The Man Who would be King & Other Stories, by Rudyard Kipling (V)

Finishing off the review – this part is longer, but I didn’t think it was worse splitting it in two. So, this is all, folks!


“Wee Willie Winkie” has similar themes, but more success as a story in its own right, probably because there’s more substance to it. As I noted earlier in comparing the ‘Rickshaw stories with the Deodar stories, Kipling’s attacks on society work better when they’re veiled behind some pretext; and here we get the pretext of the Afghan Wars. Wee Willie Winkie (not only does Wee Willie Winkie go by a nickname, but he gives everyone else nicknames as well…) is a child who lives in an army camp, and his father cannot distinguish between child-rearing and military discipline. There’s plenty of questioning of English society here, and plenty more questioning of British political tactics, as this is a border post continually shot at by Afghans. The distinction between English and native is again questioned: an easily-crossed river is all that divides helpful, civilised, loyal Pashtuns from howling fanatic semi-human Afghans, and individuals may cross from being one to being the other with ease; meanwhile the child protagonist, six years old, still cannot master proper English pronunciation, but is of course entirely fluent in Pashto and two other ‘vernaculars’. In that regard, it recalls the English nurse in “His Majesty the King” – English in every way, but that she has her “ancestral home” in Calcutta.

[Sorry, tangent: in the same passage there’s a wonderfully evocative description of someone who has left India: they “went over the sea to the Great Unknown”. The Great Unknown is called ‘Home’, but only really in the sense that people talk of dying as ‘going home’ to heaven. Kipling’s audience back in the Great Unknown may be reading his entertaining little stories of India to get a glimpse of what is alien and strange, but for Kipling it is England that is the foreign country. Many of his countrymen in India would be born, would live, and would die, without ever glimpsing the Great Unknown. And yet the Unknown is everything to them. Nobody really knows anything about the Unknown – most people only saw it as children, if at all, and those who left as adults don’t want to talk about it – yet it is the locus of all hopes and dreams. In “The Man Who Would Be King”, for instance, it at times appears as though the thrones of all the earth count for nothing but the chance to be introduced first at a society event back in the Great Unknown. All the petty jockeying for social status in the hill towns – they may not always mention it, but the whole of their lives amounts to imitation of the third-hand reports of the fashions of Home, in a vain attempt to go up one tick in the ranking of society back Home, even if they never actually get to go Home (do note that capital letter, by the way). I suggested above that the Empire is a religion – here, England itself is a religion. It seems (and I’m thinking here also of the newspaperman in “The Man Who Would Be King” forced to stay up into the early hours of the morning on the offchance of hearing by cable that some minor celebrity in Europe may or may not have died) as though India is almost a purgatory, or worse, a life on earth, in some terrible Calvinist earth where everything is vile and unsalvageable, and England is the far-off heaven to which all can aspire (and from which some have been exiled, and which many or most secretly dread the discovery of). Kipling sometimes reads like a militant atheist, an atheist who is so furious in denying his god, his England, that he ends up sounding more pious than the true believer.]

“Wee Willie Winkie” is perhaps even more robust in critiquing British Imperialism than “The Man Who Would Be King”, because the twee little tone and the lisping child protagonist inure us to the bite. We almost don’t notice the description of English policies toward the locals: “that regiment are devils. They broke Khoda Yar’s breastbone with kicks”. We’re so caught up in the petty travails of our child hero that we don’t take in the full impact of the explanation of why the Afghans do little more than make a token show of sniping at the English from the hills – it’s because if they did anything more serious, the English “will fire and rape and plunder for a month, till nothing remains”. Yup, Our Heroes are safe in their occupation of the conquered lands, because if anything goes wrong Our Heroes can just rape all the women and beat people to death and set fire to all the families. Yay! Oh, there’s no equivocation here, it’s right there in front of us: British rule is founded on rape and murder. But that’s OK, because isn’t little Winkie sooo cute? Yay for a happy little children’s story!

Oh, and I also loved this moment where a helpful hero explains gender and class politics to young Winkie, in a kindly way: “you see, one of these days Miss Allardyce will belong to me, but you’ll grow up and command the Regiment.” I’m not sure who to pity most – the man who says it, who may possess Miss Allardyce but who can never have a position of command and will never be more than a well-uniformed servant of his betters, Miss Allardyce who has to turn into a possession, or poor Winkie, who will have all the responsibility of being in charge of a regiment, whether or not he wants to be or has any aptitude for it, and probably will never have even the disturbingly-financialised-and-only-partly-consensual sort of genuine romance that Miss Allardyce and her beau may look forward to, instead drifting into his fate as one of the “remote and silent people… among a wilderness of pigeon-holes”.

But it’s a happy little children’s story. “Baa Baa, Black Sheep”… isn’t. Oh dear god is it not. Among all the stories I have read, ever, this may just be among the least nice. Oh, I’ve read far, far more explicitly horrible things. And I’ve read, explicit or not, things that were just a lot more nasty on an absolute scale – even a couple of the stories in this book have much more absolute unpleasantness than this one.

But the difference is that those are stories. There’s an element of detachment the reader develops about the brutal and fantastical things that happen to strange fictional people in faraway places. “Baa Baa, Black Sheep” is different for two reasons: firstly, because it is sufficiently low-key, detailed and realistic to be really viscerally believable, and, more than that, directly relatable to (most of us have never been in a bayonet fight, so while it must be terrifying we sort of have to take it on faith – we’ve all been children, and even those of us who had happy childhoods can probably imagine all too easily an unhappy one that might have been). And, secondly, because it’s not just realistic… it’s real. He doesn’t say so explicitly, but this is Kipling’s autobiography of his abusive childhood. Knowing that makes it twice as hard to read.

Let’s not get into the details here, because this really is something it’s better to read for yourself. And in a way it’s the most important story in the collection. In one way, it’s important because more than anything else you could read, this may just explain Kipling to you, or at least how Kipling saw himself, or how he saw himself at the time he was writing this. And in the other way… well, the British Empire is all very well, but the Empire fell. Yes, we still have people in camps being shot sporadically at by Afghans, but in most respects the world has changed considerably. But we still have children. We still have bullies at school; we still have neglectful or sadistic parents; we still have teenage delinquents. The superficialities may have changed, but this remains a story with a burning relevance to the modern world.

Probably the most peculiar thing about this horrible story is the way that Kipling condemns only one character, or maybe two. Everybody else, there are excuses made. Most strikingly, Kipling’s parents are here presented in a very sympathetic and blameless light; indeed, his mother is virtually a saint here… but at the same time, he fails to provide any adequate excuse for their abandonment of him, other than that society and duty made it convenient. The actions of his parents and his attitude toward them seem not to connect. How can Kipling not be filled with rage and betrayal when he thinks of them? How can he be so sympathetic toward them? Well, when you look at other parents in his stories, in stories where perhaps he was more able to distance the characters from his own experience, it’s hard not to think that here is an author with serious issues toward his parents. But he doesn’t express them in the autobiographical stories. Is it, perhaps, that he can’t? It’s an unjustified leap, but it would explain a lot if Kipling felt resentment toward his parents but felt that he ought not to. It would make sense not only in helping to explain his behaviour in this particular story, but perhaps also his approach elsewhere. I said above that Kipling is remarkable in how much effort he goes to to find a way not to condemn almost all of his characters, and I do wonder how much of that stems from his childhood experiences, and from feeling some need to love and accept people for whom he may have held very mixed feelings.

“Baa, Baa, Black Sheep” is at the heart of Kipling’s career, I think – indeed, it explicitly notes how bad experiences and the attitude they teach, the mark they leave on the soul, can never be erased, no matter how good the life that follows. Kipling phrases this in terms of ‘Hate’ and ‘Suspicion’, and indeed that seems a pretty fair description of the young man we can imagine writing these stories: a young man on the one hand filled with hatred and suspicion, particularly toward unfeeling social rules and toward authority figures, and yet at the same time filled with a sense of obligation to always be fair and impartial and not to condemn. It’s a fascinating tension in his writing, and having read this story I can’t help but see all his other characters at least partly through the lens of his own childhood experiences. Perhaps it’s even wrong to imagine he’s talking about Empire at all…

It should also be pointed out that Kipling pretty much admits that his childhood gave him what might loosely be described as a ‘fuck you’ attitude toward everybody else; and in this regard, I have to link together his later analysis of his literary career as a series of elaborate lies, of literature as only being an advanced form of lying, with his not merely pathological but aggressively subversive, hostile, lying in “Baa, Baa, Black Sheep”, as well as to his later claim that in order for his work to be acclaimed by some, it must be offensive to others. Kipling may be a man who makes excuses for people and tries to see both sides of the argument, but he is not by any means a conciliatory or consensual personality. That childhood hostility is still simmering through every one of these stories – he’s like a soldier looking for a war to fight.

And it’s no doubt significant also that Punch, the Kipling-substitute in this story, is… well, obnoxious, frankly. [N.B. of course Punch is Punch; Judy probably is really Judy, but Punch is a male, so has no real name, just a nickname, or in this case two]. Kipling puts very little effort into making himself seem likeable at all – he’s ridiculously spoilt, arrogant, superior. Kipling seems again to be almost trying to justify the way he was abused, showing us how much he deserved it, while at the same time bitterly angry, and at the same time refusing to back down one inch. Kipling the author, like Punch the child, has turned out as somebody who when challenged for being one step over a line instinctively wants to take two steps further, even if he’d never intended to cross the line in the first place. Some may be amused that one particular way in which we are shown the obnoxiousness of Punch/Kipling is through his overt racism and classism, which Kipling portrays as ignorant and childish. But you get the impression that if there’s one way to make Kipling do something ignorant and childish, it’s to tell him he mustn’t. Throughout this collection, every time Kipling’s said something racist or sexist or classist, whether as a narrator or in the voice of a character, there’s been a feeling of iconoclasm about it, a young man, or a child, farting loudly to see how uncomfortable it makes the hypocrites around him.

[Not to give away too much about the plot, but it does also help explain, I think, Kipling’s adult attitude (blasé and yet fascinated) toward death]

Finally, I can’t let one thing go without mention: I didn’t think Kipling would ever have a ‘kickass’ moment, but here it is. It’s when Kipling abruptly stops talking to us and instead begins a paragraph “O Punch”. It feels as though we’ve made it through the fire, and have arrived at the Kipling of the Just-So Stories. It would, of course, be more than a decade before he wrote them, but with the advantage of hindsight it’s a powerful foreshadowing moment of what was to come. And at the same time it gives those later stories an added poignancy – Kipling, we may think, is not just talking to a child, but to himself, or at any rate trying to make a childhood right to balance out how his own childhood went wrong. It feels so bittersweet to think of him addressing a child with O my best beloved after reading this story, and so defiant in its way for him to want to achieve intimacy and honesty and closeness with a child specifically through the ‘lies’ and literature that were for him the product and cause of alienation and isolation. I don’t think I’ll read ‘O best beloved’ again without hearing at least a little echo of ‘O Punch’ about it.


But there’s one more story here. “The Drums of the Fore and Aft”. This was… hilarious. People will probably try to tell you that this story is an adulation of war and violence and imperialism. I can only assume the same people say the same about Blackadder Goes Forth. The story may be deadpan, may be superficially supportive of imperial policy, but the bile and scorn are slapped on thick, and Blackadder’s Melchett would look the greatest general in the world compared to anybody in any position of authority here. The irony kicks in within the first page, with “the soldier, and the soldier of today more particularly, should not be blamed for falling back. He should be shot or hanged afterwards, to encourage the others; but he should not be vilified in the newspapers, for that is want of tact” (my italics), and doesn’t let up. You just stare in bewilderment at the words going by, and eventually you have to either have a fit and set fire to the book, or burst out laughing. I have to conclude the latter was the intent, because there is no subtlety in the irony, and a man not being ironic would be unlikely to adopt the epigrammatic, flippant, Wildean style that Kipling uses. [“The ideal soldier should of course think for himself – the Pocket-book says so. Unfortunately, to obtain this virtue he has to pass through the phase of thinking of himself, and that is misdirected genius.”]

But like all good irony, it’s true from both directions. Kipling’s views on the army are probably what he thought, may well be good military theory – but that doesn’t mean he’s not being ironic in how he utters them. Likewise, Kipling commits wholeheartedly to the adventure and tragedy of his story, despite the continual flippant asides that seem to render the entire enterprise worthless.

It’s a simple story. We’re back in the Afghan wars (or as Kipling puts it, the long crusade to “half-educate everything that wears trousers”), this time headed for an actual battle. And here we see what we were missing in stories like “The Man Who Would Be King”, because there’s nothing second-hand here, we’re thrown right into the action, and it’s brutal and thrilling and vividly real.

Kipling was a hugely commercial writer; and he was also the youngest Nobel Laureate ever (and in a time when the Nobel committee still took the clauses about pacifism and ‘idealism’ seriously). And “The Drums of the Fore and Aft” is a great demonstration of why – it’s because Kipling is an author who is deeply ironic in the true sense, an author who is writing for many different audiences. I’m sure a large segment of duller and stuffier old military men in his day would have been nodding sagely over this story and its ruminations on military theory and what’s gone wrong with the army of today, not noticing the ironic tone. Others, perhaps the Nobel committee, would read it as a stylish, witty deconstruction of military hubris and a condemnation of the class system. And then there are others who would just have read it for the darn good bayonet fight, which is grippingly written no matter your politics.

I do want, though, to briefly point up just one thing: the idea, raised before, that the English are the weak ones. Specifically, here we see the inferiority (in some ways, at least) of the middle and upper classes toward their own lower classes, as well as their inferiority compared to other races. This combines with the theme I’ve also touched on of denying the differences between the races, because here the army is divided for us between the ‘white’ soldiers and the three groups of non-‘white’ soldiers: the Sikhs, the Gurkas, and the Scots (as in the other stories, we see again that colour, like nationality, is a matter of behaviour, not identity for Kipling – just as pagan Kafirs can fundamentally be ‘Englishmen’, the Scots are as barbarian as any Gurka despite the colour of their skin and their native language). These three are presented as terrifying and dangerous, the men who do this killing stuff for their business (and for fun), rather than the silly little English playing games they don’t understand. The Gurkhas and the Sikhs have their own barbaric religions and strange customs, but worst of all of course are the transvestite Scots, who have… Presbyterianism…


Anyway (the heavens be praised!) I’ve run out of things to talk about now. I’m sorry that the above was all so unstructured and rambling – I wrote it off the top of my head, over a long period of time, and I’m perfectly aware that what I should do now is go back and edit it into some sort of presentable shape. But I’m buggered if I’m doing that, frankly I’m surprised I’m not just deleting the file and setting fire to the computer. This is why I don’t read short story collections. I don’t want to even think about Kipling for a long time now…

But I should end by bringing a few things together. By having a, what might one call it, oh I don’t know, some sort of actual review, perhaps?

Here’s some bullet points instead:

–          if you try this book and don’t like the early stories, persevere. The society stuff is the weakest – not because Kipling doesn’t have real points to make, but because he makes them better when he can disguise them in a plot, and when there are more topics to hand than just people being silly

–          worth bearing in mind that Kipling was stupidly young when he wrote these, and some seem much more sophisticated than others

–          Leaving aside the literary quality, which is variable (but sometimes very high), they’re fascinating stories just for the glimpse into life in Kipling’s day. Kipling was famous as a ‘journalistic’ writer, and clearly is portraying a more intimate, less idealised, conception of society than most of his contemporaries. In particular, he’s unusual in taking the lower social classes seriously, although these particularly stories only occasionally feature them – when they do appear, they may be given dodgily-written accents , but they’re people we very rarely get to meet at all in the work of other writers, so I think we should appreciate what Kipling shows us here

–          I don’t think I got around to mentioning it above but one interesting thing here is just the language itself. When he’s being formal, it’s fair enough, but sometimes he becomes informal, and reflects the informal language of his day. And this is… difficult. Here’s a relatively easy exchange:

  • One character: “I took the Hawley Boy to a kala jugga.”
  • Other character: “Did he want much taking?”
  • First character: “Lots! There was an arrangement of looseboxes in kanats.”
  • Me: “…”.

–          Or how about this one:

  • “Say, old man, how you got puckrowed, eh? Kiswasti you wasn’t hanged for your ugly face, hey?… Hya!… You go down-country. Khana get, peenikapanee get – live like a bloomin Rajah ke marfik. That’s a better bandobust than baynit get it in your innards.” Well quite… (don’t worry, most of the writing is a lot more obvious than this… though I was struck by the extent to which the colloquial language of the military in particular is, while usually understandable, subtly and continually different from modern idioms.

–          which of these are worth reading? I’d say:

  • ‘The Hill of Illusion’ is a beautifully tragic conversation
  • ‘The Drums of the Fore and Aft’ is a great story on many levels, both gripping and funny
  • ‘Baa Baa Black Sheep’ is really sad, and tells you a lot about the author. These three are probably the must-reads, in my opinion.
  • ‘The Phantom ‘Rickshaw’ is worth reading as more or less a perfectly executed Victorian ghost story
  • ‘The Strange Ride of Morrowbie Jukes’ is worth reading because it’s really strange and unsettling
  • ‘A Wayside Comedy’ is not a comedy, but is a very good little relationship drama
  • ‘The Man Who Would Be King’ you probably should read, because it’s an all-time classic and is filled with themes you could think about, even if it’s probably not the best story of the bunch
  • Those seven are probably enough. But you may as well through in ‘My Very Own Ghost Story’ and ‘Wee Willie Winkie’, which are interesting in their own ways
  • ‘His Majesty the King’ is well-written, but rather slight
  • To be honest, I wouldn’t bother with ‘The Education of Otis Yeere’, ‘A Second-Rate Woman’ and ‘Only a Subaltern’ unless you’re a completist or really interested in the setting or author. Or really like the style, but other authors do it better.
  • ‘At the Pit’s Mouth’ is outright bad, although not entirely worthless even then.


I don’t really know how to judge short story collections (by the average? by the best? by the mode?), but here’s a stab:

Adrenaline: 3/5. Some of the stories are quite gripping, but others are very slow, so I guess this is fair
Emotion: 3/5. Deep emotional engagement isn’t the point of most of the stories, but when it is Kipling’s more than capable of wringing it out
Thought: 3/5. I’ve obviously thought quite a lot about these stories above, but that’s because I’ve chosen to, not, in most cases, because the stories made me. But at the same time, Kipling does try to make his stories interesting
Beauty: 3/5. Mostly fairly prosaic, but he does bring in some really beautiful descriptions when he feels like it.
Craft: 4/5. Some of the stories clearly show a very young writer who still has some rough edges. But all show great talent, and some are really well-made stories. You can almost see Kipling growing as a writer before your eyes, if you juxtapose some of these tales.
Endearingness: 2/5. There’s a lot here that’s interesting, but there’s relatively little here that’s, well, endearing. This isn’t a collection of stories about likeable people having pleasant adventures and everything ending heroically and well. Most characters are grey at best, and are in any case usually at a considerable distance from the reader. The world is grey and grimy and sarcastic, and a great deal of tragedy happens.
Originality: 5/5. Some stories do feel too derivative, particularly the social satires. But there are also a lot of stories here that I can’t imagine being written by anybody else, and there’s considerable variety in tone, in form and in content. Kipling may only have been in his early twenties when these stories were published, but anyone reading them must surely have been in no doubt that the author was not simply a talented entertainer but a true original voice.

OVERALL: 5/7. GOOD. This is I suppose what you’d expect. On the one hand, Kipling is a Nobel Laureate whose work is still popular a century later, so you’d expect a fair amount of quality, especially as one of these stories is among his most famous works. Yet at the same time, this is only a small collection of stories published as a young man, long before the peak of his career, so it would probably be to much to expect polished brilliance right from the off. The result is a collection that’s well worth reading (and, after all, the entire thing’s only 200 pages!), both for the literature and for the historical interest, but not a book I’d rush out to buy if I lost my copy tomorrow. “Baa, Baa, Black Sheep” is, however, probably a must-read for anybody who really wants to understand Kipling as a person.

One thought on “The Man Who would be King & Other Stories, by Rudyard Kipling (V)

  1. […] discussion of “The Man Who would be King”, plus “His Majesty the King”) Part 5 (discussion of “Wee Willie Winkie”, “Baa, Baa, Black Sheep”, and “The […]

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