A sweltering jungle-covered land. Danger and intrigue lingering between ancient city alleys. Action and riches waiting for the most courageous of manly men.
As a journalist for the Civil and Military Gazette in India (Intro.9-10), Rudyard Kipling spun popular tales of the "mysterious" land the British had come to know as the Orient. His tales "impress[ed] upon the minds of Englishmen at home the almost divine necessity of maintaining the British Empire" (source), meaning, of course, India.
So, naturally, Kipling was in India when his muse struck, right? He stared out his window at the rich jungle canopy and imagined what was occurring in that vast wilderness just beyond his grasp.
Eh, not exactly.
Actually, he was living in Vermont when he began writing The Jungle Books, one of his most famous works. In 1892, Kipling began projecting his mind away from the frigid Northeast winter and back to the warm tropics of India (source). He wrote these fantasies as short stories and sold them to various magazines. By 1894, he had written enough of the stories to combine them into a collection, which was titled The Jungle Books.
Nestled amongst these imaginings of wolf cubs and tigers was a story about a little mongoose. Titled "Rikki-Tikki-Tavi," after the story's furry protagonist, the story was a classic hero's tale shrunken down to critter size. In it, the warrior mongoose Rikki-tikki matches himself in a mythic battle against the devilish cobras Nag and Nagaina in the back yard of an Indian bungalow.
Although never as famous as Jungle Book alumnus Mowgli—whose combined tales take up eight of the total Jungle Books tales—Rikki-tikki has done fairly well for himself. Along with "Toomai of the Elephants," "Rikki-Tikki-Tavi" is one of the few Jungle Books short stories to not feature Mowgli, yet still gain enough recognition to be printed outside the collection.
And Kipling's story about a mongoose's backyard battle remains in print to this day. One hundred years after its first printing, "Rikki-Tikki-Tavi" remains an inseparable part of the Jungle Books collection and has found a life of its own on many a child's bookshelf. Considering the average mongoose only lives to be twenty, Rikki-tikki is beating the odds in a major way.
You know what the best part of a multiple-choice test is? So long as you answer, you've got at least a 25% chance of being right. It sure takes a lot of pressure off filling in that little bubble—well, 25% less pressure.
"Rikki-Tikki-Tavi" is a lot like a multiple-choice test with one major difference. There's more than one correct answer to the question, "What's this story really about?" And your chances of getting the question right are way above 25%. (In fact, as long as you supply good evidence for your reading, we'll probably mark you at 100%.) So, get your #2 pencils ready: will it be (A) or (B)?
(A) Many people read "Rikki-Tikki-Tavi" as a classic hero's journey, only with anthropomorphic animals substituted for the people. The mongoose Rikki-tikki represents the knight protecting his personal Camelot (the bungalow) while the cobras could easily be substituted for those classic fire-breathing lizards of yore.
(B) But others read "Rikki-Tikki-Tavi" with what's called postcolonial theory. In that kind of reading, we'd focus on the colonial presence in Kipling's short story. The British family is seen less as something in need of protection than they are an alien force in the garden. Nag and Nagaina are less villainous and more creatures trying to live their natural life, while Rikki-tikki loses the status of hero and becomes, instead, a loyal colonial subject.
Of course, there are many, many, many different ways to read the story beyond these two, and that's why you should ultimately care about "Rikki-tikki-tavi." This short story demonstrates that no one way to read a story exists as the "ultimate" reading and can help free children and adults from the notion that there is a "right" way to read anything, especially literature.