What’s the truth about Uncle Tom and Mowgli?

A new series of literary events, dedicated to close readings, started last week at Litteraturhuset. The first objects of discussion were Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Kipling’s The Jungle Book, both recently in new, complete Norwegian translations.

While scholars Jon Haarberg and Arild Engelsen Ruud gave us the context for the books, about the time in which they were created and their reception, authors Jan Grue and Ole Robert Sunde contributed with some new interpretations and impressions of the books in our context. Here are some of the things they touched upon.

Too old or not old enough?

Uncle Tom’s Cabin was dealing with a specific, «pressing» problem, that is why it seems outdated today, says Jan Grue. The political goal of abolishing slavery in the US has been accomplished. While race and ethnicity are still hot topics, both in the US and in Norway, some of the language and observations made in the book come off as pretty stereotypical, even racist, in today’s context.

Grue offered the opinion that Uncle Tom’s Cabin is at once «too old» and «not old enough» for us to appreciate it.

We are used to stereotypical characterizations in literature. We accept Richard III’s «deformed, unfinished» appearance as connected to his character because it was written a long time ago, but when Uncle Tom’s obedient character is tied to the colour of his skin, we spot racist and discriminatory descriptions more easily.

«Boyology»-tales from the arch-imperialist

If you haven’t read The Jungle Book growing up, you might have seen the Disney movie, with the little boy Mowgli growing up among the animals in the jungle, eventually becoming their leader and even defeating the tiger Shere Kan. Originally not a single story, but a collection of stories in two books, The Jungle Book might be read quite differently if we know the context in which it was written, Arild Engelsen Lund says.

Kipling, living much of his life in British India, was a strong advocate for the British Empire and its colonial project. The time the Jungle Book stories first appeared in print coincided with a rise in Indian nationalism. The British, and Kipling among them, saw the Indians demanding independence as ridiculous, much like the monkeys are portrayed in The Jungle Book. So, is Mowgli the British imperialist conquering exotic lands and taking charge among the animals, the natives that are «half devil, half child»? Or does Kipling’s eloquent writing justify his imperialist views?

More than one truth

The Jungle Book and Uncle Tom’s Cabin are two books that many have grown up reading, but at least the Norwegian versions have been what one might call «light» ones, for a long time author Harriet Beecher Stowe’s name wasn’t even connected to the Norwegian Uncle Tom text. Jon Haarberg explained that the first Norwegian translation of the book was anonymous – as was its first, praising review, oddly enough. Much of the political and religious message of the novel was cut in the translation, as it was adapted into a harmless children’s book.

The Jungle Book was soon acknowlegded in Britain’s literary canon – a book all children should know, or at any rate all boys. In fact the book greatly influenced Robert Baden-Powell, founder of the Scouting movement, who named the junior movement Wolf Cubs after Mowgli’s adopted family. The stories of the Jungle Book were treated in much the same way as Uncle Tom, with several editions abridged and adapted for younger readers. And with several comic books and movie adaptations, the symbolism and layers that might be found in Kipling’s text are maybe less evident.

The new, complete Norwegian translations are a reminder that there could be more to the books than we remember. Going back to the original texts of the stories we’re familiar with, we might discover the truth about Uncle Tom or Mowgli, or maybe we find that there is more than one truth?