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Book Review: The Jungle Books

A friend once commented that the Classics are the books everyone knows but no one has read. This seems especially the case with classic stories that become part of popular culture through cinematic adaptation. “Disneyfication” can describe many things, but applied to literature, it is a metamorphosis from pedagogy to sentimental entertainment. Examples crowd the marquee of any local movie theater.

In an era of both instant information and increasing illiteracy, few take the trouble to return to the sources. We are content with the processed crumbs that fall to us and seldom taste the banquet of unique creativity that is any great book. Real information should form us (an thus can never be instant), and many ‘literate’ people choose useless or even destructive reading (if they choose to read at all). Perhaps a new word is needed: dysliteracy: abnormal or impaired literacy.

I finished Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Books with these thoughts in mind. I knew the cartoon version from childhood and was expecting the same simplicity and lighthearted mood. My dysliteracy was corrected in delightful fashion.

Disney’s 1967 animated film is based on three of 15 stories from the two books. And though the music is delightful – everyone knows “bare necessities” – the literary quality of Kipling’s 1894 original is almost completely lost, and simultaneously, his stories’ moral value. In The Jungle Books, virtue – perseverance, courage, innocence – is everywhere promoted. Evil is recognized and punished. Goodness means successful but difficult struggle against prejudice and adversity. The characters are serious, rarely comic. Disney’s jungle is playful and foolish. Kipling’s jungle is full of danger and wisdom.

Mowgli, the boy raised by wolves, is only the most famous of the characters who populate Kipling’s stories. His intelligence and love for his friends make him a model of masculine leadership. But Mowgli’s adventures comprise only half of the tales, so the surprise for anyone encountering The Jungle Books for the first time is the cache of great stories not re-told in movies or abridgements. Of these, Toomai of the Elephants, The Miracle of Purun Bhagat and The King’s Ankus delighted me as much for the beauty of the storytelling as for their being unexpected.

Kipling begins and ends each tale with poetry – lyrical poetry which adds new layers of meaning to the prose. The prose itself is lyrical and in places timelessly wise. One such memorable and useful quotation: “money is that thing which passes from hand to hand yet never grows warm.” The characters, their conversation and the mysterious depths of colonial India make every story vivid and memorable.

Similarly with Pinocchio and other children’s classics I’ve discovered as an adult, I felt myself wanting to take long pauses between Kipling’s tales. The images he left in my imagination were so beautiful I did not want to replace them too quickly. Images are akin to experience. Which is why providing the soul with nourishing images from great literature is the cure for disneyfication and dysliteracy.

There are two kinds of books an avid reader doesn’t want to finish. Books not worth the time are recognized and put down immediately. But the classic is the book we want to begin again after the last perfect word. I would have added The Jungle Books to my litany of yearly reading long ago, but, along with the friend I quoted above, I assumed I already knew them.

Oh hear the Call! Good hunting all
That keep the Jungle Law!

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