2016 sees the release of The Jungle Book, a new film based on the 1967 Disney animation. Rudyard Kipling, author of the original stories which form the plot, has now been dead for 80 years and his reputation is up for renewal.
In the latter years of the Raj (the British rule of India), Kipling was the literary figure of choice. He was an important author and poet, beloved of the Empire. In 1919 he was chosen by the War Graves Commission to attend to the inscriptions on the tombstones of the First World War dead, a task which was personal to him as his own son had gone missing in action (My Son Jack, a poem in the anthology studied by Oxford Home Schooling students, is generally considered to have been inspired by this event, although it has a nautical theme.).
However, Kipling fell out of favour after India became an independent nation and colonialism became a dirty word, although his name endured in no small part because of the Disney film. Over the years since, his memory has been tainted by accusations of racism, but Kipling embraced the whole of the Indian experience; he spoke Hindi and thought in Hindi, saying that he ‘translated’ his thoughts into English. He was an acute observer of all aspects of life on the sub-continent and his stories and poems were often told from the point of view of the Indian. Indeed, Jawaharlal Nehru, Independent India’s first Prime Minister, named Kim as his favourite novel.
Kipling understood the nature of struggle. His unhappy childhood was recounted in his autobiography, Something of Myself. He learnt wisdom and imparted it. There is a reason why tennis players at Wimbledon pass beneath the words of one of his most famous poems, If, before they contest the title.
Now we are beginning to re-evaluate Kipling and to appreciate his work and legacy. Although he still inspires disagreement, any who doubt his relevance should consider why there is the new film based on The Jungle Books, why a few years ago they were reimagined in masterly form by Neil Gaiman as The Graveyard Book, and why so many lines from his poems (such as “the female of the species is more deadly than the male”) have become a familiar part of our vocabulary.