jungle booksSome Penguin Classics celebrate awkward anniversaries, and in the literary world, it looks like no anniversary this side of the publication of Mein Kampf will ever be more awkward than that of Rudyard Kipling, born 150 years ago, whose incredible body of work has been simplified and then vilified under the “Empire jingo” tag for so long it that it’s become undergrad second nature to dismiss him out of hand except for a couple of isolated works. So “The Man Who Would Be King” can get made into a successful movie (and phrase can enter common parlance), and Kim can make it onto the Modern Library list of the top 100 novels of the 20th century, but the huge bulk of the man’s prose and poetry is consigned to the attic, where it’s understood that the only people who’ll visit it are secretly racist imperialists. It can get a bit tiring to watch the Republic of Letters so resolutely belittle itself.

Of course the foremost example of an ‘exempted’ work by Kipling is The Jungle Books, his much-beloved classic, the first part of which was published in 1894 and the second in 1895. The Jungle Books is now added to the beautiful Penguin Classics hardcover line with a monkey-full cover design by Coralie Bickford-Smith, a Preface by Jan Montefiore and an excellent Introduction by Kaori Nagai in which she points out the simple truth that for many readers, the stories in the Jungle Books “have almost become synonymous with the joys of childhood and of reading.” And she draws some intriguing parallels between Kipling’s work and that of his own father:

In many ways, the Jungle Books can be seen as an imaginative reworking of Kipling’s father’s book Beast and Man in India (1891) with its rich descriptions of Indian animals ‘in their relations with the people.’ John Lockwood Kipling, a gifted artist and illustrator, worked in Bombay and then in Lahore from 1865 to 1893, as an art professor and curator. Father and son shared similar perceptions of and an adoring gaze towards animals, and there are significant overlaps between their works.

But as much as that might make me want to find a copy of Beast and Man in India the next time I’m at the Brattle Bookshop, it only reinforces how thoroughly the younger Kipling made the subject his own, mainly by taking the ‘man’ part almost entirely out of the equation. Most of these great stories feature a little Indian boy named Mowgli who’s adopted by a wolf pack and raised as one of their own, gaining the friendship of the elegant black panther Bagheera and the thirty-foot rock python Kaa and learning the Laws of the jungle from the heavy old bear Baloo. Taking up this sturdy, lovely lime-green hardcover Penguin Classic, I plunged into these stories again exactly as if I didn’t have them memorized. And as usual – and fittingly enough, since it’s clearly the inspiration for this volume’s cover – my favorite was the story called “Kaa’s Hunting,” in which the noisy monkey-folk, the Bandar-log, kidnap Mowgli and carry him to the Cold Lairs, a long-ruined city deep in the jungle. Baloo and Bagheera naturally resolve to rescue him, but they are only two while the Bandar-log are many hundreds, so they enlist as an ally Kaa the python, who’s very old and very alien but who helps them because he has no love for the Monkey-people – and they certainly have no love for him:

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 gross, 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 monkeys 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 had ever come alive out of his hug.

But in addition to re-reading “Kaa’s Hunting,” I also soaked up again “Rikki-Tikki-Tavi” and the brilliant psychological study “How Fear Came,” and the epic action of “Red Dog.” And when I came to “The Spring Running,” I read in somber, rapt attention for the thousandth time as Mowgli, perhaps inevitably, makes his way back to the the world of humans, never to live in the jungle again. And as he goes, he’s sung farewell by his three closest animal friends, each a verse in turn until they share the lucy reads kiplingfinal one:

On the trail that thou must tread

To the threshold of our dread,

Where the Flower blossoms red;

Through the nights when thou shalt lie

‘Prisoned from our Mother-sky,

Hearing us, thy loves, go by;

In the dawns, when thou shalt wake

To the toil thou canst not break,

Heartsick for the Jungle’s sake;

Wood and Water, Wind and Tree,

Jungle-Favour go with thee!

I’ve read my way through dozens of editions of the Jungle Books, from paperbacks to big lavish hardcovers to even the comic book adaptation with lovely artwork by P. Craig Russell. I’d like to think this sturdy little green brick of a Penguin Classic will hold up a lot longer than its predecessors. I can hope so, anyway.

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