Skip to Content
Search Icon


Rudyard Kipling

On the author of Kim.


Rudyard Kipling can be a tough ask for contemporary readers. But that’s nothing new: the ideas and associations that make him controversial now have restored to his fiction some of the shock and uncertainty with which his first readers greeted it. His whiggish High Victorian predecessors had disguised their skepticism with vague paeans to Providence; Kipling the arch-imperialist and conservative and (it turns out) freethinker does not even bother. Kipling the Anglo-Indian chronicler has preserved for posterity the hothouse social world of the imperial hill station, and he is disgusted by it; his rich and beautiful friends spend all their time cheating on their spouses or wondering whether they could. Everyone who explores Kipling for the first time with the last lines of “Gunga Din” echoing in his head from some unknown source has had the experience of realizing they are spoken by a thick-tongued old soldier who regrets having beaten his water carrier, and not a stentorian orator bearing a suspicious resemblance to an encyclopedia photo of Rudyard Kipling.

Antipathy to Kipling’s politics—and specifically his hard-headed investment in those politics—is not a modern invention, not for the loosest possible definition of modern. As early as 1892, Robert Louis Stevenson was writing to Henry James that “you and Barrie and Kipling are now my Muses Three. And with Kipling, as you know, there are reservations to be made.” James himself, who’d begun reading Kipling with a pleasure that with James passes for unqualified, had downgraded him by then to “a prodigious little success and an unqualified little happiness and a dear little chap” who had proven unable to turn anything but “steam and patriotism” into grist for his mill.

His admirers and critics, then as now, were constantly in search of their own particular man, what the critic Eliot L. Gilbert (following Hemingway) has called “The Good Kipling.” Across time and space no two Good Kiplings are alike, but generally a Good Kipling is committed to the short story, and to the journalistic, proto-modernist discovery of an individual by his minute actions and affectations. He has spent time in India and dissected its social world but does not have strong opinions about how it might be run. If he writes verse, a Good Kipling runs to irony and the musical appreciation of middle-class speech, with no King James speechifying and no leading-article exhortations on the news of the day.

Mostly, in 1901 and right now, the Good Kipling is the Kipling who wrote Kim, a novel that matches his great gifts to his great subject. All anxieties about distinguishing the Good Kipling from the Bad are swept away before it; here Kipling has subordinated his judgement to his powers of observation, and his taste for aphorism to his understanding of character. Scenes of colonial India flash by, packed with characters and cultures, and are made real and comprehensible without heavy-handed analogizing on one side or the exaggeration of differences (with us or among themselves) on the other.

There has been so much time to consider the Good Kipling—and so much raw material for the production of your own—because the complete Kipling arrived in print younger than any writer since Dickens. The stories that would be collected in Plain Tales from the Hills began to appear in Lahore’s Civil and Military Gazette in 1884. Kipling was almost nineteen, a sub-editor at the paper, and he lived with his parents. He had spent just two years in India since his childhood, and he appears to have had little first-hand experience of the thoughtless and flimsy Anglo-Indian society that marked his first great subject. But he wrote fiction with a voice whose authority suggested he knew much more about this small world (and the vast one beyond its borders) than the grown men and women, the old India hands, he wrote about.

Incredibly, the grown men and women largely agreed with him. One of the Plain Tales appeared in 1884, then one more in 1885, and then ten in 1886, and then twenty-one in 1887, seven of them in a single month. This Kipling, too productive and confident to be an apprentice but hardly old enough to be a master, is already concerned with the rapid and precise accumulation of detail he would perfect in Kim, but he outsources the processing of it to his narrator, a sub-editor named Rudyard Kipling who is aware of and even consulted in a long parade of love triangles and regimental struggles and character-building pranks. He knows, if it’s possible, even more than he is letting on; by way of explanation he is constantly saying “this cannot be proved, but,” or “but that is another story,” or “I know this because,” citing himself up by his bootstraps.

Plain Tales runs to forty stories, each centered around some once-in-a-lifetime incident, and even this early Kipling sometimes notices his unlikely omniscience and bequeaths a share of his startling powers of observation to someone else. But his first recurring heroes are subject to the same limitation as Kipling himself: it is impossible to live a life as fully as Kipling was capable of observing one. Likewise it is difficult to depict as ambivalent a position as Kipling held except in art, a fact that has exasperated contemporary critics no more than his friends and colleagues, who knew a cheerful and personable man who wrote thoughtful and complex fiction and lived and died with the dourest chain-letter predictions of Tory partisans.

In fiction Kipling could be the bulwark of empire and the farsighted skeptic, and in Kim he created a hero who could actually live a life full enough to keep up. The orphaned son of dissipated Irish expats, Kim slips through Lahore indistinguishable from a native, not just speaking but thinking (as Kipling repeatedly insists) Hindustani, thriving as the cleverest and most personable beggar boy in a city full of them. Having been born apart—but only just—he is indispensable to “sleek and shiny young men of fashion” of every creed, comfortable in Hindu or Buddhist or Muslim circles. (Comfortable as everything except a European: “He lived in a life wild as that of the Arabian Nights,” Kipling says, “but missionaries and secretaries of charitable societies could not see the beauty of it.”) Performing countless errands and begging for his bread he becomes “The Little Friend of all the World,” wiser and more worldly than the men who commission him.

Kipling’s closest literary friend was H. Rider Haggard, whose King Solomon’s Mines introduced the eclipse-prediction trick; quick-thinking European almanac-readers have used it ever since to demonstrate their celestial powers before furious natives and medieval knights. Kipling’s Englishmen rarely survive their attempts to exploit this kind of knowledge. In one early story our smug young narrator tries to expose a magical fraud who’s been using British telegraph lines to extort money from another old native only to discover he’s fallen between two stools, unable to intervene without breaking colonial laws and unwelcome among the complicated and canny men and women whose plans he felt entitled to disrupt. Kim is different; Kim was born with his eyes open, and manages to use variations on the eclipse trick against every culture present in India. He becomes indispensable to a Muslim horsetrader, a wealthy northern widow, the whole of British intelligence, and most importantly a guileless Tibetan lama, who meets him in Lahore while searching for the river that washes away all sin and comes to believe (with a nudge from Kim himself) that this urchin he’s found perched atop an old cannon might be his otherworldly guide.

Kipling is up to the task of giving his hyper-resourceful child hero appropriately novel ways to make his way in the world, and his prose is purpose-built to create the impression of Kim sprinting around through his elders’ legs, squirreling away every sotto voce secret and observing every novel practice. I hate the word “cinematic,” because I like books better than movies and do not accept the premise that movies have anything to teach books, but there are scenes in Kim where you feel like you are moving through a crowded train car, overhearing six conversations in four languages. You can see it and you can hear it. And I suppose film is another medium that sometimes produces this effect.

It is easy to understand why people read Kipling the way they do, and the qualities fans of the Good Kipling fear are undoubtedly present, even in Kim; that he is equally convinced of the fitness of “in the blood” explanations for idiot Englishmen and idiot Indians is both true and hardly grounds for a full pardon. But there’s a real generosity and fullness in his treatment of this huge, granular, largely unfamiliar world that is obscured rather than obliterated by the conclusions he sometimes draws from it. At times our well-meaning contemporaries have done worse by their cultural acquaintances by turning them into Us But With Different Food, as though on a sufficiently long timescale the final form of every world religion and philosophy is American Netflix Dramedy. Kipling clearly believes in the value of the discrete worlds in which Kim wanders, and their ability to teach things to each other and to educated English types.

If you can see wide and deep, as Kipling could, and you have no preconceptions, as Kim does not, the world is a strange place, lively and endless. Kim is all-knowing, like Kipling, but credulous, like an orphan boy with no education, and it’s Kipling’s great achievement to see these characteristics not just as co-existing, but as convincing facets of the same personality. Kim is really a Boy and a Genius, not just a Boy Genius. Frequently he believes (and we believe) that he has things under control, that he can manipulate the poor provincial saps around him and the bare facts of a situation to produce the result he desires, only to find that he’s suddenly spellbound by what he believed was his own trick, his own scheme. In spite of his acuity and facility, in spite of his incredible winning streak, he is marked by every person he fools.

The Good Kipling, the sharp-eyed proto-modernist, knew at nineteen that the things he loved were not only fragile but sometimes hardly worth the trouble; it’s possible that was the secret wound a Bad Kipling could spoil a dinner party by nursing. Though he loves his industrial civilization and his empire, he cannot quite be convinced that they are the real thing. (They are, he knows, certainly not the only thing.) And though he is a rational man, a modern man who loves cars and reveres a well-oiled bureaucracy, he cannot escape noticing that a hundred yards beyond the cramped facsimile high streets where educated Anglo-Indians make asses of themselves there is a world that is entirely beyond their control.

Kim is a much more suitable and enriching home for Kipling’s quasi-skepticism than the more boastingly cosmopolitan narrators of his early fiction, and the novel seems to have permitted Kipling to free his powers of observation from the battlements through which their owner watched world affairs. Kim is not subscribed to the morning paper, and he is not pushing his way through London literary society, and he does not feel (as Kipling clearly felt) that the fates of all men of all cultures rest on his ability to move popular opinion with his ballads on current events. He is free to pass through the world without putting himself in harness and trying to move it. And by the time he and the lama reach their river, Kim’s lifelong attendance at both sides of the stage curtain has left him open to one thing Kipling could never quite see himself—the sudden destabilizing intrusion of belief into skepticism, the urgent “and then” of the Gospel of Mark.

Lionel Trilling, no fan of Kipling, saw Kim as suggesting “not only a multitude of ways of life, but even different modes of thought . . . whatever one might come to feel personally about religion, a reading of Kim could not fail to establish religion’s factual reality.” Kim’s only knowledge of his Irish father comes from something the half-caste woman who cares for him had heard the dead man talk about, his daydreamy provisions for Kim’s future. “Some day,” she tells Kim, “there will come for you a great Red Bull on a green field, and the Colonel riding on his tall horse, yes, and nine hundred devils.” It is a description of poor dead Kimball O’Hara’s regiment marching beneath their flag, transmuted into a spell, and for Kim it is not distinguishable from any other kind of magic.

The Little Friend of all the World is capable of winking good-naturedly at any religion or institution if the gesture is worth food or shelter. From the moment he meets the lama he believes himself to be taking care of the older man, too shriveled up and unworldly to purchase his own train ticket, to even pronounce the word “train.” And then, because Kim can see so clearly—and then, with nothing having happened to convince him he’s wrong about the crowded and venal world he navigates so easily—he is struck dumb by the sudden conviction (borne of love and of the recognition of his own ignorance) that the lama might truly be able to talk to snakes. In a world like that the key thing to do is to watch.

Dan Moore lives in Tucson, Arizona with his wife and children.