Is The Jungle Book blasphemous?

Rudyard Kipling, mythic imagination, just-so stories, reverence, and human exceptionalism in the new Disney film

SDG Original source: National Catholic Register

In his Just So Stories, Rudyard Kipling offers quaintly mythic etiology-accounts or origin stories for such phenomena as the tides (“The Crab That Played With the Sea”) and the distinctive features of various animals (“How the Camel Got His Hump,” “How the Leopard Got His Spots,” etc.). In The Second Jungle Book, in the tale “How Fear Came,” the elephant Hathi relates an elephant creation-myth for the Jungle. According to this tale, Tha, First of the Elephants and Lord of the Jungle, drew the jungle from the watery depths with his trunk.

This story is briefly alluded to in the splendid new movie version of The Jungle Book, in a scene I wrote about with admiration in my review: The elephants in the film are depicted as majestic lords of the jungle, and Bagheera the panther bows low before them, instructing Mowgli to do the same. Then he whispers:

The elephants created this jungle. They made all that belongs: the mountains, the trees, the birds in the trees. But they did not make you. That is why you must go.

I found this a striking moment of semi-religious reverence, as well as a notable acknowledgement of how Mowgli’s humanity sets him apart from the animals of the jungle. Perhaps not surprisingly, a reader disagreed.

“The elephants created the jungle” is not “semi-religious” as you say. It is, in fact, blasphemous. You say such ideas are not “often found in a Hollywood family film.” I disagree. Blasphemy is typical in most Hollywood films.

I read the Just So Stories as a boy; I also read stories from the classical myths of the Greco-Roman and Norse worlds, stories of Zeus, Hera, Apollo, Hercules, Odin, Thor, Balder, and so forth. So have generations of Christian children. I can’t think that as a child I was ever in any danger of believing any of the mythic stories I read were true (and of course Kipling himself didn’t believe the Just So Stories, and whether the Greco-Roman poets believed the classical myths were literally true is, as far as I know, an open question among scholars). I did appreciate them, as I do now, as works of mythic imagination.

I can’t be sure, but I suspect Kipling would have sympathized with, and perhaps agreed with, the famous remark of G.K. Chesterton that paganism was “the biggest thing in the world, and Christianity was bigger, and everything since then has been comparatively small.”

C.S. Lewis, in The Chronicles of Narnia and The Space Trilogy, offered “baptized” depictions of pagan myth, in which such heathen figures as Bacchus and Silenus, and even Jupiter, Mars, and Venus, are situated in an overarching Christian worldview. J.R.R. Tolkien, in his writings about Middle-earth, borrows less directly but even more extensively from heathen myths, and fits what he borrows into an imaginative scheme that is less overtly but no less profoundly Christian. Kipling doesn’t do that, of course. Whatever his own religious views (among many cryptic remarks on this subject, he once described himself as “a God-fearing Christian atheist”), though, we can at least say that he had a 19th-century Indian-born English colonialist’s understanding and appreciation of both Christianity and paganism.

I can’t be sure, but I suspect Kipling would have sympathized with, and perhaps agreed with, the famous remark of G.K. Chesterton that paganism was “the biggest thing in the world, and Christianity was bigger, and everything since then has been comparatively small.” (Among the many short essays at The American Catholic by Donald R. McClarey discussing Rudyard Kipling’s poetry, “A Hymn Before Action” and “The ’Eathen” [i.e., the heathen] are worth a look in this connection.)

In his own way, I think Kipling brought a Christian perspective to his stories. For example, a notable trait of the Jungle Book stories is the animals’ reverence for Man. In “How Fear Came,” we see that to kill Man is a shocking crime and a great shame to any animal, one that only the most lawless of creatures, the tiger Shere Khan, would boast of. As the tale continues, Hathi the elephant offers an account of how the fear of Man came upon all the animals. This corresponds to the account in Genesis of how God first gives to Man (Adam) dominion over all the creatures of the Earth, and then, after the Flood, gives to Noah and his descendants the animals of the world as food, saying, “The fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth, and upon every bird of the air, upon everything that creeps on the ground and all the fish of the sea.” In other words, Kipling is offering an imaginative perspective on how Man’s dominance over the animals and their natural fear of Man, for which Genesis offers a biblical explanation, might be imaginatively “understood” from the animals’ point of view, if animals were imaginative, myth-making creatures — as we (being ourselves imaginative, myth-making creatures) can hardly help imagining them.

All of this detail isn’t in the film, of course. The key point here is that Bagheera has an animal’s view of the world — one could say a natural view — and that while the elephants, as august and regal as they are, fit into this worldview, Mowgli does not. The very idea of reverence or respect is such a contrarian one in our egalitarian society that the scene is striking for that reason alone. (Of course the fact that Bagheera tells Mowgli to bow to the elephants may seem to contradict his human differentness, but this is resolved by the end. The movie knows Mowgli was not made to bow to animals, even to elephants; he was made for something else.)

As brief as it is, Bagheera’s version of the creation of the jungle is clearly a pagan creation-myth suitable for jungle animals, but Mowgli is something different, something else. This reflects the film’s larger theme of Mowgli’s human differentness. I see all of this as a good thing, not a bad thing.

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