This is one of the books I decided to read for the Pre-1960s Classic Children’s Book Reading Challenge.
Of course, I’m familiar with Mowgli. Who hasn’t seen the clips from Disney’s film? I’d never read the book. I found old favourites and surprising insertions. I found rich language and old-fashioned ideas. They must be wonderful to read aloud, to read to an audience. Stories for story-tellers.
This kindle edition had the text of the stories interspersed with the songs or poems in a typewriter-style font. It made them distinctive, but it distracted me from the beauty of them because the font was so much larger, comparatively, and also letters well spaced. I’m never at my best reading poems in a narrative (I mostly skip JRR Tolkien’s although there are times when I only read them, not the story!). However they are worth attention, for they flow and ebb like the breathing of the jungle itself.
There are stories here that are old favourites without my ever having read them. Somehow I absorbed Rikki-Tikki-Tavi through the wealth of experience. The descriptions of the animals and their actions are divine. I particularly remarked the way Rikki (a mongoose) tackled his prey, large or small. The story of Toomai of the Elephants was unknown to me, but so rich in its description of the jungle, of the elephant dance, I felt I was there. Maybe I have the advantage of having been on a holiday to watch tigers in the Indian National Parks and reserves, but the descriptions were so vivid I felt I had returned to places I’d been.
The last story, Her Majesty’s Servants, has animals performing different duties in the Indian regiments describing their roles and their interaction with man and their purpose as they see it. It reminded me of Captain in Black Beauty, but more, it gave me a vivid flashback to The Maltese Cat, a Rudyard Kipling story I read in an anthology when I was in my teens. Kipling’s remarkable ability to consider how animals might see their interaction with the world they are in is neither anthropomorphic nor naturalistic. It is somewhere in between – animals making sense of the madness of the human world, but reciprocating the bonds that humans feel with their animals. What this story offers is insight into history during the time of such conflicts, much as War Horse does. It is a window into a bygone world.
Is it relevant to today’s teenage reader? I believe so. The richness of the language may also be old-fashioned, but there are plenty of wonderful literary works of that and former periods that are recommended reading. A lover of words, or animals, or travel, or bygone ages, will love this book. Even if the seal story, The White Seal, is a rather jarring incongruency in the middle of an Indian landscape.
The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling (free on kindle)