Thoughts on books and other assorted topics.
See also: http://goppf.wikidot.com/swstart
My name: Brian Martin
If any of the stories in this book doesn't fit, it is "Toomai of the Elephants." Toomai is a young boy who is told that to be an elephant-catcher, he must first see the fabled "elephant dance." It's a joke among the old hands, who understand the unstated punchline: Toomai will never be an elephant-catcher. Little do they know.
At first glance -- it's about elephants who live in the jungle -- this story seems tailor made for The Jungle Book. Whereas "The White Seal" seems as out of place as its hero's white fur. What has a story about a seal got to do with the jungle, after all? Just this: unlike "Toomai," "The White Seal" deals with the law of the jungle, which, as these stories define it, is equal parts responsibility and survival. Toomai has an adventure; Kotick, the seal, is trying to save his species from slaughter and extinction.
Now, "Toomai" has a sleek and pretty coat and it moves gracefully, but the other stories have all that and something else: fangs. Not that these are horror stories by any means, though parts of them are scary, but I think they remain classics today because Kipling -- talking animals notwithstanding -- is guilty only of romanticizing life in the jungle; he doesn't sugarcoat it.
Children's stories they may be, but for a different breed of children. I honestly don't know if any child of today who embraced the modern trend of fairness and equality and non-violence and the idea that games and competitions are not about winning but rather the experience could relate to these tales. The "games" in these stories are all about winning. Winning, they say, is better. Much better.
Kotick begins his epic quest to find a safe place for all the seals when, as a young lad, he follows the men who are driving hundreds of his kind to the killing ground, where they are clubbed and skinned and he can no longer even recognize his friends. In another story, "Rikki-Tikki-Tavi," a mongoose is pitted against a couple of cobras, and it's either them or him; there can be no truce, no understanding between them that they each have a right to live.
And then, of course, there are the three Mowgli stories. Mowgli is an Indian boy who, as a toddler, wanders into the den of a wolf pair (just ahead of the hungry jaws of a tiger named Shere Khan), and the wolves decide to raise him as one of their own. As a man-wolf, Mowgli is between worlds, fitting completely into neither; in the end, he is driven out of both. In between, he is kidnapped by monkeys who are likely to kill him at any moment. To save him...well, a lot of monkeys will have to die.
I love this stuff. No, it's not the violence itself, but that the violence serves a larger purpose. What is life, without death? Death, in its dark and frightening way, illuminates life. Ultimately, that is what Kipling is doing here, setting ablaze the lives of his characters -- from within, so that they burn themselves deeply into our memories. They are charming, but also ruthless; some are intelligent, others are stupid or simple or easily bored. But they all have a mission, a reason to live.
This is true even of the collection's most humorous story, "Servants of the Queen," in which a soldier who understands the languages of domesticated animals eavesdrops on a conversation between the animals of his camp. Bulls, an elephant, a camel, a horse, a mule -- they all have their own part to play in the wars of men. And if some phlegmatically accept death, others do not.
Games, I think, are more fun when they have rules and limits, and the same is true for fiction. Certainly these stories are very enjoyable. They're exciting and funny and romantic, but it's the rules and limits that give them an enduring meaning. Kipling's Jungle Law isn't of the "every man for himself" variety. What is important to his creatures, including Mowgli, is community, honor, justice; peace and freedom. Worthy ideals -- that come at a price. Both Kotick and Rikki-Tikki take a beating in pursuit of their goals, and Mowgli must give up a world he loves.
Not all the animals share these lofty ideals, however. Shere Khan doesn't. All he cares about is finally having the meal he was denied when Mowgli slipped into the wolf's den. But, then, just wait and see what happens to him.