Tuesday, July 26, 2011

"Rikki-tikki felt his eyes growing red..."

"Could the mongoose be a type of Christ?" asks Jordan Ballor, having just finished reading Kipling's "Rikki-Tikki-Tavi" to his son. Ballor describes several convincing parallels but observes:
That's not to say that Kipling is himself a Christian, or that this is a Christian story, or anything like that. John Derbyshire has said that Kipling's religion was "extremely peculiar," and this paper, "The Religion of Rudyard Kipling," explores some of that peculiarity.

But even pagan literature, or non-Christian literature formed in the twilight of western Christendom, is informed by what Lewis called "True Myth." Or as Husain puts it, Kipling is "profoundly influenced by Christianity and often uses Christian symbols, but he is not a Christian."
Finally, of course, it is just a very good story, one of the best in The Jungle Books. It was read to me before I could read and I have always remembered the story of the brave mongoose who protects his human family from the cobras in the garden. I just read it again. [Thanks, Mr Ballor, for reminding me of it.] By now it is, of course, in the public domain and can be read here, nicely illustrated with what appear to be the original illustrations. An excerpt:
.... Rikki-tikki went out into the garden to see what was to be seen. It was a large garden, only half cultivated, with bushes, as big as summer-houses, of Marshal Niel roses, lime and orange trees, clumps of bamboos, and thickets of high grass. Rikki-tikki licked his lips. “This is a splendid hunting-ground,” he said, and his tail grew bottle-brushy at the thought of it, and he scuttled up and down the garden, snuffing here and there till he heard very sorrowful voices in a thorn-bush.

It was Darzee, the Tailorbird, and his wife. They had made a beautiful nest by pulling two big leaves together and stitching them up the edges with fibers, and had filled the hollow with cotton and downy fluff. The nest swayed to and fro, as they sat on the rim and cried.

“What is the matter?” asked Rikki-tikki.

“We are very miserable,” said Darzee. “One of our babies fell out of the nest yesterday and Nag ate him.”

“H’m!” said Rikki-tikki, “that is very sad — but I am a stranger here. Who is Nag?”

Darzee and his wife only cowered down in the nest without answering, for from the thick grass at the foot of the bush there came a low hiss — a horrid cold sound that made Rikki-tikki jump back two clear feet. Then inch by inch out of the grass rose up the head and spread hood of Nag, the big black cobra, and he was five feet long from tongue to tail. When he had lifted one-third of himself clear of the ground, he stayed balancing to and fro exactly as a dandelion tuft balances in the wind, and he looked at Rikki-tikki with the wicked snake’s eyes that never change their expression, whatever the snake may be thinking of.

“Who is Nag?” said he. “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.

“Well,” said Rikki-tikki, and his tail began to fluff up again, “marks or no marks, do you think it is right for you to eat fledglings out of a nest?”

Nag was thinking to himself, and watching the least little movement in the grass behind Rikki-tikki. He knew that mongooses in the garden meant death sooner or later for him and his family, but he wanted to get Rikki-tikki off his guard. So he dropped his head a little, and put it on one side.

“Let us talk,” he said. “You eat eggs. Why should not I eat birds?”

“Behind you! Look behind you!” sang Darzee.

Rikki-tikki knew better than to waste time in staring. He jumped up in the air as high as he could go, and just under him whizzed by the head of Nagaina, Nag’s wicked wife. .... [ the story: "Rikki-Tikki-Tavi,"]
The Jungle Book, by Rudyard Kipling