When you’re working within the context of a broader system of animal symbolism, it’s often very hard to figure out what you’re supposed to do with apes and monkeys.
It’s a straight-up Uncanny Valley problem. Most of our stereotypes of the “lesser primates” revolve around their being bestial or childlike or both — in other words, not-quite-up-to-snuff when it comes to finer human qualities. They’re violent brutes, or shit-flinging morons, or (at best) cheeky pranksters with no capacity to understand the Big Serious Things. This is not any kind of surprising, because when we think about apes and monkeys, it’s easy and natural to compare them to us. An ape is pretty much a beastlier version of a human, much like a standard-issue person except dumber and hairier and possessed of less self-control, and so it’s those very salient differences that acquire symbolic power.
But this makes sense only so long as you’re allowed to use homo sapiens as your reference point. When you travel to Anthropomorphic Animal Land, and you start pretending that actual beasts are really stand-ins for human traits, it becomes weird to the point of being uncomfortable. OK, the wolves are playing the part of Predatory and Pack-Oriented People because wolves are predatory and pack-oriented animals, and the beavers are playing the part of Industrious Technically-Minded People because beavers are industrious and sort of engineering-focused by animal standards, and the apes are playing the part of…Stupid Brutish People? But apes are incredibly smart, cultured animals! Vastly smarter and more cultured than the owls and the cats and all the other beasts that we’ve made into icons of Smartness and Culture! And it’s not like this is some kind of obscure biological truth that lies at odds with the intelligible realities of the world; the fact that primates are super-duper-manlike animals is kind of their whole deal! They’re so manlike that, reflexively, we go ahead and compare them to actual humans instead of maintaining the extra level of conceptual distance that allows animal metaphors to work.
You can try to resolve this in a number of ways, but all the obvious ones leave you kind of borked. If you decide to go the biologically-sound route and make your primates the geniuses of the animal kingdom, you’re not only doing something that your audience is likely to find less-than-resonant, you’re kind of crippling your ability to use non-biologically-rigorous symbolism on any other front. (“OK, yes, monkeys are in fact much smarter than wolves…but, if we’re using facts, aren’t owls actually really dumb? And aren’t lions actually kind of lazy and cowardly? And aren’t a lot of these species totally solitary and unsociable, such that you can’t tell stories about them?”) If you go ahead and treat primates like savages and imbeciles, well, it becomes a bit jarring every time you juxtapose them with other beasts that are a lot less smart and a lot more savage.
The most successful strategy I’ve seen is the one employed by King Kong and (less explicitly) by Journey to the West. If you actually keep the human world around as a reference point, opposed to the primal animal world, then your apes and monkeys can naturally occupy a place in between — too bestial/impulsive to be men, too smart/ambitious/emotional to be beasts, with some of the strengths and weaknesses of both realms. That can be very cool and very poignant. But it is a very constraining tactic. Not only do you have to incorporate humanity for the sake of balancing out the characterization of your primates, you have to make the rest of the beasts really truly bestial as a counterweight, which means you can’t use all the cool tropes where foxes are really Clever People or whatever.
…but I think that, in the right settings, it may be possible to square this circle.
I am a tremendous fan of Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book and The Second Jungle Book, especially the Mowgli stories. Those tales hold a place of honor in my personal canon of Serious, Resonant Literature Full of Power Tropes Played Totally Straight. (Along with Lovecraft, Tolkien, etc. Anyone else sensing a pattern here?)
That said, I’ve always been tremendously irritated by Kipling’s portrayal of the Bandar-log, the Seeonee monkeys who kidnap Mowgli. They’re…shit-flinging morons. Just shit-flinging morons, with no redeeming features at all, rightly despised by everyone else in the jungle. Which is, apart from anything else, really boring. (Yes, Kipling, we get it, you want a good-vs-evil morality play where “good” is represented by tradcon-pantheon values like Integrity and Lawfulness and Respect and Practical Sense. I can deal with that. But it doesn’t help you, ideologically or narratively, to set up a group of unilaterally worthless gibbering imbeciles as the foils for your heroes.) And it is also very bizarre to see our tool-using evolutionary cousins portrayed that way in a story where a cat, a bear, and a snake are allowed to be Founts of Wisdom and Insight.
Like any good Jungle Book fan, I consider the 1967 Disney musical to be mostly a painful travesty. (And here I will employ my IRON WILLPOWER and refrain from launching into a long discussion of why that is.) But it does some things very very right, and the best of those is the way it deals with the Bandar-log…which, incomplete and incoherent though it is, is a massive improvement on Kipling. Disney gives the monkey tribe some much-needed personality and characterization by allowing us to focus on a single leader character, the orangutan King Louie. And King Louie, far from being just a shit-flinging moron, has an agenda — an agenda suitable for the smartest, most manlike beast in the jungle. He wants to be human, and specifically to wield the mysterious technological power of humanity in the form of fire. It’s the same thing that’s going on with King Iofur Raknison in The Golden Compass, only it has a lot more potential power and poignancy behind it, because it’s not just a random tragic delusion. Louie is a great ape, a near-human by the standards of the jungle beasts surrounding him, and he’s not obviously wrong to think that he might have more in common with humanity than with animal-kind.
This does not get explored in any great depth, and nothing hugely interesting is done with it, since we’re talking about a ’60s-era Disney cartoon. But it at least lays the foundation for a version of the Bandar-log that’s better than Kipling’s, and I’m grateful.
(I will say, though…did they really have to call him “Louie?” Couldn’t they have come up with some moniker that would fit within the scheme of Jungle Book onomastics even a little?)
So OK. Time to build up from Disney’s work, and play around with this Bandar-log thing a little bit.
Let’s assume for the moment that, in a world where even ordinary “dumb beasts” like wolves and tigers display human-like capacities for thought, the Bandar-log are in truth very smart — that, in keeping with a consistent intelligence-based animal-kingdom metaphor, they’re not idiots but actually geniuses. Let’s also assume that at least the greatest among them, King Louie, has the ambition and the vision to become obsessed with wielding the transcendent mind-breaking powers of humankind.
With those worldbuilding decisions in mind, let’s take a look at the other established traits of the monkey-tribe, stripped of Kipling’s pejorative moralizing:
- They do not obey the Law of the Jungle, which provides a practical how-to-live-successfully dogma for the other Seeonee beasts. Indeed, they hold the Law in contempt.
- They are socially fluid and kind of anarchic. (Kipling actually makes a big deal about how the Bandar-log have no leaders, because to him this is a sign of Degeneracy. King Louie obviously renders that obsolete…but even the Disney movie makes it clear that he’s not exactly an iron-fisted despot, that the monkeys are a bit rowdy and hard-to-control, and that they are totally uninterested in anything like the hierarchical discipline of a wolf pack.)
- They are creative but easily distracted, and have a tendency to come up with new ideas and then quickly drop them for even newer shinies.
- They are imaginative, and love playing pretend.
- Despite their (physical/mental/moral) weaknesses, they actually do quite well for themselves within the jungle system; their arboreal talents ensure them a steady supply of food that’s hard to reach for anyone else, while rendering them immune to pretty much any danger apart from the deadly python Kaa.
- They have basically no fighting ability, and they flee from confrontations…unless they have massive numerical advantage, under which circumstances they sometimes act as violent mobs.
- They desperately want to see themselves as Wise and Noble and Good. What’s more, they crave attention and praise. It would be easy for them to ignore the rest of jungle society, but they don’t, because they want so badly for others to notice them and recognize their virtues. But no one else has any respect for them, so the interactions usually turn sour, and degenerate into mockery and trolling.
When you put all that together, the analogy becomes painfully obvious. Of course the Bandar-log aren’t idiots. They’re nerds.
Or, to be more specific: they’re independent-minded free-thinkers, the sort who can’t bring themselves to accept the “hidebound” “arbitrary” codes that define conventional ways of living, because their brains are wired for abstract nitpickiness rather than social harmony. (The Law of the Jungle, in this metaphor, will be playing the role of Conventional Decency-Defining Norms.) So they flail around, and come up with a million half-baked replacement social systems of their own, most of which have limited appeal and are riddled with major glaring flaws — most new ideas are full of problems, after all, even the ones generated by very clever people. They bounce from idea to idea, partly because they’re naturally restless-minded, partly because they’re prone to throwing themselves into untested and failure-prone concepts. Everyone else sees them, at best, as being flighty and ungrounded and kind of ridiculous; often that gets extended to “degenerate” and “shameful.” And they’re very bad at direct conflict. Nonetheless their outcomes are OK-to-good compared to those of their peers, largely because many of them have talents that are valuable within the ecosystem-ahem-economy. They love being noticed for their creativity and intelligence, and when that doesn’t happen, they often turn into spiteful trolls. The smartest and most ambitious of them tend to get caught up in grandiose dreams of mastering vast fathomless magics that they barely understand.
I can get behind this idea.
(Explaining the role of Kaa the hypnotic python, within this metaphor, is left as an exercise for the reader.)
Or, if we want to extend it a bit further —
[WARNING: I do not actually endorse the rest of this essay. It involves treating The Jungle Book as straight-up social allegory, which is a terribly unkind thing to do to any story, especially a Serious Resonant Story that’s full of Power Tropes Played Straight. Kipling would be seriously annoyed by this, and rightly so. But it’s fun.]
— let’s remember that, in addition to beasts and half-beast half-man monkeys, The Jungle Book contains a society of actual humans. We see quite a lot of it, actually.
The jungle beasts are hard-minded, hard-bitten people primarily concerned with ensuring their own survival. Most of them are scrupulous about following their Law…or, at least, the core tenets of their Law…which are designed to reduce social friction and to push individuals towards prudent decisions. Beasts who flout the Law are treated with contempt, even when they have the sheer power to get away with it (as with Shere Khan), and especially when they don’t.
Humans are strange creatures, individually soft and seemingly-incompetent, who fare terribly if thrown into the jungle. Most of their norms seem to be all about ridiculous status games and arbitrary distinctions. But they have truly amazing powers, technologies, and resources. Whenever they decide they really want to, they can completely fuck up the jungle and all its denizens, and they can take pretty much whatever they want.
Men fear beasts almost as much as they despise beasts. Beasts despise men almost as much as they fear men.
So…this is just straight-up about class, right? Lower-class animals clinging to the restrictive code of respectability that makes their competitive resource-crunched society functional, upper-class humans obsessing over bizarre apparently-ritual actions and somehow having nigh-infinite power despite seeming so individually weak?
In this interpretation, the monkeys are, well, lower-class and middle-class nerds. They have the book-learning to be sort of humanlike, and the snobbery that allows them to sneer at the Law of the Jungle, but — when it comes down to it — they don’t have much more than their own cleverness. They can grab all the papayas they want, but that’s chump change by human standards. They don’t even have agriculture, let alone elephant-taming or tiger-killing power.
And King Louie’s project takes a very different timbre, and a sadder one. The “red flower” that he wants so badly is class power. He sees the upper class doing and having all this cool shit — living in luxury, dominating others — and he desires that for himself, because he’s clever and he thinks he’s earned it. But he’ll never get that, and even if he did it wouldn’t do what he wanted, because he’s still in the mindset of looking for a simple technical answer. He thinks that humanity [= status] is a trick, something that you can replicate easily if you know the technical secret. He can’t begin to conceive of all the complicated rules and structures that underlie the power of the elite, because for all his brains, he’s lived only in the jungle and he thinks in terms of jungle realities.