Still burning bright: Helen Dunmore encounters the solitary, charismatic tiger of our imagination


In 1858, some 60 years after the publication of William Blake's poem "The Tyger" in Songs of Innocence and Experience, a man with a very different purpose was bringing the flesh-and-blood tiger to Britain.

Edward Blyth was born in 1810, and travelled to India in 1841 to become Curator of the Museum of the Royal Asiatic Society in Bengal. He corresponded with Charles Darwin, who acknowledged the importance of Blyth's thinking and fieldwork, describing him as one "whose opinion, from his large and varied stories of knowledge, I should value more than that of almost anyone". But Blyth the zoologist was also in need of money, and so he built up a trade in rare animals.

We can follow the trail of a single tiger acquired by Blyth following the annexation of Oudh (Awadh) by the British East India Company in 1856. When the Nawab of Lucknow's remarkable menagerie was broken up and sold, Blyth bought up stock. Christine Brandon-Jones, in her Journal of the History of Biology article "Edward Blyth, Charles Darwin and the Animal Trade in Nineteenth Century India and Britain", describes Blyth's speculation:

"The tigers were the finest caged specimens in the world, and to one who understood their value in the European market, the inducement to buy and ship the animals was irresistible. A German friend joined in the speculation, and found funds. Blyth was to do the rest, and as no competitors offered, he bought the bulk of the collection for a trifle."

The animals shipped to Britain included, according to the Annals and Magazine of Natural History, a particularly fine tiger: "By 'Nile' which proceeded down the river yesterday, we hear that the celebrated huge Tiger, 'Jungla', the largest and most beautiful of the famous fighting tigers of Lucknow, is shipped for sale in England. This splendid animal is not only remarkable for his size, which far surpasses that of any tiger or lion yet seen in Europe, but for the extraordinary beauty of his colouring and markings – having all his body-stripes double. We doubt not that he will become an object of great admiration for his size and beauty."

Jungla reached Britain alive and well, and appears in a black-and-white drawing by JG Wood in his Illustrated Natural History. This is Wood's description of Jungla in captivity at Belle Vue Zoo in Manchester: "'Jungla' is one of the finest, if not the very finest Tiger that has ever set foot on English ground, and even when penned in the straight limits of a wooden cage that would not permit his noble head to be raised to its full height, and only gave room for a single short step backwards and forwards, his grand proportions were most striking... He has been matched against many antagonists, and always came off victorious in the fight, whether his opponent were a strong-horned and hard-headed buffalo, or a Tiger like himself. The last Tiger to which he was opposed was killed in fifteen minutes."

How many children would have gone to see Jungla, and witnessed the fights in which this tiger took part? Menageries, the predecessors of Zoological Gardens, along with Rare Beast Shows and Wild Beast Shows, introduced the British to creatures that they would never see in the wild. Lord Byron saw the tigers at Cross's Menagerie at Exeter Exchange, The Strand, on 14 November 1813: "Two nights ago I saw the tigers sup at Exeter 'Change. Except Veli Pacha's lion in the Morea, who followed the Arab keeper like a dog, – the fondness of the hyaena for her keeper amused me most. Such a conversazione! – There was a 'hippopotamus' like Lord Liverpool in the face; and the 'Ursine Sloth' hath the very voice and manner of my valet – but the tiger talked too much."

These tigers, imported to Britain as a result of exploration and later empire, embodied an exotic territory of otherness and symbolised Britain's reach into distant lands. The capturing and bringing back of these wild beasts represented, perhaps, a double conquest: the human conquest of the wild, as well as Western European colonisation of the countries where these animals' habitat lay. The tiger began to loom large in the imagination of British childhood.

From Kipling to Judith Kerr, writers for children have turned the tiger into an icon: charismatic, solitary and haunting. Like Blake, they have asked of the tiger the question: who, or what are you? What kind of meaning can we, human beings, find in you, wild creature that is so much stronger than we are, and yet is also utterly subdued by killing or captivity? The tiger comes to represent that which is outside the security of the human cave. Should the tiger be destroyed, in order to demonstrate the hunter's courage?

Kipling's Shere Khan, in The Jungle Book, is a disturbing fictional tiger, lame and a man-hunter. He bides his time, taking years to plan his revenge on Mowgli. He uses the worst instincts of the wolf-pack in order to turn it against the "man-cub". Shere Khan is not only solitary but also disruptive, manipulative and malignant.

By contrast, the wolf pack lives according to a strict, inherited code which preserves the individual wolf within the values of the tribe. Mowgli's eventual hunting down and killing of Shere Khan succeeds because he uses his knowledge of terrain as well as psychology and physiology to anticipate what Shere Khan will do and how he can be outwitted. Mowgli skins Shere Khan, as he has long ago sworn to do, and lays the skin on the Council Rock.

Shere Khan is apparently destroyed - and yet Mowgli, in "Letting in the Jungle", later observes that although Shere Khan's hide lies on the Rock, he does not know "where Shere Khan has gone". This suggests some indestructible quality in the tiger, which remains potent even when the animal is trampled by buffalo and skinned. The tiger's solitude epitomises rejection of the herd instinct and tribal values. Its isolation is also interpreted as pride, its camouflage as cunning, its successful hunting as pitilessness.

But if the tiger is the eternal outsider, there is a parallel struggle to enclose and domesticate it. The landscape of childhood is haunted by the wildness of the tiger, but it also encloses the tiger. In everything from wallpaper to duvet cover, from lampshade to mouse-mat, there are tiger stripes. Cots are crammed with toy tigers. In the tiger-skin rug the wild beast is laid low, made safe for a child to roll on.

Similarly, fiction can make the tiger cosy. Tiger becomes "Tigger", a soft toy so remote from its wild state that it even has to ask "What do Tiggers eat?" and to express itself by "bouncing". This is a far cry from the economical and deadly pounce of the tiger. Judith Kerr, in The Tiger Who Came to Tea, brilliantly exploits the fantasy of a domesticated tiger who can be invited into the home. This tiger is a beguiling but highly ambiguous figure. He consumes everything, down to the water in the taps. While apparently participating in an evolved human ritual – the tea party – he exploits and undermines it by doing exactly what every child is taught not to do. He eats all the cakes, drinks all the tea, and exits with perfect sangfroid, after thanking the family as if his plunder had been a free gift. In Judith Kerr's book, the tiger, polite as he is, holds all the cards.

The tiger in the wild, however, holds none, and is more endangered than it has ever been. Its habitat is shrinking. It is a commodity, to be farmed or hunted for its body parts. Judith Kerr's fictional tiger may strip the kitchen cupboards bare, but in reality the tiger is a prime object of human consumption.

The charisma of the tiger is once again its undoing, although now, rather than wanting to make a tiger fight a buffalo, humans convince themselves that by swallowing its body parts they will cure disease. In Chinese traditional medicine, the tiger is considered so potent that even an eyeball may cure malaria. The tiger's magnificence stirs up a thousand stories, but the human imagination that cherishes the tiger also brings about its destruction.

Helen Dunmore will talk about the tiger on Tuesday 11 June in a series in which leading writers partner top conservationists at ZSL London Zoo: Her latest novel is 'The Greatcoat' (Hammer)