What ‘The Jungle Book’ gets right about rules

The latest issue of National Geographic arrived at our house with a dazzling cover story on Yellowstone National Park, full of images of grizzly bears, wolves, elk, and bison.

Yellowstone is a wild place “filled with wonders—fierce animals, deep canyons, scalding waters—that are magnificent to behold but fretful to engage,” and the issue asks whether humans can ever make peace with such wildness.

As my sons thumbed through pages of glossy pictures of predators and prey, I sat nearby rereading a nearly 120-year-old copy of Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book, which asks similar questions about man and nature, one of the most important of which is: What rules should we live by?

Kipling, of course, did what no NatGeo explorer can do: he put words into the mouths of animals in order to teach us about ourselves. Entering a Kipling book feels dark and mythical.

A newspaper reviewer in 1895 correctly called Kipling’s Jungle Book stories “weird and wonderful” tales that fascinate, which is why it has been the subject of many movie adaptations, including the most recent one released by Walt Disney and now currently dominating the box office.

In his captivating tale of man-cub and beasts (originally published in 1894), Kipling delivers an account of a world both lethal and fascinating. In that world, we learn, there are packs we are born into and laws that have been devised to protect us; there are shifting alliances and adaptations that save us; there is danger but also care.

Kipling’s fictional world is timeless, although for generations people have read The Jungle Book and comforted themselves by assuming (incorrectly) that their own times are far more civil, better educated, and more morally grounded. Continue reading

  • Stephanie Cohen is a writer, wife, and mother of four. She created and runs the Lions of Literature program.
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