Rudyard Kipling's endearing "Rikki-Tikki-Tavi" initially appeared in 1895 as part of the second volume of The Jungle Book, a collection of children's stories set in colonial India that Kipling wrote while living in Brattleboro, Vermont. Telling the tale of Rikki-tikki-tavi, a brave and heroic mongoose, and his battle against the evil king cobras, Nag and Nagaina, "Rikki-Tikki-Tavi" is a war story that depicts in the simplest of terms the triumph of good over bad. Emulating the contemporary trend in children's literature to create imaginary worlds to appeal to a child's imagination, "Rikki-Tikki-Tavi" takes place entirely in a small garden populated by anthropomorphized birds, snakes, muskrats, and frogs.
By imparting values particularly characteristic of Kipling's Victorian society, including loyalty, productivity, hard work, and courage, the story serves an educational purpose. "Rikki-Tikki-Tavi" also implicitly affirms the Victorian assumption of British superiority and its faith in the inherent goodness of empire-building.
In its use of suspense and pacing, "Rikki-Tikki-Tavi" is a wonderful example of Kipling's expertise in storytelling and a testament to why his stories remained popular into the early 2000s. "Rikki-Tikki-Tavi," both as part of The Jungle Book and as an independent story, appeared in numerous incarnations throughout the twentieth century. As of 2004, numerous versions of The Jungle Book volumes were in print, including a paperback version by Penguin that included a critical introduction by Daniel Karlin.
Poet, novelist, and short story writer Rudyard Kipling, the first English writer to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature, was the most popular literary figure in the late nineteenth century. He was born December 30, 1865, in Bombay, India, to John Lockwood Kipling and Alice MacDonald Kipling. Both of his grandfathers had been Methodist ministers and, though Kipling did not practice Christianity as an adult, the symbolism and values of the religion heavily influenced his work. He had one younger sister, Alice, who was known as Trix.
As was the custom of the time, at the age of six Rudyard was sent to boarding school in England, where he was subjected to severe strictness, bullying, and abuse. In 1878 he was sent to a military training school, where he also encountered bullying, but where he was able to form the values preached in "Rikki-Tikki-Tavi": courage, loyalty, and an ethic of hard work.
His poor eyesight kept Kipling from advancing into a military career, so at the age of sixteen he returned to his parents in Lahore, India, and began his career as a journalist, first at The Civil and Military Gazette, from 1882 to 1887, and then as a worldwide correspondent for the Pioneer, from 1887 to 1889. He became quite popular for his work, especially for his satirical and humorous verse. When he returned to England in 1889 at the age of twenty-four, he was already regarded as a national literary hero.
In 1892 Kipling married Caroline Balestier and moved to Vermont, near Caroline's family. Their two daughters, Josephine—who was to die at the age of six of pneumonia—and Elsie, were born there. Fatherhood inspired Kipling to write the children's stories which remained his most enduring works. Both volumes of The Jungle Book were published during Kipling's time in Vermont. The Kiplings returned to England in 1896 after a bitter quarrel with Caroline's family; their only son John was born later that year. They remained based in England and traveled regularly around the world.
Kipling was a prolific writer, and his skill at storytelling, his immensely readable and song-like verse, his refusal to mince words, and the strong sense of British patriotism that characterized his work made him immensely popular with a wide audience. However, his receipt of the Nobel Prize in 1907 was met with disapproval from some literary critics and writers, who considered him vulgar and lacking in craftsmanship.
The death of his son John during World War I, combined with his own failing health, affected Kipling's writing deeply. His output decreased dramatically after this period. Kipling died on January 18, 1936 and is buried in the Poets' Corner in Westminster Abbey.
Among Kipling's most well-known and enduring works are Captains Courageous (1897), Kim (1901), the first and second volumes of The Jungle Book, and the poems "If," "White Man's Burden," and "Recessional."
A song-like poem serves as prologue to "Rikki-Tikki-Tavi," prefiguring the battle between the mongoose Rikki-tikki-tavi and Nag, the king cobra. The struggle between the mongoose and snake is the central focus of the story and the poem, which foreshadows the conflict but only hints at its resolution and creates a sense of suspense and expectation before the story even begins.
In the first paragraph the setting and the main characters are introduced: Rikki-tikki-tavi, who is established as the hero, with the help of Darzee the tailor-bird, fights a battle in the garden of a bungalow in colonial India. Rikki's curious and energetic personality is also established.
Rikki-tikki-tavi, washed by a flood from his parents' home into the garden of a bungalow, lies unconscious in the garden path. Teddy, the boy who lives in the bungalow, happens upon him with his parents. They take him into the house and revive him. Rikki-tikki-tavi regains his energy and endears himself to the family with his energetic, curious, and friendly nature.
That night he sleeps with Teddy, much to the consternation of Teddy's mother. Teddy's father reassures his wife that Teddy is safe with a mongoose because, as the natural predator of snakes, he would be able to protect Teddy if one were to enter the house: the expression of fear and the realistic threat of poisonous snakes foreshadows Rikki's future conflict with the local king cobras.
The next morning, Rikki explores the garden. He meets the tailor-birds Darzee and his wife, who are mourning because Nag, the garden's resident king cobra, ate one of their babies. As Rikki is conversing with the birds, Nag, who knows that Rikki the mongoose poses a mortal danger to him and his family, emerges to confront Rikki. He is described as "evil" and "horrid," as well as foreboding in size and strength. Nag introduces himself as being marked by Brahm himself, the greatest god in the Hindu pantheon, creating a reference to the sacred status of snakes in Hinduism, the predominant religion of India.
As Nag faces off with Rikki-tikki, Nag's wife, Nagaina, makes a surprise attack on Rikki from behind. However, Rikki escapes unscathed because Darzee warns him in time. The snakes, defeated, retreat into the grass.
Rikki, who has not fought snakes before, returns to the bungalow, feeling confident about his quickness against the snakes and gaining confidence in his skill. Teddy runs up the path to pet Rikki, only to be confronted by Karait, the "dusty brown snakeling"—a fatally poisonous snake who hides in the dirt. For the first time in the story Rikki's eyes glow red—the sign that a mongoose is about to attack. He manages to leap onto Karait and kills him with a swift and strong bite. Teddy's parents run out from the bungalow just in time to find Rikki killing the snake. They are very grateful to him for protecting Teddy.
Later that night, after the family has gone to bed, Rikki patrols the house. He runs into Chuchundra, the cowardly muskrat, who hints that Nag may have a wicked plan in store that night. Soon after talking with Chuchundra, Rikki overhears Nag and Nagaina plotting outside the bathroom's water sluice. They plot to kill the human family in order to get rid of Rikki-tikki-tavi. Rikki also learns that they have a nest of unhatched eggs.
Nag sneaks into the bathroom to lie in wait for the humans, and Nagaina leaves. Rikki is afraid, but he is driven by loyalty to the family and by his honor as a mongoose to attack the snake. When Nag finally falls asleep, Rikki leaps onto Nag and grabs hold of his neck. He bites and hangs on while Nag thrashes about, until the snake is dead. The big man, hearing the commotion, runs into the bathroom with his shotgun and shoots Nag, but the snake has already been killed by Rikki.
The next morning, Rikki, who knows he now has to face Nagaina, enlists the help of Darzee and his wife in destroying the snake and her eggs. Darzee is busy singing a triumphant song about Rikki's defeat of Nag, much to Rikki's annoyance. Darzee informs Rikki that Nagaina's eggs are hidden in the melon patch, but he does not understand why Rikki wants to harm them. Darzee's wife, however, does understand that "cobra's eggs meant young cobras later on"; she distracts Nagaina by pretending her wing is broken, buying Rikki time to destroy the eggs.
While Rikki is destroying the cobra's eggs, Nagaina, who is angry with the big man because she thinks he killed Nag, heads up to the house to attack the human family. Rikki, with a warning from Darzee's wife, runs up to the veranda and finds Teddy and his parents sitting within Nagaina's striking distance.
Rikki shows her the last of her eggs to distract her from the human family, and he tells her that it was he who killed Nag, not the big man. Rikki draws Nagaina to fight, but rather than engage Rikki she manages to rescue the last of her eggs, and she rushes towards her lair. Rikki, in hot pursuit, follows her down into her cave. Darzee, who witnesses Rikki's descent, begins to sing about Rikki's imminent death.
After a highly suspenseful period, however, Rikki emerges dusty and exhausted from the lair and announces that Nagaina is dead. The Coppersmith bird, the garden crier, announces Nagaina's death to the whole garden. The birds and frogs rejoice, and Rikki-tikki-tavi is rewarded for his efforts both by being considered a hero by the denizens of the garden and by being given a permanent place in the human family's home, where he remains as their protector for the rest of his life.
The story closes with a reproduction of Darzee's unfinished song of triumph, "Darzee's Chaunt," which he composed after the death of Nag. The style of the song, which calls on the birds of the garden to praise Rikki for delivering them from the evil Nag and Nagaina, is reminiscent of Christian hymns of praise, and like the heroes of ancient, classic epics, Rikki is immortalized in these songs of praise.
See Teddy's Mother
The Big Man
The big man is an Englishman who has just moved, with his son Teddy and wife Alice, into the Indian bungalow where the main action of the story takes place. The big man owns a "bang-stick"—a shotgun—and when he shoots Nag into two pieces during Rikki's battle with him in the bathroom, Nagaina wrongfully blames him for the death. As an Englishman in India during the late nineteenth century, the big man represents imperial England's presence in India and thus gives a historical and cultural context to the story. He and his family take Rikki-tikki-tavi into their home and thereby earn his loyalty and protection. The big man and his family's gratitude to Rikki for saving their lives earns him a lasting place in their home.
A muskrat who lives in the bungalow, Chuchundra is portrayed as a cowardly creature who weeps and whines when he speaks. He tips Rikki off to Nag and Nagaina's planned attack on the big man and his family. Chuchundra's cowardliness serves as a foil to Rikki-tikki-tavi's courage.
When Rikki-tikki-tavi successfully kills Nagaina and emerges from her lair unhurt, the Coppersmith, a bird who serves as the garden crier, announces Rikki's triumph and the demise of Nag and Nagaina to the denizens of the garden.
A tailor-bird who, together with his wife, keeps a nest in the bungalow's garden, Darzee is described as "a feather-brained fellow" because he fails on more than one occasion to competently assist Rikki-tikki-tavi against their common enemies, Nag and Nagaina. Darzee, unlike Rikki, is severely lacking in foresight. He begins to sing a song of triumph after the death of Nag but before Nagaina and her eggs are destroyed, for which Rikki scolds him. His lack of foresight serves as a foil to Rikki's own impetus for action. Darzee also plays the role of a bard. He composes songs about Rikki-tikki-tavi's showdowns against Nag and Nagaina, which are used to highlight Rikki's heroic aspects.
- "Rikki-Tikki-Tavi" was adapted as an animated film in 1975. It was directed by Chuck Jones, narrated by Orson Welles, and is available on VHS from Family Home Entertainment (reissued 2001).
- A downloadable audio recording of stories from The Jungle Books, including "Rikki-Tikki-Tavi," is available at http://www.audible.com and is narrated by Flo Gibson.
Darzee's wife plays a pivotal role in assisting Rikki against the snakes—and is therefore called "sensible"—by serving as a decoy to distract Nagaina and allow Rikki time to destroy the cobras' unhatched eggs.
Karait, a small, quick, poisonous snake who lives in the dust, is confronted by Rikki-tikki-tavi when he threatens to fatally bite Teddy. Karait is the first snake that Rikki kills, and his success gives Rikki the confidence to battle against the more dangerous cobras.
One of two king cobras who reside in the garden of the bungalow, Nag, along with his wife Nagaina, are Rikki-tikki-tavi's archenemies. Nag and his wife are depicted as evil. His enormous size—"five feet long from tongue to tail"—and strength make him a formidable and, therefore, worthy opponent for Rikki, the hero of the story. Prior to Rikki's arrival in the garden, Nag and Nagaina held free rein over the garden. Nag is killed by Rikki-tikki-tavi inside the bungalow when he, at Nagaina's bidding, enters it to kill the human family. Nag's name is derived from the Hindi word for snake.
Like her husband Nag, Nagaina is characterized as evil. While Nag is foreboding in his size and strength, Nagaina is said to be intelligent. It is she who formulates the plan—which Rikki thwarts—to kill the human family in order to rid the bungalow of the mongoose, who is her natural enemy. She is killed by Rikki in her lair, to which she flees to protect the last of her eggs.
Rikki-tikki-tavi, whose name is derived from his characteristic chattering noise, is a young mongoose who, at the beginning of the story, has little experience but, by the end, has become a mongoose of legendary strength and fighting ability. He is rescued by a human family and taken into their home after he is swept away from his parents' nest during a flood. As a mongoose, Rikki is the natural enemy of snakes, and his presence in the garden threatens the resident king cobra couple, Nag and Nagaina, who become Rikki's archenemies. Rikki is emblematic of the archetypal hero: he exhibits the qualities of courage, strength, and loyalty, and he uses his virtues to fight evil. Prior to arriving in the garden, Rikki had never fought a snake, and his ultimate triumph over the cobras not only protects the lives of the birds and the humans he befriends, but it also serves as his coming of age.
Teddy is the little boy who lives in the bungalow with his parents. He, of all the human characters, is most fond of Rikki-tikki-tavi. His innocence and vulnerability as a small child make him an easy target for the poisonous snakes of the garden and the most in need of Rikki-tikki-tavi's protection.
Teddy's mother, Alice, lives in the bungalow with her son and her husband, the big man. She initially has misgivings about keeping a wild animal as a pet, but Rikki later earns her trust and affection by protecting her and her family from the cobras.
"Rikki-Tikki-Tavi," as a children's story, is designed both to entertain and to disseminate the values of virtuous behavior. Courage, one of the characteristics exhibited by the hero, Rikki-tikki-tavi, is one such virtue. Rikki, knowing that he has to kill Nag in order to protect the human family, is fearful of the cobra's size and strength, but his fear is trumped by his own courage, and he succeeds in killing the snake. He is rewarded for his courage by being deemed a hero and given a permanent place in the home of the humans. The virtue of courage is further emphasized by the story's portrayal of shameful cowardliness; Chuchundra, the fearful muskrat who "never had spirit enough to run out into the middle of the room" is unable to overcome his fear and, therefore, elicits disdain from Rikki and the other garden creatures.
Loyalty and Duty
Kipling was deeply influenced by the codes of honor and duty evangelized at the military prep school he attended in his late childhood. Loyalty especially figures as a theme in "Rikki-Tikki-Tavi." Rikki is loyal to the human family that takes him in, and his loyalty drives him to protect them from the cobras, even to the point of risking death. Rikki also risks death out of a sense of duty regarding his heritage as a mongoose: when he attacks Nag he "was battered to and fro.… he made sure he would be banged to death, and, for the honour of his family, he preferred to be found with his teeth locked."
Kipling is well known for promoting British imperialism in his writing; Victorian-era imperialism was not just the practice of colonization, but it reflected an attitude and philosophy of assumed British superiority, and even the children's story "Rikki-Tikki-Tavi" reflects this racial prejudice. The story makes clear that the family living in the bungalow in India is an English family, and it is intimated that Rikki is a very lucky mongoose for having been rescued by humans who are white: "every well-brought-up mongoose always hopes to be a house-mongoose … and Rikki-tikki's mother … had carefully told Rikki what to do if ever he came across white men." The white family's home and way of life—which dramatizes the British presence in India—is idealized and, in the specific use of the term "white men," portrayed as superior to the indigenous cultures of India. The culture of the Indian people and their Hindu religion is further symbolically denigrated in the story when Nag, the villain, is directly associated with the Hindu god Brahm.
Survival is the motivating factor behind the actions of all of the characters, and it seems to be the only law that governs the fantasy world of the garden: the act of killing, for example, is not against the laws of the garden but is consistently portrayed as a means towards the more important goal of survival for both the heroic and villainous characters.
Topics for Further Study
- The characters of Nag and Nagaina are portrayed as villains in "Rikki-Tikki-Tavi." The use of snakes as a symbol of evil is common in Western civilization. Can you think of other stories, myths, or folk tales that use this motif? Research the folktales and mythologies of another, non-Western culture, such as the Chinese culture or the Hindu culture. Are snakes used as symbols in these cultures and, if so, what do they represent?
- The Hindu god Brahm, or Brahma, is mentioned in the story "Rikki-Tikki-Tavi," but nothing about the god's significance in Hinduism is revealed. Research the following about the Hindu religion. Who is Brahm? What is his significance in Hinduism? What role does he play?
- The British maintained a strong presence in India until 1947, when India finally was granted independence and became the independent nations of India and Pakistan. What events led up to India's independence? Why did Britain feel compelled to let go of such a large and vital part of its empire?
- Kipling was largely derided in the early 2000s for promoting British imperialism, which embodied a sense of the superiority of British civilization and culture. Do you think that "Rikki-Tikki-Tavi" reflects this attitude? Do you think that it is fair or accurate for Kipling to be judged by twenty-first century political and cultural standards? Look at another of his works, the controversial poem "White Man's Burden." Assess whether this poem promotes imperialist ideologies.
This preoccupation with survival reflects the values of social Darwinism that were prevalent during the late nineteenth century. Social Darwinism applied the biological theories of natural selection, put forth by Charles Darwin, to human behavior. Encapsulated in the catchphrase "survival of the fittest," certain modes of social Darwinism argued that some groups of people—those of a certain race or nation, for example—were more "fit" for survival than other groups and should, therefore, for the good of humanity, be given a superior role of power. In "Rikki-Tikki-Tavi" the human family succeeds in surviving and the snakes are eliminated; when their roles are viewed as representations of the British and Indian struggle for control of the Indian subcontinent, the survival of the British family implies both British superiority and British domination.
Progress and Work
In Victorian England, during which the Industrial Revolution took place and the British Empire expanded greatly, progress and hard work were idealized. Kipling emphasizes the virtue of hard work by contrasting Rikki-tikki-tavi's heroic behavior with the "unsensible" behavior of Darzee. When Darzee, the "feather-brained" tailor-bird begins to sing a song of triumph after the death of Nag, Rikki-tikki-tavi grows angry with him because he knows that Nagaina is still alive and, therefore, his work is only half done: "Oh you stupid tuft of feathers! … Is this the time to sing?" "You don't know when to do the right thing at the right time." Darzee further impedes Rikki-tikki-tavi's progress against the snakes by not helping him distract Nagaina from her eggs. Darzee's wife flies off to help Rikki-tikki against Nagaina, leaving Darzee to "continue his song." He is portrayed as foolish in his preference for sitting in the nest and singing rather than accomplishing hard work.
Setting: The Fantasy World
"Rikki-Tikki-Tavi" illustrates a trend in children's literature especially characteristic of late nineteenth century and early twentieth century: like the works of Lewis Carroll, L. Frank Baum, Beatrix Potter, Kenneth Grahame, and J. M. Barrie, "Rikki-Tikki-Tavi" is set in a fantasy world: a garden populated by animals who can talk and who have distinctive personalities. Setting stories in imaginary places was seen as especially appealing to and appropriate for the active imagination of children. Prior to this period, stories were not specifically written with a child's point of view in mind, and literature for children was largely adapted from works for adults, such as Shakespeare, the Bible, and classical literature.
Anthropomorphism is the attribution of human characteristics to non-humans, such as animals, plants, and objects. The animal characters in "Rikki-Tikki-Tavi" all are characterized by distinct, human-like personalities. Anthropomorphism is commonly found in children's literature and serves to create a fantasy world that is compatible with the active imaginations of children. Anthropomorphism is the key characteristic of fables, simple moral tales, like Aesop's fables, which use animals that can talk to teach lessons about human behavior and morality.
An epithet is an adjectival phrase attributed as a title to a character, focusing on a specific characteristic: for example, in Greek mythology the goddess Athena is often referred to as "Grey-Eyed Athena." In Homer's epics epithets are used to label the heroes, for example "Nestor, Breaker of Horses." In direct imitation, Rikki-tikki-tavi is called "Red-Eye," and Darzee also refers to him as "Killer of the terrible Nag" and "Rikki-tikki with the white teeth." Kipling uses this classical device in order to heighten the act of Rikki-tikki-tavi's story and make clear his status as a legendary hero.
Imitation of the Christian Hymn
"Darzee's Chaunt," the song of praise Darzee sings to celebrate Nag's death, is reproduced at the end of the story. The song, which praises Rikki-tikki-tavi for ridding the garden of Nag, is reminiscent of Christian hymns of praise to Christ: in Christian belief, Christ is the savior of humanity because, by dying and then rising from the dead, he conquered death and opened heaven to humanity. A common pattern of the Christian hymn is praising Christ as savior by exhorting others to praise Christ. "Darzee's Chaunt" imitates this hymnal device in his praise of Rikki-tikki-tavi as he exhorts the other birds to praise him:
Sing to your fledglings again,
Mother, oh lift up your head!
Evil that plagued us is slain,
Death in the garden lies dead.
Just as Christ is praised in Christian hymns for saving humanity from death, so the song praises Rikki for saving the garden from Nag, who represents Death for the garden. The use of this hymn device draws parallels between Rikki and Christ and between Nag and Satan.
British Imperialism in the Late Nineteenth Century
When "Rikki-Tikki-Tavi" was first published as part of the second volume of Kipling's Jungle Book in 1895, Great Britain commanded the most powerful empire the world had ever seen. The Indian subcontinent was one important part of the empire, which thousands of "Anglo-Indians," like Kipling himself, called home. The form of imperialism during Kipling's time was characterized by forceful imposition of British government and British culture upon the natives of a region. But imperialism was not just the practice of the British Empire's acts of colonization of other lands and people; as historian Lerner writes in Western Civilizations: "To combat slave-trading, famine, filth, and illiteracy seemed to many a legitimate reason for invading the jungles of Africa and Asia." British imperialism was a philosophy that assumed the superiority of British civilization and, therefore, the moral responsibility of bringing their enlightened ways to the so-called "uncivilized" people of the world. This attitude was taken especially towards non-white, non-Christian cultures in India, Asia, Australia, and Africa. This philosophy of moral responsibility served to rationalize the economic exploitations of other peoples and their lands by the British Empire, and its subsequent amassing of wealth and power. It was nevertheless, during Kipling's time, largely embraced and unquestioned by the British population, and Kipling, being no exception, expressed ideas of cultural superiority and patriotism in much of his writing. In the early 2000s his reputation was negatively affected by his racist support of British imperialism.
British imperialist assumptions were so in-grained in the late Victorian era, that they surfaced in children's literature as well—literature that is, by its nature, meant to impart the values and morals of the adults' society to its young readers. "Rikki-Tikki-Tavi" is a prime example. The narrative specifically establishes that Rikki-tikki is very lucky to be a "house-mongoose" in the home of a British family, specifically noting that his mother taught him to aspire to the homes of "white men." That his mother had taught him to aspire to living in a white-man's home implies both an idealization of British culture and a perceived inferiority of the non-white, Indian civilization that it dominated.
The late nineteenth century was marked by a dramatic shift in theories of philosophy, religion, and science following the mid-century publication of On the Origin of the Species, in which Darwin put forth the groundbreaking theory of natural selection. Natural selection is the process by which organisms who have characteristics suited to their environment have a better chance of survival and thus are able to mature, reproduce, and thus pass on their characteristics to their offspring; while those less suited to the environment do not tend to reach maturity and have offspring. The theories put forth by Darwin revolutionized the biological sciences, affected religious beliefs, and revised certain conclusions currently held in the physical and social sciences.
In the mid-nineteenth century, Herbert Spencer, widely regarded as the first social Darwinist, wrote Social Statics, in which he applied the biological theories of evolution to the study of human society. Spencer coined the subsequently familiar phrase "survival of the fittest" which describes the result of competition between different social groups of human beings. Social Darwinism was typically used by individuals who believed in the superiority of one group of people over another—groups based on nationality or race, for example—to justify the practice of unfair balances of power, institutionalized practices of exploitation, and philosophies of superiority such as imperialism.
The story "Rikki-Tikki-Tavi," written at the height of the British imperialism forty-five years after Spencer, reflects an implicit acceptance of the "survival of the fittest" theory of social Darwinism. The entire premise of the story is a battle for survival between a mongoose and its human family, on one side, and a family of snakes on the other. That the British family is not eliminated and, instead, remains to rule over the garden, can be viewed as suggesting the strength, superiority, and invulnerability of the British who rule in India.
"Rikki-Tikki-Tavi" enjoyed unwavering success as a children's story well into the early 2000s, by which time it was considered a classic and appeared in numerous editions and anthologies.
Kipling himself was the subject of criticism since he began publishing in his early twenties. His receipt of the Nobel Prize in 1907 was met with wide approval from the general readership with which he was immensely popular and dismay by the literary world. He was perceived by the literary establishment as a writer of verse, rather than of prose; the simple style of much of his prose was considered little more than entertaining; over the decades many found his blunt, straightforward politicizing both unrefined and offensive.
The English poet T. S. Eliot, however, years after Kipling's death, found value enough in his verse to publish a newly edited collection in 1941; in his introductory essay he defended Kipling's abilities as a poet. However, by 1941, Britain had faced one world war, was embroiled in another, and its once-powerful empire was crumbling; the unquestioned optimism and belief in the superiority and the romance of imperialism that was so much a part of Victorian-era philosophy was replaced by cynicism and pessimism that characterized the post-war, post-empire era. Kipling's work was markedly characterized by what became his dated promotion of British imperialism—a theme that appeared even in the children's story "Rikki-Tikki-Tavi"—and by this time the greatest defense Kipling needed was not for his questionable talent, but for the incorrectness of his political views. Eliot attempted a defense by writing: "Poetry is condemned as 'political' when we disagree with the politics; and the majority of readers do not want either imperialism or socialism in verse. But the question is not what is ephemeral, but what is permanent … we have therefore to try to find the permanent in Kipling's verse."
Eliot's defense of Kipling was famously rebutted in 1945 by George Orwell, who called Kipling a "prophet of British Imperialism" and wrote, "Kipling is a jingo imperialist, he is morally insensitive and aesthetically disgusting."
Compare & Contrast
- 1890s: English readers are fascinated by portrayals of "exotic" British colonies like India, written primarily by British writers such as Rudyard Kipling and E. M. Forster, who offer depictions of India from the perspective of the British colonizer.
Today: Ethnic Indian writers and novelists writing in English, such as Salman Rushdie and Arundhati Roy, offer the early twenty-first-century, English-language readership award-winning work portraying the life and culture of India from an Indian perspective.
- 1890s: England commands the largest worldwide empire, spanning the globe, and India is one of its largest and most important components.
Today: India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, formerly the Indian Empire of Great Britain, are each independent, self-governing nations. Strong influences of British rule remain, however, including forms of government and the adoption of English as an official national language.
- 1890s: The practice of British imperialism reflects a racist belief of white British superiority over the non-white nations of the world, rationalizing their government-sanctioned conquest and rule of other races.
Today: While attitudes of racism still exist, human rights movements in the United States and Europe in the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries provide a strong cultural and political opposition to government-sanctioned racist policies in Western countries.
Throughout the years Kipling himself suffered for expressing the imperialist superiority that marked the mindset of Britain during his time, as did most of his poetry and prose. But there was evidence in the early 2000s of an effort to take a fresh look at Kipling and his work. Geoffrey Wheatcroft writes in Harper's Magazine that, having the benefit of an objectivity possible after a century of removal from Kipling's Victorian England, it may be possible "to start taking [Kipling] seriously as a political writer without embarrassment." He further defends Kipling's inherent talent: "Kipling is a truly great writer, whose gross and glaring faults are overwhelmed by his elemental power.… Whether or not one likes 'Kipling and his views,' he was astoundingly perceptive."
Fernando is a freelance writer and editor based in Seattle, Washington. In this essay, Fernando explores Kipling's use of snake symbolism to promote British imperialism.
"Rikki-Tikki-Tavi," Rudyard Kipling's famous children's story about the battle between a mongoose and two cobras, seems to be a straightforward tale in which the hero and villains are clearly defined and good triumphs over evil. However, like most stories that deal with such themes, the methods by which good and evil are defined and represented can serve to make a greater ideological point. Kipling, who wrote during the height of British imperial power, was a well-known proponent of British imperialism, and his ideologies were not absent from his children's stories. In the case of "Rikki-Tikki-Tavi," Kipling uses the cobras, Nag and Nagaina, as a symbol of evil in order to demonize the Hindu culture and thereby promote the British agenda of rule over India.
When Nag is first introduced, he is described in simple adjectives that serve to clearly attribute an evil nature to him:
… 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 looked at Rikki-tikki with the wicked snake's eyes that never change their expression.…
Both objective and subjective adjectives are used to describe him: while an adjective like "black" reflects an objective observation, other adjectives, such as "horrid" "cold," and "wicked" that do the most to cast Nag as evil, are descriptions based not on fact but on the narrator's subjective bias.
Aside from these subjective descriptions, however, there is little else to indicate why Nag—and by extension, his wife Nagaina—merit the attribution of evil.
The concept of evil itself is, of course, also subjective. It is commonly applied to that which falls outside of the bounds of the laws and morals that govern a particular society. It might be construed that the snakes are evil because they kill—but killing, in the world of the bungalow garden, is not an act that deviates from its laws. The only governing law is the law of survival, by which all the characters, snakes included, are primarily motivated.
What Do I Read Next?
- The Jungle Books, published in two volumes in 1894 and 1895, Kipling's most famous and endearing work, is a collection of stories for children set in the jungles of India and featuring animals as their main characters. The most famous are the stories featuring the character of Mowgli, a boy raised by wolves in the jungle. "Rikki-Tikki-Tavi" appears in the second volume.
- Puck of Pook's Hill (1906) is one of Kipling's lesser-known children's novels. Like the Jungle Books it features a fantasy world in which Puck the fairy of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream appears to children who are performing the play and leads them on adventures.
- Just-So Stories (1902) is another collection of children's stories by Rudyard Kipling. This series of stories draws on the folklore of India to explain in a fanciful manner the origins of different animals. Some stories include "How the Leopard Got Its Spots" and "The Cat That Walked by Himself."
- Captains Courageous (1897) is a coming-of-age novel by Kipling that relates the adventures of a rich, spoiled boy who is rescued from a shipwreck by a fishing boat. This novel is typically classified as appropriate for young readers.
- Kim (1901) is often said to be Kipling's most mature novel. The main character Kim, also known as Kimball O'Hara, is the orphaned son of an Irish soldier who lives on the streets of India. In a search for his destiny, he embarks on travels that bring him across such figures as the Tibetan Dalai Lama. Although the novel does contain several racial stereotypes, it has also been praised in modern times for its ability to rise above the racism that characterized other contemporary works.
- The Wind in the Willows, by the Scottish writer Kenneth Grahame, is a collection of children's stories published in 1924, about the same time that Kipling wrote. Like many of Kipling's children's works, it, too, features an imaginary world populated by distinctively characterized animals, emulating a popular trend in children's writing.
- A Passage to India, a novel by English writer E. M. Forster, was first published in 1924 when India was still a part of the British Empire. The novel, although incorporating some distinctly British, colonialist points of view, explores the controversies surrounding relationships between the different races and offers the hope of reconciliation and mutual respect.
- Orientalism (1978), a work of criticism by the post-colonial theorist Edward Said, is a seminal criticism of British imperialism and its aftermath. In particular, Said concentrates on the use of literature by Victorian Britain to promote colonization and the exploitation and oppression of other races.
The big man who lives in the bungalow does not hesitate to keep a mongoose to kill snakes or to use his shotgun against the snakes as well (as he does twice in the story) in order to protect himself and his family from death. At the same time, Nag and Nagaina would not hesitate to kill the humans in order to preserve their lives and the lives of their children: That survival is their sole motivation in attacking the humans and Rikki-tikki-tavi is evident when Nagaina explains the rationale of their ambush to Nag: "When the house is emptied of people … [Rikki-tikki-tavi] will have to go away, and then the garden will be our own again.… So long as the bungalow is empty, we are king and queen of the garden; and remember that as soon as our eggs in the melon-bed hatch … our children will need room and quiet."
Not only is killing for survival regarded as acceptable behavior, it is exalted as heroic. Rikki-tikki-tavi is deemed a hero for bringing about the death of Nag and Nagaina. He even resorts to what would otherwise be considered less-than-scrupulous means to achieve his triumph when he fatally attacks a sleeping Nag. In fact, the only character who expresses any reluctance at killing—Darzee the tailorbird, who refuses to help Rikki destroy the cobras' eggs—is called "a feather-brained little fellow" for not understanding that the act of taking life is vital to his own self-preservation.
The narrator's choice of adjectives in describing the snakes, then, is not justified by any evidence of deviant behavior. The perception of the snakes as evil, therefore, is based solely on the snakes' adversarial relationship to Rikki-tikki-tavi and especially to the human family.
Indeed, the narrative voice's bias towards the human family's point of view not only casts the snakes as evil, but it idealizes and, therefore, depicts as good the human family. Rikki-tikki considers himself to be a lucky mongoose for having been taken in by a human family because "every well-brought-up mongoose always hopes to be a house mongoose." The narrative goes further than simply idealizing all of humanity, however, in specifying that "Rikki-tikki's mother … had carefully told Rikki what to do if ever he came across white men." The use of the very specific term "white men" creates an exclusivity that leaves out any non-white cultures and races from its representation of what is ideal. Specifically, as this white family is a British family stationed in an army facility in colonial India, it leaves out the non-white and non-Christian, indigenous Hindu culture, and idealizes the British.
That the colonial British family is put on a pedestal reveals that the narrator espouses a worldview characteristic of the British during the time in which the story was written. Great Britain, in the late nineteenth century—the time during which "Rikki-Tikki-Tavi" was published—commanded a worldwide empire larger than the world had ever seen before, of which India was the most important piece. Victorian-era imperialism was characterized by the practice of appropriating others' land for colonization and financial self-interest; it also reflected a paternalistic, self-righteous attitude that assumed British superiority and the moral obligation of British to spread their culture as they conquered other countries.
It would not have been difficult for Kipling's contemporary, Victorian, British, Christian readers—who shared his and the narrator's worldview—to view the cobras as evil to begin with; like Teddy's mother, who "wouldn't think of anything so awful" as snakes crawling through her house, the average British reader already would have associated Nag and Nagaina with evil, not only because snakes are truly potentially lethal to humans, but because in Judeo-Christian tradition the snake is a traditional symbol of evil. This symbol appears in the serpent of in the Garden of Eden in Genesis, which Jews and Christians interpret as the representation of Satan, and it appears in the dragon mentioned in Chapter 12 of Revelations, also taken to be a symbol of Satan.
"… it is not such a big leap in the mind of the Victorian reader from the association of Nag with evil to the association of the god Brahma and therefore all of Hinduism and Indian culture with Satan."
The symbolic use of the snake continued throughout later Christian and European folklore: St. Patrick was supposed to have driven all the snakes from Ireland, and in the legend of St. George, a community converts to Christianity in his honor after he rescues them from an evil dragon. In these myths, the serpent/dragon figures are allegorical representations of non-Christian religions dispelled by dominating Christianity, and this recurring motif consistently demonizes non-Judeo-Christian gods by associating them with the symbolic representation of Satan.
The vilification of the snake is a particularly Western, Judeo-Christian pattern. In many other cultures the snake plays just the opposite role. In Hinduism specifically, the main religion of India, snakes, particularly king cobras, are held in reverence and awe. In certain parts of India, an actual cult of snake worship exists: the ancient, annual Nag-Panchami festival is held in honor of snakes, during which time they are welcomed into the home and given offerings of milk (the word "Nag" in Hindi means snake). Snakes also play an important part in the religious symbolism of Hinduism. Shiva, one of the most important gods in the Hindu pantheon, is often portrayed with a snake around his shoulders. The snake, because it continually sheds and grows its skin, is used as a symbol of eternity. In stories of creation, the god Vishnu, another important god in Hinduism, is said to have reclined on the back of a thousand-headed cobra during the destruction and recreation of the universe.
Kipling, although not a practicing Christian as an adult, had a childhood influenced by Christianity, and much of his writing reflects themes that draw Christian motifs. He would have been well aware of the association that his Western readers would draw with the image of the snake in the story. At the same time, Kipling, who spent his early childhood in India and later, as an adult, traveled the subcontinent as a journalist, was well versed in the mythology and religious practices of Hindus, and, while he makes use of Christian mythology in depicting Nag and Nagaina as villains, he also makes use of Hindu snake mythology. When Nag first makes his introduction in the story, he invokes his sacred status in Hinduism: "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."
However, with Nag's next line, the association made between him and the god Brahm is used to inspire not reverence but fear: "Look, and be afraid!"
The god Brahm, or Brahma, in Hinduism is, in simple terms, roughly comparable to the Christian God. He is the god associated with the creation of the universe. In Hinduism, a religion that does not necessarily subscribe to mutually exclusive notions of good and evil to begin with, Brahma especially contains no connotation of unequivocal evil. But here, the evocation of his name and his symbol are used to inspire a sinister fear, in association with the already-described evil nature of the snake.
This evocation of the Hindu deity causes a direct association between the snake characters and the Hindu religion in India, just as there is a direct association between the human characters and the British Empire. Casting Nag and Nagaina as evil and associating them with the Hindu culture, however, presents them and what they represent from a biased Western viewpoint and not from the point of view of Hinduism: it is not such a big leap in the mind of the Victorian reader from the association of Nag with evil to the association of the god Brahma and therefore all of Hinduism and Indian culture with Satan.
The conflict between Nag and Nagaina—symbols of the Hindu culture which has now effectively been demonized—and the human family—a representation of the British presence in India—then takes on a larger meaning for the Victorian, imperialist readership, much like the stories found in the old European dragonslayer myths: the defeat of the demonic Hindu snake, and the survival of the British family to rule over the garden instead, becomes a rationalization of the British colonization of India, the imperialist ideologies of British superiority, and the moral obligation the British felt to bring "enlightened" ways to India.
In both portraying Nag as evil, reflecting the symbolism of Western Judeo-Christian tradition, and drawing an association between Nag and the Hindu god Brahm, Kipling appropriates the symbolism of the Hindu religion and, stripping it of its original meaning, interprets it based solely from the perspectives and philosophies of the West. This act of appropriation does not just misrepresent and demonize Hinduism; it symbolically annihilates it and replaces it with a Western point of view. In so doing, Kipling effectively performs a literary and cultural colonization of India.
Tamara Fernando, Critical Essay on "Rikki-Tikki-Tavi," in Short Stories for Students, Thomson Gale, 2005.
Eliot, T. S., A Choice of Kipling's Verse, Faber & Faber, 1941, pp. 5–36.
Kipling, Rudyard, "Rikki-Tikki-Tavi," in The Jungle Books, Golden Press, 1963, pp. 123–33.
Lerner, Robert E., Standish Meacham, and Edward McNall Burns, Western Civilization: Their History and Their Culture, Norton, 1993, pp. 811–39.
Orwell, George, "Rudyard Kipling," in Collected Essays, Secker & Warburg, 1961, pp. 179–94.
Wheatcroft, Geoffrey, "A White Man's Burden: Rudyard Kipling's Pathos and Prescience," in Harper's Magazine, September 2002, pp. 81–84.
Cain, Peter, and Tony Hopkins, British Imperialism, 1688–2000, 2d ed., Longman, 2001.
When this comprehensive history of the British Empire was first published, it was received with critical acclaim. It was later updated to relate imperialism to modern-day international politics.
Ferguson, Niall, Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power, Basic Books, 2003.
Ferguson offers a history of British imperialism of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and applies it to the international policies of the twenty-first century.
Gilmour, David, The Long Recessional: The Imperial Life of Rudyard Kipling, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002.
Kipling's legacy endured a long history of vilification, but this biography offers a fresh, early twenty-first-century perspective on his life and ideologies.
Mallett, Phillip, Rudyard Kipling: A Literary Life, Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.
Mallett concentrates especially on Kipling's writing life and family life.
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