Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book

By Jen Cadwallader, Randolph-Macon College

graveyard-book-coverOne of the challenges facing any instructor of Victorian literature is helping students see how studying the concerns and values of the past helps them better understand their lives in the present. This same preoccupation engages Neil Gaiman in The Graveyard Book (2008), where Nobody “Bod” Owens must learn to negotiate between the values of the graveyard, where he is raised by ghosts long dead, and the contemporary world of the living, with which he must interact. Adaptation in multiple senses thus becomes a central focus of the novel. More specifically, The Graveyard Book adapts – although “resurrects” might be more fitting – the Mowgli stories from Rudyard Kipling’s two Jungle Books (1894, 1895). Major characters such as Mowgli, Bagheera, Baloo, and Shere Khan are recognizable in Gaiman’s Bod, Silas, Miss Lupescu, and the man Jack; readers of both works will see similarities between a number of minor characters as well. Gaiman’s episodic structure (each chapter is a story about Bod set roughly two years after the previous one) recalls the format of Kipling’s Jungle Books, though not all of Kipling’s stories focus on Mowgli. A difficulty in pairing The Graveyard Book with the Jungle Books are the number of stories in Kipling’s collections, some of which have not held up as well as others. Faculty interested in the stories most closely related to The Graveyard Book might want to limit the assigned readings to “Mowgli’s Brothers,” “Kaa’s Hunting,” “Tiger! Tiger!,” “Letting in the Jungle,” and “The King’s Ankus.”

TJunglebookCoverhe Graveyard Book, which won both the Carnegie and the Newbery Medals (notably the first novel to do so), is a richly layered narrative with much material for stimulating discussion. In addition to the issues of continuity and temporality that Gaiman’s novel raises through its juxtaposition of the past and present, the dead and living, pairing it with Kipling’s work may help students reflect on the nature of the Victorian bildungsroman. Kipling’s Mowgli famously helped inspire the creation of the Cub Scouts and embodies the “romanticized child” of the late-Victorian era. Bod’s journey toward adulthood reimagines the qualities of masculinity and innocence inherent in Victorian concepts of childhood. Alternatively, faculty may be interested in focusing on the Jungle Books’ participation in the boys’ adventure genre, with its stress on nationalism and empire. The Graveyard Book, as scholars have noted, steers clear of less palatable imperialistic ideology while still providing ample material for discussions of identity and community and cultural exchange.

Questions for Discussion

In The Graveyard Book, Bod is granted the “Freedom of the Graveyard.” How does this compare to the “Law of the Jungle” in Kipling’s stories? How do the behaviors associated with Gaiman’s “Freedom” and Kipling’s “Law” reflect shifting cultural perceptions of childhood?

Gaiman transforms the Indian jungle into a neglected graveyard and instead of wild animals peoples his novel with ghosts, ghouls, vampires and werewolves. How do both settings capture their eras’ ideas of fantasy worlds or spaces outside of their readers’ day-to-day lives?

Much contemporary debate on child-rearing focuses on the dangers of childhood: should children be allowed the freedoms of earlier generations, or do they need to be more protected in a world that has grown more dangerous? Should children be exposed to the idea of these dangers, or should we “sanitize” the material we place before them? The first sentence of The Graveyard Book – “There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife” – which stands alone on a page illustrated by Dave McKean, immediately invites discussion of this controversy. Looking particularly at Bod and Scarlett’s adventures with the Sleer (and her parents’ reactions) how else does Gaiman challenge contemporary notions of what is suitable for children? Do Mowgli’s adventures reflect any of the same concerns about childhood?

Both Mowgli and Bod must make places for themselves in the world outside the jungle and graveyard. How do both protagonists navigate this transition? What particular values from their upbringings help them critically examine the societies they enter?

Further Reading

Carpenter, Humphrey. Secret Gardens: A Study of the Golden Age of Children’s Literature. Boston: Houghton, 1985.

McBratney, John. “Imperial Subjects, Imperial Space in Kipling’s Jungle Book.” Victorian Studies 35.3 (1992): 277-293.

McStotts, Christine. “The Jungle, the Graveyard, and the Feral Child: Imitating and Transforming Kipling Beyond Pastiche.” Neil Gaiman in the 21st Century: Essays on the Novels, Children’s Stories, Online Writings, Comics, and Other Works. Ed. Tara Prescott. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2015. 65-82.

Randall, Don. Kipling’s Imperial Boy: Adolescence and Cultural Hybridity. New York: Palgrave, 2000.

Robertson, Christine. “‘I want to be like you:’ Riffs on Kipling in Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book.” Children’s Literature Association Quarterly 36.2 (2011): 164-189.