I’ve been rereading Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Books, and have had that particular pleasure of dim memories and images from years ago coming alive again. If I had somewhat forgotten these stories over time, they’ve definitely taken their place among my favourites now.
One of the things that strikes me this time through is that part of the fascination of the Jungle world which Mowgli inhabits is that it is very rules-based, which flies in the face of the apparent appeal of more recent depictions. Take Margaret Atwood’s Journals of Susanna Moodie for instance. There the natural backdrop of Canada becomes a release from the tyranny of rationality and English customs. What happens is a redemption through gradual merging with nature, a relaxation of the superego (now it’s been a while since I’ve read it, and I sold my copy, so my memory is a little vague, but it’s the first example to come to mind). (It’s also worth noting how this attitude is a sort of negative image of the Fall and original sin; in both cases, there’s the feeling that we are “out of sync” with things – the difference being that in one case we are out of sync with something higher and in the other something lower)
Not so with Kipling’s Jungle. The animals take their laws and customs with deadly seriousness (which, also interestingly, come about as the result of a fall from grace – “How Fear Came”) and much of the action of the Mowgli stories comes from how the law applies to the particular situations that the characters find themselves in. The one group of lawless animals (the Bandar-Log monkeys) are viewed with contempt by the other creatures. So the Jungle isn’t a sort of escapist world where boys can goof off however they want, but this is the very thing that makes it great for children. Both Friedrich Nietzche and C.S. Lewis wrote about the solemnity that is at the heart of the games we play as children – we’re more in tune with the sacramental and liturgical world. The law is written on our hearts, and there is something deeply enchanting, as well as frightening about that.
Another thing that I noticed is that the Jungle is not a space which is more in tune with the way of things such that going native becomes something of a moral imperative (ala Avatar) but is more of an extension of our own world. There’s enough there for us to feel at home about, but also enough of a sense of otherness and exoticism to make us feel like we’re not in Kansas any more(I suppose I could say something about Kipling’s relationship with India, colonialism, etc., here but I’m not nearly knowledgeable enough or willing to touch that issue for the time being).