This is my Goodreads review of the Jungle Book. As I only got half way through it before hurling it at the wall, I’m moving my original review here so I can take it off my Read list. Spoilers abound, which is a good thing because it saves you actually reading this ‘classic’.
I’d had enough of this at page 70, nearly exactly halfway through. But frankly, I don’t want it hanging around my Currently Reading list, staring at me. So it goes on the Read list, it’s the least it can do.
Brutish isn’t a strong enough word. If you’ve only ever seen the Disney version, look away now, I don’t want to ruin your precious childhood with the details. Carefree Baloo beats Mowgli when he forgets his lessons, Bagheera even jokes that he knocks the lessons back out of him. Bagheera himself gets in at least one swipe. Tabaqui the jackal, an infinitely better villain than the foolish and cowardly Shere Khan, is disposed of off-page by one of Mowgli’s wolf brothers. He breaks his spine, and it’s strongly implied he tortured him for information. May I beckon the Disney fans back a moment? Mowgli orchestrates a stampede to trample Shere Khan to death, a death Mowgli admits is only worthy of a dog. Now who does this remind you of Disney fans? Well at least Uncle Scar didn’t skin his victim afterwards as Mowgli does.
Ah, Mowgli. A child with the petulance of a child, who never learns a lesson from it. A character whose defining trait is arrogance. When he seizes the Red Flower from the man village he could have left his former pride with dignity and sorrow, instead he returns to humiliate his frightened foe with it.
Now look at this clause, squeezed in the second half of a sentence at the end of a paragraph, describing the rampaging bull Mowgli is riding finally making a climatic collision with Shere Khan. ‘in the bed of the ravine Rama winded Shere Khan and bellowed.’ There is literally no phrasing you could put here and have less effect. The use of ‘bellowed’ as a verb makes barely equal partners of the choice of percussive verb, the slight ‘winded’. How about ‘Bellowing, Rama flung Shere Khan aside.’ He will be dead and skinless within paragraphs either way.
Do not mistake me for a moralist, I think children should have every opportunity to fear. Roald Dahl was perhaps the greatest children’s writer of modern times because he understood they like that children love grit and gristle. But there’s something hollow about a fable that trusts brawn over brain. Brer Rabbit makes no tar babies here, all conflicts are solved by force wielded over an obviously inferior enemy. These are ugly tales for bullies.
Go read Animal Farm instead. George Orwell was both critic and admirer of Kipling, and he read the Jungle Book so you don’t have to. Many of the seeds of the better fable are here. Shere Khan’s teaching of the wolf cubs becomes Napoleon’s indoctrination of the pups. Akela threatened with death on the Council Rock becomes Old Major dying in the barn. The forgetfulness of the Bandar-log probably lends qualities to some of Orwell’s more foolish animals. But Orwell at least has a thought out moral behind his fable.