One warm evening, Father Wolf wakes up and prepares to hunt. Before he departs, he speaks with Tabaqui, a jackal, who tells him that Shere Khan, a tiger, has decided to hunt in Father Wolf’s territory. Tabaqui’s news upsets Father Wolf because he knows Shere Khan’s presence will frighten away his usual prey. Mother Wolf, who also hears the news, reaffirms Father Wolf’s worries. She knows that the humans who live nearby also fear Shere Khan. She worries they might light parts of the jungle on fire to scare Shere Khan away.
The Jungle Book is a collection of short stories and poems, some of which are linked. The first three stories take place in the same place and feature the same characters. Here, Kipling introduces some of the major players—the wolves and Shere Khan—who have an antagonistic relationship with each other. In this instance, Shere Khan's presence is disrupting the natural order of the jungle, as he is cutting off the wolves’ access to food they’d normally eat. This section also introduces the animals’ collective fear of fire, which foreshadows events to come.
Right on cue, Shere Khan roars loudly into the night sky, drawing the attention of Mother Wolf and Father Wolf. Shere Khan’s roaring irritates Father Wolf even more. He does not understand why Shere Khan would willingly scare away his prey. Mother Wolf explains that she thinks Shere Khan is after a human rather than an animal. This is a problem because the Law of the Jungle forbids animals from hunting and eating humans.
Throughout The Jungle Book, Kipling depicts environments that have their own laws and rules. Although sometimes the jungle operates on Darwinian principles like survival of the fittest, where a being or group’s survival depends on their ability to overpower weaker beings or groups, other rules and systems are also at play. For instance, animals are not supposed to hunt humans. This rule does not follow Darwinian principles because many of the jungle’s animals can kill humans. This shows readers that there are other principles at play in Kipling’s understanding of order, which he’ll explore throughout this story.
During Father Wolf and Mother Wolf’s exchange, a young human boy (Mowgli) approaches them. The wolves refer to the boy as a “man cub,” and they are surprised he is not afraid of them. Interested, Mother Wolf asks Father Wolf to bring the man cub to her. Father Wolf gently picks up the boy using his mouth and brings him over to Mother Wolf. Still, the boy shows no fear. Impressed, Mother Wolf and Father Wolf decide to raise the child as their own.
The phrase "man cub" demonstrates Mowgli's dual nature; he is both man and animal—two identities that will create conflict throughout his life. Although some of the other animals in the jungle are afraid of humans and others think they are above them, the wolves treat Mowgli like an equal.
Moments later, Shere Khan arrives looking for the man cub. Luckily, he cannot get inside the wolves’ cave because he is too large to fit through the entrance. Mother Wolf angrily tells Shere Khan he cannot have the man cub. She promises Shere Khan that the boy will one day grow up and hunt him instead. Shere Khan backs off, but before he leaves, he promises that he will eat the boy eventually. Once Shere Khan is gone, Mother Wolf gives the man cub a name: Mowgli. The name translates to “little frog.”
Mother Wolf’s declaration acts as a prophesy and another instance of foreshadowing. Here, Mother Wolf is fiercely loyal to Mowgli, even though she barely knows him. She has already accepted him as part of her pack and treats him like her child. Meanwhile, Shere Khan treats Mowgli like he does not belong in the jungle and will do anything to ensure he is not part of the ecosystem.
Mother Wolf and Father Wolf bring Mowgli to Council Rock, where the animals of the jungle convene. They introduce Mowgli to everyone in their Pack, including Akela, their leader. Akela is a wolf who is a brave and well-respected leader. After Mother Wolf and Father Wolf make their introductions, Shere Khan arrives and demands that they hand Mowgli over to him. Akela informs everyone that two other members of the Pack besides Mother Wolf and Father Wolf must accept Mowgli as one of their own. Otherwise, the Pack cannot lay claim to Mowgli and shield him from Shere Khan.
Notably, the Pack consists of many different animals, not just wolves. It is a large community with its own rules that no one is allowed to bypass—not Mowgli and not Shere Khan. Although there are hierarchies within the Law of the Jungle, there are also specific standards that all animals must uphold for the betterment of the larger community.
Two members of the Pack, Baloo the Bear and Bagheera the Black Panther stick up for Mowgli and accept him as their own. Additionally, Bagheera promises to give one of his bulls to the Pack if they allow Mowgli admission. Akela and Bagheera strike a deal, Bagheera kills one of his bulls, and Mowgli gets to join the Pack. Meanwhile, Shere Khan is furious that he did not get his paws on Mowgli.
Baloo and Bagheera's actions suggest that they are either doing a favor for Mother and Father Wolf or trying to spite Shere Khan. After all, they do not know Mowgli yet, and Bagheera gives up one of his bulls to get him. Here, Kipling demonstrates that some animal lives are worth more than others.
About a decade later, Mowgli has matured into a young man who knows the ways of the jungle. Father Wolf, Mother Wolf, Bagheera, and Baloo taught Mowgli everything he needed to know to survive. Mowgli has also learned much about the Law of the Jungle and abides by its rules.
At their core, the Mowgli stories are coming-of-age tales, with each story presenting a crucial moment in his development. Here, Mowgli’s maturation corresponds with his understanding of the Law of the Jungle, reaffirming its central importance in the world of the story.
Meanwhile, Akela has grown old. Soon, he will no longer be able to lead the Pack effectively. Bagheera worries that, without Akela, it will be challenging to keep Mowgli safe. He knows Shere Khan has been trying to poison other members of the Pack against Mowgli by claiming that humans have no place among the animals of the jungle. Bagheera warns Mowgli that he must go after Shere Khan before Shere Khan can come after him.
Kipling portrays Shere Khan’s concern about Mowgli as a serious philosophical question. Whether Mowgli belongs among the animals of the jungle is a question Kipling will examine throughout the three Mowgli stories, presenting evidence to support sides of the argument.
Bagheera tells Mowgli that the other animals fear him because he lacks fear. He is the only one in the jungle who can look Bagheera in the eyes, even though he is a black panther. Bagheera says that Mowgli has this gift because he is a man. Bagheera explains that he knows about humans because he grew up in captivity and knows how they act. He also knows about the strengths of humans and the types of power they possess. Bagheera tells Mowgli to go to the human village and take some of their “Red Flower” (fire) to use against Shere Khan.
Here, Bagheera presents two qualities humans have more of than animals: bravery and intelligence. The fire Bagheera tells Mowgli to take represents human intelligence and innovation, which animals cannot grasp. In the beginning of the story, Mother Wolf mentions her fear of fire and its destructive power because humans can wield it and animals cannot. For animals, fire is only a destructive force, not a useful tool.
The same night, Mowgli witnesses Akela fail to capture a deer. Instead, the deer kicks him in the face and then runs away. After seeing Akela’s failure, Mowgli realizes he must obtain some Red Flower. As such, he sneaks into the nearby human village and gets a pot of hot charcoal. While in the village, Mowgli watches the humans tend to the charcoal, so he knows how to keep it hot and ready for use.
Akela’s failure to secure his prey tells Mowgli he is running out of time before Shere Khan challenges Akela for Pack leader. Additionally, Mowgli’s ability to immediately discern the proper way to use charcoal demonstrates his intellectual superiority over the animals of the jungle.
Later, at Council Rock, Akela is angry because he thinks some of the wolves in the Pack tricked him into chasing after the deer that kicked him in the face. He thinks the wolves knew the deer was too young and spry for him. Still, despite his signs of aging, no one dares to challenge Akela as Pack leader. During the same meeting, Shere Khan shows up and asks that the Pack hand Mowgli over to him. He claims Mowgli is not one of them and has no place in the Pack. Akela argues against Shere Khan, but the majority of the wolves agree with him.
Although the wolves know Akela is weak, he is still too intimating for them to face directly. Instead, they wait for Shere Khan to arrive and promptly abandon Akela. These wolves lack loyalty, which, as will soon become apparent, is a quality Kipling always punishes. This story, along with all the stories in The Jungle Book, is a morality tale that embraces the mores of British Imperialism. In this case, Shere Khan represents disorder—a “savage” outside force that does not abide by the standard rules of society. In other words, he is a stand-in for any rebellious forces in India that might try to challenge the British Empire.
The betrayal of the Pack hurts Mowgli. In response, he shows them his pot of coals and chastises them for their behavior. Mowgli says that he no longer considers himself part of the Pack because of how they have treated him. Instead, Mowgli insists, he will act like a man from now on and treat the Pack like dogs. Then, he hurls coals at the Pack and lights a branch on fire. He waves the burning branch at the wolves and Shere Khan, frightening them. Shere Khan and the wolves retreat; they fear Mowgli’s fire and do not want to risk their lives fighting against it.
For the first time, Mowgli separates himself from the world of the jungle and presents himself as a human threat. It is an important moment in his coming-of-age, as he identifies himself as a fundamentally different type of being than those who have raised him. Even Shere Khan, a fearsome beast, fears Mowgli and retreats from his newfound power. If Shere Khan represents disorder and savagery, then Mowgli is the human force whose might and intellect returns order to the jungle.
After Shere Khan and the other wolves are gone, Mowgli cries. He does not understand why the wolves hate him, nor why he now hates the wolves. Bagheera tells Mowgli that he has grown into a man and therefore no longer has a place among the animals of the jungle. He advises Mowgli that it would be best to leave the jungle and live with the humans instead.
Mowgli’s sadness suggests that he does not yet fully understand the impact of the transformation he has just undergone. After all, he is only a young boy, even if the animals consider him a “man.” Bagheera sends Mowgli away from the jungle because he thinks it is what is best for him. He does not want Mowgli to go, but he does not see any other way forward now that Mowgli has presented himself as a fundamentally different type of being than the animals.
Before he leaves, Mowgli speaks with Father Wolf and Mother Wolf. He asks them to always remember him because he plans to return and get revenge on Shere Khan one day. Father Wolf and Mother Wolf tell Mowgli that they love him and will never forget him. Then Mowgli leaves and makes his way to the village.
Although Mowgli plans to leave the jungle, he does not entirely sever himself from it. It is still a part of him, and he intends to return when the time is right. Indeed, Kipling will dramatize Mowgli's return to the jungle later in the collection.