Monday, June 23, 2008
Rudyard Kipling and The Cub Scouts
Via an email from the fabulous Midori Snyder, I found this fascinating article in the WSJ on Rudyard Kipling, The Jungle Book and - bizarrely - the creation of the Cub Scouts:
Another fundamental reason "The Jungle Book" has maintained unsurpassed prestige in the competitive jungle of children's books is that it was literally institutionalized in 1916, when Robert Baden-Powell created the Cub Scouts based on "Mowgli's Brothers," the first story. The largest captive audience of boys ever created still adopts the names of Kipling's animals in their games, and recites a promise to do their best to do their duty to God and country, to help other people -- and to obey the Law of the Pack.
In tone, Baden-Powell's version of "The Jungle Book" veers closer to Beatrix Potter than to the original; yet the most significant departure of the Cub Scout's Promise from Kipling is its declaration of duty to God. Although Kipling routinely (in every sense) invoked the Christian God in his patriotic verse, he himself was an atheist. This passionate champion of the British Empire was just as hostile to Christian missionaries as he was to Hindu pandits; if there was a religion he admired, it was Islam. In conversation, he habitually referred to the deity as Allah.
God plays no part in Kipling's jungle; more crucially, neither does Empire, the principal theme of Kipling's life and work. Writing about animals, ironically, enabled him to observe humanity (for the animals in the stories are plainly people) without the strictures of nationalism, which eventually strangled and embittered his thinking.
Kipling is an incredibly powerful and significant Western writer whose real life was no less interesting than what he wrote about. For a look at the great tragedy of his life, the loss of his son Jack in WWI, I strongly recommend Geert Spillebeen's novel, Kipling's Choice. Read my review for the many reasons why I love this book.