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The Jungle Book | Themes

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Coming of Age

Rudyard Kipling's deep understanding of children led him to address the ups and downs of coming of age in many of his stories, and several characters in The Jungle Book go through the often-painful process of growing up. In the three Mowgli stories, Mowgli must take on new responsibilities and a different status as he grows older. Baloo and Bagheera teach him everything he needs to know about survival on his own, and once they are sure he is ready to defend himself, he goes through the process every young male wolf goes through: the decision to keep the wolf in the pack or kick him out. Having been kicked out of the wolf pack once he reaches maturity, but not being fully accepted in a village of humans either, Mowgli's entry into young adulthood requires him to find his own way as he navigates the world around him and tries to survive.

In Chapter 11 Toomai shows he is brave enough and savvy enough to accompany an elephant into the dance of the elephants, which no other man has seen. His understanding of the elephants, like Mowgli's understanding of the jungle animals and their languages, helps him to gain the respect of the adults around him, a necessary aspect of growing up.

Kotick the white seal also comes of age, discovering when he is a year old that his life will always be in danger if he stays near places where humans come and round up packs of seals to be killed for their furs. He searches and asks questions of all the wisest animals, discovering there is a legend that a white seal will one day lead his people to safety. Kotick realizes as he gets older he is the only seal who can become the leader in the legend. Again, coming of age in the wild is described in terms of questioning to gain knowledge for survival.

Even in the houses of humans, coming of age is difficult for animals in these stories. Rikki-tikki-tavi, the mongoose, discovers as he comes of age that his survival depends on his hunting prowess and his ability to save the people in his house from snakes. Cobras sneak into the house, and Rikki-tikki has to outwit them in order to kill them without getting killed or allowing the people he protects to get hurt. The animals in "Her Majesty's Servants" learn how to overcome fears and obey orders according to the hierarchy of animals and people as they grow up.

Law and Obedience

Throughout the Mowgli stories Kipling writes about the Law of the Jungle, which regulates how the Free People, the wolves, treat one another and how all animals interact in the jungle. The law even regulates how animals approach humans, forbidding them from eating humans unless they are teaching young animals how to hunt, and even then, doing so far away from their lairs, so humans don't come to take revenge on all of them. Shere Khan, who believes he is so powerful the law doesn't apply to him, is the only animal to break the Law of the Jungle; but he pays for it with his life later. The Monkey People are not part of the Jungle People, as they have no law, which makes them dangerous and, in the eyes of the Jungle People, a class of animals to be hated. Mowgli has to learn the law and the words that will allow him to interact with all types of animals in the jungle without getting hurt. For Kipling this law is crucial to having a society that runs smoothly and, at the same time, respects the rights of everyone in it.

In the story "The White Seal" in Chapter 7 Kotick has to follow the rules of each group of Sea People who help him to find a safe place for seals, even if it means he gets impatient. By doing so he is able to find a place where no humans go. Although many of his fellow seals don't believe there is such a place, eventually, more and more seals follow him. Kotick teaches that persistence and individuality pay off, but, at the same time, obeying the law and practices of different groups is still necessary.

In "Rikki-Tikki-Tavi," Chapter 9, the little mongoose follows rules he was brought up with by his mother, never biting or scratching people and planning his snake-killing adventures carefully, according to how each type of snake behaves. There are also rules about what to eat: a mongoose will eat eggs, but never live fledglings, the baby birds, because that is too cruel. In "Toomai of the Elephants," Chapter 11, Toomai doesn't really follow his father's instructions, but follows what he thinks is a higher set of rules, those of the elephants. In doing so he is able to accomplish more with the elephants than any of his fellow humans. In Chapter 13 the animals all have specific rules to follow, which allow them to survive and be treated well by their drivers, who follow orders up the chain of command. At the end of the story, a chief with the Amir of Afghanistan, who is visiting India, wonders how the magnificent parade is even possible, and is told it is because of a definite chain of command people and animals obey. The chief says his people only follow their own minds, and an Indian officer tells the chief this is why his Amir takes orders from their Viceroy. Kipling subscribes to the view that if law is not followed and a power structure is not established, chaos reigns.

Animal-Human Interactions

Kipling uses interactions between animals and humans to tell his stories in The Jungle Book. Mowgli, a human boy who is taken away from his village by a tiger but escapes death in Shere Khan's jaws, grows up in a wolf pack. He is able to interact safely and successfully with most animals by understanding their languages and their laws. The people in his village only consider their own laws, ignoring the Law of the Jungle, and end up being harmed by animals like Shere Khan, the tiger, or causing harm to animals.

Kotick, the white seal, spends the early part of his life trying to figure out how to avoid the horrible interactions with humans his Sea People go through every year, and he refuses to see this slaughter as normal. He ends up choosing to forego interactions with humans by staying far away from them and encouraging his people to live in a place where no humans can go.

Rikki-tikki-tavi becomes a house mongoose and takes care of his humans by protecting them from deadly snakes. In his story every mongoose wants to become a house mongoose, and people treat Rikki-tikki well because he treats them well. This story shows how humans and animals benefit each other.

Little Toomai spends all of his time interacting with elephants, and while the men in his village think they know how elephants operate, Little Toomai has a special connection with them. He understands how they communicate with each other, and he is not afraid of them, though he is so much tinier than they are. He makes an effort to allow his elephant to take him where all the elephants go, respecting their impulses. As a result, he is able to see the elephants dance, gaining the respect and admiration of all of the men in his village.

In the story "Her Majesty's Servants" in Chapter 13, the animals interact with humans in a variety of ways, from trampling tents to marching in a parade for the Viceroy. They all realize, though, that in order to be treated well, they have to obey their drivers, so the animal-human interaction in this story focuses more on power and submission rather than on mutual respect. It could be argued that the animals respect their position in relation to their drivers, but they have no choice. If they don't obey their drivers, they suffer. In this respect the story functions as an allegory for the colonized Indian people.

Violence

The stories in The Jungle Book are full of violence, even if there are no fights between human beings. In the Mowgli stories, Shere Khan is ready to eat a human baby and threatens the wolves, who threaten him right back. Mother Wolf is particularly fierce in her defense. The leader of the pack, Akela, knows that when he can no longer take down a buck, he will be killed by the pack and another leader will rise up. The scenes with the monkeys in Chapter 3 are extremely violent, as Baloo and Bagheera are severely wounded and nearly lose their lives. In return the monkeys are killed left and right by Bagheera, and Kaa hypnotizes them to come to him, so he can eat them. When Mowgli is in the human village and has killed Shere Khan, the villagers threaten him because they think he is evil. The Law of the Jungle may keep the peace, but it also involves a lot of violence and death. In order to eat, the animals have to kill.

Bravery

In the Mowgli stories, Mowgli isn't the only one who is brave. Mother Wolf fiercely defends Mowgli from Shere Khan, showing her prowess as a fighter, and Baloo and Bagheera throw themselves into a pack of violent monkeys to try to rescue Mowgli. Mowgli's bravery, however, is at the center of all of the stories. In Chapter 1 Mowgli is completely unafraid of the wolves and comes back with fire to singe Shere Khan and frighten the wolves who have turned against him. In "Kaa's Hunting," Chapter 3, Mowgli remembers the Master Words, used for protection, and is able to save himself from being killed by cobras. In Chapter 5 Mowgli is unafraid of the village hunter and uses his ability to communicate with animals not only to kill Shere Khan but also to keep Buldeo from taking away his prize, Shere Khan's hide. Mowgli's return to the pack is a risky move because the pack had been against him, but he keeps his promise no matter what the consequences may be.

In the story "The White Seal" in Chapter 7, Kotick's bravery is evident in his attempt to follow the hunters to see what they do to the young seals. It is also evident in his long search for a safe beach for the young seals once he discovers the awful truth about what the men do to the seals. He follows the sea cows to a safe beach, through a tunnel, with no guarantee he will find what he is looking for or actually be safe at his destination. He also goes through a bloody fight to ensure the other seals will follow him to safety, risking his life to make sure future generations of seals are not hunted.

Rikki-tikki-tavi is also brave, going after Nag and Nagaina even though he risks his life to do so. His chase down the hole after Nagaina is particularly brave, because Nagaina could easily kill him there if he makes a wrong move. Little Toomai is also brave, running after Kala Nag at night to go with him to the elephant dance and holding on all night even though he becomes exhausted. The camp animals in Chapter 13, from the story "Her Majesty's Servants," all talk about the things that scare them, but they are all brave in their own ways, heading into battle at the command of their human masters even though they are afraid of the fighting.

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