The politics of animal tropes · 6:31pm
I've just reread Rudyard Kipling's Rikki-Tikki-Tavi.
Now, Lord, don't get me wrong. I LOVED that story as a kid. I was rooting for the plucky young mongoose all the way. I WAS the mongoose! I'd punch out asshole cobras in my sleep if I could. Reading it as an adult, however, lets a lot of really troubling implications come to light.
For those of you who had deprived, mongoose-free childhoods, here's a quick plot synopsis:
The story takes place in what seems to be 19th century India, where a flood washes a young mongoose (the eponymous Rikki-Tikki-Tavi) out of his den and into the yard of a wealthy English family (lolimperialismandraceissues, but let's not get into that yet, if ever). He meets the tailorbird, Darzee and learns of the cobras living in the yard. Rikki-Tikki-Tavi is all like, I'M A MONGOOSE, YO! and kills a karait (common krait), which causes the cobras to fear for their safety and the safety of their unhatched brood. Nag, the cobra, and Nagaina (which I imagine rhymes with "vagina"), his wife, plot to kill the English family and chase Rikki-Tikki-Tavi from their garden, reasoning that the English couple brought Rikki-Tikki with them, and that when they're out of the picture, the mongoose should leave as well. And what ensues is an exciting battle between mongoose and snake, where Rikki-Tikki triumphs and destroys all of the cobra eggs, preventing any snakes from ever threatening his household again.
Now this all LOOKS solid on paper. A valiant mongoose fights a pair of treacherous snakes to save a family. How could it go wrong, right?
Well... First I'd have to explain the difference between a villain and an antagonist.
Almost everyone knows what a villain is. A villain is the bad guy. He does immoral and/or distasteful things, and you want to see him go down.
An antagonist, on the other hand, is there to oppose the protagonist and cannot exist without the protagonist. A villain can exist without a protagonist, since you can be bad without actively trying to go against anyone, but you cannot have an antagonist without having a protagonist to oppose. An antagonist can be a kind, likeable and moral character, so long as they are in direct conflict with whatever goals the protagonist is trying to achieve. Similarly, you can have a protagonist that is an unlikeable, douchey, evil dickweed, but remains the protagonist simply because this is HER story that's being told.
In Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, Nag and Nagaina were clearly the antagonists of the story. This story was obviously about Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, and it followed him from beginning to end, hitting most of the points in a traditional story structure with exposition, rising action, conflict, resolution, whatever, and Nag and Nagaina were fighting him the entire way. As an adult, however, I found it increasingly hard to believe that they were the villains.
Right at the beginning, the story tries to give Nag one of those Kick the Dog moments to establish he's a villain: Nag eats a tailorbird chick. Now in this story, all the animals are named, and they can all talk. Eating a bird chick should be equivalent to eating a baby, right?
Well, kinda. You see, Rikki-Tikki-Tavi is a mongoose, who also happens to have birds and bird eggs in his diet, just like Nag. And okay, Carnivore Confusion exists and whatever, but I guess the main thing is that this is mentioned explicitly and since we're made aware of it, rather than it being one of those elephants in the room, it's supposed to be more reprehensible. Much like if you show a planet getting blown up, even if you're aware that billions of people live on it, it's kind of a "meh" response, but if you show closeups of all the hero's dying children on that planet, then the person responsible is a MONSTER.
I was prepared for that as well, and I was ready to accept it, since if I took issue to that trope, I would have to reject something like 90% of all media. However, there was this little scene at the end. One that I'd completely forgotten about because it was overshadowed by all the excitement of the rest of the story.
After Rikki-Tikki kills Nag, he destroys most of the cobra eggs to prevent them from hatching. And this alone would be bad enough, but there is one egg left. He carries it to Nagaina to taunt her and draw her away from the boy she was about to bite. I'll just quote the scene because I could not make this up:
Tricked! Tricked! Tricked! Rikk-tck-tck!” chuckled Rikki-tikki. “The boy is safe, and it was I— I— I that caught Nag by the hood last night in the bathroom.” Then he began to jump up and down, all four feet together, his head close to the floor. “He threw me to and fro, but he could not shake me off. He was dead before the big man blew him in two. I did it! Rikki-tikki-tck-tck! Come then, Nagaina. Come and fight with me. You shall not be a widow long.”
Nagaina saw that she had lost her chance of killing Teddy, and the egg lay between Rikki-tikki’s paws. “Give me the egg, Rikki-tikki. Give me the last of my eggs, and I will go away and never come back,” she said, lowering her hood.
“Yes, you will go away, and you will never come back. For you will go to the rubbish heap with Nag. Fight, widow! The big man has gone for his gun! Fight!”
Shit. Even Voldemort has more kindness, honour and compassion than this fucking mongoose. You killed this lady's husband and most of her children, and you have her at your mercy. She's begging for her last child back and is promising to leave and never return, and then you're like "eeenope".
This whole story seemed to be very confused about whether the characters were people or not, and was holding some really confusing double standards. It's evil for Nag to eat a fledgling bird, but it's heroic for Rikki-Tikki to destroy all of Nag's eggs. It's not okay for Nag and Nagaina to try to kill the English couple to ensure their own safety and their children's safety, but it's okay for the English couple to kill Nag and Nagaina to ensure their own safety and their children's safety. And I'm not even sure it was a simple issue of "humans are more important than animals", because these animals were clearly people too. They had their own culture and language and societies and everything. They were just communication incompatible.
At the very least, it doesn't make sense for animals to think that humans are more important than animals.
I guess, part of it is that this story is really dated (after all, this is the same author who wrote the line, "Plain black's best for a nigger"), but idk. I still see stuff like this in modern media from time to time. Just nothing quite as horrific as that egg scene.