Thursday, 21 June 2012

Review: The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling

Hello! Phew, it's been a while, hasn't it? You'll have to accept my humblest apologies for the unscheduled break; to tell the truth, Real Life has caught up with me in all kinds of ways in the past few weeks, and I just have been rushed off my poor little feet. Even worse, I'm moving house (very) soon, and even though I have so far pretty much packed NOTHING, I still seem to have managed to pack up all my books - I suppose, in a fit of panic, I must have decided to pack something, anything, but the fit of panic was tempered by a bout of laziness, so I just went for things that stack easily. Well, that backfired, because in my time of need, when a good book would be a soothing presence on a hectic day, I have been worrying about not having anything to read! But luckily, I've almost been too busy, and so the few books I have had access to have kept me going. One of these books I actually procured from my parents' house, on a visit last week - I'd actually seen my Dad reading it around Easter time, and then during the Jubilee weekend, spotted it on my mum's bedside table, and I was struck with Book Envy. So, on my latest return visit, I nabbed it; The Jungle Book.

As I'm sure is the case for many of my generation, my first encounter with The Jungle Book was via the Disney animated film version, which to this day remains a cracking film, one of the best that Disney have ever offered. However, as I grew up, I slowly discovered that Disney has a certain way of taking classic stories and legends, which are fascinating enough as they are, and playing them down entirely. That's not a bad thing, as I still enjoy a good Disney film, but it is misleading. As an example, I fell in love with the Greek Gods through Disney's Hercules, and any Classicist worth their salt would tell you that that film, whilst immensely enjoyable (another favourite of mine), is nothing like the legend of Heracles (note the correct Greek spelling; Disney followed in the Roman's footsteps), which is actually pretty dark. Yes, darker than Hades/James Woods getting all power hungry and releasing some brawny Titans on Olympus. The Jungle Book received the same treatment; all the principle characters are there, just warped and dumbed down for a younger audience. Baloo, for example, is not a wise-cracking, swing-singing, heart-of-gold buffoon; he's actually a wise, though slightly bumbling, teacher of the Law of the Jungle, to whose care Mowgli is entrusted. Neither is Bagheera a pompous, stuck up so-and-so; he's actually a creature whom all animals fear as much as Shere Khan. Kaa is, again, a creature to be feared in the book, not a sneaky eater of men. Mowgli is, of course, far less bratty and far more intelligent in the book than the film, and King Louie doesn't even exist in the book. The only one they kept more or less the same is Shere Khan, who is a nasty bit of work, no matter which way you look at it, though he is far less nasty in the film.

All these different characterisations were, the first time I read this, when I was about thirteen, a bit of a culture shock. At that age I knew that most film adaptations involved a certain amount of creative licence, and so are rarely - mostly never - as good as the book (though watching The Lord Of The Rings trilogy takes far less time than reading it, in my experience). So discovering the book upon which one of my all-time favourite childhood films was nothing like the film, was something I took a while to get used to. It's not like I didn't have experience of Rudyard Kipling's writing, either; for many years, the Just So Stories have held a special place in my heart; but those stories are obviously written for a younger audience. The Jungle Book deals with more adult themes and lessons; pride, your place in the world, integrity, the dangers of idleness, the wisdom of the elders, and so on. It is essentially, and literally, a coming of age story; we follow Mowgli from babyhood right through to his life as a young man, and just because he's lived nearly all his life among wild animals doesn't mean he isn't plagued with complex human emotions; doubt, anger, fear, self-righteousness, confusion, hatred. In fact, it's this ability to feel more deeply - and look into the eyes of Bagheera without turning away - that ultimately separates the man from the beast, so to speak. Getting my head around this, when compared with the fun-loving, easy-going ways of Jungle life that Baloo depicts in the film, meant that the first time I read the book, I didn't really appreciate it for what it was.

It's not just all about Mowgli either; in fact, both of the Jungle Books (there's two!) feature aside stories, almost like vignettes, which are to do with the animal world, but unrelated to the main narrative. For example, in the first Jungle Book - the one upon which the film is based - the main story actually finishes before the end of the book; then you're treated to a few lovely 'extra' stories, that take place outside of the jungle; these have certain lessons to them, dealing with subjects such as fate, determination, courage and stamina, as well as being immensely enjoyable stories by themselves (which, incidentally, would probably also make good films... just saying). My particular favourite is The White Seal, which is actually an example by itself of the more grown up themes The Jungle Book; it follows a young white seal in his quest to find a safe haven for all seals to live in, after he witnesses his friends being murdered by seal clubbers. Yep, that's right; there is seal-clubbing in The Jungle Book, and it's as brutal as you would expect it to be. This is why it's a favourite of mine; it doesn't shy away from 'nasty' subjects, or patronise young readers - instead, it gives them a view of  the kind of animal cruelty that does happen, and is happening, in the world, but presents it to them in a manner that wouldn't give them nightmares. Actually, it's probably more harrowing for adults to read, as we know it's not just a story; but it doesn't deliberately put the scarers on children, whilst also not shying away from exposing elements of the world as they are.

I said earlier that I didn't quite appreciate The Jungle Book for what it was the first time round, and I have to say I probably don't fully appreciate it now. There's so much there to enjoy; not only have you got the sublime story of Mowgli growing up in the jungle, friends with panthers and bears and wolves, but you've also got the wonderful mini-stories which take you out of the jungle, and give you a view of the animal world at large. It's beautifully written; reading the book, you can almost feel the humid air of the jungle around you, hear the calls of monkeys and birds in the trees, see the gently dancing shadows on the ground. There are also poems and songs interspersed between chapters, providing breaks between chapters whilst at the same time further illustrating the point of the previous chapter. The Jungle Book offers something that I don't think you get in much young-adult fiction now; a story that still plays on that childlike fantasy of being able to talk and live with animals, whilst showing that there is so much of the world - naturally, geographically, emotionally and historically - than you've seen in your back garden.

Friday, 1 June 2012

My Pet Hate.

Now, I'm going to get to My Pet Hate by a rather circuitous route, so please bear with me...

I love being leant books. There's something really personal about it; generally, if you're going to lend something to anyone, three criteria have to be satisfied:

1 - You're in love with the book/song/CD/film/thing in question
2 - You want the person you're lending it to, to love the book/song/CD/film/thing in question
3 - You have to love the book/song/CD/film/thing in question so much, that you're hesitant about lending it out in the first place.

Allow me to explain these points. If you love it truly, then you love it so much that you want other people to appreciate why you love it. This covers points one and two; you're seduced by the idea or object in question, and you want the person you lend it to, to be equally seduced. However, there's always a reluctance to lend it - you're worried that you won't get it back, and you love it so much that you can't bear to lose it. It doesn't matter that, in most cases, you can replace it; it can't replace the love that came from the first experience. It's not quite the same, but I can give you an example; many many years ago, I was given a stuffed toy, a Dino from The Flintstones, for a present - I want to say it was for Christmas but I can't even remember. Well, for many years, I loved that Dino more than any other toy; he slept beside me in bed, he was hugged incessantly, he was even taken on holiday. One year, I took him to Italy on our family holiday, and on the last day, I left him on the sofa of our rented villa - a fact I didn't recall until we were at the airport, and it was too late to go back for him. I had the address of the villa, and wrote to the owners, telling them of my loss and hoping I would get a parcel, any day now, with my Dino in it. It never came. Eventually, my godparents went to Florida for their holidays, and, wonderful people that they are, they brought me back another Dino - but it wasn't the same. Even now, as an adult (technically), I have this Dino in my flat - but he's a reminder of the Dino I lost. Since then, I've felt the same about lending out things that are dear to me, especially books - I'm filled with that fear that I may lose it.

As a result of this fear, however, I like to think I'm a considerate debtor of books; if I finish one, I try to get it back as soon as I can (though I'm still in possession of a copy of American Gods by Neil Gaiman, which was leant to me back in February/March time  - sorry). Recently, I've had the immense pleasure of being leant books by some of my colleagues; very lovely people who have realised my love of books, and want to share the books they love with me too. One colleague, in fact, leant me two  - Girl In Translation by Jean Kwok, and Random Acts Of Heroic Love by Danny Scheinmann, but on the mock-serious proviso that I gave them back quick-sharp as they didn't want to be parted from them too long. The latest lend - The Paris Wife by Paula McLain - has been from someone who appreciates my love of that dashing, revolutionary period of the 1920's and 1930's. And I'm enjoying it; I'm about a third of the way through, and whilst it's not exactly fast-paced, it's compelling enough to keep me reading, and to keep me wanting to read it. However, there's something about it that just niggles me slightly; it's not how the story is told that bothers me, nor even the characterisation. No, it's the story itself, and the characters themselves. It's a fictionalised account of the relationship between Ernest Hemingway, the renowned writer, and his first wife, Hadley Richardson.

I've long felt something akin to dislike about fictionalised versions of real/mythical lives, though I've never quite grasped why; I suppose I've always assumed it was something to do with the fact that I knew the stories so well already that I didn't need to read them again (I'm thinking particularly of anything by Philippa Gregory, and Madeline Miller's The Song Of Achilles - I have to admit I can't quite understand why her book won the 2012 Orange Prize for Fiction). However, it took beginning The Paris Wife to make me realise just what it is that I don't like, and it is this; stories that are, essentially, fictional biographies of people who have already lived, or have already been documented thousands of times. The whole thing just smacks of laziness; you can't come up with a story, or a character, of your own, so you write about someone else's.

I'm not going to deny that creating an entirely new universe, or life, or even a character is easy - after all, C.S. Lewis, author of The Chronicles of Narnia, not only based his main character, Aslan, on one of the greatest historical figures of the last few millenia, but was also told off by J. R. R. Tolkien for 'borrowing' too much of Narnia from other stories and cultures. Nevertheless, Narnia has succeeded, not only as the basis for a wonderful series of childrens' books, but also as a fictional world in it's own right, to rival Tolkien's own Middle-Earth, Pullman's alternative worlds and Rowling's Magical Kingdom. To an extent, every story is bred from a previous story; you have to get your inspiration from somewhere, and even if you can't directly attribute the source, there's bound to be a figure of speech, or an anecdote, or even just the mere mention of a person that spawned the creation. But I'm just not happy with the notion that you've, essentially, taken someone else's life, turned it into a story, and profited out of that.

I can see why people do it; you've fallen in love with a historical period, a figure from history, an era, an art movement, and you want to learn more and more about it, or them - it's this kind of passion that creates experts, and I applaud those people who are able to dedicate their lives in this way. And when it comes to people, I can also appreciate how you might begin to question why such-and-such a person behaved in that way, or how they went from being one person to another, or how events may have affected their judgement and decisions, effectively altering the course of their history. This can easily lead to romanticising people; you begin to piece together the kind of person they might have been, creating your impression of their character, and from a character, comes a story. But despite all this, I simply don't agree with it; apart from the fact you're using someone else's life story, which to me does just seem a bit lazy, you're also not exactly thinking outside the box; you're just re-telling a story you already know, and whilst the old stories are the best, so are the originals; stop treading old ground.