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MauriceBecque1924WhiteSeal

1924 illustration for "The White Seal" by the French artist Maurice Becque.

"The White Seal" is a short story by the British author Rudyard Kipling. It first appeared in print in the August 1893 issue of the London-based magazine National Review.[1] It was published again in 1894 as part of the anthology The Jungle Book.

Unusually for a story in The Jungle Book, none of the action in "The White Seal" takes place in India. The story proper begins on an island in the Bering Sea between Russia and Alaska. The title character and protagonist, Kotick, is the first white seal ever to have been born on the island. When Kotick discovers that some of the seals on the island are killed by hunters for their skins every year, he sets off on a quest to find an island where seals can live without fear because no humans have ever visited it. His quest takes him all over the Pacific Ocean and beyond.

Readers should be aware that "The White Seal" contains a graphic description of the aftermath of a seal hunting expedition. Parents reading the story aloud to their children may wish to paraphrase this section, letting them know that the seals are killed but sparing them the gorier details. The descriptions of the injuries that fighting seals inflict on each other are also quite graphic at times. Furthermore, the native Aleut people of the island are described in a racially offensive way as "not clean people". This line can be easily skipped over when reading the story aloud because it has no bearing whatsoever on the plot.

The text of "The White Seal" is also peppered with several Russian words and phrases, although translations are provided for all of them.

An animated adaptation of "The White Seal" was produced for American television in 1975.

Plot

The human narrator of "The White Seal" says that he has no first hand knowledge of the events in the story. They were told to him by a wounded bird that he met and nursed back to health while he was traveling by ship to Japan. The narrator is certain that what the bird told him was true.

The story proper begins in a place called Novastoshnah on the island of St. Paul's in the Bering Sea between Russia and Alaska. Thousands of seals come to Novastoshnah each spring to spend the summer months there. One of them is the large old seal known as Sea Catch. Sea Catch is extremely good at fighting and always manages to secure a good spot on the beach for himself and his family. It is there that Sea Catch's wife, Matkah, gives birth to a son and names him Kotick. When Kotick is born, Matkah notices something strange about the color of his coat. She says that she thinks he will grow up to be white. Sea Catch says that is nonsense because there has never before been a white seal.

T2JB361 - The White Seal title illustration

Title illustration for "The White Seal" from the 1896 anthology The Two Jungle Books.

During his first summer on St. Paul's, Kotick enjoys playing with other seal pups of his own age and learns the basics of swimming. In late October, Kotick leaves the island and begins a long journey south. During that time, Kotick learns a great deal, initially learning from his mother and later learning as a result of his own curiosity. One of the things that Matkah teaches her son is to keep away from ships and boats.

Kotick crosses the equator and reaches Juan Fernandez.[2] He then suddenly has the urge to go back to Novastoshnah. He begins the 7,000 mile journey back to the place where he was born. When Kotick arrives back there, he is greeted by his old friends, now year-old male seals like himself. As Matkah had predicted, Kotick has grown up to be almost pure white in color. The other young male seals all comment on Kotick's white fur, although he is not mocked for looking different.

The group of young male seals is approached by two men. They are the chief seal-hunter Kerick Booterin and his son Patalamon. The two men have never seen a white seal before and are somewhat frightened by Kotick. They think that he might be the ghost of an old man who died the previous year before Patalamon could pay off a debt he owed him. Kerick and Patalamon herd away some of the seals. Kotick follows them, something that no seal has ever done before, which also unnerves the two men. Kerick and Patalamon force the seals to travel half a mile, which takes over an hour. They are led to a place where a dozen or so other hunters are waiting. Kotick watches while the other seals are beaten to death with clubs and then skinned.

The horrified Kotick goes off in the opposite direction as quickly as he can. He jumps into the sea and cries out in anguish. A sea lion asks Kotick what is wrong. He says that all of the young male seals are being killed. The sea lion points out that is not true. Most of the young male seals are unharmed but Kerick has killed a few, as he has done for the last thirty years. Although he understands that it must seem horrible from Kotick's point of view, the sea lion is not greatly troubled by the seal hunt. He sees it as something that has always happened and something that is inevitable when men and seals live on the same island. Kotick asks the sea lion if there is an island where men never go. The sea lion says that he does not know of such an island but that Sea Vitch the walrus might.

The Jungle Book by David Ljungdahl image 04

Kotick and the walruses. 1915 illustration by the Swedish artist David Ljungdahl.

Kotick swims the six miles to the place where Sea Vitch and the other walruses live. The walruses all consider themselves to be superior to the young seal and refuse to give his question a proper response. Kotick then mocks Sea Vitch for living off clams and seaweed and never having caught a fish in his life. Various sea birds join in with Kotick's taunts. Sea Vitch then says that the Sea Cow might know of an island where men have never gone. Kotick asks how he could recognize the Sea Cow. A gull says that the Sea Cow is the only thing in the sea that is even uglier and has even worse manners than Sea Vitch the walrus.

When Kotick returns home, he finds that all of the other seals, including his mother and father, all accept the killing of a few seals each year as something that has always happened and something that cannot be stopped. They are not interested in looking for a new home where they will be safe.

In the autumn, Kotick leaves St. Paul's again. He begins to search for the Sea Cow. He also begins to search by himself for an island where no men have ever gone. He travels all around the Pacific Ocean but does not find any such island. Instead, he finds many islands where it is obvious that seals used to live before they were all killed off by hunters. Kotick even leaves the Pacific Ocean and travels far into the Indian Ocean. Off the coast of Mozambique, he meets a few seals who tell him that hunters go there too. Kotick sadly returns to St. Paul's. The following autumn, he sets off on the same quest again.

One evening, Kotick sees a group of strange looking sea animals that he has never seen before. He tries to talk to them but they do not answer. Instead, they carry on eating in a messy way. Kotick says aloud that they are the only creatures he has ever seen that are even uglier and have even worse manners than Sea Vitch the walrus. He then realizes that he has finally found the Sea Cow. Kotick speaks to the sea cows in all of the many languages he has learned on his travels. They cannot respond because sea cows do not talk. They communicate with each other by bowing and waving their flippers. Kotick thinks that sea cows are such idiots that they could only survive if they knew of a safe place where men never go. For that reason, he decides to follow them.

Becque - Livre de la jungle, p140

Kotick and the sea cows. 1924 illustration by the French artist Maurice de Becque.

The sea cows, with Kotick behind them, follow a current of warm water. They come to some steep cliffs. At the foot of the cliffs, twenty fathoms under the sea, is a tunnel. When Kotick comes out of the tunnel, he finds himself on an island similar to the one where he was born but where no man has ever been.

Kotick returns to St. Paul's and tells the other seals about the island he has found. Another seal of the same age mocks Kotick for spending all of his time looking for the island instead of finding a wife and having children. He points out that Kotick has consequently never had to fight for a good place for his children to be born. Kotick makes it clear that he is not afraid to fight. He says that he will fight the other seal on one condition. The other seal must come with Kotick to the island if Kotick wins the fight. Although Kotick has never fought before, he is in excellent condition. Unlike other male seals, that fast for four months each year, Kotick has had to maintain a good diet in order to keep his strength up on his long sea journeys. He wins the fight. He then goes on to attack several other seals. Kotick's father, Sea Catch, joins the fight on the side of his son. Sea Catch and Kotick having defeated them, all of the other seals agree to go with Kotick to the island.

A week later, Kotick leads ten thousand other seals to the island. Gradually, the seals abandon St. Paul's and spend every summer on the island Kotick has found for them where no man ever comes.

Adaptations

Director Chuck Jones adapted "The White Seal" for American television as a 24-minute animated film. The cartoon was first shown on CBS on March 24, 1975 and was also released theatrically. It faithfully follows the overall plot of the original short story and is also largely faithful to the spirit of Kipling's tale, although it does not always follow it to the absolute letter. In one of the most memorable scenes from the cartoon, Kotick saves the lives of a group of seals by temporarily frightening away a party of seal hunters who mistake him for the vengeful ghost of all the seals they have ever killed. The cartoon features the voice of the British actor Roddy McDowell as the narrator, the adult Kotick and most of the other characters. The voice of Kotick's mother is provided by the highly respected voice actress June Forray.

Footnotes

  1. The British magazine National Review was published between 1883 and 1960. Its name was changed to National and English Review in 1950. It is not to be confused with the American magazine National Review that has been published since 1955. In common with the American National Review, however, the British National Review presented a right-wing political perspective.
  2. The Juan Fernández Islands are found off the coast of Chile. The Scottish sailor Alexander Selkirk was marooned on one of the islands between 1704 and 1709. Daniel Defoe was probably inspired by his story to write Robinson Crusoe. Two of the islands are now named Alejandro Selkirk island and Robinson Crusoe Island.

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