Two months ago, I realized how ridiculous it was that I had never attempted freelance writing, specifically drafting solicited articles for online publications. That’s exactly what my college courses prepared me for, meanwhile all I’ve been doing is freelance music-writing. I looked into the submission processes for websites I frequented or that I’d heard about, and things started moving along surprisingly quickly. I had an article in queue to be published by a Christian website, but after a few rounds of rewrites, the editors told me my article wasn’t reaching their goals and decided to reject it.
As disappointing as this was, thankfully the editors were very kind in explaining why they made their decision and encouraging me to find a different home for my article. This was encouraging, but seeing how my piece was a timely analysis of a film that has by now neared the end of its theatrical run, I figured I’d save my time and just post the piece here, on my convenient little blog.
If you’re not a Christian, don’t worry, I’m not shoehorning Christian themes into a secular film; I actually think the Christian themes within this article remain slight, which to the Christian website’s credit is how they preferred it. If it were up to me, this piece could have easily gone the heavy-handed route. Alas, here it is!
The Jungle Book and Six Lessons in Identity
“No matter where you go or what they call you, you will always be my son.”
Is it easy to imagine this sentence spoken by an adoptive parent? What if the adoptive parent is not barren, is not lacking in children, and has no reason to accept another child except out of charity? It may sound extraordinary, but Christians can relate to such an unconditional adoption; as sinners, our nature is wildly unlike that of a perfect God, yet He chooses to adopt children for Himself out of grace and mercy.
The same dynamics are at play when the quote above is spoken to The Jungle Book’s Mowgli, the man cub, by his adoptive mother Raksha, an Indian wolf. In this scene, which occurs near the beginning of Jon Favreau’s reboot of Disney’s classic Kipling adaptation, Mowgli decides to leave his family, the wolf pack that raised him, in search of a new home. Naturally, he hasn’t fit in perfectly with his wolf siblings; Mowgli can’t run as fast, he devotes time to “tricks” (the making and use of tools), and he causes dread within many animals who fear humans’ ability to wield the “red flower” (fire).
Mowgli’s journey brings him into contact with a handful of animals, six of whom try to redefine Mowgli’s identity. Five of these animals, as I will describe, present attitudes toward one’s self-worth that the Christian can see as insufficient for a God-honoring sense of identity. These animals try to convince Mowgli to view himself in terms of culture or emotions or skills, arguments that are all effective in their own ways but ultimately unfulfilling.
Bagheera’s Appeal to Fitting In
Bagheera, the black panther, is responsible for originally bringing the orphaned Mowgli to the wolf pack, so it is only fitting that Bagheera sets out with Mowgli to find him a new home, the “man village.” For Mowgli’s whole life, Bagheera has attempted to help Mowgli fit in with the wolves, even to the point of becoming distraught when he catches Mowgli doing his tricks. While the audience is left to presume that Mowgli’s invention of tools is instinctual and part of what defines Mowgli’s humanity, Bagheera wants it gone.
That is, however, until a predicament arises in which Mowgli’s tricks become necessary. The panther admonishes Mowgli not to “fight like a wolf” but to “fight like a man.” This change of heart can be interpreted as a selfish act of self-preservation; I, however, argue that it’s simply Bagheera acting in conformity with his own values. He desires to uphold a certain societal structure; at a dire time of need, Mowgli’s tricks can sustain that structure and make Mowgli a proper fit within it.
Bagheera’s appeal to fitting in fails because, ultimately, Mowgli will never be an animal. He can become a wolf as well as a wolf can become a human. Many of the characters come to their own conclusions by the film’s end that Mowgli is best off when he is himself, capitalizing on his natural talents instead of straining to be more like one particular animal.
Kaa’s Appeal to Fear
A life-or-death moment comes within the tightening grasp of Kaa the python. Although Kaa’s enormous size and spellbinding voice are enough to make Mowgli tremble in fear, the cunning snake chooses to scare the boy in a personal, more psychological manner. Wrapping her scaly body around his tiny torso, she hisses, “Don’t you know you who are? I know who you are.” Kaa hypnotizes her prey and shows him a scene of his father, using the red flower in a fight that leads to his death.
That flashback presents a theme developed throughout the story: that Mowgli is merely human and humans only matter because they possess fire. What’s fascinating about Kaa’s assertion is its boldness: the idea that Mowgli, someone Kaa’s never met before, is just like his father is predicated on the knowledge of a man whom Mowgli has no recollection of. According to Kaa, nothing can stop Mowgli from becoming just another human.
Kaa’s appeal to fear falls short of enrapturing the impressionable boy because he soon finds a source of hope. Upon entering the company of other animals, Mowgli finds opportunities wherein his tricks and tools are helpful, not harmful.
Baloo’s Appeal to Friendship
Baloo the brown bear is the only animal who fully supports Mowgli’s tricks. Upon witnessing how useful these tricks can be in acquiring hard-to-reach honey, Baloo invites the boy into a friendship where Mowgli can do tricks all he wants. Encouraging Mowgli not to leave the jungle, Baloo tells him, “You can be a man right here.”
Although these two become good friends, Baloo’s presentation of a mutually beneficial relationship begins transactionally, a means of gain for the bear. In his book The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis argues that friendship is marked by the moment someone says, “You too? I thought I was the only one.” In other words, friendship cannot exist without common interests and goals. Baloo and Mowgli would never share a true friendship until Baloo ceases to view the boy as a tool for attaining honey.
Baloo’s appeal to friendship does not satisfy Mowgli because his worth becomes relative to Baloo; his worth will depreciate once Mowgli stops doing favors on the bear’s behalf. Even as the pair’s friendship does grow into something balanced, there’s a strong sense Mowgli isn’t content having simply one friend, making it clear he will leave Baloo come winter.
King Louie’s Appeal to Reason
When Mowgli gets taken to the castle of King Louie the orangutan, he’s the prize Louie has been searching for: someone who can wield the red flower and assist Louie in jungle domination. Louie claims using fire for his purposes is a good thing, but Mowgli rejects the orangutan’s proposition seemingly without consideration. As Mowgli attempts to escape, Louie screams at him, saying, “Don’t run away from who you are! Listen to reason!”
Of all the attempts to mold Mowgli’s identity, King Louie’s appears the least effective. Louie’s philosophy works as a foil to Baloo’s: whereas Baloo offers friendship as a front for wanting Mowgli’s tricks, Louie offers logic as a front for desiring the red flower. However, Baloo has something Mowgli wants and Louie doesn’t.
King Louie’s appeal to reason does work, though, in the sense that Mowgli finally considers using fire. Louie’s words take effect just enough to convince Mowgli to steal a torch from the man village. Louie’s reasoning holds up until Mowgli finally sees the harmful nature of fire with his own eyes. Although Mowgli learns his lesson the hard way, Louie’s “logic” is shown to be false.
Shere Khan’s Appeal to Power
In a confrontation between Shere Khan, the film’s antagonist, and Mowgli, Shere Khan commands Mowgli to, “Burn me with the red flower. Show everyone what you are.” According to this Bengal Tiger, who’d been burned by a human in the past, Mowgli is not even a “who” but a “what,” an object incapable of anything except destruction.
The boy is given a chance to act out on what he’s been repeatedly told is his destiny: to display dominance through the red flower. Mowgli has the power in this moment to end Shere Khan’s tyranny by using the fire, but doing so would only prove the nemesis correct.
Shere Khan’s appeal to power loses its validity with Mowgli because it functions as a mirror. Khan is essentially saying, “‘If you use your power like me, you’ll be like me.” Staring straight at his enemy, Mowgli realizes he must never become like Khan, thus choosing to confront the tiger on Mowgli’s own terms: like a man.
Raksha’s Appeal to Love
Not even a mother knows exactly who her children will become. When Raksha says, “You will always be my son,” she knows she may never see her adopted son again. She knows he might return to the jungle years from now as a hunter. Regardless, she loves him. Raksha offers Mowgli an identity based not on his own actions but on her own unconditional affection for him. And what makes Raksha’s promise good and true is how she proves it. The repercussions of Mowgli’s choices cause pain to many, including the wolf pack, yet Raksha is not swayed.
Raksha’s appeal to love, unlike the attempts to change or manipulate Mowgli by the other five characters, really isn’t an appeal whatsoever. Every other character presents a model for identity that is conditional. Bagheera says, “You are good enough if you fit it with society.” Kaa says, “You are good enough if you let me consume you.” Baloo says, “You are good enough if we help each other out.” Louie says, “You are good enough if you see things my way.” Shere Khan says, “You are good enough if you abuse your power.” Raksha says, “You are loved.” There are no conditions, no amendments, no clauses. Wherever Mowgli might fall on a scale of morality or character, Raksha’s love is unaffected.
Our modern society promises happiness and fulfillment through many avenues, from self-expression and erotic liberty to monetary gain and occupational achievements. The same society is littered with depression and suicide. The disconnect is obvious. Although the current political climate seems incapable of discussing morality or enforcing moral laws, Christianity teaches that humans are moral creatures, more inclined to act with evil intentions than good. We are capable of destroying lifelong friendships in the span of an argument. In spite of this, Christianity also teaches there is a God who loves us. He loves us at our worst, adopting children when they might consider themselves unlovable, unforgivable, and unacceptable. God saves people with no consideration for what they might be able to bring to the transaction; it’s a deal he makes with himself, for our eternal benefit.
Almost all philosophies make some appeal to reason. Almost all relationships aim to be mutually beneficial. Some religions promise its followers power. There are even versions of Christianity, making unbiblical claims that you must act a specific way, fit in with certain standards, or show proper subordination to the right elders to be made acceptable to God. Conversely, Christianity began with the fools, the outcasts, and the traitors. Even the wisest, most powerful person on earth is an orphan until God adopts him, and every night that man must go to sleep wondering what his worth is, knowing he might be one breath away from dying. For every orphan, God longs for the chance to tell him, “No matter where you go or what they call you, you will always be my son.”