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A Child’s Search For His Father Transcends ‘Jungle Book’s’ Racism


This spring brought Rudyard Kipling back into the news—or, at least, into a brief moment of notice by the chattering classes—as Disney attempted to revive its “Jungle Book” franchise by releasing a half live-action, half CGI film of Kipling’s stories about a boy named Mowgli, growing up in the jungles of India. The commentary was pretty much what you would expect.

Back in the first half of the twentieth century, the intelligentsia elected Kipling to stand as official apologist for the British imperialism it despised. Mid-century saw a number of highbrow efforts not exactly to defend Kipling but at least to point out that his work was far more sophisticated and literary than allowed by the smug attack of the right-thinking: T.S. Eliot, George Orwell, Lionel Trilling, and Randall Jarrell, for example, wrote essays on the topic.

But it was all to little or no avail. The extraordinary mixture of poetry and fiction in his books, the fact that he was (and remains) the youngest winner of the Nobel Prize for literature, the endless quotability of his verse, the strangely perfect construction of his short stories (especially after the death of his son in the First World War): None of it could stand beside his Big Englandism and support for the Empire.

Trot Out the Accusations of Racism

European empires being thin on the ground these days, the twenty-first-century version has Kipling as a prejudiced despiser of all who are not British. Or, as an iO9 headline put it last month: “Reminder: Rudyard Kipling Was a Racist F—ck and The Jungle Book Is Imperialist Garbage.” Or, as Slate chimed in, it’s fine to like Disney’s new ​“Jungle Book” movie, but only because it “Subverts the Gross Colonialism of Rudyard Kipling.”

The i09 attack ends up suggesting little more than that all the past was bad in a racist way, and thus Kipling, as representative of his age, was bad.

Kipling has no chance to escape being labeled politically incorrect these days, nor does he deserve to, in some ways. The i09 attack ends up suggesting little more than that all the past was bad in a racist way, and thus Kipling, as representative of his age, was bad—which is about as unsophisticated as a literary attack can get. Kipling was far more intelligent about it all, but that has the unfortunate consequence that, when he put thoughts that modern taste finds unpalatable, he directed his genuine intelligence toward those thoughts and made them even worse.

Still, the current set of easy attacks on the man miss the center of his “Jungle Book” stories. You think his supposed racism is bad? His supposed imperialism a disgrace? The most politically incorrect things about Kipling’s stories for children actually derive from his intense feeling of being an abandoned child, sent home from India to live in a boarding school at age five. The subtext of nearly every one of his children’s stories is a boy’s desperate need for a father—and the fantasy in all those Kipling stories is an abandoned child’s hunger for multiple fathers, each fulfilling one of the archetypal roles of a father.

A Boy Hungers for His Father

In his boy spy and adventure novel “Kim,” for example, the hero is an orphan castaway—a trickster, hustler child lost on the teeming streets of Lahore. Little Friend of All the World, he’s called sometimes, but he knows he is lost. “Who is Kim – Kim – Kim?” he chants himself into self-hypnosis. “Who is Kim? What is Kim?”

This is an author so eager for a father that he cannot write about a boy without casting every older male in a father role.

What he finds through the story is a set of fathers to help him be many things. Mahbub Ali, a Pashtun horse trader, becomes the mature figure of worldliness for the boy. An elderly Tibetan Lama becomes the father of his spiritual unworldliness. Lurgan Sahib, guiding him through the memory techniques of Kim’s Game, takes the role of father as teacher, and a British officer, in the Great Game of espionage, becomes the father figure who calls the boy to a high political purpose.

If “Kim” can be read as a book about a boy’s hunger for fathers, Kipling’s wish-fulfillment in “Jungle Book” is even more consuming. The figure of Kaa, the giant python, is given a sultry voice by Scarlett Johansson in the new Disneyfied movie version, and Slate’s Katy Waldman sneers at Kipling for having envisioned the character as a male. But, except for Raksha, Mowgli’s Mother Wolf, all the figures who look after Mowgli are males—because they have to be.

This is an author so eager for a father that he cannot write about a boy without casting every older male in a father role. The bear, Baloo, is father as kindly but learned teacher. The panther, Bagheera, is father as attractively dangerous and mercurial. Wolf pack leader Akela is father as clan lawgiver. Kaa is father as source of ancient memory and possessor of mysterious powers. Even Mowgli’s enemy, Shere Khan the tiger, is father as threat to the young.

Losing the Lost Boy

You’d think that all this would be gobbled up these days, in an era in which filmmakers are so desperate to find mythopoeic material that they have raided nearly every comic book ever published. But Disney went off the tracks all the way back in 1967, when it produced its first cartoon version of the Mowgli tales that Kipling had scattered through the two short-story volumes he called “The Jungle Books.”

Along the way, they lost the plot, and although the boy accepts fathering, he no longer needs it, deep in his psyche.

As the film was being developed, the dying Walt Disney—or, more probably, his corporate staff, determined to preserve the Disney image—fired the screenplay’s writer and composer for keeping too close to the dark and dangerous elements of the original stories. The new staff made it instead a musical comedy (and introduced a new racism into the Bander-log monkeys). Along the way, they lost the plot, as the expression goes, and although the boy accepts fathering, he no longer needs it, deep in his psyche.

Jon Favreau, director of the new live-action/CGI version for Disney, faced what was probably an insoluble problem with “The Jungle Book.” He couldn’t make it deeper, couldn’t return to the mythopoeic original, without betraying the brand. But he couldn’t just let it rest with the light comedy of the cartoon. Casting Bill Murray as the voice of Baloo meant the bear would return to his teacher role, so he was left with Ben Kingsley, as the voice of Bagheera, to act as the father.

It’s an inconsistent bit of writing, since one character cannot fulfill all those roles, but, worse, it comes in a modern script that actually doesn’t much believe in fathers. Or, at least, doesn’t believe boys much need fathers to act as mentors, guardians, teachers, spiritual guides, deposits of cultural memory, and lawgivers.

Yes, Kipling deserves many of the politically correct epithets tossed his way on the occasion of a new “Jungle Book” movie. But he deserves another for a view no one seems to be mentioning: Boys need fathers—deep, deep in their souls.