The Jungle Book

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The Jungle Book Kindle Edition, Rudyard Kipling, book reviewFor someone who loves India and has an interest nearing on obsession with the days of the Raj and the fight for Independence, I could be expected to have an opinion on Rudyard Kipling. Perhaps I do, but it’s one until now based on ignorance because I’d never read any of his books – the odd poem in school, but never an actual book.

Similarly it would seem fair to assume that anyone who has a black cat called Bagheera and a big grey cat called Baloo, must be a fan of the Kipling’s most famous book, The Jungle Book. Sadly I have to confess that despite choosing the ‘man cub’s two best buddies the panther and the bear as names for my kitty-boys, I’d never actually got round to reading the Jungle Book. Even more shamefully I would admit that I can merrily sing all the words to ‘The Bear Necessities’ and ‘I wanna be like you-hoo-hoo’. I am a victim of knowledge by Disneyfication.

When I bought my Kindle over a year ago, like most people I went crazy downloading free books that were old classics long out of copyright. The Jungle Book was one of the first and I suspect that many others have downloaded it and ignored it like I have. It’s in the top 50 of Amazon’s free downloads list.

It sat on my kindle until last night when I popped it open on a plane and read it. I am not sure what I expected because it’s been a very long time since I saw the film and I didn’t remember much of the plot. It’s classified as a children’s book but the old fashioned language and the rather violent themes are ones that I found hard to imagine appealing to younger children and indeed I was pretty surprised at quite how archaic it seemed.

Roughly half of The Jungle Book is the story of Mowgli, the man cub, who is found in the forest and brought up by wolves. What is it with boys and wolves? It’s all rather Romulus and Remus, isn’t it. Mowgli’s place in the wolf pack is ‘bought’ by Bagheera the panther who pays for it with the carcass of a bull and his chief defender and educator is the old bear, Baloo. Baloo teaches Mowgli the ways of the ‘jungle people’ – all the animals who live in the jungle – giving him the languages he needs to communicate with each species except for the naughty monkeys who fall outside the laws of the jungle. We follow Mowgli as he grows up, keeps away from his arch enemy Shere Khan the lame tiger (who wants to eat him) and join his friends as they attempt to rescue him from a monkey abduction.

Everyone tells Mowgli that one day he must return to the world of man and be with his own kind but he believes he’s a wolf, not a man, and so we can be sure that nothing will go smoothly when he tries to fit in with the local villagers.

Disney did a wonderful job of turning Kipling’s dark and violent story into a jolly children’s cartoon with lots of singing and fun. In the book things are far from gentle – there’s a lot of fighting, animals wanting to kill their own kind and other animals, Akala the wolf-pack leader being threatened with death and the pack turning against each other. Mowgli and Shere Khan are destined to move towards a final countdown in which only one can survive. We want Mowgli to survive and thrive but this is the story of an outsider, someone who doesn’t fit with his adopted species or his biological species. I certainly didn’t expect to feel so moved by this small boy raised amongst wolves.

The language will be a barrier to many as it doesn’t sit easily on the 21st century tongue or in the modern ear – we’re just not used to phrases like “thou goest to thy mother…lamer than ever thou camest into the world”. It’s all thou and thy and complicated old-fashioned sentence construction. I don’t doubt that Kipling was making a point by giving these voices to the animals but they sound very clunky to the modern reader. I also think it must have been a conscious decision to use this style because it’s not present in all of the stories. Rikki Tikki Tavi’s story is told in a more conventional ‘straight’ English for example.

There’s another half of the book still to go when Mowgli’s story reaches its end and the shorter stories in the collection take over. The problem is that the e-book is very poorly laid out and you’ll need to really be paying attention to realise that you’ve just finished one story and started another. One moment I was merrily egging Mowgli on in his show-down battle and skipping over the annoying ‘songs’ which were almost unreadable due to the dodgy layout then the next I was wondering where the story of a seal on the ice-flow fitted into the Indian jungle. Similarly the transition into the story of Rikki Tikki Tavi the mongoose (which I HAD read at school) popped up without any warning and then along came a story of a boy who wanted to be a mahout (elephant handler). It was extraordinarily confusing.

The stories that follow Mowgli’s main event are cute, endearing and rather charming – if you can work out where they start and finish. Please please please – some chapters would make a world of difference. But let’s be honest, you’ll buy (or rather not buy because you can download for free) because you want to know about Mowgli, Baloo and Bagheera rather than to read the stories that follow, though they are rather lovely.
The info that I found on my kindle about the book informed me that it had been converted from book to kindle format by a group of volunteers. At times it reads like those volunteers might have been the infinite number of monkeys locked in a room trying none too successfully to recreate the works of Shakespeare. I’m guessing it may have been one of the earlier books to be converted because there’s a big problem with a lack of chapters, a lack of spacing and layout and a general sense that the whole lot has just been shoved into one big block of text. I mentioned the songs and poems that intersperse the Jungle Book – these would probably be really fun if they’d been laid out on the page better. Instead you find yourself wondering if they are prose or poetry.

I can’t grumble too much after paying the grand sum of not one single penny for my copy but I am now inspired to go out and buy it in book form, just to read again and get the more authentic experience of the stories as they were written and originally presented.

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Jungle Book, The
by Rudyard Kipling

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Written by koshkha