November 10, 2010
DH: I have been spending the week with Mowgli the Frog Boy. This is not someone I picked up in Chelsea last Saturday night, I wish it were. Mowgli is the hero of Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book, a classic of world literature.
I’m trying to get to Mowgli not because I’m interested in him. I’m interested in his enemy,Shere Khan, the Tiger. Is there a name in literature that conjures up more magic and awe than “Shere Khan”? Okay, ‘Moby Dick” but Melville was no poet. Kipling is, and it shows to his advantage in the names of his characters. We have Mang the Bat and Rann the Kite. This is great naming, a neglected skill among our writers.
“Shere Khan roared still in the night, for he was very angry that Mowgli had not been turned over to him.”
SK disregards the Law of Jungle which never ordains anything without a reason. He hunts in other animals’ territory without giving fair warning, he hunts domestic animals and he hunts man. He demands what is his due rather than earn it. And he hangs out with sleazy friends like Tabaqui the Jackal. the Dishlicker: “and the wolves of India despise Tabaqui because he runs about making mischief, and telling tales, and eating rags and pieces of leather from the village rubbish-heaps.”
Kipling never mentions Shere Khan without rushing, almost breathless, to defame him. It’s as if the most important thing he has to tell his readers is who to hate.
Kipling can be wonderfully generous in describing animals. Here he is on one of Mowgli’s mentors, the other being Baloo, the Bear, another great name. “It was Bagheera the Black Panther, inky black all over, but with the panther markings showing up in certain lights like the pattern of watered silk.” Now that’s beautiful.
You may not realize it, but no beast can look at man in the eyes. That seems to be one of the Laws of the Jungle. Mowgli’s brother wolves can’t look him in the face because he is of the tribe of men. But nobody told my cat that one, since I get stared at all the time. But Kipling has a great conceit to bridge the gap between man and beast. It’s sort of a call signal, unique to each species and if you know it, you can be accepted. It’s something like: we are all brothers, of one tribe. Harm me not.” The Three Guys have a call signal something like that between themselves.
So Kipling’s Jungle Book weaves a great spell, which I loved despite my misgivings about its racism and colonialism. Here’s what I’m giving Kipling credit for, confronting otherness. Perhaps that’s part of his late imperial feeling, trying to understand the other, symbolized by the animals who live by names and rules, sort of like us superior white men, the whole crap white man’s burden thing, but in a more primitive way, which we are for a second tempted to think is maybe better than what we have in civilization. (Yes, that’s what Kipling wants to think. What he is afraid not to think.) Still Kipling knows what it means to stick by your friends. And I’d very much like Baloo the Bear and Bagheera the Black Panther as my friends. What kid wouldn’t? And even Kaa the Rock Python. I think especially Kaa the Rock Python.
It seems to me that societies that inherit imperial power get dumber as a result. Maybe that’s a lesson for some other countries. Mowgli, our hero in the Jungle Book, hates Shere Khan. In the end, he can wear his skin and Shere Khan is not even allowed to put up a good fight. It’s as if Kipling is afraid to have Shere Khan die noble. Afraid that you might love and admire the tiger. But if Shere Khan is so contemptible, then why does Mowgli want to wear his skin, be Shere Khan? Perhaps we would feel too guilty if Mowgli killed something beautiful. There’s a hidden guilt in the pages of The Jungle Book.
After Shere Khan, I turned away from The Jungle Book and am trying to dissipate its spell. I read it because it’s the book within The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht. Natalia’s grandfather carries it around with him from childhood until his last days when it finally plays out its fate in the story.
And I’m believing that Shere Khan is not dead but somehow has turned into the tiger in Tea Obreht’s story. Doppelgangers in fiction are common enough since E.T.A. Hoffmann, I believe, first came up with the concept in one of his weird stories. But Obreht may be the first writer to have an animal doppelganger and that one taken from another writer’s literature. She has taken the animal that I lost in one story and saved it in hers. Shere Khan is still alive, an object of awe and terror, and if we dare, an object of love. He’s our tiger but he’s not, because he won’t have us. Just splendidly himself, the other, vanishing beyond the tree line in the drifting snow.
Just one more thing:
Three Guys One Jungle featuring:
Booey, the Old Possum, who chases after his own tail
Thunder, the Bear, whose roar no creature can withstand
Lightning, the Hare, who no snare can contain
Brown Wing, the Young Hawk, whose eye encompasses all