A bristling unbroken current of mongoose-osity
July 14, 2014 9:36 PM   Subscribe

Writing in Slate, James Parker pronounces Rudyard Kipling's Rikki-Tikki-Tavi The Greatest Short Story of All Time. "To read it as an authoritarian fable is to miss the real action of the story, which is down in the unconscious, down with the prima materia, down by the bathroom sluice, where the creepy-crawlies hiss and fiddle and not even Father, the big man, can keep you safe."

Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, the story of a heroic mongoose's battle against the cobras Nag and Nagaina, is collected in Kipling's 1894 The Jungle Book. Available in full (including its engravings) in various formats at Project Gutenberg: The Jungle Book.

Chapter 5: Rikki-Tikki-Tavi.
"Who is Nag?" he said, "I am Nag. The great god Brahm put his mark upon all our people when the first cobra spread his hood to keep the sun off Brahm as he slept. Look, and be afraid!"

He spread out his hood more than ever, and Rikki-tikki saw the spectacle-mark on the back of it that looks exactly like the eye part of a hook-and-eye fastening. He was afraid for the minute; but it is impossible for a mongoose to stay frightened for any length of time, and though Rikki-tikki had never met a live cobra before, his mother had fed him on dead ones, and he knew that all a grown mongoose's business in life was to fight and eat snakes. Nag knew that too, and at the bottom of his cold heart he was afraid.
Chuck Jones animated Rikki-Tikki-Tavi as a TV short, with narration by Orson Welles, in 1975: IMDB, YouTube. Sheila O'Malley has an appreciation and remembrance:
That’s what I felt in that moment, as a small child … that if I looked too long at that image I would go mad. The animals in the garden understood that well, and knew not to look directly at the cobra’s eyes … but those markings – turning colors – filling up the screen – It’s one of the scariest moments of movies that I can remember from when I was a wee one.
posted by We had a deal, Kyle (16 comments total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
That Slate essay is just electric. A great piece of criticism. Nice find.
posted by mr_roboto at 10:09 PM on July 14, 2014

It's a great essay about a great story, but methinks the headline has been sexed up, a la Buzzfeed. Parker never writes that this is the greatest story ever, mentioning only that it is the first Jungle Book’s best story. The overall tone of the essay doesn't seem to make any greater claim than that, nor does it need to.
posted by chavenet at 11:22 PM on July 14, 2014 [2 favorites]

Great story, reminding me and giving me words for why, as a child, this was my favorite animated story on tv. I never missed a showing, even though I was frightened every time I watched.

I think I'll go watch again!
posted by _paegan_ at 2:17 AM on July 15, 2014

Young me also favored The Jungle Book over any of the Disney princesses. Only now am I learning the connection between the movies I preferred... Kipling.
posted by _paegan_ at 2:19 AM on July 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

The Jones/Welles adaptation was one of my favorite cartoons as a child, and it was one of my favorite stories.

I was in love with the message I saw in it: that you don't have to be cruel to be strong. Nag and Nagaina were bullies, and not only could you stand up to them, but it was actually your duty to do so when they were attacking the defenseless.

Dunno, I guess there was something about that that stuck with me. :)
posted by Riki tiki at 4:29 AM on July 15, 2014 [10 favorites]

I think I last read it when I was 8, and this is the line I remember best:
“This is a splendid hunting-ground,” he said, and his tail grew bottle-brushy at the thought of it …
posted by scruss at 5:03 AM on July 15, 2014 [2 favorites]

_paegan_: "I preferred... Kipling."

That reminds me of this!
posted by chavenet at 5:08 AM on July 15, 2014 [2 favorites]

A fun story, but greatest ever? Even accounting for #slatepitches, I gotta say no. The greatest short story ever is "The Dead," except on those days when it's "A Good Man Is Hard to Find."
posted by Cash4Lead at 6:12 AM on July 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

I loved that book so much as a kid. I reread it countless times. I haven't reread it as an adult and I don't know how it would hold up now, but at the time it was one of my favorite things.
posted by Dip Flash at 6:21 AM on July 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

I recently had to read a few of Kipling's stories. Although he was a master of story-telling, he is so infuriatingly racist, I just can't give him a pass. He coined, "The White Man's Burden" (without irony). There's this, the opening lines from Beyond the Pale: "A man should, whatever happens, keep to his own caste, race and breed. Let the White go to the White and the Black to the Black." No, the story doesn't play out to disprove these words, instead the Indian lady gets her arms chopped off for the affair.

The poem Gunga Din represents all of his prowess and all that is reprehensible about him. It is a rousing tale. The real hero is Gunga Din, a water-bearer for soldiers in British imperial India.

An' for all 'is dirty 'ide,
'E was white, clear white, inside

So what happens to this dirty-skinned hero? He is treated like crap, pilloried and flayed like a slave, takes a bullet to rescue his master and then goes to hell, where he continues to take water to the soldiers. I guess there is the admission that the soldiers are also in hell, but what the hell did Gunga Din do to get there?

An' a bullet come an' drilled the beggar clean.
'E put me safe inside,
An' just before 'e died:
"I 'ope you liked your drink," sez Gunga Din.
So I'll meet 'im later on
In the place where 'e is gone—
Where it's always double drill and no canteen;
'E'll be squattin' on the coals
Givin' drink to pore damned souls,
An' I'll get a swig in Hell from Gunga Din!

After reading a half a dozen of Kipling's stories, I felt I needed a shower, or my literary equivalent, I wrote a parody.

I will admit to enjoying his anthropomorphized characters. At least there is a layer of fur disguising his jingoistic symbols. My favorite among his animal stories is "The Maltese Cat." But even then, there is too much crap that comes with Kipling.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 6:56 AM on July 15, 2014 [2 favorites]

Oh man. I remember that animated version of the story. Back when we watched this thing called "TV" it was a small event. Thanks for this.

And yes, if we reject anachronistic revisionism, the story is nearly perfect.
posted by clvrmnky at 6:59 AM on July 15, 2014

I am glad that this was linked here, because now I may actually read it since I know what it is really about. I am a longtime Slate reader, and I still scan the headlines, but I don't click through like I used to to, and I wasn't tempted by that particular headline. I know there are still interesting things to read there, but the headlines do not describe what you will read at all anymore. It just all feels like a scam.
posted by bitslayer at 7:31 AM on July 15, 2014

dances_with_sneetches: After reading a half a dozen of Kipling's stories, I felt I needed a shower, or my literary equivalent, I wrote a parody.

One heartening thing about Kipling's time is that plenty of people then also realized that he was in dire need of parody, with "White Man's Burden" being a prime target:

Take up the White Man’s burden.
Send forth your sturdy kin,
And load them down with Bibles
And cannon-balls and gin.

Throw in a few diseases
To spread the tropic climes,
For there the healthy niggers
Are quite behind the times.

And don’t forget the factories.
On those benighted shores
They have no cheerful iron mills,
Nor eke department stores.

They never work twelve hours a day
And live in strange content,
Altho they never have to pay
A single sou of rent....

[snipping a bit from the middle; worth the read if you take the time to Google it]

....Take up the White Man’s burden
And if you write in verse,
Flatter your nation’s vices
And strive to make them worse.

Then learn that if with pious words
You ornament each phrase,
In a world of canting hypocrites
This kind of business pays.

(Ernest Crosby, 1902, one of many to parody White Man's Burden)
posted by clawsoon at 7:37 AM on July 15, 2014 [7 favorites]

the headline has been sexed up

Well, it is Slate. Some residual evidence of the sexing-up process: the slug in the URL is "best_short_story_of_all_time" but on the page the title's been upgraded to "Greatest".
posted by We had a deal, Kyle at 9:05 AM on July 15, 2014

It's a good rule of thumb that if you think Kipling is racist, you should probably go back and read him more carefully.

In 'Beyond the Pale', the question is whether Kipling shares his narrator's point of view. But if you think he does, you have to explain why the opening statement, 'A man should keep to his own caste, race and breed', is contradicted by the epigraph immediately above it: 'Love heeds not caste nor sleep a broken bed. / I went in search of love and lost myself.' As for Gunga Din, 'squattin' on the coals / Givin' drink to pore damned souls', Kipling is plainly alluding to the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16: 24), where the rich man, tormented in hell, calls on Lazarus to 'dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue'. The poem's soldier-narrator assumes that Gunga Din will join him in hell, but I see no reason to suppose that Kipling shares that assumption.
posted by verstegan at 3:54 PM on July 15, 2014 [4 favorites]

Mmm. No, Kipling was still racist, it just wasn't all he was, and he was capable of critiquing the behavior of his own people and viewing people of other colors as worthy. But he still viewed the people of the subcontinent en masse as essentially savages.

I think his stuff is still worth reading and not dismissing as worthless, but revisionism only goes so far.
posted by tavella at 4:36 PM on July 15, 2014 [3 favorites]

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