Our story today is “Kaa’s Hunting,” the second tale of an Indian baby boy who was washed into the jungle by a storm and adopted by a wolf pack. Rudyard Kipling introduced Mowgli (“Little Frog” – the name his wolf-family gave him, noting his furless state)(a free book to the first of you who can identify another fictional jungle character who’s initially named after his furless state! Hint: it’s the very first name that occurred to you when you read the phrase “fictional jungle character”) to the world in his 1894 The Jungle Book (written in Vermont, but very much a product of the British Raj), and the book was an instant success. In it, the Indian child grows to boyhood under the protection of the Seeonee Wolf Pack; he’s taught the Jungle Law by kindly old bear Baloo, and he’s befriended by the elegant, deadly black panther Bagheera – and he’s the mortal enemy of the ravenous tiger Shere Khan.
“Kaa’s Hunting” opens during one such teaching-session, or rather, the interruption of one: Baloo had been teaching Mowgli all the master words of the jungle-folk, so that he could ask for courtesy of anything he happened to encounter (when Bagheera teases Baloo that such a long list of master words might be excessive, Baloo answers “Is there anything in the jungle too little to be killed?” – which, in its own roundabout way, is the ultimate justification), and Mowgli had been refractory, earning him a swat from one of Baloo’s enormous paws and sending him running away in anger.
He eventually returns, and in the ensuing conversation Baloo and Bagheera learn, to their horror, that Mowgli in his depression was befriended by the Bandar-log, the Monkey People who are despised by all jungle-folk. Mowgli can’t understand why this would be – after all, the Monkey-People look very much like him, they stand upright, and they seem to play all day long. Bagheera says only “that is a great shame,” but Baloo goes into more detail to his wayward pupil:
“Listen, man-cub,” said the Bear, and his voice rumbled like thunder on a hot night. “I have taught thee all the Law of the Jungle for all the peoples of the jungle – except the Monkey-Folk who live in the trees. They have no law. They are outcaste. They have no speech of their own, but used stolen words which they overhear when they listen, and peep, and wait up above in the branches. Their way is not our way. They have no leaders. They have no remembrance. They boast and chatter and pretend that they are a great people about to do great affairs in the jungle, but the falling of a nut turns their minds to laughter and all is forgotten.”
Mowgli is well rebuked and agrees to have nothing more to do with the Bandar-log, but only a short while later, during a midday nap, the Monkey-Folk stealthily steal the boy away from the sleeping Baloo and Bagheera and loudly swarm up into the treetops and speed off. Mowgli doesn’t struggle for fear of being dropped, but he does manage to cry out for help to Chil the Kite – using the master words Baloo had been teaching him. Chil marks their passage – they’re headed to a deserted and jungle-covered old Indian city the Jungle-folk call the Cold Lairs (he shares the jungle dislike of the Bandar-log: “Always pecking at new things are the Bandar-log; This time, if I have any eyesight, they have pecked down trouble for themselves, for Baloo is not fledgling, and Bagheera can, as I know, kill more than goats”).
Baloo and Bagheera are distraught, and when Bagheera mentions that the Bandar-log fear none of their kind, Baloo belatedly remembers who they do fear: Kaa the immense rock-python. He and Bagheera hasten off to ask Kaa for help – which he’s only too willing to give, since he’s just shed the whole length of his skin and is very, very hungry. He and Bagheera hurry off to the Cold Lairs (Baloo isn’t nearly as fast and rushes after as best he can), where Mowgli is under a half-witted, mean-spirited house arrest. The Bandar-log want him to teach them how to make things with their hands, but the instant he tries, they lose patience and run off chattering.
When a cloud covers the moon that night, Bagheera strikes – he knows better than to offer warning or take his time, and Kaa is still looking for a way past the dilapidated walls. The Monkey-folk only fight, Kipling tells us, when the odds are a hundred to one, and soon Bagheera is fighting for his life for the very first time in his experience. The Bandar-log have stowed Mowgli in a broken-down summer house (where he’s saved from death yet again by remembering the words Baloo taught him; he uses them to pacify the cobras who’ve taken up residence there) and roused themselves to blood-lust: they swarm over Bagheera and the late-arriving Baloo, and things are looking grim – until Kaa finally arrives.
This changes everything, as Kipling describes:
Generations of monkeys had been scared into good behaviour by the stories their elders told them of Kaa, the night-thief, who could slip along the branches as quietly as moss grows, and steal away the strongest monkey that ever lived; of old Kaa, who could make himself look so like a dead branch or a rotten stump that the wisest were deceived, till the branch caught them. Kaa was everything that the monkey feared in the jungle, for none of them knew the limits of his power, none of them could look him in the face, and none of them ever came alive out of his hug.
The Bandar-log are terrified and mesmerized – Kaa orders them all to be still, and they are. When he’s introduced to Mowgli, he’s pleased by the boy’s hard-taught manners:
“A brave heart and a courteous tongue … they shall carry thee far through the jungle, manling. But now go hence quickly with thy friends. Go and sleep, for the moon sets, and what follows it is not well that thou shouldst see.”
What follows is the Dance of Kaa, drawing the Monkey-folk helplessly to their doom – and not just the Monkey-folk. When Kaa, after twining and re-twining himself hypnotically a few times, orders the Bandar-log to take one step forward, they all do – and so do Baloo and Bagheera, until Mowgli touches them and asks them what’s wrong. Moments later, when they’re outside the Cold Lairs and safely away from Kaa’s feasting, Baloo warily comments that he’ll never again ally himself with the python. Bagheera agrees:
“He knows more than we,” said Bagheera, trembling. “In a little time, had I stayed, I should have walked down his throat.”
“Many will walk by that road before the moon rises again,” said Baloo. “He will have good hunting – after his own fashion.”
“Kaa’s Hunting” is only the second Mowgli story in Kipling’s first collection of them – longer and far more ambitious stories will follow (including the fascinating “The King’s Ankus,” the epic “How Fear Came,” and the heartbreaking “The Spring Running”) – but already you can see all the elements that will go so far to separating these stories from the simple children’s animal-tales they look like on the surface. If Kipling ever intended them to be that and only that, he quickly abandoned that thought – in the place of sweet little picture-book tales like The Just So Stories, we have in the Jungle Books a pioneering work of high fantasy that predates – and lays the groundwork for – all the later epics to follow. The great tales of Lord Dunsany, The Worm Ouroboros, the Gormenghast trilogy, and certainly the works of Tolkien (to say nothing of the far more obvious imitator, already alluded to in this posting!) … all owe their debts to Kipling’s unassuming Jungle Books, with their meticulously thought-out background, their sometimes heavy-handed allegorizing, their wealth of specially-created lore, and their powerful sense of an alternate world from our own, filled with noble and despicable beings who have their own ancient cultures and operate by their own complex codes.
Kipling created such a world and then did the only thing you can do with it: he introduced an outsider to experience it all. In that sense, Mowgli is the direct ancestor of everyone from Steerpike to Christopher Robin to Frodo to Thomas Covenant – he comes into this ancient, alien world and changes it forever. Kipling may not have created that concept, but he re-crafted it for a modern audience – and gave us some fantastic, infinitely re-readable stories in the process.
I’m betting that somewhere in your library there’s a copy of The Jungle Book, perhaps read in grade school and relegated to some high shelf where fond memories but no active books are kept. Do yourself a favor: reach up and pull it down, re-read these stories with the eyes of an adult, as they were intended to be read. You’ll be glad you did. Good hunting!