At the hole where he went in
Red-Eye called to Wrinkle-Skin
Hear what little Red-Eye saith:
"Nag, come up and dance with death!"
Eye to eye and head to head
(Keep the measure, Nag.)
This shall end when one is dead;
(At thy pleasure, Nag.)
Turn for turn and twist for twist —
(Run and hide thee, Nag.)
Hah! The hooded Death has missed!
(Woe betide thee, Nag!)
What's up with the epigraph?
Ah, poetry. It has so many different uses. It can describe a landscape, profess love, and can break all its own rules. But Kipling is tapping into an even older poetry tradition for this poetic epigraph—that of the epic poem.
In antiquity, poems were the chosen medium to tell the tales of heroes and their adventures. The reason was that ancient cultures didn't write a lot of stuff down. Paper was a scarce resource, and chiseling words into stone tablets can be a tad tedious. So they told a lot of stories orally. Poetry's use of meter and rhyme made the stories easier to memorize and more engaging when recited to audiences. Both the Odyssey and Beowulf originated from different epic traditions.
What's that have to do with the tiny tale of "Rikki-Tikki-Tavi"? Kipling taps into the epic tradition with this epigraph. This scene could easily be from any heroic verse. It has a hero, a villain, a fight to the death, and even a few thees, thys and woes thrown in for that old-timey flavor.
Sure. The hero is tiny carnivore, a large stick could kill his enemy, and everything takes place in a garden. But, that doesn't make this story any less epic at its core, and his poetic epigraph helps readers get into that mindset from the get-go.
(Want more? Surf on over to our "What's Up with the Title" section for more on Kipling borrowing from the epic tradition.)