Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book has been a childhood favorite since it was first published in 1894.
But anyone who hasn’t read the author’s original work might not realize that The Jungle Book is much more than just a single story. It’s an anthology of several tales, all inspired by Kipling’s early years growing up in British India.
Another surprising fact about this iconic literary classic is that these fables feature some pretty dark and sinister themes. For example, in Kipling’s 1895 follow-up publication, The Second Jungle Book (that’s right, there were two!), there’s no happily ever after for young Mowgli.
Instead, after returning to civilization, the locals banish him from the village after he’s accused of practicing witchcraft.
They hatch a plot to hunt down and torture his jungle-dwelling family. And so, in retaliation, Mowgli assembles an animal army to sabotage the villager’s crops, destroy their homes, and send them fleeing for their lives; a far cry from the happy ending that Walt Disney gave us in the 1967 animated classic!
The Most Interesting Characters in Rudyard Kipling’s ‘The Jungle Book’
Despite the stark differences between Rudyard Kipling’s original Jungle Book stories and the famous movie adaptation, there’s one thing that unites them both; the characters.
In this post, I’ve chosen six of the most interesting members of the Jungle Book cast to give you a new insight into these classic literary heroes and villains.
So, get ready for a wild ride as we head into the animal kingdom to explore the most extraordinary characters from Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book.
Mowgli is the famous protagonist of The Jungle Book anthology.
But this feral child wasn’t born into the wild; as a baby, he lived with his family in Madhya Pradesh, India.
However, the cunning Bengal tiger, Shere Khan, has his sights set on human blood, and after a vicious attack, Mowgli is separated from his family and taken deep into the jungle.
Luckily for Mowgli, he is taken in by a pack of wolves, who care for him as their own.
This brave and curious young boy is the only human in the main cast, and with the help of his animal mentors, Bagheera and Baloo, he quickly adapts to jungle life. He’s as lithe and agile as any other creature, and even as a young boy, he possesses an almost superhuman ability to track and hunt down prey.
Plus, his opposable thumbs give him a distinct advantage over his brothers and sisters, and he’s the first one they go to when they have a thorn stuck in their paw.
Bagheera is a sleek and mysterious black panther who is respected and feared in equal measure by the other jungle animals.
But what the rest of the characters don’t know is that Bagheera was raised in captivity in the royal enclaves of Rajasthan. He was bound by a collar and chain, living day after day inside his cage until he finally grew strong enough to break free.
Perhaps that’s why the panther feels such an affinity to his “man-cub” friend Mowgli; after all, they both left the world of human civilization to live a free life deep inside the jungle.
From the moment baby Mowgli was discovered, Bagheera took on the role of his loyal mentor and protector. He petitioned the Council at Circle Rock to accept the child into the pack, and ever since, he has fiercely guarded the child.
Alongside Baloo, Bagheera teaches Mowgli the skills he needs to survive in the wild and outsmart the many predators who would eat him for breakfast, given half the chance.
Their mutual bond remains strong throughout the stories, and when it’s finally time for them to go their separate ways, he utters the famous parting line, “Remember, Bagheera loved thee… Remember, Bagheera loved thee.“
3. Shere Khan
Shere Khan is a large and ferocious Bengal tiger and the primary antagonist in the Jungle Book stories.
It was Khan who kidnapped Mowgli from human society and brought him into the jungle, intending to eat him. Thankfully, his murderous plan is interrupted, yet from that moment on, he never stops pursuing young Mowgli.
In his long-running vendetta against the child, he urges other pack members to turn against him, forges enemy alliances to banish him from the animal kingdom.
But eventually, karma catches up with Shere Khan, and he’s killed in a stampede attack. Mowgli then returns to his pack bearing the tiger’s skin and re-joins his rightful place among the wolves.
Of course, the Disney version of Khan’s ultimate demise is a little tamer, and Mowgli outsmarts him using fire, exposing him as a coward and ending his reign of terror in the jungle for good.
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Rudyard Kipling describes Baloo as a “sleepy brown bear,” and although the author never explicitly states his species, he’s commonly thought to be a sloth bear.
His large size means he’s slower and lazier than most of the other animals, and he likes to take his time in whatever he does. Rather than racing through the undergrowth, he prefers relaxing in the shade while devouring his favorite snack; honeycomb.
Like Bagheera, Baloo is one of Mowgli’s closest and dearest friends, and he’s incredibly loyal and protective of the child, saving his life on several occasions.
As Mowgli’s official sponsor at the Council Rock, he teaches the man-cub all-important Laws of the Jungle.
Yet unlike the Disney adaptation, which portrays him as a sweet, fun-loving, huggable bear, Baloo is much stricter and more serious in Kipling’s original stories. But that’s exactly the approach he needs to help protect his beloved Mowgli from danger.
Kaa is a giant python who is more than a century old. But despite his age, his skin, which he regularly sheds, is as beautiful and polished as the day he was born.
In the Disney adaptation, Kaa is portrayed as a villain who would love nothing more than to devour Mowgli, just like his other arch-nemesis, Shere Khan.
But in Rudyard Kipling’s original tales, Kaa is a friend and mentor to Mowgli, who joins Baloo and Bagheera in protecting the child and teaching him the ways of jungle life.
Kaa first appears in The Jungle Book in the tale “Kaa’s Hunting” when he helps to save Mowgli from a pack of monkeys. From that moment onwards, the pair become close friends, so much so that the Mowgli regularly uses Kaa’s long slick body as a pillow.
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Akela, also known as the Lone Wolf, is the leader of the Seeonee Indian wolves.
Like all wolves, Akela has a cunning and ruthless streak, and he rules over his pack with strict authority. But he’s also a true gentleman who leads with a firm but fair approach.
As the head of the Council at Circle Rock, he makes the final decision to accept Mowgli into their pack, noting that “men and their cubs are very wise. He may be a help in time.”
Throughout Mowgli’s younger years, Akela does all he can to protect him, much to the frustration of his enemy, Shere Khan. And so, the wicked tiger hatches a plan to humiliate Akela and make him appear weak in front of the rest of his pack.
But when a council meeting is called to replace him as the leader, Mowgli repays his debt to Akela and chases Khan and his allies away with a burning branch.
Akela and Mowgli eventually get their revenge on Shere Khan when he is killed in a water buffalo stampede, ending the years-long bitter feud that tore the animal kingdom apart.
There are plenty more fascinating characters in Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book, but the six above are among the most extraordinary of them all.
As someone who read the original stories after watching the Disney movie as a child, I was surprised at some of the stark differences between how the characters are portrayed.
The books are much darker and, at times, more violent, so if you loved the innocence of the cartoon adaptation, be warned, the original Jungle Book is no walk in the park!
But personally, I loved delving into Kipling’s tales and seeing these characters in all of their original intended glory.
Who is your favorite character from the Jungle Book? Let me know in the comments below.
And, if you’re interested in exploring more literary characters that have inspired some of Disney’s most famous creations, check out my recent post about 10 of Disney’s most memorable book characters.