Kipling presents Rikki-tikki almost as a knight: brave, virtuous, and dedicated to the safety of others. Indeed, he doesn’t seem capable of feeling fear, and treats incidents in which his life is genuinely in danger as actively enjoyable. The fact that he uses that courage to noble ends is part of what makes Rikki-tikki a hero in the eyes of the story. Though no other character in “Rikki-Tikki-Tavi” exhibits the same level of courage as the mongoose, the book draws quiet lines between those characters who respond to threats with action and those who are paralyzed by fear. Teddy’s father and mother, for instance, are afraid for the safety of their son, but they don’t allow that to stop them from acting if they need to. Darzee’s wife also risks her life to stop the snakes by serving as a distraction. Chuchundra, on the other hand, is almost completely paralyzed by fear, as is Darzee himself. They are thus not able to act directly against the cobras, and their usefulness is limited to timely advice. Courage, then, is ultimately defined as an active commitment to others—a willingness to risk one’s life for someone other than oneself—while cowardice is defined as passively placing one’s own safety above anything else.
As the protagonist of the story, Rikki-tikki’s bravery is constantly emphasized, to the point where he doesn’t seem to understand what fear is. This is seen not only in his stalwart defense of Teddy and his parents, but in his inherent curiosity about the world. His family motto is actually “run and find out” which allows him to fearlessly explore the corners of the strange new environment of the family home, and which allows him to confront the cobras without entirely understanding how dangerous they are. Rikki-tikki is also constantly referred to by his small size, which accentuates his bravery and makes his fearless nature loom all the larger. He fights the cobras even though they outnumber him, and despite the fact that he must often do so solely on his own. Rikki-tikki is also a stranger in his new environment, which puts him at a disadvantage against the cobras (who know the territory much better). Yet he takes on the cobras anyway—to the point of travelling into the dark of a snake hole to finish off Nagaina.
Courage is demonstrated as an essentially selfless emotion. Those who act out of self-interest are ultimately shown as cowardly while braver characters are often fighting at the behest of others. The cobras notably always attack by stealth and guile—hiding in the bathroom to strike at Teddy’s father, for example, or working in tandem to distract Rikki-tikki and attack him from behind. Rikki-tikki sometimes attacks from stealth too, but not as a matter of course—only when circumstances demand it or as a means of eliminating a disadvantage. (Such as when he attacks Nag in the bathroom by surprise, since, he notes, “if I fight him on the open floor, the odds are in his favor.”)
The cobras also prey on weak creatures unable to defend themselves, like Dazree’s wife and baby child. Rikki-tikki, meanwhile, never fights helpless opponents—even the baby cobra Karait is dangerous. Like Rikki-tikki, Darzee’s wife also places herself in danger for the greater good when she distracts Nagaina by pretending her wing is broken—both for the sake her children, and for all of the other creatures in the garden. Teddy’s father, while in less direct danger, still confronts the cobras when he can. He always does so in the defense of his son, rather than acting out of his own concerns.
Courage in the story further becomes a matter of boldness and decisiveness as much as a lack of fear. Rikki-tikki can’t simply wait for the cobras to strike; he can’t let Nag or Nagaina choose the time and the place to attack. Instead, he has to take the battle to them, as he does by ambushing Nag in the bathroom or arranging to distract Nagaina so he can destroy the cobras’ nest. Rikki-tikki also never hesitates when he acts, most notably during his first showdown with the snakes: “Rikki-tikki knew better than to waste time in staring. He jumped up in the air as high as he could go.” Teddy’s father too, acts resolutely when he needs to, and doesn’t stop to waffle over his choices when trouble arises. For example, the moment Rikki-tikki distracts Nagaina at the breakfast table, “Rikki-tikki saw Teddy’s father shoot out a big hand, catch Teddy by the shoulder, and drag him across the little table with the tea-cups, safe…” Darzee, on the other hand, can only sing out his emotions. He never takes any steps to act on his fears. The timid Chuchundra is similarly unable to act, nor even to scurry into the center of the room.
Kipling takes care to give courage a noble quality in “Rikki-tikki Tavi,” and to separate it from simple self-preservation. Rikki-tikki’s courage is noble not just because it is an essential part of his nature, but because he uses it for the greater good of the community. The dangers he vanquishes threatened everyone, and the peace his courage brings is shared not only by the humans he has adopted, but all the animals of the garden.
Courage and Cowardice ThemeTracker
Courage and Cowardice Quotes in Rikki-Tikki-Tavi
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.
“I don’t like that,” said Teddy’s mother. “He may bite the child.” “He’ll do no such thing,” said the father. “Teddy’s safer with that little beast than if he had a bloodhound to watch him. If a snake came into the nursery now—”
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. He bit, indeed, but did not bite long enough, and he jumped clear of the whisking tail, leaving Nagaina torn and angry.
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. It gave him confidence in himself, and when Teddy came running down the path, Rikki-tikki was ready to be petted.
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, that unless Rikki bit him close to the back of the head, he would get the return stroke in his eye or his lip. But Rikki did not know.
Chuchundra sat down and cried till the tears rolled off his whiskers. “I am a very poor man,” he sobbed. “I never had spirit enough to run out into the middle of the room. H’sh! I mustn’t tell you anything. Can’t you hear, Rikki-tikki?”
Rikki-tikki listened. The house was as still as still, but he thought he could just catch the faintest scratch-scratch in the world—a noise as faint as that of a wasp walking on a window-pane—the dry scratch of a snake’s scales on brick-work.
“It’s the mongoose again, Alice. The little chap has saved our lives now.”
But his wife was a sensible bird, and she knew that cobra’s eggs meant young cobras later on. So she flew off from the nest, and left Darzee to keep the babies warm, and continue his song about the death of Nag. Darzee was very like a man in some ways.