I feel that the books serve to tell a much more thought-provoking tale than the Disney film. The negative impact that humans have on the planet’s natural ecosystems is an even more relevant theme today than when the book was written over a hundred years ago.
Each chapter is also bookended by delightful verses relating to the preceding story, and the only criticism I have of the book is concerning its last chapter. It’s told from the point of view of a soldier eavesdropping on a conversation between parade animals who are discussing and comparing who has the most important role in the army. While clever, it’s also just a bit boring.
However, this is a small quarrel to have with an overall excellent collection of stories that deserve their status as a classic. Trust in me when I say that you should read it.