Having just this week finished reading The Jungle Books (1894) for the first time, I like the original story better than the Disney animated classic (1967) I grew up with, or that film’s more recent live-action and CGI remake (2016).
As is usually the case, the book version is deeper, richer, and more complex than the films had led me to believe.
And not just more complex – I found the book version of The Jungle Book more complicated. For starters, it never would have been written for us to enjoy if not for the British Empire having colonized India.
That is not to say that all the noted abuses of colonialism were worth it just so you and I could read a good story – or series of stories, as it turns out. But it is to say that colonialism like good novels is more complicated than modern readers usually want to entertain.
Viewing Empire as the Marketplace of Ideas
More than spices and finished goods are traded internationally. The marketplace of ideas, history, and culture is also in play when two vastly different civilizations come together, regardless the circumstances and outcome of their meeting.
And Kipling wrote The Jungle Books because he was born smack dab in the middle of one of histories richest and most diverse marketplaces of ideas.
On that note, and not as an aside, I can’t help wondering if Mowgli is actually the man-cub Rudyard surrounded by animals of various kinds, being perceived just another kind of animal himself even within the moniker of “man-cub.”
In the jungle of India, the red flower is fire. But the red flower scaled up could just as easily be Western instruments and methods of war like the latest firearms and gunships.
In The Jungle Books, Mowgli deals with two very different cats. There is Bagheera who mentors and protects him on the one hand, and Shere Khan on the other who wants to kill him before he grows into full manhood.
So also, in reading the book, one can imagine Anglo-Indian children by turn instructed by wise, kind, gentle Indian sages, and threatened by angry, territorial, bitter natives who wanted nothing so much as the intrusive white devils to leave their country alone.
Embracing the Depth, Richness, and Complexity
Life and history are like a good novel, and a good novel is like life and history. And with all of the above, we the readers are the better for embracing the complexity and richness rather than deconstructing and reducing it to overly simplistic tropes and self-serving narratives to root for and rail against.
Of course the British Empire wasn’t all good. But saying that much and little more is worse than saying nothing.
The British Empire wasn’t all bad either. As with all human endeavors, it was a mixed bag. And the prize goes to the one who sifts through the bag rather than lazily tossing it to the side.
In sum, Kipling’s work here is a good read, and I enjoyed it thoroughly – and only all the more rather than less for its surprising depth, richness, and complexity.
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