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Elizabeth Hawksley: In Praise of Rudyard Kipling’s ‘The Jungle Book’

March 22, 2010

Between the age of eight and ten, I read this book dozens of times – and I’ve been trying to analyse its appeal. The children’s author, Rosemary Sutcliff, who loved it too, wrote: By no means every child will like Kipling … But every child should have a chance to discover whether he does or not. Because he who has never run with Mowgli’s wolf pack has missed something that he will not get from any other source.

So what is it? It’s partly to do with the language (it certainly influenced Rosemary Sutcliff’s writing). The register is deliberately old-fashioned (plenty of thee’s and thou’s) and formal: Look well, O Wolves!  I liked the poetry of that. It gave the story a sort of gravitas and emphasized that this was a very different world from chilly north-east England where I lived.

It’s also very sensuous. You can taste the wild honey, feel the silkiness of Bagheera’s fur, see Cold Lairs, the abandoned city in the jungle where ‘the shattered domes of temples had wild figs sprouting on their sides’.

In the story, Mowgli, abandoned by his parents, is adopted by the Seeonee wolf-pack where he is loved and accepted and where the rules, the Jungle Law, are clear:

If ye kill before midnight, be silent, and wake not the woods with your bay,

Lest ye frighten the deer from the crops, and the brothers go empty away.

As a child, I thought the Jungle Law was fair and sensible; every animal has a part to play and there is mutual respect – unlike the adult world I knew, which was frequently unfair and incomprehensible.

Many children feel abandoned and unloved – as Kipling himself must have felt when, age six, he was taken from India, where he was born, to a cold, wet England and boarded with strangers who treated him with a cruelty he never forgot. I believe that Mowgli’s story taps into this emotional trauma and provides comfort. Mowgli can get it wrong, as when he takes up with the monkeys and is abducted, but he knows he will be rescued, unlike the young Rudyard, who was left for five long years. Moreover, Mowgli wins through and ends up Master of the Jungle.

I agree with Rosemary Sutcliff: The Jungle Book has something special to offer, particularly to an imaginative child who, for whatever reason, feels unwanted and subject to the arbitrary demands of adults.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. March 24, 2010 1:30 pm

    Google alert led me to your -great -website.

    I am with you about the Jungle Book, and my children loved it. I had the fortune to be introduced to it as a young boy by Rosemary Sutcliff herself (she was a close relative, also my godmother). There is (and will be) more about Rosemary Sutcliff, and her views on Kipling at http://www.rosemarysutcliff.wordpress.com if it interests you ….

    And may I reproduce the text of your blog post with appropriate permissions, links and so on at some point in the future?

    All the best
    Anthony Lawton

    • childrensauthor permalink
      April 27, 2010 8:41 pm

      Yes, of course you may reproduce the text of my blog post with appropriate permissions etc. I’m always pleased to spread the word about Kipling. When I was teaching adults on an Access to the Humanities Course and was allowed to choose the books I taught, I often chose ‘Plain Tales from the Hills’. And ‘Kim’, of course, is terrific.

      best wishes
      Elizabeth Hawksley

      http://www.elizabethhawksley.com

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