One day, a high summer flood washed him out of the burrow where he lived with his father and mother, and carried him, kicking and clucking, down a roadside ditch. (3)
The hero can't have his parents fighting his future battles for him now. And notice how he's "kicking" and "clucking" as he's swept away—it sounds like this is one mongoose who might not quite be ready to give up.
It is the hardest thing in the world to frighten a mongoose, because he is eaten up from nose to tail with curiosity. (7)
Curiosity killed the mongoose … or something. Rikki-tikki's youthful curiosity gets him into all sorts of trouble and shenanigans, like any young protagonist should. Naturally he'll learn to hone this curiosity as the story continues, but now we're getting ahead of ourselves.
He came down almost across her back, and if he had been an old mongoose he would have known that then was the time to break her back with one bite; but he was afraid of the terrible lashing return-stroke of the cobra. (30)
You know how your parents tell you to learn from your mistakes? Every coming-of-age story ever written agrees with them. (See? You have to make them.)
Rikki-tikki knew he was a young mongoose, and it made him all the more pleased to think that he had managed to escape a blow from behind. (33)
The sweet, sweet smell of victory. This one is a great confidence booster for our protagonist, and he's going to need it: the difficulty is about to get cranked up to eleven.
If Rikki-tikki had only known, he was doing a much more dangerous thing than fighting Nag, for Karait is so small, and can turn so quickly, […]. (35)
The problem with being a kid (or a young mongoose) is that you don't always know what you're getting into. Rikki-tikki is lucky he survived this one. It's easy to be brave if you don't know what you're up against.
That night at dinner, walking to and fro among the wineglasses on the table, he could have stuffed himself three times over with nice things; but he remembered Nag and Nagaina, […]. (38)
If knowing when to stuff yourself and when to refrain is a sign of maturity, then we revert to childhood every holiday season. (And every time Ben & Jerry's comes out with a new flavor.)
[Rikki-tikki] looked at the thickness of the neck below the hood, but that was too much for him; and a bite near the tail would only make Nag savage. (59)
More signs of Rikki-tikki's maturity. Unlike his battle with Karait, the mongoose actually takes the time to assess the situation and plan an attack. Someone put this guy at the head of a military, quick.
"On the rubbish-heap by the stables, mourning for Nag. Great is Rikki-tikki with the white teeth."
"Bother my white teeth! Have you ever heard where she keeps her eggs?" (72-73)
Yet more signs of maturity? It's almost like Rikki-tikki is growing up before our eyes! Here, Rikki-tikki rejects Darzee's praise, since he knows Nagaina is still alive and deadly. There'll be time to post on his Facebook wall after the final battle is won.
Rikki-tikki put his paws one on each side of the egg, and his eyes were blood-red. "What price for a snake's egg? For a young cobra? […]." (94)
Rikki-tikki is a thinker as a much as fighter now, as all the lessons learned come to this final battle with Nagaina. (But we're still not quite sure how to feel about all the destroyed eggs.)
Rikki-tikki had a right to be proud of himself; but he did not grow too proud, and he kept that garden as a mongoose should keep it, with tooth and jump and spring and bite, till never a cobra dared show its head inside the walls. (111)
Rikki-tikki doesn't get too complacent in his big-boy boots. He maintains a diligence that proves he's come into a true maturity. Good for him!
He spent all that day roaming over the house. He nearly drowned himself in the bath-tubs, put his nose into the ink on a writing-table, and burned it on the end of the big man's cigar, for he climbed up in the big man's lap to see how writing was done. (15)
The world inside the human's bungalow sure sounds dangerous, but it's a playful danger. Picture this scene with the Benny Hill theme in the background, and you'll see what we mean.
It was a large garden, only half cultivated, with bushes as big as summer-houses of Marshal Niel roses, lime and orange trees, clumps of bamboos, and thickets of high grass. Rikki-tikki licked his lips. "This is a splendid hunting-ground," he said, […]. (18)
Although it's technically a garden, this description invokes vast, untamed stretches of a jungle. But once it's "fully cultivated" instead of only "half cultivated," will the family even need Rikki-tikki anymore?
When he had lifted one-third of himself clear of the ground, he stayed balancing to and fro exactly as a dandelion-tuft balances in the wind, and he looked at Rikki-tikki with the wicked snake's eyes that never changed their expression, whatever the snake may be thinking of. (23)
Nag gets a little natural description with that "dandelion-tuft." Maybe not too sinister, but those snake eyes sure look evil.
Nag was thinking to himself, and watching the least little movement in the grass behind Rikki-tikki. (27)
Notice how Nagaina comes from the grass as if nature itself is preparing to strike Rikki-tikki. We can easily see which side of the man/nature equation the cobras will be on by their first appearances.
But just as Teddy was stooping, something flinched a little in the dust, and a tiny voice said; "Be careful. I am death!" (34)
Okay, okay, you get it, right? Well, look at just one more: do you see how the snakes' association with nature makes it seem as if nature itself is the danger? Do you see? Do you!? Oh, good.
"I will kill the big man and his wife, and the child if I can, and come away quietly. Then the bungalow will be empty, and Rikki-tikki will go." (55)
Not only is nature dangerous, but it's out to get you. The cobras wish to empty the house, as if trying to return it to a natural setting. Sure, it's not a day-after-tomorrow natural disaster, but still.
The big man had been wakened by the noise, and had fired both barrels of a shot-gun into Nag just behind the hood. (61)
Man isn't exactly powerless. The father can maintain his control over nature thanks to the power of his big ole' gun.
It was dark in the hole; and Rikki-tikki never knew when it might open out and give Nagaina room to turn and strike him. He held on savagely, and struck out his feet to act as brakes on the dark slope of the hot, moist earth. (101)
Nagaina's home is deep within the natural world. Literally. It's also the most dangerous place a creature like Rikki-tikki can venture. (Also, "hot" and "moist"? What's up with that description?)
When Rikki got to the house, Teddy and Teddy's mother (she looked very white still, for she had been fainting) and Teddy's father came out and almost cried over him; and that night he ate all that was given him till he could eat no more, and went to bed on Teddy's shoulder, […]. (107)
Rikki-tikki the wild mongoose becomes Rikki-tikki the domesticated mongoose. Nature-wise, he's sided with man in this game.
[…] and [Rikki-tikki] kept that garden as a mongoose should keep it, with tooth and jump and spring and bite, till never a cobra dared show its head inside the walls. (111)
Rikki-tikki and the walls become the dynamic-duo of nature butt-kicking. No unauthorized nature allowed.
This is the story of the great war that Rikki-tikki-tavi fought single-handed, through the bath-rooms of the big bungalow in Segowlee cantonment. (1)
This beginning is straight up tells you that Rikki-tikki is going to be the hero of this tale. Now we just need to find out who the victim, erm, antagonist will be.
When [Rikki-tikki] revived, he was lying in the hot sun on the middle of a garden path, very draggled indeed, and a small boy was saying: "Here's a dead mongoose. Let's have a funeral."
"No," said his mother; "let's take him in and dry him. Perhaps he isn't really dead." (3-4)
The British family's kindness puts them on the side of good. Honestly, it's a rare family that finds a near dead animal on the side of the road and thinks, "Let's take it home."
[Nagaina] had crept up behind him as he was talking, to make an end of him; and he heard her savage hiss as the stroke missed. (30)
Are the cobras the evil characters? Well, if the sneak attack isn't a dead giveaway, we don't know what is.
But just as Teddy was stooping, something flinched a little in the dust, and a tiny voice said: "Be careful. I am death!" It was Karait, the dusty brown snakeling that lies for choice on the dusty earth; […]. (34)
We know Teddy is good because of the way he treated Rikki-tikki when he was near death. And Rikki-tikki's protection of Teddy here is a bid to protect goodness. (Plus, it's just good manners: you save me, I save you.)
Teddy's mother picked [Rikki-tikki] up from the dust and hugged him, crying that he had saved Teddy from death, and Teddy's father said that he was a providence, and Teddy looked on with big scared eyes. Rikki-tikki was rather amused at all the fuss, which, of course, he did not understand. (37)
Hm, this is interesting. It's almost as if Rikki-tikki says he sides with neither good nor evil. He just does what he does because that's what he does. What do you think?
"So long as the bungalow is empty, we are king and queen of the garden; and remember that as soon as our eggs in the melon-bed hatch (as they may to-morrow), our children will need room and quiet." (54)
Ah, it's the old "evil force trying to take over the kingdom" story. Classic. Oh, sure, it's only a garden in India, but for the critters, it might as well be a kingdom. But… they only want "room and quiet" for their kids. Are they really evil? And wasn't it their kingdom that got taken over first?
"I was not a day too soon," he said; for he could see the baby cobras curled up inside the skin, and he knew that the minute they were hatched they could each kill a man or a mongoose. (85)
Nag is first introduced as evil because he ate a baby bird, and now Rikki-tikki is about to go straight up heroic baby killer on those eggs. What's the difference? The baby cobras can kill a man or mongoose. Baby bird, eh, not so much.
"If you move I strike, and if you do not move I strike. Oh, foolish people, who killed my Nag!" (88)
Nagaina's evil is shown through her vengeance. It doesn't matter what happens. The only thing that will cure her hatred is death. That's pretty evil. (We guess.)
Rikki-tikki knew that he must catch her, or all the trouble would begin again. (101)
Here's the thing about these classic Good-versus-Evil stories: it's winner take all. There's no Mediocre, or "Good on Some Days, Evil on Other Days." Rikki-tikki knows this, it seems, almost instinctually.
"It is all over," [Rikki-tikki] said. "The widow will never come out again." And the red ants that live between the grass stems heard him, and began to troop down one after another to see if he had spoken the truth. (103)
And, of course, good wins in the end. You didn't think it would happen any other way, did you? This is a children's story, people. (Well, "good" if you ignore all the British/ India business.)
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!" (Epigraph)
The epigraph is part of an entire epic poem devoted to Rikki-tikki's courage. You know a theme's important when the story can't wait to tell you about it.
It is the hardest thing in the world to frighten a mongoose, because he is eaten up from nose to tail with curiosity. The motto of all the mongoose family is, "Run and find out"; and Rikki-tikki was a true mongoose. (7)
You can't have curiosity without bravery—or, you can, but then you're just an armchair explorer. And no one likes that guy.
[…] and if he had been an old mongoose he would have known that then was the time to break her back with one bite; but he was afraid of the terrible lashing return-stroke of the cobra. (30)
Rikki-tikki may be brave, but he's also inexperienced. He doesn't yet have the know-how to properly fight the cobras. Bravery only goes so far if you don't mature with it. (See "Coming of Age" for more).
Rikki-tikki did not care to follow them for he did not feel sure that he could manage two snakes at once. (32)
Sure, Rikki-tikki is brave, but he's not stupid. Would you take on two cobras at once? Would you take on one? Seriously.
If you read the old books of natural history, you will find they say that when the mongoose fights the snake and happens to get bitten, he runs off and eats some herb that cures him. That is not true. The victory is only a matter of quickness of eye and quickness of foot,—snake's blow against mongoose's jump,—and as no eye can follow the motion of a snake's head when it strikes, that makes things much more wonderful than any magic herb. (33)
If the mongoose has some secret herb that works as antivenin, then their battles are a little one-sided, aren't they? And he doesn't. Instead, it's pure courage that allows the mongoose to go toe-to-toe with a cobra, and the narrator wants you to know he thinks that's pretty cool.
"Those who kill snakes get killed by snakes," said Chuchundra, more sorrowfully than ever.
"And how am I to be sure that Nag won't mistake me for you some dark night?" (42)
"Live by the sword, die by the sword" is definitely not Chuchundra's motto. Hey, you need a not-so-brave character to really appreciate how courageous Rikki-tikki really is.
"Now, when Karait was killed, the big man had a stick. He may have that stick still, but when he comes in to bathe in the morning he will not have the stick. I shall wait here till he comes. Nagaina—do you hear me?—I shall wait here in the cool till daytime." (58)
Nag is a dangerous snake, but he isn't brave. He waits to sneak attack the father. This is a major difference between Nag and Rikki-tikki's personalities. (Also, the whole mammal / reptile thing, too. Talk about specieist.)
"Nag is dead—is dead—is dead!" sang Darzee. "The valiant Rikki-tikki caught him by the head and held fast. The big man brought the bang-stick and Nag fell in two pieces! He will never eat my babies again." (66)
It's easy to be brave and sing songs when you're not the one doing the fighting. Once again a not-so-brave character points out how courageous Rikki-tikki is.
"Yes, you will go away, and you will never come back; for you will go to the rubbish-heap with Nag. Fight, widow! The big man has gone for his gun! Fight!" (98)
Nagaina offers Rikki-tikki a way out of the fight, but he won't take it. We don't know if Rikki-tikki's refusal makes him cold-hearted, reckless, or courageous, but that speech is certainly action-hero worthy.
[…], and as [Nagaina] plunged into the rat-hole where she and Nag used to live, [Rikki-tikki's] little white teeth were clenched on her tail, and he went down with her—and very few mongooses, however wise and old they may be, care to follow a cobra into its hole. (101)
Rikki-tikki's bravery takes him into the one place we wouldn't want to go, a cobra's den. Wonder if he regrets being so brave at this point and time? Eh, probably not.
"Good gracious," said Teddy's mother, "and that's a wild creature! I suppose he's so tame because we've been kind to him." (11)
The story sets up the British family as kind and generous people. But if we read the family as representing Britain's colonizing power in India, this view is, shall we say, a tad rose-tinted. (See the Sepoy War of 1857 for more.)
"There are more things to find out about in this house," [Rikki-tikki] said to himself, "than all my family could find out in all their lives. I shall certainly stay and find out." (14)
British civilization lures Rikki-tikki in. Hey, we like cool new gadgets too, but Rikki-tikki does act a bit like a cultural sell-out.
Then Rikki-tikki went out into the garden to see what was to be seen. It was a large garden, only half cultivated, with bushes as big as summer-houses […]. (18)
As we mention in our "Setting" section, the uncultivated aspect of the garden signifies the wilder nature of the Indian wilderness. Rikki-tikki's taming of it—of India —consists of the bulk of the conflict.
"We are very miserable," said Darzee. "One of our babies fell out of the nest yesterday and Nag ate him." (21)
As we mention in our "Characters" section, the cobra and Indian culture are inseparably linked together. The story sets up Nag as a baby killer very early, and the postcolonialist might read this as the story suggesting that Indian culture has a similar primitiveness and barbarity.
[…], and he looked at Rikki-tikki with the wicked snake's eyes that never change their expression, whatever the snake may be thinking of. (23)
Here's another example of the story making Nag out to be the bad guy. These snakes just can't catch a break with Rikki-tikki or the narrator.
Teddy carried him off to bed, and insisted on Rikki-tikki sleeping under his chin. Rikki-tikki was too well bred to bite or scratch […]. (39)
The narrator claims Rikki-tikki is too well-bred to bite or scratch but try telling that to the snake he just killed. No, Rikki-tikki only refrains from scratching the British family. He threatens all other matter of animal with violence, including Darzee and Chuchundra.
The big man had been wakened by the noise, and had fired both barrels of a shot-gun into Nag just behind the hood. (61)
The power of the British colonizer is represented in the barrel of a gun. Notice how the father keeps control in his garden only through violent methods?
[…] "and Nag came out on the end of a stick—the sweeper picked him up on the end of a stick and threw him upon the rubbish-heap." (68)
If we read the cobras as a symbol of Indian culture, this quote should come across as historically telling.
[Rikki-tikki] bit off the tops of the eggs as fast as he could, taking care to crush the young cobras, and turned over the litter from time to time to see whether he had missed any. (85)
Of course, the killing of babies is only seen as a bad thing when Nag does it. Somehow, Rikki-tikki's murder of way more (potential) babies becomes a heroic act.
Rikki-tikki had a right to be proud of himself; but he did not grow too proud, and he kept that garden as a mongoose should keep it, with tooth and jump and spring and bit, till never a cobra dared show its head inside the walls (111)
Rikki-tikki for the win. He successfully beats back the advance of India's nature and guards those the walls set up by the British family help keep it out.