Monday, June 25, 2012

The Jungle Book, by Rudyard Kipling

We read this last month for my reading group, partly because it plays a role in Téa Obreht's The Tiger's Wife, which everyone but me read the month before, and partly because at least one member had such fond childhood memories of it.

I didn't have a lot of time for the book so I only reread the Mowgli stories at the beginning. I have a fairly vivid memory of reading it as well as "Rikki Tike Tavvi" and to a lesser extent, "The Harbor Seal". It turned out that our various collections had a lot of non-overlap. Mine had some stories I don't remember, and others had a later tale of Mowgli, I think involving a wife.

I wouldn't necessarily have written about this here, but a couple of things seem worth mentioning. One is that I was struck by how Kipling turned the Law of the Jungle on its head. The real law of the jungle, I think is a Darwinian eat or be eaten kind of thing. But Kipling, being British, turns this into an actual code of law, with a tribal counsel and treaties and everything.  Far from the dog eat dog world which we think of in relation to it, Kipling even managed a little poem:

"Now this is the Law of the Jungle—as old and as true as the sky;
And the wolf that shall keep it may prosper, but the wolf that shall break it must die.
As the creeper that girdles the tree-trunk, the Law runneth forward and back;
For the strength of the Pack is the Wolf, and the strength of the Wolf is the Pack."

It's still true to the theory of evolution, but I think the communal aspect is a significant twist.

Tonight after work I went and heard Jon Young speak about his book What the Robin Knows: How Birds Reveal the Secrets of the Natural World at a little discussion group I go to. I was quite surprised to hear him speak about Kipling and how wonderfully he wrote about natural society. He even mentioned the Law of the Jungle, but he said it was really more the etiquette of the jungle. He told a great story of a herd of elephants in Africa. The leader almost stumbled upon a nesting bird of some sort or other, and she literally backed up, backing up the elephant behind her and so on, so that they then could all go around. I guess the etiquette of the jungle is that when you can give another creature space, you do.  

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