Animals are anthropomorphized—that is, given human qualities—throughout “Rikki-Tikki-Tavi,” Rudyard Kipling’s story of a young mongoose’s attempt to protect his adoptive British family from two lurking cobras. The titular mongoose, named for the sounds he makes, is at once a wild animal and in possession of a distinctly civilized sense of refinement and loyalty—traits that endear him to the reader and suggest a kinship between nature and human beings. On the one hand, Rikki-tikki possesses a mongoose’s basic natural instincts: curiosity, fearlessness, and essential notions on how to fight predators like the two cobras. But he also possesses a loyalty to the British family with whom he lives and repays the kindness they show him by defending them from the cobras’ attacks. The family he comes to guard, meanwhile, despite having a certain dominance over the land on which they reside, is ultimately at the mercy of the natural world—a world that steadily creeps into their bungalow in India, however much they try to keep at bay. Kipling’s story thus suggests a certain tension between man and nature—and that the boundary between these worlds is not as distinct as the human beings would like to think.
The natural world—represented by the grounds surrounding the family’s home—is fueled by both by animal instinct and many of the traits that define humanity. For example, Rikki-tikki relies on millions of years of evolution to instruct him how to face an enemy he has never seen before and has no experience against. Though “Rikki-tikki had never met a live cobra before […] he knew that all a grown mongoose’s business in life was to fight and eat snakes,” Kipling writes, underscoring the mongoose’s initial, instinctual drive to fight. Other animals, too, seem beholden to their biological history and impulses; “When a snake misses its stroke,” Kipling writers, “it never says anything or gives any sign of what it means to do next.”
Yet Rikki-tikki is also described as being “too well-bred to bite or scratch” when he sleeps alongside Teddy, the child of the family who saves him. What’s more, all the animals in the story speak to each other and possess distinct personalities. Such anthropomorphizing suggests a merging of the natural and civilized worlds that will prove to be the key to the family’s survival in the comparatively wild landscape of India. The human family’s separation from nature, meanwhile, is represented by both their inability to communicate with the animals as well as the physical distance between their home and the garden. Yet it quickly becomes clear that the border between the civilized and natural worlds is far more porous than humans believe.
On the surface, the human world is depicted as a loving, orderly place, full of food and comfort absent from much of the garden. Teddy’s family shows mercy and support to Rikki-tikki by rescuing him after he nearly drowns, for instance. They feed him, provide him with a warm place to sleep, and give him the freedom to run around the house. Yet Rikki-tikki is not the first animal to enter the “civilized” human world: the presence of the muskrat Chuchundra in the bungalow suggests that the border between the house and the garden has long been fuzzy. Nag and Nagaina blur that boundary even further. That the deadly cobras enter the home through a hole for bath water suggests how easily nature can infiltrate human markers of comfort and domesticity.
Rikki-tikki’s ultimate triumph against the cobras is only possible because of the arbitrary nature of this boundary. If he were “too civilized”—that is, too focused on the comforts he enjoys in the home—his reflexes would be blunted against an enemy he has never faced before. For example, after his first skirmish against the cobras, “he might have stuffed himself three times over with nice things. But he remembered Nag and Nagaina…” Yet if he were utterly feral, he would possess no loyalty to his human family and would likely move on rather than fighting the cobras on their behalf. Witness, for instance, Teddy’s mother’s surprise that “a wild creature” could be such a reliable protector for her son.
The natural world aids the civilized world by providing Rikki-tikki with primal instincts that compensate for his lack of experience. This is most strongly seen in the form of his mother, who feeds him dead cobras as a baby and teaches him that cobras are nothing to fear. (Rikki-tikki’s mother held a similar position in the home of a British general, so Rikki-tikki himself is essentially carrying on a family tradition.)
The civilized world, in turn, aids the natural world by giving Rikki-tikki benefits he never would enjoy in the wild. That starts with Teddy’s family saving Rikki-tikki and nursing him back to health. Upon first seeing the mongoose, Teddy's mother cries out, “that's a wild creature! I suppose he's so tame because we've been kind to him." Here, she seems to think that the way she treats him affects his nature. To be sure, Rikki-tikki later protects the family fiercely, and while some of that is based in his snake-killing instinct, Kipling notes that “very few mongooses, however wise and old they may be, care to follow a cobra into its hole.”
In the end (thanks to Rikki-tikki slaying the cobras), the civilized world ultimately triumphs over the natural world, allowing everyone to live in peace and harmony: the cobras had been a threat not only Teddy, but his parents and the rest of the garden animals as well. When they’re slain, then, the whole garden celebrates: “That set all the birds in the garden singing, and the frogs croaking, for Nag and Nagaina used to eat frogs as well as little birds.”
The story presents a world where nature and civilization are in conflict, yet that conflict results in each side bleeding over into the other, and both sides benefitting from the result. Rikki-tikki is a wild animal, but he learns the benefits of protecting a benevolent order. Similarly, the order benefits from allowing a wild animal like him to be true to his nature. In this sense, nature and civilization aren’t exactly enemies. They’re more like the ends of a scale, and it takes parts of both worlds to ensure safety and security for everyone.
Man and the Natural World ThemeTracker
Man and the Natural World 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 suppose he’s so tame because we’ve been kind to him.”
“All mongooses are like that,” said her husband. “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. Let’s give him something to eat.”
He sat on all their laps one after the other, because every well-brought-up mongoose always hopes to be a house mongoose some day and have rooms to run about in; and Rikki-tikki’s mother (she used to live in the general’s house at Segowlee) had carefully told Rikki what to do if ever he came across white men.
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.
That night at dinner, walking to and fro among the wine-glasses on the table, he might have stuffed himself three times over with nice things. But he remembered Nag and Nagaina, and though it was very pleasant to be patted and petted by Teddy’s mother, and to sit on Teddy’s shoulder, his eyes would get red from time to time, and he would go off into his long war cry of “Rikk-tikk-tikki-tikki-tchk!”
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.