Rikki-tikki-tavi fought a great war in a bungalow in Segowlee. Though other animals offered advice, it was Rikki-tikki-tavi the mongoose—a small, pink-nosed creature somewhere between a cat and a weasel—who single-handedly won the war. His name comes from the sound of his “war-cry.”
Kipling starts his story off as a fable. In such stories, animals take on the traits of humans and their actions reflect certain truths about human behavior. Here, Kipling is using the mongoose to embody chivalrous traits like honor and battle-savvy, (and by implication, suggesting that his enemies are vile and unworthy).
As a young mongoose, Rikki-tikki-tavi is washed away from his family’s burrow and left dying by the side of the road. He’s discovered by a small English boy, Teddy, who initially thinks Rikki-tikki-tavi is dead. Teddy’s mother insists the mongoose is alive, and the human family gingerly brings him into their home and nurses him back to health.
The natural world that Rikki-tikki has just departed is harsh and merciless. Kipling’s colonialism shows through here, with a benevolent English family rescuing an Indian mongoose from death and providing him with comfort and protection. This is Rikki-tikki’s first direct taste of the benefits of British civilization. Teddy’s family doesn’t have to do this for him, but they understand the value of mercy. Their presence here asserts order over nature and shows their compassion towards those who are weak and in need of their help.
An innately fearless creature, Rikki-tikki is given the run of the house and readily begins to exercise his curiosity. When he scrambles up Teddy’s shoulder, Teddy’s father insists Rikki-tikki is nothing to be frightened of, while his mother marvels at how their kindness must have made such a “wild” creature so friendly. Teddy’s father states that kindness will be repaid in kind and that if Teddy “doesn’t pick him up by the tail or try to put him in a cage, he’ll run in and out of the house all day long.”
This section demonstrates a strange synergy between the natural habits of the mongoose and Kipling’s fable-notion that Rikki-tikki is a brave soldier. Rikki-tikki’s innate curiosity allows him to explore his surroundings and become comfortable with them: checking everything out to see if there’s any threats or dangers he doesn’t know about. Furthermore, when Teddy’s father cautions against abusing the animal’s trust, Kipling seems to be telling the British that they cannot abuse “good” Indians like Rikki-tikki. A partnership is implied: fair treatment and respect in exchange for joining the “benevolent” regime of enlightened British rule.
Rikki-tikki spends the rest of the day roaming the house, exploring and discovering all of the things that the family has to offer. He almost drowns himself in the bathtub, examines Teddy’s father’s writing desk, and sits in the man’s lap while he works. He sleeps with Teddy, too, though he gets up to look into any noise in the house throughout the night. Teddy’s mother and father look in on them, and Teddy’s mother wonders whether the mongoose will bite the child. Teddy’s father assures her he will do no such thing—and in fact will keep the boy safe if a cobra ever were to come into the nursery.
Kipling expands the notions of a benevolent British rule, since Teddy’s father insists that offering protection to this helpless creature will confer benefits to the whole community (such as protection from cobras). Teddy’s father, as a symbol of colonial authority, is shown to be both wise and sensible in this decision, which further reinforces the story’s colonialist overtones. It also demonstrates the benefits of his wisdom: By letting the Indian mongoose “be himself,” rather than trying to change him, they will reap the benefits of dealing with local (Indian) threats from someone who knows the nature of the danger and can respond more effectively than any outsider could hope to. By respecting Rikki-tikki’s Indian identity, he allows everyone to benefit from the unique traits that such an identity brings.
The next day, Teddy’s family shares food from their breakfast table with Rikki-tikki, and he takes turns sitting on their laps. The mongoose remembers that his mother once lived in the home of a white man, a general, so he knows that they will treat him well if he behaves. After breakfast, Rikki-tikki goes out into the garden, which is large and still half-wild. Overgrown bushes and thickets compete with orange trees, lime trees, and roses; wild plants intermingle with “civilized” flowers and fruit-bearing trees. He thinks it will make an excellent hunting ground.
Rikki-tikki appreciates the benefits of living in a big home: nice food that he can eat as he pleases, without having to hunt and kill it. From a colonialist perspective, it also shows that the benefits of British rule can be felt generationally. Since Rikki-tikki’s mother lived in a British house, Rikki-tikki is more open to trusting the British and thus reaping the benefits they provide. That pays off when Rikki-tikki goes from the (civilized) home into the half-wild garden, where Indian “savagery” and the natural world still hold sway. This cements the earlier notion that Britain will be best served by befriending and protecting “good” Indians and allowing them their freedom, enabling them to deal with “wild” native threats in ways that the British never could.
While in the garden Rikki-tikki encounters Darzee the tailorbird and his wife, who are mourning the loss of one of their babies. It fell out of the nest and was eaten by Nag, a cobra living in their garden. Their exchange is interrupted when Nag himself appears, pulling himself up and spreading his hood. His eyes never change, no matter what he is thinking. Nag tells Rikki-tikki that the great god Brahm put his mark on Nag’s hood, and that the little mongoose should be afraid.
If the garden is a stand-in for India itself (still “wild” in Kipling’s colonialist eyes and full of dangers), then it echoes the natural world and the flood that Rikki-tikki barely survived. The cobra (a “bad” native Indian marked by a symbol of native culture) cannot be trusted to reveal his true feelings, and he demands respect through brute force. Rikki-tikki must help his helpless fellow Indians thwart these dark elements in their own culture and enjoy the benefits of Anglo-Indian civilization.
Rikki-tikki is only afraid for a moment, however, before he remembers that his mother fed him dead cobras and that he has nothing to fear from them. He challenges Nag by demanding to know why the cobra ate the tailorbirds’ baby out of the nest.
Facing Nag for the first time, Rikki-tikki draws on both his own direct experience and his instincts as a mongoose to confront his enemy’s wrongdoing. This section demonstrates how the mongoose is becoming a part of two worlds (civilization and nature) while enjoying the benefits of both. He has seen and understands the things that civilization can bring, but he still retains his wild, natural instincts, which prevent him from being afraid of the cobra. He thus gains the best parts of both worlds, suggesting that even though nature (and India) is wild and uncontrolled, it can still provide advantages that would be lost without some measure of freedom.
Nag feigns interest in discussing, asking Rikki-tikki how eating baby birds is so different from the mongoose’s diet of eggs. As he does so, his wife Nagaina positions herself to strike the mongoose from behind. Darzee gives a cry of warning and Rikki-tikki jumps his into the air just as the cobra strikes.
Rikki-tikki is brave, but he requires the assistance of Darzee to avoid the trap set by the cobras. This demonstrates the value of civilization, and how it can be brought to an ostensibly uncivilized part of the world. In nature (and “native” India, which is assumed to be the same thing in the story), Darzee is weak and therefore useless, since he cannot defend himself against the strong. But because Rikki-tikki doesn’t try to dominate or eat him, he brings the benefit of an extra pair of eyes to the mongoose’s cause. By protecting everyone, the mongoose allows the “weak” Darzee to contribute to Rikki-tikki’s survival, and thus the survival of everyone in the garden.
Rikki-tikki lands on Nagaina’s back and bites her, though he does not yet know enough about fighting cobras to kill her. He lets go too early, “leaving Nagaina torn and angry.” Nag threatens revenge against Darzee for warning the mongoose, and the two cobras slink back into the grass to plot further evil. Rikki-tikki remains red-eyed and alert, but the cobras don’t return, and he doesn’t feel confident in taking on both of the snakes at once.
Kipling contrasts Rikki-tikki’s instincts with his lack of experience. His mongoose nature gives him the psychological weapons to fight the cobras, but because he’s never actually fought them before, he misses opportunities that might otherwise make his work easier. This is an example of building excitement around the narrative. Kipling has established Rikki-tkki’s noble qualities, such as bravery and compassion, as well as the fact that he has numerous innate advantages simply by being a mongoose. By emphasizing his vulnerability, Kipling puts the outcome of the story in doubt.
Rikki-tikki sits in the dust to think. The narrator relates a myth about herbs that can cure a mongoose of a snake’s bite, yet he maintains that such benefits don’t exist. Instead, it’s the mongoose’s quick jump that allows him to avoid the cobra’s bite. Rikki-tikki decides that he is quite pleased with himself for surviving an attack from behind. Teddy comes down the path and the mongoose decides that he’s ready to be pet.
This passage seems to suggest that Rikki-tikki possesses a certain vanity, since he is proud to have survived the sneak attack from the cobras and proved to himself that his instincts and reflexes can protect him from harm. That runs against the story’s overall portrait of him as a selfless defender of the common good and appears to be a character flaw at first glance, but since Rikki-tikki carefully analyzed the reasons for his success before feeling proud, it’s possible that his pride is his justified reward for a good fight whose flaws and triumphs he thoroughly understands.
As he returns to Teddy’s family for a petting, Rikki-tikki spots one of the cobras’ babies, Karait, wriggling in the dust near the boy. Rikki-tikki strikes—despite not knowing how much quicker the baby could be than its parents, and thus how much danger he is in—and kills the cobra hatchling before it can harm the boy. Teddy runs back into the house, claiming that the mongoose is killing a snake.
Kipling returns to the question of the mongoose’s inexperience here, stating that he doesn’t understand how much more dangerous Karait can be than the larger cobras. Yet unlike Rikki-tikki’s first fight with Nagaina, his lack of experience actually seems to help him. He doesn’t know how fast the baby cobra is, and thus doesn’t stop to think about what might happen if Karait is too fast for him. He simply acts. The passage also emphasizes his courage and swift action (as well as his selfless defense of Teddy), further cementing his image as a brave and noble soldier fighting for the common good of the whole household.
Rikki-tikki refrains from eating the dead Karait, knowing that eating too much will make him slow, and instead he takes a dust bath in the bushes while Teddy’s father continues to beat the hatchling’s body. Rikki-tikki is perplexed by the action, since the baby snake is already dead, and he finds all the fuss amusing. Teddy’s family showers Rikki-tikki with affection, but while he enjoys the attention, he refuses to take food from their table at dinner, even though he is welcome to it. He fears it will leave him slow for the battle to come.
Rikki-tikki demonstrates wisdom here in conserving energy: so long as the cobras remain a threat, Rikki-tikki remains vigilant about preserving his strength and speed. At the same time, Teddy’s father is shown as being foolish and over-cautious because he wastes energy pounding on the baby cobra’s body. From a colonialist perspective, it shows how the ruling British often waste their strength in useless displays of force and suggests that marshalling their resources more effectively can help them “tame” the “savage” native culture they currently rule.
That night, Rikki-tikki sets out on patrol of the house and meets the muskrat Chuchundra skulking in the shadows. Chuchundra lacks the courage to scurry into the center of the room, even though he wants to. He cowers before Rikki-tikki and begs for his life, even though the mongoose tells him that he is in no danger from him. Chuchundra claims that Rikki-tikki should have talked to his cousin Chua, the rat, in the garden, and points out the sound of a snake’s scales rustling along the brick of the bathroom sluice.
It’s telling that the mongoose is quite exasperated with Chuchundra’s fearful whimpering, and yet concedes that the muskrat is right: speaking to Chua the rat would have been a good idea. This further emphasizes the notion of the common good, and how protecting everyone pays dividends that are not immediately apparent. Chuchundra is like Darzee: small and weak, without the ability to fight back against dangers. But as with Darzee, he demonstrates an ability to contribute to community safety by helping Rikki-tikki spot the cobra. By sharing that information, he contributes to the cobras’ defeat, and reminds Rikki-tikki that even a fighter so marvelous as the mongoose needs the help of the whole community to earn victory.
Rikki-tikki checks Teddy’s bathroom and Teddy’s mother’s bathroom before moving to the bathroom of Teddy’s father. There, he overhears the two cobras outside plotting to murder Teddy’s family. When they’re gone, Nag claims, the house will be empty and Rikki-tikki will leave. Nag crawls into the water jug used to fill the bath and waits to ambush Teddy’s father.
Armed with the valuable knowledge from Chuchundra, Rikki-tikki has a chance to observe the cobras unseen and perhaps strike back against them. The cobras represent a danger not just to the native animals, but to the human family, as well. Returning to the notion of colonialism, the passage suggests that if the British were to be chased out of India, the country would return to tyrannical rule through fear: just as the garden would be without Teddy’s family protecting it. Rikki-tikki is thus defending more than just colonial rule: he’s protecting India’s supposed “advance” from savagery into civilization. This is a very controversial theme from modern eyes, since India itself has a much different view of British occupation.
The mongoose waits—perfectly still—until Nag falls asleep. After debating the best spot to strike the snake, Rikki-tikki opts for the head above Nag’s hood and resolves that, once he bites, he cannot let go no matter what. He strikes and braces himself against the back of the water jar to gain purchase. He holds on for dear life as the snake thrashes to and fro, He’s convinced he will be killed, but he wants to be found with his teeth locked as a matter of family honor. Teddy’s father, awakened by the commotion, rushes into the bathroom and blasts the snake with a gun.
Rikki-tikki demonstrates patience in waiting for the exact moment to strike, then tenacity as he hangs on for dear life. Kipling suggests that these are indicative of a noble spirit, with the intelligence to strategize and the boldness to follow through on his actions. More importantly, it defines honor as more important to the mongoose than even his life. He’s accepted the reality that he might die, but if he is killed, he wants his jaws to be found locked in place: presumably so that Teddy’s family will know that he died in their defense. The mongoose specifically maintains that he wants to be found with his teeth locked “for the honor of his family.” Interestingly enough, however, Kipling never stipulates whether that family is his mongoose parents or his adopted human parents; it may even be that he no longer differentiates between the two.
Rikki-Tiki is left stunned, but essentially unhurt. As Teddy’s mother enters the bathroom, white-faced with fear, the mongoose drags himself back to Teddy’s bedroom and falls asleep. He awakens stiff but quite pleased with himself, having now saved Teddy’s parents from an attack. He’s still concerned about Nagaina and the cobras’ babies, however, and he resolves to see Darzee in the garden and investigate further.
Again, pride in one’s accomplishments is shown as a valid reward for a well-fought battle. Rikki-tikki is allowed to indulge in needed activities like sleep, but also to feel confident and pleased. So again, Kipling allows his hero some justification in feelings that might otherwise be considered vain. He further justifies this pride by demonstrating how it hasn’t blunted Rikki-tikki’s resolve. Nagaina is still out there and while the mongoose is pleased with himself, he hasn’t let his pride deter him from the battles still to be fought. His pride helps his confidence, which he may need, but the mongoose doesn’t allow it to go beyond that.
Rikki-tikki finds Darzee singing a song of triumph at Nag’s death. The mongoose is supremely irritated at the tailorbird’s joy, since Nagaina and the cobra eggs are still at large. He asks Darzee where the eggs are, and Darzee tells him. The mongoose asks Darzee to distract Nagaina by pretending that his wing is broken and luring her away, but Darzee has a difficult time understanding the difference between the cobras’ eggs and birds’ eggs and feels it’s unfair to kill either.
Though Darzee was helpful earlier in the conflict, his inability to see the bigger picture makes him a hindrance here. It contrasts with Rikki-tikki’s practicality and level-headedness: understanding that the celebration is premature and perhaps even blunting his sense of coming danger. Darzee’s foolishness is compounded by his inability to differentiate between his eggs and the cobras’. From a colonialist perspective, it serves as a quiet criticism of “good” Indians who want to bargain or excuse the actions of “bad” Indians. It doesn’t make him a traitor or a villain, but it does make him a liability, and the story is clear to chide him for such perceived foolishness.
Darzee’s wife, however, understands that Rikki-tikki is acting for the good of the whole garden—because cobra eggs will turn into more cobras—and feigns a broken wing to draw Nagaina away. She succeeds in her task, claiming that Teddy broke her wing with a stone. Nagaina promises the bird that she will kill Teddy before she is done and tries to get Darzee’s wife to look into her eyes, which will hypnotize her. Darzee’s wife is too smart for that, however, and continues to draw the cobra away.
This is another example of the more helpless animals lending aid to Rikki-tikki, making them worthy of saving (as in a civilized society) instead of being abandoned to the strong because they are weak (as in nature). The common good is worth protecting, and that sometimes means taking risks. Darzee’s wife understands that in ways her husband doesn’t, and so she is able to help in ways he can’t. Kipling draws a direct comparison between Darzee’s foolishness and the foolishness of human men (as opposed to women, who are far wiser and more sensible), ensuring that readers don’t miss the point.
Distracted by the bird, Nagaina misses Rikki-tikki sneaking into her nest. The eggs are ready to hatch, and the mongoose wastes no time in biting off the tops of the eggs and smashing the unborn cobras within. He’s down to three eggs when he is interrupted by Darzee’s wife, shrieking that Nagaina has gone into the house and “means killing.”
This passage demonstrates Kipling’s comparatively flexible morality, and how seemingly negative qualities in his hero are justified for the greater good. Rikki-tikki is destroying unborn eggs, which differs little on the surface from Nag eating the tailorbird’s baby. But while Nag’s actions are purely selfish, Rikki-tikki is acting for the protection of everyone. What could be a case of moral double standards is thus justified because of the ultimate aims of each, making the mongoose’s cunning, deception, and destruction of the eggs chivalrous qualities used for the greater good of all.
Rikki-tikki smashes two of the remaining eggs and takes the third back to the home to find Nagaina menacing the human family at their breakfast table. Teddy’s mother and father are white-faced and stone still as the cobra advances on them, close enough to Teddy to bite.
Rikki-tikki saves the final egg because he understands its value as a bargaining chip. However, he also can’t let any of the cobras live, and Nagaina has a powerful piece of leverage herself in her ability to kill Teddy or his family with one bite. This forces Rikki-tikki into a difficult tactical calculation about how best to win.
The mongoose challenges Nagaina to a fight, but the cobra will not be distracted from the family. Rikki-tikki tells her that he has smashed her nest of eggs and that only one remains. She turns, focusing solely on her last remaining egg, while Teddy’s father drags him to safety before going for his gun. Rikki-tikki boasts that he has tricked Nagaina, and taunts her with details about Nag’s death
Rikki-tikki has been portrayed as a sound tactician and military strategist, in keeping with his “soldier’s” identity. He’s thus able to game out the cobra’s possible actions and play off of them to get her to do what he needs her to do instead of inflicting harm on anyone else. In addition, Rikki-tikki has morality on his side: the mongoose has consistently worked for the good of everyone instead of his own personal gain. That means he has an ally to turn to in the form of Teddy’s father, whereas Nagaina’s self-interest leaves her alone.
The egg sits between Rikki-tikki’s paws as he engages with Nagaina. She strikes again and again, but he ducks aside every time. He forgets about the egg, however, and Nagaina manages to grab it and make a run for the hole in the earth where she and Nag used to live. The mongoose follows her down into the hole—something no sensible mongoose should do—because he knows that if Nagaina survives, the trouble will only start again.
With the stand-off broken and Teddy’s father going for his gun, Nagaina has only one option: make a run for it. Kipling is careful to demonstrate that even this carries dangers, since if Nagaina escapes, she will return. The threat helps emphasize Rikki-tikki’s military prowess along with his courage. He takes a risk by following her into the hole, but he understands that he should face a daunting battle rather than backing down.
Darzee begins to sing a mourning song of Rikki-tikki’s demise. As he does so, however, Rikki-tikki emerges victorious from the cobra’s hole, claiming to have slain Nagaina at last. The ants in the garden hear him and move into the hole to see if it is true.
Kipling heightens the drama by letting the reader contemplate a terrible fate for Rikki-tikki. By not showing what happens in the hole, Kipling emphasizes how alone Rikki-tikki is in this final battle: none of his allies are there, and his opponent is cornered with nowhere else to go, making her especially dangerous.
Rikki-tikki falls asleep on the spot, and when he awakens, he tells Darzee to inform the coppersmith that the snakes are dead. All the little animals in the garden sing the mongoose’s praises and express joy at the cobras’ deaths. He then goes into the big house and eats his fill from the humans’ dinner table before riding to bed on Teddy’s shoulders. He is proud of his victory, but not too proud, since he can’t let his vigilance waver. Thus did he keep the garden safe from cobras until no snake dared to show its face.
With the danger finally over, the triumphant hero gets to enjoy his well-earned rewards. In fact, the whole garden celebrates the benefits he brings: civilization integrating with the wild for the good of all. And yet even here, Kipling emphasizes that these benefits must be constantly defended. Rikki-tikki can’t grow complacent, lest he lose the abilities that allowed him to triumph in the first place and some new threat arises to menace everything he fought to achieve.