Two Cobras seek to slay an entire, unsuspecting, colonialist family, in India. The cobras want the walled garden to themselves, without the young family disturbing their young.
Rikki Tikki Tavi overhears their plan, and knows he is the family’s best defense. His sense of loyalty and justice is strong. His integrity, stronger. A tense and escalating clash, between a grateful good and a sly evil, ensues. The little mongoose pits his senses, his reflexes & his courage against the enormous cobras’ sly & silent invasion of the family home.
The skill with which Kipling anthropomorphizes the animal characters is particularly ingenious. He gives them a human intelligence, yet has them act powerfully and believably through the essential traits of their species. They have character!
The young East Indian mongoose was more of a drowned rat when Teddy found him. But Rikki was not dead, and Teddy helped him recover. Rikki endeared himself to the humans who enjoyed his agility and curiosity. Adopting them and their home, he was quick to defend them.
Kipling brings Rikki’s mongoose character to life when a deadly Krait (named “Karait”) threatens Teddy:
“Rikki Tikki’s eyes grew angry… he danced up to Karait with the strange rocking, swaying motion that he had inherited… it is so perfectly balanced that he could fly off in any direction he wanted, and in dealing with snakes this is an advantage.”
Karait dispatched, Rikki discovers Nag and Nagaina’s plot to kill the humans, in the hope that he would leave.
Here is why they chose to dispatch the family and not Rikki. No stealth tactics here; the battle is head to head! The mongoose’s focus and reflexes are astonishing:
(Keep in mind that, that was a small cobra.)
Later in the story, Kipling uses a marvelous metaphor showing the degree to which Rikki Tikki focuses on his task:
“Rikki Tikki listened. The house was as still as still, but he could just catch a soft scratch scratch sound, a noise as quiet as the footsteps of a fly on a windowpane, the dry scratch of a snake’s scales on brick.”
The animal characters become so real that their dramatically overstated intelligence appears completely natural. Parents might point out that Kipling creates the reasoning skills and the degree of volition deliberately, to make Nagaina so evil and make Rikki so reasoning. Animals are not so calculating. That said, Cobras may just want to live but, by their nature, they are inimical to the humans Rikki so properly values.
Kipling builds Rikki’s heroism, as he faces greater and greater danger. At each step we see Rikki’s defence of his values as valiant and tactically brilliant. The battle reaches a climax when Nagaina is posed to strike and kill Teddy:
“If you move, I strike, and if you do not move, I strike. Oh foolish people…”
Rikki makes a desperate attempt to save Teddy, taunting Nagaina in a new and unexpected way. What does she do? In one moment, all the opposing values in the story collide.
One academic describes Rikki Tikki Tavi as an implicit story in support of British colonialism. To draw such a conclusion one has to evade or blank-out obvious knowledge of Rikki’s rescue and of his appreciation for Teddy, his family and the garden, all of which form his home. Though Kipling’s political leanings were obvious, it is a stretch to insinuate that his worst views determine the message of this story.
Jerry Pinkney, the illustrator, was an art professor at the University of Delaware and State University of New York at Buffalo. He created twelve postage stamps for the U.S. Postal Service’s Black Heritage series.
Pinkney’s illustrations for Rikki Tikki Tavi have a definite hint of India (see cover image), but many have a high contrast appearance that produces a slight blotchiness, suggestive of a misaligned printer. We see the flowers and shrubbery in the walled garden, the tailorbirds and of course the cobras. Several images show lashing snakes and a twisting, leaping Rikki.
Pinkney is careful to give us Rikki’s exciting perspective. When the focus is on the snakes and mongoose in conflict, we feel and see the danger. The excitement is magnified in scale. The cobras are huge & frightening and, for them, the mongoose is just one meal. It does not matter that mongooses (not “mongeese”) are adept at killing snakes. Pinkney’s art, too, presents Rikki as the big-little hero he is.