Several months ago, I was on a Disney nostalgia kick. When I was bored, I’d put on Peter Pan, The Sword and the Stone or Robin Hood. I didn’t feel much of a need to revisit any of the other classics until one gloomy day when I stumbled upon The Jungle Book. I wasn’t quite sure if I would get through it. All I could remember was that oafish bear singing that irritating “Bear Necessities” song, but as I watched it, my respect for it grew. I thought those monkeys want to be men!; Shere Khan hates mankind; and How will Mowgli be able to enter civilization?. There were ideas there; I just didn’t know quite what to make of them. Over the next few days, my mind just kept coming back to The Jungle Book, so I went out to the store and bought Rudyard Kipling’s classic work of literature on which the child’s cartoon is based. Upon reading The Jungle Book and its companion pieces of The White Seal and Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, I started to get a feel for what Kipling was trying to accomplish. It wasn’t long after that I read Edward Said’s intro to his book Orientalism. I said aloud to myself while reading, “oh, I bet people have a big problem with The Jungle Book. I was even a bit apprehensive about looking up scholarly analysis of the book, for fear of the scathing commentary I’d most likely find. I was right to be. It turns out, people do have a big problem with The Jungle Book.
One of those people is Jopi Nyman PhD, Senior Researcher of English at Joensuu University. In his article, “Re-Reading Rudyard Kipling’s ‘English’ Heroism: Narrating Nation in The Jungle Book”, Nyman examines the roles of the animal characters in relation to the master-servant relationships of colonized India. This article excites comparison to Viswanathan’s intro to Masks of Conquest through its concentration on colonial India and the power of language. Nyman could also be likened to Achebe because he too examines the colonizer’s fear of the colonized and takes offense to gross misrepresentations of culture. However, Nyman’s closest connection is to the work of Edward Said, specifically his book Orientalism. Nyman adopts Said’s idea of the Other being present in English literature as a tool for possessing their colonized culture. This article seems to give us an insight into the history of Kipling’s India while closely reading the various ideas and symbols present in the novel, however, its viewpoint is more specific. “Re-Reading Rudyard Kipling…” comes from the viewpoint of post-colonial theory. It takes its aim at specifically examining the cultural legacy of the English colonial rule in India apparent in The Jungle Book.
In Nyman’s article, he quickly separates the animal characters into two very basic categories: the good and the bad (p.208). The good, comprised of the wolf pack, Baloo, and Rikki-Tikki are the creatures that follow the laws of the jungle and serve the hierarchies of power. These animals represent the civilized native. They know where they stand in relation to man, representing (and often portrayed by) the ruling English. Man dominates animal and animals would do best to obey the rules that maintain this relationship. The mongoose, Rikki Tikki, even goes out of his way to directly serve England by protecting a white family from deadly cobras. The bad animals, consisting of the aforementioned cobras, mad monkeys, Kaa the Python, and Shere Khan the tiger are those that do not follow the rules. They seek to subvert the laws of the jungle, which would potentially call man’s attention (punishment) to them and the jungle. These two groups are the colonial others and the native others.
Of these characters, Shere Khan is described as the most militant, full of native ferocity, spouting anti-colonialist rhetoric and challenging their rule with threats of man-eating (208): “Give him to me…He has troubled the jungle for ten seasons…He is a man, a man’s child, and from the marrow of my bones, I hate him.” (Kipling 34). So, while running with the bad animals, Khan also leads into the idea of colonial fear. Nyman quotes a Sujit Mukharajee piece about the use of the tiger is English literature, calling it “some enduring spirit of India that the British feel they had failed to subjugate” (209). The animals of the book depend on the subjugation of other animals to keep themselves safe from men, but the men also rely on this relationship to avoid insurrection. They fear and hunt Shere Khan because can disrupt their relationship through his violent transgressions.
There is also a fear of madness expressed in the book through episodes with the monkeys and Kaa (Kipling 68). The monkeys try to act like men, but are easily seduced by Kaa’s dance, after which they are in his power. This suggests a potential to go native, or lose your humanity in savage surroundings. Such themes are present in Acbebe’s denouncement of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, “An Image of Africa”. In it, he exposed the fact Conrad’s use of wild Africans and their wild continent to explain why a man like Kurtz would go insane and why Marlow should fear the same fate. Kipling expresses a similar cautiousness in regards to a dark continent full of dark people, but his fears primarily extend only to the colonial Others and not the colonizing man. As a man, Mowgli is immune to Kaa’s hypnotism, suggesting that the colonizer should be immune to such seduction, but there is still fear concerning the reversion of your colonized subjects (215).
Another prominent issue in the Nyman article is language. In The Jungle Book, language is a useful tool of the colonizer (214). Mowgli is a fulfillment of the colonist’s dream as he manages to master the many native tongues of the jungle’s animals. With this knowledge, he can control and manipulate the whole jungle. This should be the aim of the colonizer; learn the languages of the colonized and use it against them as a way of taking their language from them. It brings them to light more, for they are no longer able to hide behind it. In Mowgli’s utilization of languages, he oversees the entire jungle and puts it under the jurisdiction of man. These ideas are reminiscent of Gauri Viswanathan’s in the intro to Masks of Conquest. In it, Viswanathan examines the use of the English language as an imperial tool in India. With this mastery of language the British could eventually implant their own language and begin to exert a kind of cultural/intellectual dominance over the native people and effectively add it to their collection.
However, as mentioned before, Nyman’s work most reflects that of Edward Said, who, through his book Orientalism, founded the ground on which post-colonial theory walks. Said exposed, in great detail, the need of imperial nations (namely the English) to create their own false accounts of the Orient. Through doing this, they would somehow manage to possess the culture of their colonized subjects. In their accounts, the English would belittle the significance of native cultures and make themselves look superior. They could then sell this image back to the native to justify their occupation of their lands. Then they could send this image out across the oceans to let everyone know how strange, inhuman, and rightfully colonized these people are.
In The Jungle Book, India is a mystical land full of strange and curious creature characters. These creatures exemplify Said’s idea of the Other and Nyman uses the term in his article specifically. The characters meant to represent native people are portrayed by animals (206). Nyman’s work doesn’t get much easier than this. The native and colonized people are represented by animals to distance readers from their humanity, or perhaps, to convince them of their lack of it. Animals are not to be trusted, save for the occasional trustworthy mongoose. They are often conniving and pose a threat to the stability of the power hierarchies of the oh-so aptly represented colonial British. The English are played by man because it is they who possess the dignity and intelligence of true humanity. “Thus the animal may function in the manner of the stereotypical native, cunning, untrustworthy and not quite human” (207). Kipling sold this idea to the world through one of the most popular books ever written. Everyone who read it was able to see, at least on a subconscious level, that India was controlled by a varied group of deadly and eccentric animals that the holy British meant dominate for their own good.
“Re-Reading Rudyard Kipling’s ‘English’ Heroism: Narrating Nation in The Jungle Book” by Jopi Nyman belongs in the post-colonial canon. It is a ripe example of post-colonial theory in practice. On the surface, Kipling’s The Jungle Book, is a fantastical tale of a young boy being raised by animals until he must leave the jungle. He maintains strong friendships, encounters entertaining situations, and defeats a malicious antagonist. It’s a very good story and a thrilling read. Nyman looks past this and studies the book in the context that it was written by a proud Englishman during a time of colonialism about one of England’s most prominent colonies. How does the idea of imperialism and one country’s domination over another come into play? How are the colonized portrayed by the colonizer? What does the colonizer have to say about his actions? These are questions that Nyman probably asked himself in preparation for this article.
Is Nyman’s approach to The Jungle Book fair? As a fan of the story, it’s hard for me to say “yes”, just as it was hard for me to agree with Achebe’s position on Heart of Darkness. Nyman, however, is harder to swallow because it does not possess the venom of the Achebe article, but I still argue. Can’t you just appreciate it as a great work of literature and be done with it? Even for me though, this sentiment dies when reading the chapter/short story called “The White Seal”. In it, the white seals leave their land for greener pastures and come to settle on an island inhabited by darker, oafish sea-cows. The white seals take over the island as their own and are completely justified in doing so. This story does not possess the subtlety of the rest of Kipling’s Jungle Book, with all its well-constructed representations of colonial roles. The white seals have a right to any land they want because they are white and smart. The darky sea-cows are dominated because they are not white and subsequently not smart. To boil it down further (but surprisingly not that much further), British imperialism is good and completely justified.
Kipling wrote The Jungle Book to emphasize certain aspects of colonialism from the viewpoint of the colonizer. He reduced Indians to animals and showed us why they were unfit to govern themselves. Jopi Nyman can see the truth behind the truth behind the circus act. He takes a look at the classic and tries to put himself in Kipling’s shoes and asks “why?” The answers that follow are logical and informed, but not damning. Nyman’s purpose in this article was not to judge Rudyard Kipling, but to accomplish a post-colonial reading of his work. He succeeded.
Kipling, Rudyard. The Jungle Book. 2004. New York: Barnes and Noble Classics.
Nyman, Jopi. “Re-Reading Rudyard Kipling’s ‘English’ Heroism: Narrating Nation in The Jungle Book”. 2001. Denmark: Orbis Litterarum.