RUDYARD KIPLING’S KIM
A Paper Presented
As Part of Book Night
February 10, 2008
An adventure story more than a hundred years old is still part of a memorable, if imaginary,
2007, and found myself remembering scenes, attitudes, characters that I had first known in
Rudyard Kipling’s Kim. And on my return, when people said, “I have always wanted to go to
that be? I read it again myself to try to understand more exactly why – and then I read more about
it and its author to increase that understanding.
Kimball O’Hara comes
to life on the first page of the novel.
He is sitting astride a huge cannon in the
center of the city of
Kipling wrote a story about the
one, and the priest whose simplicity and trust were at variance with his
well-studied, deeply-felt faith and the intensity of his search for the River
of the Arrow, which would mark the end of his quest. And Kim was searching,
too, because his father had told him that if and when he found a red bull on a
green field and a colonel riding his horse and nine hundred devils, he would be
befriended by them. The boy did not realize that his father was referring to
the flag of his old Irish regiment, its commanding officer, and its nine
hundred men. When Kim did find them, he
became a player in what the English called the Great Game, the English Secret
Service, where spying in
Someone has said
Ali was another of Kim’s protectors, a villainous Afghan who played the
dangerous Great Game, spying for the English while traveling through much of
Kim was a master of disguise, and when he left school to travel with the lama, he took on the appearance of a young Indian, darkening his skin and wearing the loose clothing that he loved. He sometimes became a kind of interpreter between the English and the Indians. Some of Kipling’s humor comes through as he reports on one of the train trips that Kim and the lama take:
Kim was content to be where he was, to look out upon the flat North-Western landscape, and to talk to the changing mob of fellow-passengers. Even today, tickets and ticket-clipping are dark oppression to Indian rustics. They do not understand why, when they
have paid for a magic piece of paper, strangers should punch great pieces out of the charm. So, long and furious are the debates between travelers and Eurasian ticket-collectors. Kim assisted at two or three [of these] with grave advice, meant to darken counsel and to show off his wisdom…. (p. 193).
It was undoubtedly
this kind of comment that caused Kipling’s critics to accuse him of
condescension toward the Indians. But at the same time, almost every one of
them complimented him on his careful observation, a skill undoubtedly developed
during his years as a journalist, and it seems likely that there were instances
of such encounters in real life which he wove into his story. As with many other comments about Kim
and Kipling as a writer, there were flipsides: Kipling knew and loved
Almost all of Kipling’s colorful characters
come together in the final, rousing encounter of the novel. Hurree
Babu, a Bengali mistrusted even by his colleagues in
the Great Game, undertakes to ingratiate himself with two men, one Russian and one French – and therefore, of course, the bad guys – who
are gathering information about the northern part of
meet, the Russian attempts to grab a map sacred to the lama and tears it. Enraged, the lama strikes him and he falls down the side of a mountain. The Indians who have been working for the two Europeans are ready to fight because of the lama’s status as a holy man. The lama is distraught to think he has committed so violent an act, but the Babu stays with the interlopers and endures their mistreatments. For the purposes of the Secret Service, it is important to make it seem, at least, that things have returned to normal. Kim becomes ill and is nursed by a plain-speaking woman who lives nearby. Kim has managed to get the maps and drawings from the other two spies. Soon, Mahbub Ali arrives to congratulate the intrepid heroes for getting the valuable documents, and the garrulous Indian widow turns out to be not far away so she can assist Kim back to health and get a sense of the Great Game being played in her country.
Soon after all of this, the lama discovers the origin of the river he has been seeking. His quest is fulfilled, and Kim has become a young man whose quest for himself and his life is well begun. And so the story ends.
Another of Kipling’s major characters, in a sense, is the land itself. Across plains, up and down mountains, through cities with names that are rhythmic and exotic to ears accustomed to English, the action flows. And the land affects the characters deeply. The old lama seems to be fading away as they trek across the flat country, but he comes to new life when they turn toward the mountains, where Kim’s young strength is scarcely a match for his. Kim, on the other hand, comes to life in the thronged city streets. It is surely
Kipling’s descriptions of these contrasting backgrounds that lure so many people to travel to India, either in reality or in their dreams.
Not long ago, I
heard a quotation that has rung in my mind ever since: “Text without context is
pretext.” So – now for
a little context. Kipling, born
Another kind of
context is offered in a chronology featured in the Barnes and Noble Classics
paperback edition of Kim. During the year of its publication, 1901,
assassinated and succeeded by Theodore Roosevelt. Thomas Mann published Buddenbrooks and August Strindberg’s The Dance of Death appeared. Andre Malraux and American film producer Walt Disney were born. (pp. xi-xii) Mentions of the British royalty call to mind the belief, shared by many, that Kipling may have been considered for a knighthood, but did not receive one. For some years, his patriotism was questioned because he was not wholeheartedly in favor of some of the actions leading up to the First Word War. However, his eighteen-year-old son, a member of the Irish Guards, was killed in action in 1915, and Kipling wrote several books about that war, including The Irish Guards in the Great War, before his death in 1936, and he apparently redeemed himself, because his ashes were buried in Westminster Abbey.
At least three editions of Kim are still in print, many more available in libraries and used book
popularity of two films based on the book may have helped keep interest in the
book alive. The first was in 1950, listing Errol Flynn as the hero. He played
the somewhat disreputable Mahbub Ali, described in
the book as “the big burly Afghan, his beard dyed scarlet with lime (for he was
elderly and did not wish his grey hairs to show)….” (p. 21.) That does not
sound much like the dashing Errol Flynn of that time, but I have not seen the
movie recently, and would still consider Dean Stockwell,
the Kim with the luminous brown eyes, the hero, perhaps sharing stardom with
the setting in
strength of its characters. By the same token, Kim never became just a children’s book nor just a boy’s adventure. In fact, it has been described as “Kipling’s last and best novel.” (p. xi)
Jorge Luis Borges, the noted Argentine writer, was an admirer of Kipling. In An Introduction to English Literature, among very brief essays highlighting very few authors, he wrote admiringly:
One might say that he [Kipling]
went from geography to history, from space to time. He felt in Europe what he had hardly felt at
The last word can appropriately be that of an author rather unlike Kipling, in my view. After reading Kim, he wrote to Kipling to say:
The beauty, the quantity, the prodigality, the Ganges-flood, leave me simply gaping as your procession passes. … I find the boy himself a dazzling conception, but I find the lama more yet – a thing damnably and splendidly done. … The whole idea, the great many-coloured poem of their relation and their wild Odyssey--- [is] void of a false note and swarming with felicities that you can count much better than I. You make the general picture live and sound and shine, all by a myriad touches. (Quoted, p. xxix)
Thus wrote a generous contemporary novelist, Henry James.
(1) Jorge Luis Borges, An Introduction to English Literature (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1974) 57.
All quotations with page numbers are from: Rudyard Kipling, Kim ( New York: Barnes & Noble Classics, 2004).
I have no source to credit for the quote, “Text without context is pretext,” but I could not resist using it. If anyone knows the source, please let me know. Thanks!