Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book is a different beast from the Disney version that most people know about. Having just reread and enjoyed it immensely, I thought I’d share some ways the book is different (or more interesting) than the movie.
Mowgli, the protagonist of The Jungle Book, is a one-year-old boy adopted by wolves in the jungles of India after a tiger murders his parents. He gets his name, which means “frog,” because he seems cute, naked and fearless to his wolf parents. And no, he doesn’t wear a pair of red underpants in the book.
In the books, Baloo the bear is a stern teacher who instructs Mowgli in the customs and languages of the animals in the jungle. Although he’s very fond of Mowgli, he isn’t afraid to hit his pupil when he makes a mistake. And, if, like me, you always wondered why he didn’t just fight Shere Khan the tiger, you’re probably thinking of a 8-foot tall, 900-pound Grizzly. As an Indian sloth bear, Baloo would be half the size and one fourth the weight of a large male tiger, hardly a fair match.
Kaa the Python
Kaa the python on the other hand, is much more impressive from the clownish, mincing villain that appears in the movie. He is cold and rational, but also is one of Mowgli’s greatest and deadliest allies. Think of Mycroft from the recent Sherlock series, if Sherlock’s brother could smash through stone walls with his head. Kaa, Bagheera the panther and Baloo battle a city full of monkeys to rescue Mowgli, and Kaa kills hundreds of them by himself.
Shere Khan, the whiny tiger
Kipling got an interesting biological fact right with Shere Khan, the tiger and main (non-human) villain of the story. In the book, Khan is quite powerful, but his moans and whimpers sound throughout the jungle whenever he is hurt. In the animal kingdom, top predators are most likely to limp or yelp when they’re hurt, simply because they have nothing to fear. Herbivores and animals that are hunted, on the other hand, instinctively hide their pain, because any sign of weakness can make them a target.
Although most of the characters are male, Kipling has several strong female characters. Mowgli’s adopted mother gets the nickname of “demon” among her tribe for being the fiercest member of her pack. She stares down and even frightens Shere Khan when he first comes for a baby Mowgli. Other stories also feature strong female characters (typically the wife of a married couple is both smarter and braver than the husband).
Many of the stories in The Jungle Book have nothing to do with the jungle. Rikki Tikki Tavi (made into a pretty good animated story by Bugs Bunny animator Chuck Jones) follows a battle between a mongoose adopted by a white family and a pair of cobras, is at least set in India, but “The White Seal,” about an arctic seal that searches for a land free from hunters, is about as far from the jungle as it’s possible to get.
Her Majesty’s Servants
The most unusual story follows a discussion among different animals employed in the Royal Indian Army, each of whom thinks it is the bravest. A cavalry horse talks about charging into battle with its rider. A mule talks about carrying smaller artillery into the mountains, and a pair of oxen talk about pulling large cannons. Though the debate is never settled, the winner may be an elephant, that while it runs away, is just smart enough to imagine what getting killed might be like.
Kipling wrote a second Jungle Book, but it’s not quite as good as the first, at least to my taste. For a similar story in a very different setting, check out Neil Gaiman’s Graveyard Book, which also follows an orphaned boy raised from a baby in an unusual environment–only this time it’s a graveyard instead of a jungle, with vampires, ghosts and wights instead of panthers, bears and tigers.