One warm evening in the Seeonee jungle hills of India, Father Wolf wakes up and prepares to go hunting. A figure appears – Tabaqui, a jackal – and wishes Father Wolf luck. The jungle is wary of Tabaqui because he is apt to go mad. Father Wolf warily offers him some food and Tabaqui eagerly accepts. He compliments Father and Mother’s wolf cubs and mentions that Shere Khan the tiger has shifted his hunting grounds.
This is not good news. Mother says he is not called Lungri, the Lame One, for nothing; he has been lame in one foot since his birth. He has been attacking cattle, which is unfortunate because he has made the villagers mad.
After Tabaqui leaves, Father and Mother Wolf can hear the whine of the tiger, who has clearly caught nothing that night. Father is dismissive but Mother hushes him and says he is hunting man tonight. Father grimaces and says this violates the Law of the Jungle which dictates that every beast must not kill man unless he is teaching his children to hunt. If a man is killed, more men will come. Also, man is the weakest and most defenseless living thing and it is not sportsman-like to kill him.
The two hear the tiger pounce and miss, then something incredible happens: a man-child runs right up to Father Wolf. It laughs, showing no fear. Mother asks him to bring it forth and marvels at how the little child begins to nuzzle up next to her cubs to suckle.
Shere Khan and Tabaqui approach, but the tiger cannot enter. Father sternly says the wolves are free people and the man cub is theirs to keep or kill. Shere Khan roars in anger.
Mother Wolf stands up and moves before him. Her eyes flashing, she announces herself as Raksha, the Demon, and says the child will not be killed but will run with the Pack and hunt with them. Shere Khan is amazed at her boldness and knows he cannot attack both Father and Mother. He backs away but as he leaves he threatens her that the child will come to his teeth in the end.
Mother tells Father that the boy came naked, alone, and without fright; he will stay here and will be called Mowgli the Frog.
Father agrees but knows the Pack will have to have their say. Cubs that are old enough must be brought to the Pack Council where the other wolves will identify them. After inspection, the cubs can go where they please, and until they kill their first buck no other wolf may harm them.
The night for the Council arrives, and Father and Mother Wolf bring their four cubs and Mowgli. The Pack is led by the cunning and strong Akela. He stretches out on a rock and about forty other wolves are below and near him.
Father pushes Mowgli forward. Before the wolves can say anything, Shere Khan, lurking in the distance, cries out that the cub is his. Akela replies that one who is not of the Free People has no say here. He asks who speaks for the cub.
First, Baloo the sleepy brown bear ventures near and says he will teach the boy. Bagheera, a sleek black panther of strength and cunning, drops down and says he will buy the life of the man-cub for the price of a newly killed bull.
The wolves murmur that they will accept the boy and ask for the bull. After they depart, Shere Khan’s howl of anger can be heard. Akela tells them that men and their cubs are wise and the boy may help them someday.
Ten years pass. Baloo teaches Mowgli everything he needs to know about living in the jungle. His life is full of pleasure and learning and friendship. He can look straight at the animals in the eyes and none can match him in his stare. He joins the Pack Council, learns to fear men when he sees a trap, and enjoys sleeping through the day and hunting with Bagheera at night. Bagheera explains that Mowgli cannot kill a young or old bull or cow due to the Law of the Jungle, and Mowgli obeys.
Mother Wolf warns her man-cub about Shere Khan. Things are growing more dangerous because as Akela weakens in his old age, some of the younger wolves have taken to following the tiger for scraps. Bagheera also warns Mowgli, but he laughs that he has the panther and bear to protect him.
One day, Bagheera tells Mowgli to be wary of what is happening in the Council, for Akela is growing old and the younger wolves are glomming on to Shere Khan. The time will soon come when the tiger makes his move. Mowgli wonders why this will happen, and says he was born in the jungle, has obeyed its laws, and that the wolves are his brothers.
Bagheera gently responds by showing Mowgli a small bald spot under his chin that indicates the mark of a collar. Bagheera had been born among men and escaped; he went home where he belonged, and Mowgli will one day do the same. He sighs that even he cannot look Mowgli in the eyes, and the others hate the boy because he is a man.
Mowgli is dismayed. Bagheera continues that he must prepare for what is coming soon with Akela losing power and the Pack turning against him. He instructs him to get some “Red Flower” (fire) from the village (all animals do not use its name and fear it). Mowgli agrees and bounds away.
That evening Akela is attacked but not killed. Mowgli procures the fire and tells Bagheera he is not afraid of it because he remembers lying by it when he was a baby.
Bagheera takes a post on a tree at the Council. Akela is lying on his side. Mowgli arrives and sees Shere Khan sitting there and beginning to speak, something unprecedented. Mowgli jumps up to protest this. Akela asks who will come finish him off but no one will do it.
Frustrated, Shere Kahn asks to be given the man-cub so he can end him. Other wolves assent. Bagheera explains to them that he was paid for with the bull, and Akela tells the wolves they are cowards. He adds that if they leave the man-cub alone he will die without baring one tooth of his own. This will save lives and shame for the wolves.
Mowgli stands up, filled with rage and sorrow knowing what many of the wolves think of him. He shows them the fire and lights dried moss. The wolves spring back in fear. Bagheera urges Mowgli to save Akela.
Mowgli denounces the wolves but tells them he is done with the jungle. He beats Shere Khan with a burning branch first, and tells the singed cat to go back to the jungle. He informs them all that no one will kill Akela because it is not his will.
Tears form in his eyes and he asks Bagheera what is happening to him. Bagheera gently tells him that he is now a man and not a cub. Mowgli sobs, but dries his tears and bade Father and Mother Wolf goodbye. At dawn he leaves to meet men.
This story takes place before Mowgli bests Shere Khan. This is when Baloo is teaching him the Laws of the Jungle about all manner of beasts and plants. Bagheera wonders if it is too much for the little boy to learn, and if Baloo’s tactics, which sometimes include a moderately rough slap, are appropriate. Baloo responds that it is better he is hurt by one who loves him and is teaching him rather than one who harms him due to his ignorance. Mowgli is currently learning the words of the birds and snake people, all of which are necessary to memorize.
Mowgli joins them and Baloo quizzes him on the languages he has learned. Tenderly, Baloo commends him and says there is no one to fear. Bagheera quietly says only the boy’s own tribe.
Mowgli dreamily says he wants to have his own tribe to lead through the branches all day. Bagheera asks where this came from and Baloo sweeps in angrily. He asks Mowgli if he has been talking to the Monkey-People, or the Bandar-log. Bagheera’s eyes also harden.
Mowgli says they approached him when he was smarting from Baloo’s blow. They took pity on him, gave him things to eat, carried him through the trees, and said he was their leader. Bagheera scoffs that they are liars and have no leaders. Mowgli explained that he likes how they stand up like him and play all day.
Baloo explains in a serious, thunderous voice that the Monkey-People do not follow the Law of the Jungle. They are outcasts, use stolen words not their own, do not have leaders, do not have remembrances, are prone to boasting, and have minds full of laughter. The others do not eat or drink with them or hunt where they hunt or die where they die. They are, he concludes, “very many, evil, dirty, shameless” (28) and desirous of being noticed by the other Jungle-People. Above him, a few nuts shower down on his head. Baloo and Bagheera take Mowgli away.
These monkeys enjoy tormenting other animals and they forget things all the time. They do not wish to do Mowgli harm and like the way he plays and how he seemed like them. However, they decide to kidnap Mowgli and bear him away, with Baloo and Bagheera’s enraged cries echoing after them.
The monkeys swing swiftly throughout the branches and even though Mowgli is scared and worried, he somewhat enjoys the wild, rushing ride. He can see for miles across the tops of the green trees, something he does not often get to do.
After a time, though, he worries that his friends will never find him. He spots Chil the Kite wheeling over the jungle, and Chil swoops down to see what the monkeys have. Mowgli cries to him to alert Baloo and Bagheera. Chil sets out to do this.
In the meantime, Bagheera and Baloo are trying to decide what to do. Baloo is miserable and feels guilty. Bagheera tells him not to worry, since Mowgli is wise and well-taught and has the language of the Jungle-People. Baloo suggests going to Kaa. Bagheera is reluctant, but Baloo says Kaa is old and cunning and always hungry. Bagheera agrees.
The two go to find the Rock-python. They discover him lying in the sun, admiring his new coat. It is lucky he has not eaten. They all exchange greetings and Bagheera says he is hunting. Kaa asks to come along. Bagheera suggests slyly that the Bandar-log had been criticizing Kaa as a “footless, yellow earth-worm” (34). Kaa is visibly angry. Bagheera explains what happened to Mowgli and admits that he and Baloo love the boy. Kaa understands, and says he will help. After all, the Bandar-log fear him alone.
At that moment, Chil sweeps down and tells them he saw Mowgli taken to the monkey city, the Cold Lairs. Bagheera and Baloo are elated. Bagheera and Kaa are much faster and set out with Baloo following as he can manage.
The Cold Lairs is an abandoned Indian city. Though in ruins, it is still fascinating. There is a great roofless palace and courtyard, a statue of an idol, fountains, and pits. The monkeys do not know anything about what man did here but pretend that this is their domain. They frolic and play and remember nothing. They gambol about until they get tired of the city and leave, a life Mowgli does not understand.
One monkey explains how tremendous Mowgli’s capture was. They ask him to show them how to weave sticks together but soon grow bored. Mowgli is tired, sore, and hungry. He realizes everything Baloo said about these creatures is true and that he must try to escape this absurd life.
Mowgli listens as the monkeys boast of how great they are, and thinks to himself that they are simply mad.
Kaa and Bagheera approach quietly in the meantime, knowing how dangerous the monkeys are in large numbers. They choose different sides and move toward the monkey’s council where Mowgli sits in the middle.
Suddenly Bagheera throws himself into the center. The monkeys scream and attack him. Mowgli uses the language of the Snake-People to rouse the small cobras. He is concerned to see Bagheera fighting for his life. Mowgli yells at him to get to the water tanks. Baloo arrives, panting but ready to fight. Bagheera fights his way to the water tank and collapses out of reach of the monkeys. He calls out to the snakes.
As for Kaa, he has prepared quite carefully to be in the most advantageous position. He comes straight and true and strong into the gaggle of monkeys attacking Baloo. The monkeys see what creature it is and scream to disband. They fear him so much because of his ability to look like a branch and to creep about noiselessly. No monkey knows how powerful he is or can even look him in the eye.
After the monkeys run away in fear, Kaa helps break down a wall surrounding Mowgli. The friends embrace and Mowgli solemnly thanks Kaa. He says his kill will be Kaa’s.
Before they leave the city, Kaa looks up at the monkeys in the distance and does a sinuous, hypnotic dance. The monkeys become entranced and move toward him. Mowgli is confused, but even Bagheera creeps forward until Mowgli stops him.
Baloo and Bagheera admonish Mowgli for his behavior and Baloo has to give the boy a beating for punishment. Mowgli does not complain but stands up without a word. He sleeps deeply on Bagheera’s back.
After Mowgli leaves the Pack and the jungle he travels down to a village and goes inside its gate. People begin to gather around him and shout and point. A priest joins the crowd and tells them it is okay because this boy is a wolf-child run away from the jungle.
One woman, Messua, thinks it is her son who was taken by the tiger a long time ago, but she realizes it is not him. The priest knows Messua is the wife of the richest man in the village and assures her that the jungle has given Mowgli to her to replace her son.
Messua takes him to her hut and provides him food. She comments wistfully that he is just like her Nathoo. Mowgli cannot understand what she is saying and decides he must learn the language.
Mowgli only feels comfortable sleeping outside in the grass. That evening Gray Brother visits him and tells him Shere Khan went to hunt far away after Mowgli singed his coat but that he is returning and plans to kill Mowgli. Mowgli thanks him for the news and assures him that while he loves Gray Brother and his wolf family, he will never forget being cast out of the Pack.
For three months, Mowgli is busy learning the ways and customs of men. He learns about wearing a cloth around his waist, money, and ploughing. He does not like the little children who anger him, and is surprised to know that here he is strong while in the jungle he was one of the weaker beasts. He has no notion of fear and no notion of caste.
One evening, villagers gather in the club and listen to Buldeo, the old village hunter, tell tales of the jungle. Mowgli cannot help laughing and scoffing at these tales. He boldly says Buldeo has told not one bit of truth in his fanciful tales. Buldeo is annoyed and the head-man says it is time Mowgli took to herding.
Mowgli begins this work with the other children, but lets them know he is in charge. Gray Brother finds him again and says Shere Khan still means to kill him. Mowgli tells him and his other brothers to wait in the ravine when the tiger comes.
Mowgli continues to herd, which is the laziest and slowest thing in the world. He sleeps in the heat, listening to nature and dreaming away. Day after day, Mowgli leads the buffalo out and watches for Gray Brother at the signal place; if he is there, the tiger is not back.
One day, Mowgli does not see his brother and knows Shere Kahn is coming. Gray Brother comes to him and says the tiger has been hiding for a month to throw Mowgli off his guard. He is with Tabaqui, which frightens Mowgli because the jackal is cunning, but Gray Brother says he broke the jackal’s back. Shere Kahn is laying in the ravine waiting for Mowgli now, but has eaten and drunk water, which will limit his ability.
The plan is to lead the buffalo into the ravine and block the exits so the tiger cannot get out. Gray Brother says he has brought help, and the venerable Akela rises up. Mowgli is elated to see Akela, and tells him to cut the herd in half.
The wolves begin to run in and out of the herd, forcing them to run around and protect their calves. The herd moves deeper into the ravine where the sides are too high for the tiger to jump out. Shere Khan will be caught between the bulls and the cows.
The tiger’s call resounds in the ravine, but quickly the beast realizes he cannot get out. Everything is chaotic and loud and dirty and Shere Khan is trampled to death. The wolves lead the herd out.
Mowgli skins the tiger himself and returns to the village. Buldeo is annoyed and says he will take the skin and get the rupees for a reward. Mowgli tells Akela to make the man stop vexing him. Akela stands over Buldeo, who is filled with fear. He thinks that Mowgli and the tiger had some private war and that it must be sorcery of some kind. He apologizes for thinking Mowgli was just a herd boy. Mowgli tells him not to bother him anymore, and Akela lets him go.
When Mowgli returns to the village it is in tumult, the people claiming that he is a sorcerer and a wolf’s brat. Akela tells him solemnly that these people are like the young wolves of the pack. Mowgli sighs that first he was kicked out of the Pack, now the village.
Messua runs out to him, calling for him. She tells him she knows he is not a sorcerer and that he avenged her son’s life. He tells her farewell. The wolves drive the herd back in and scatter the crowd. Mowgli says Messua was kind to him so they will not hunt here.
Back in the jungle they go to Mother Wolf’s cave and Mowgli tells her what happened. Bagheera joins them, happy to see Mowgli. Akela calls the wolf-call once more. The young wolves want Akela and Mowgli to lead them but Bagheera says Mowgli cannot; the madness may come on them again and they need to truly be the Free People.
Mowgli hunts only with his four brothers.
The Jungle Book is a curious hybrid of genre - adventure tale, children’s fiction, colonial narrative - and a work that has inspired as much criticism as reverence. Known to contemporary audiences primarily through the Disney version, the actual stories are much darker, complex, and, in some cases, problematic. It is difficult but not impossible to discuss all fifteen stories in a collective fashion, so these analyses will focus on the stories included in the summary as well as general comments on the whole work.
Eight out of the fifteen tales concern Mowgli, the famous man-cub of the Jungle; all three of these first stories fall under this category. Briefly, in these first three stories Kipling jumps back and forth in time, detailing for readers how Mowgli came to be raised by wolves, what his childhood was like (at times idyllic, at times stressful), and how he eventually killed his foe, the tiger Shere Khan. Mowgli is a good student of the bear Baloo, though occasionally wilful. He struggles with where he fits in - the jungle or with Man, or both, or neither - and comes to develop a strongly defined sense of power. The Mowgli stories may initially seem to be no more than charming, fanciful tales of a wild child and his animal friends, but Kipling undergirds them with numerous complexities, particularly those related to colonialism and civilization.
The jungle is intended to appear as a place of civilization, where laws and rules and shared values dominate. There are master-words and origin stories of the Golden Age and prevailing norms and mores. The world of Man is not often like this, Mowgli learns. It is supposedly a place of civilization but Mowgli’s experiences with the ignorant mob of the village and the dangerous lust for money evinced by all who come into contact with the ankus suggest that the jungle is the purer version of that civilization. As critic Laura Stevenson writes, Mowgli with his learning “is immune to the unnatural accretions of civilization... specifically greed and treachery... and to hypocrisy and superstition.”
Kipling often depicts the jungle as an Arcadia, its idyllic pastoralism being one of its most salient characteristics. However, there are interesting facets to this depiction. Arcadia was part of ancient Greece but Kipling’s story is in the Indian jungle. The “fall” of man coexists with his zenith (the former seen in actual Man, and the latter in the Jungle). Mowgli leaves Arcadia, but of his own will. Indeed, Stevenson notes, “tempering this pastoral scheme of things, however, is the jungle’s threat to mankind... as man fears the jungle and its people, so do the jungle people fear man.” These fears are well-founded, and Mowgli is “a pastoral hero in an Arcadia that is afraid of what he is, thus greatly complicating (both psychologically and thematically) his return to the world to which he naturally belongs.”
Let us look at two of the three individual stories here briefly. In “Kaa’s Hunting,” Mowgli disobeys his authority figures and allows himself to be beguiled by the monkeys. He likes that they play with him and admire him, but quickly grows to understand that his teachers’ warnings about their crudeness and baseness are accurate. Stevenson refers to the tale as “a fable in which a boy learns that there are some people you don’t play with - and that education involves learning that some classes and societies are beneath contempt.” There seems to be more to the story than this, though. First, there is the sense here (and in “Letting in the Jungle” and “The King’s Ankus”) that nature will always prevail over mankind. The description of the Cold Lairs with its ruined splendor and long-gone denizens impresses upon the reader that the jungle will triumph over man’s foolish intentions of creating edifices to celebrate his putative glory and power. Second, there is Kipling’s commentary on how certain peoples are problematic because they only pilfer aspects of others’ cultures and espouse a true freedom that is anarchic in its essence. The monkeys’ adherence to this freedom is really only their lack of any structure or deeper meaning, and their lack of a language of their own indicates that they are low in the jungle hierarchy.
In “Tiger-Tiger!” Mowgli finally achieves his fated revenge on Shere Khan; after all, it was said since Mowgli entered the jungle that either he would kill the tiger or the tiger would kill him. Mowgli doesn’t do this on his own, however; Gray Brother warns him and plans with him, Akela is indispensable, and the buffalo are pulled in to assist without even knowing it. What, though, is the problem with Shere Khan? After all, Mowgli’s other friends are predators. Essentially, Shere Khan does not possess the virtues that Kipling lauds - “courage, self-reliance, loyalty, and an instinctive trust in the goodness of nature” (as stated by critic Bill Delaney). He speaks where he is not to speak - the Council - and tries to influence the younger wolves to live a more dissolute life with him. He is obsessive and willful, fixated on revenge and his own personal form of justice. He mocks and needles, rages and whines.
The tiger’s name, as critic Don Randall points out, is the name of a 16th-century Afghan chieftain who invaded the Indian subcontinent and for a time unseated the Mughals; this associates the tiger “with the conquest and consolidation of empires.” This Shere Khan is an outsider who kills man and is lame in one foot; he is a rogue and an outlaw. Even though Mowgli is also an outsider, when he kills Shere Khan while the embodiment of Jungle Law and pragmatism, he “establishes himself unmistakably as an imperial protagonist.” Randall points to the frequent stories of tiger-killing in the British colonial discourse and how Mowgli’s killing of the tiger “stands in place of the British imperial adventurer and restages the British consolidation of empire in India.” Mowgli the jungle-child is an outsider but, as aforementioned, an outsider who embodies the law, and thus rightfully gets rid of the corrupt force (we will return to the themes of imperialism and colonialism, insider and outsider, Mowgli and his battle with Shere Khan, and the - here, alluded to but not explicitly expressed - Mutiny of 1857 in further analyses).