Stuart Tresilian’s cover for the “Young Persons’ Edition” of The Jungle Book depicts the iconic moment from Mowgli’s Brothers when Mowgli, naked and unprotected, attacks the tiger Shere Khan with a blazing branch. This is certainly one of the most striking covers ever drawn for The Jungle Book, but the more I look at it the more it seems to me that there’s something a bit odd about it...
It just so happens that there is an earlier Tresilian painting which might shed some light on this puzzle...
This is a colour plate from All the Mowgli Stories, and as you can see it depicts the same scene with a few compositional differences.
Let’s assume that when Tresilian’s publisher asked for a Jungle Book cover he obliged with a scene based on the earlier Mowgli Stories plate. But there was a problem. The publisher didn’t like it and asked for a last-minute revision. There was no time to paint a new cover, so as a compromise Tresilian had to alter Mowgli’s pose.
In this version Mowgli’s pose almost exactly mirrors the earlier plate - except that he’s holding the burning branch in a different position. All of the other elements of the scene are also exact mirror images, right down to the position of the rocks in the background.
This meant rotating his torso to show his chest rather than his back, and swapping his left and right arms, even though that placed them in awkwardly twisted positions. This did however have the side effect that Mowgli once more appeared to be holding the branch in his right hand, however uncomfortably.
And that’s not all...! In August of 2009, Marc sent me a link to a South Korean edition of The Jungle Book whose cover was obviously based on the Tresilian version. All of the elements from the original picture are there - the nude Mowgli, Shere Khan, Bagheera, the wolves, the rocks, the blazing branch and the fire-pot on the ground. Now interestingly enough, the Korean artist has also recognised the problem with the Tresilian cover and has come up with a very simple solution. By turning Mowgli’s shoulders around so his back is no longer twisted, and getting him to crouch down a bit so his face is closer to Shere Khan’s, the artist is able to show Mowgli in a three-quarter right view that appears much more natural. He’s still holding Shere Khan with his left hand and brandishing the flaming branch in the right, and what’s more, he’s closer to Shere Khan - no longer at arm’s length - which makes him seem even braver (or more foolhardy). Obviously the Korean publisher had no qualms about displaying his nude back (and you’ll notice that the artist has even shifted Bagheera almost out of frame so that Mowgli’s lower legs are also visible). Unfortunately Mowgli’s right arm, holding the branch, now obscures his face. Apart from that, my only complaint is that the artist couldn’t draw better!
Later I discovered this cover from a Japanese edition. There are some compositional differences, but it’s clearly also based on Tresilian’s cover. Unfortunately I haven’t been able to find a better quality version, but once again it’s interesting to see how the artist has attempted to solve the problem of Mowgli’s pose. This time the artist has chosen to turn his head and hips around to the right so his posture isn’t as twisted, and we only see his naked buttock in a three-quarter front view. It’s also a more dynamic pose, with Mowgli leaning in toward Shere Khan, and getting even closer than in the Korean version - forearm’s length, rather than a full arm’s length as depicted by Tresilian. As in the Tresilian version, however he’s still holding the branch awkwardly over his shoulder, and looks to be in danger of singeing his hair!
If anyone happens to know where I might obtain better quality images of the Korean and Japanese covers, please let me know.