Jungle Book: look closely, there’s more to Rudyard Kipling than colonial stereotypes



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Sue Walsh, University of Reading

Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Books were first published in 1894 and 1895, and they feature stories about Mowgli, a boy raised by wolves in the Indian jungle. The stories have remained popular and have inspired numerous adaptations – but their attitudes have been questioned by some parents and critics, who see them as a relic of Britain’s colonial past.

Indeed, a classic way of reading the tales is as an allegory for the position of the white colonialist born and raised in India. Mowgli – the Indian boy who becomes “master” of the jungle – is understood to be – as Kipling scholar John McClure interprets it: “behaving towards the beasts as the British do to the Indians”.

So its interesting that among the wide variety of music to be performed at the 2019 Proms is Charles Koechlin’s Les Bandar-log. It’s a piece that he wrote in the first half of the 20th century as part of his nearly life-long effort to set the whole of Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book to music. As a scholar whose focus has been both on Kipling’s children’s literature and, more broadly, the representation of animals in children’s fiction, I’ve been asked to take part in a BBC Radio 3 Proms Plus talk on the subject.

The classic account of Kipling, while persuasive in many ways, seems to me to be a bit limited. It misses some of the interesting questions the stories raise about notions of belonging and identity.

The standard account relies on the idea that the human and animal identities within the stories are clearly distinguished from each other and fixed – and that this fixed distinction extends via allegory to white colonial and Indian identities.

Fluid identities

But what happens to our understanding of the stories if we don’t treat the human and animal identities as distinct? I would argue that a species name doesn’t necessarily fix a character’s identity in the reader’s mind’s eye.

For example, Bagheera, the black panther, is described in terms of a series of other animals: he is “as cunning as Tabaqui [the jackal], as bold as the wild buffalo, and as reckless as the wounded elephant”. Attributes that are supposedly intrinsic to one animal can be found in another. Like Bagheera, Mowgli describes himself in terms of other animals: “Mowgli the Frog have I been […] Mowgli the Wolf have I said that I am. Now Mowgli the Ape must I be before I am Mowgli the Buck,” and it is this process of transformation that will lead to the end in which he will become “Mowgli the Man”. In this way he blurs the distinction between himself and the other jungle inhabitants.

This undermines narratives of essential difference between species. If we follow this through with respect to the common allegorical reading that sets Mowgli apart from the animals, it also undermines claims that there are absolute differences between white colonialists and Indian “natives”.

Also take a closer look at the relationship of the child Mowgli to the inhabitants of the jungle and you’ll see the way this complicates accounts of the Jungle Books as straightforwardly imperialist in character.

Belonging

The Jungle Book stories focus a great deal on the issue of belonging, raising questions about the grounds on which one may claim to belong to a particular group or community: is belonging a matter of being born a member of a group, or is it a matter of convention and social agreement?

Shere Khan, Mowgli’s implacable enemy.
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Because Mowgli is raised by wolves and initiated into their society he has a hybrid identity. Shere Khan, the tiger, resists Mowgli’s hybrid identity, referring to it as “man-wolf folly”. He claims that his hatred of Mowgli is justified because Mowgli is intrinsically “a man, a man’s child”. On the other hand, Akela, the leader of the wolves, claims kinship with Mowgli on the basis that:

He has eaten our food. He has slept with us. He has driven game for us. He has broken no word of the Law of the Jungle. … He is our brother in all but blood.

For Akela, Mowgli’s belonging is secured by his actions and his conformity with wolf society. Meanwhile, it’s worth noting that the most strident advocate of the idea that identity and belonging are a matter of “blood” is Shere Khan, the villain of the piece.

Nuance and ambiguity

By the end of the first Mowgli story it may seem that those, like Shere Khan, who claim that one’s identity is what one is born to be, carry the day – since Mowgli is cast out of the jungle. Though he speaks of leaving the jungle and going to “his own people”, he also qualifies this with: “if they be my own people” and he also goes on to reassert his claim to be part of the wolf pack when he follows this with the promise: “There shall be no war between any of us in the pack.”

As Daniel Karlin points out in his Penguin Classics edition of The Jungle Books (1987), Kipling changed this in his final collected edition of the stories to: “There shall be no war between any of us and the pack,” and so in the later edition “he already identifies with men”.

Either way, Mowgli does go on to rule the jungle rather than just remain a member of the jungle “family” as seems to be suggested by the recent Disney live-action/CGI film based on the stories. So there are ambiguities there, but a close reading of the Jungle Book stories leads me to feel that there is more to them than an imperialist narrative.

After a century or so during which Kipling has frequently been painted simply as a cheerleader for the “white man” and his burden – and at a time when questions of identity and belonging are particularly relevant for Britain – perhaps it’s time for a more nuanced reading of his classic works that allows their ambiguities and ambivalences to come to the fore.The Conversation

Sue Walsh, Lecturer, Department of English Literature, University of Reading

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Ode to the poem: why memorising poetry still matters for human connection



Committing poetry to memory is so much more than a rote exercise.
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Veronica Alfano, Australian Catholic University

Memorising poetry was once common in classrooms. But it has, for the most part, gone out of style. There are good reasons for this.

Memorisation can clash with creativity and analytical thought. Rote learning can be seen as mindless, drone-like, something done without really thinking about why we’re doing it and what the thing we memorise might mean.

In other words, it can be counterproductive to learn a poem by heart without understanding its content, knowing anything about its author or historical context, or asking what specific aspects of its language make it powerful and appealing.

Literature instructors tend to focus more on showing students how to conduct careful textual analysis than on having them reproduce poetic lines word-for-word. Analytical skills are crucial, and educators should continue to emphasise them.




Read more:
Hooked on the classics: literature in the English curriculum


But there is great value in memorisation as well. Internalising a poem need not be a rote process. Done right, in fact, it is an intellectual exercise that illuminates the structure and logic of the text.

Nevermore, evermore, nothing more

A teacher might prompt his or her class to reflect on which patterns of sound (such as rhyme, meter or alliteration) serve as memory aids, asking how these patterns interact with the narrative arc of the poem.

Let’s imagine a student sets out to memorise Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven.”

Here are two lines from that poem:

And the silken, sad, uncertain rustling of each purple curtain

Thrilled me–filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before

Someone searching for memorable patterns in the language would probably pay close attention to Poe’s internal rhyme: “uncertain” gives us “curtain,” and “thrilled me” prompts “filled me”.

But that same student might also struggle to keep the exact phrasing of the stanzas’ final lines straight, given that all eighteen of them conclude with “nevermore”, “evermore” or “nothing more”.

Most of us will at some point grapple with unhealthy fixations or paranoid fears.
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This could generate a conversation about the role of repetition in the poem – for instance, perhaps it reflects the obsessive and confused mindset of Poe’s speaker.

Students tasked with memorising poems are often required to speak them aloud as a test of mastery. This, too, has its benefits. Reciting a poem can provide a deep and visceral understanding of its linguistic strategies (think of all those rustling “s” sounds in “silken, sad, uncertain”).




Read more:
Victorian women poets of WW1: capturing the reverberations of loss


And when saying the poem aloud, you can hear another consciousness speaking in the cadences of your own voice. Counting out the beats of each line, you may feel the poem’s metrical pulses in your tapping fingers and toes.

In this way, the poem becomes an embodied experience and not merely a printed object.

A rich mental resource

True, reading a poem aloud rather than memorising and reciting it can have similar effects to all those above. But performing that poem without the distracting mediation of the page helps incorporate it more thoroughly into mental life.

In doing so, you can enact the way in which many poems – even as they give voice to a sensibility outside our own – also appeal to us precisely because they seem to articulate our unuttered thoughts and feelings. Reciting a poem without reading it can make it feel like it’s just you talking, not necessarily somebody else.

Memorising poetry provides a rich mental resource of beautiful phrases.
Daniel Hansen/Unsplash

Few of us have dealt with an ominous raven perching in our chambers, but most of us will at some point grapple with unhealthy fixations or paranoid fears.

Memorising poetry, then, is also a kind of long-term investment. To take a poem with us so we can truly know it, we must know it by heart.

When we commit poems to memory, we internalise a voice that may comfort or inspire us in the future. We create a rich mental resource that lets us summon compelling, evocative, finely-crafted language at exactly the moment when it is most relevant to our emotional lives.

Such language both illuminates and is illuminated by our experiences. Christina Rossetti’s “A Birthday” begins with these lines:

My heart is like a singing bird

Whose nest is in a watered shoot;

My heart is like an apple-tree

Whose boughs are bent with thick-set fruit.

For a school child who learns Rossetti’s poem, such metaphors may not be particularly meaningful. But if she carries those lines in her mind over the years, they are likely to take on fresh significance.

If later in life she falls in love or has an intense spiritual experience, they may help her articulate her feelings to herself. Perhaps on a snowy day she will think of Charles Wright’s words: “Things in a fall in a world of fall […]”.




Read more:
Friday essay: garish feminism and the new poetic confessionalism


Perhaps the arrival of a child will remind the former student of Sylvia Plath’s “Love set you going like a fat gold watch”.

Understanding our own sentiments through someone else’s words can provide a thrilling sense of connection, of shared humanity across time and space.

There are certain intellectual advantages to having a wealth of information at our fingertips at all times. But the vast resources that smart phones provide can’t make the beauties and insights of poetic language part of our everyday perspective on the world and fine-tune our emotional vocabulary in the process.

For that, we must still memorise.The Conversation

Veronica Alfano, Research Fellow, Australian Catholic University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Longlists for the 2019 Ned Kelly Awards


The link below is to an article that takes a look at the longlists for the 2019 Ned Kelly Awards.

For more visit:
https://www.booktopia.com.au/blog/2019/07/26/see-the-ned-kelly-awards-longlist-for-2019/