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.
Word for Word
The complete text of "Rikki-Tikki-Tavi" minus the illustrations. Like most things in life, it's available for free online (only this time it's completely legal).
Rudyard Is His Middle Name
At Biography.com, you can choose to either watch or read a biography of Rudyard Kipling. Ah, choices.
The More You Know
Some information on mongooses of the world. Yeah, they're pretty awesome.
A profile detailing the Indian Cobra. Too bad so many stories give these guys a bad rap, because they're such interesting creatures.
Spreading the Love
Sure, the Indian Cobra is the star of "Rikki-Tikki-Tavi," but we should remember the common krait too. This little brown snake can be equally dangerous.
Can We Keep It?
An article discussing the pros and cons of having a mongoose for a pet. You read that right.
Looney Tune Alum
Chuck Jones is pretty famous in the world of animation for his work with the Looney Tunes. He also animated three of Rudyard Kipling's short stories, one of which was…oh, what was it called? Something about Rick….
Getting All Academic
This essay discusses the "latent presence of imperialism" in Kipling's The Jungle Books and throws in some talk about "Rikki-Tikki-Tavi." An excellent essay, but fair warning, the author had an academic audience in mind while writing.
150+ Pages No Less
Not just an article but an entire book dedicated to the subject of post-colonial theory as seen in animal stories. Serious, it exists in print and everything.
This article considers how Rudyard Kipling used his inner child to write "Rikki-Tikki-Tavi." Hope his inner child got an allowance for its consulting work.
Do the Mongoose
This article discusses the importance of movement and stillness in the Russian animated version of "Rikki-Tikki-Tavi." Who knows, it might just influence the way you read the short story.
Real Life Rikki-Tikki
Watch as a mongoose goes rikki-tikki on a cobra in real life. These little critters are quick.
Hail to the King, Baby!
A National Geographic Channel special on king cobras. Granted, Nag and Nagaini were both Indian Cobras, but this is too good to pass up.
Jane Aker provides an excellent audio book rendition of "Rikki-Tikki-Tavi." Great for short car trips.
Donovan takes the story of "Rikki-Tikki-Tavi" and turns it into a hippy political anthem set to a guitar's strum. He titles his song "Riki-Riki-Tavi," dropping the two Ks so as not to confuse Google.
Fair to Midland's album Arrows and Anchors has a track titled "Rikki-Tikki-Tavi" in honor of the titular mongoose. We've included a link to the lyrics because the singer is—shall we say?—incoherent.
Why'd He Go with Rudyard?
Here's the author himself, Rudyard Kipling.
A Web Original
An work of art we found in the Interwebs. It's definitely going for that epically epic vibe.
Well Done, Mr. Snezhko-Blotskaya
Check out this beautiful still from the Russian "Rikki-Tikki-Tavi." With an art style like that, Chuck Jones has some serious competition for best adaptation.