Rudyard Kipling, Kim; Captains Courageous
September 4, 2012 § 2 Comments
‘True. True talk,’ said Kim solemnly. ‘Fools speak of a cat when a woman is brought to bed, for instance. I have heard them.’
‘Therefore, in one situate as thou art, it particularly behoves thee to remember this with both kinds of faces. Among Sahibs, never forgetting thou art a Sahib; among the folk of Hind, always remembering thou art – ‘ He paused, with a puzzled smile.
‘What am I? Mussalman, Hindu, Jain, or Buddhist? That is a hard knot.’
‘Thou art beyond question an unbeliever, and therefore thou wilt be damned. So says my Law – or I think it does. But thou art also my Little Friend of all the World, and I love thee. So says my heart. This matter of creeds is like horseflesh. The wise man knows horses are good – that there is a profit to be made from all; and for myself – but that I am a good Sunni and hate the men of Tirah – I could believe the same of all the Faiths. Now manifestly a Kathiawar mare taken form the sands of her birthplace and removed to the west of Bengal founders – nor is even a Balkh stallion (and there are no better horses than those of Balkh, were they not so heavy in the shoulder) of any account in the great Northern deserts beside the snow-camels I have seen. Therefore I say in my heart the Faiths are like the horses. Each has merit in its own country.’ (from Ch. 8 of Kim)
A century after two of his most famous novels, Captains Courageous (1897) and Kim (1901), were written, Rudyard Kipling’s stories defy simple categorizations. Are they children’s tales, to be passed down with a nod and a wink to children, with little more thought to be given to them? Are they adventure tales foremost, full of vim and vigor to slake the thirst of even the most jaded of readers? Or do his tales contain elements that need a more lengthy contemplation before they bear ripe fruit? Perhaps it is all of the above, with the measure depending upon the reader.
One common thread that links Captains Courageous and Kim (and the not-reviewed Jungle Books) is the near-total absence of parental involvement. Either the parents are dead (in the case of Kim) or they are at some physical remove from their son (Captains Courageous). This is not an isolated case; many more writers of children’s/adventure novels frequently utilize the trope of the orphaned/abandoned/lost child in order to establish the setting and plot dynamics. However, in Kipling’s case, the lack of parental involvement also contains a thematic element, that of the wiping away of cultural preconceptions. This can be seen in a child removed from the rest of humanity, a youth raised among a different culture, or an adolescent who has his class privilege wiped away when he is shipwrecked and then rescued by sailors. In each of these, a transformation occurs that is a précis for greater societal change.
Of the two, Captains Courageous is the simpler, more straight-forward. It is the tale of fifteen year-old Harvey Cheyne, a bored, feckless, and spoiled rotten child of a rail magnate. He has access to all sorts of wealth yet is shown in the opening scenes to be impoverished when it comes to understanding people. It is his shipwreck and subsequent rescue, where his inheritance does not buy him the sailors’ respect, where we see an interesting convergence of theme and plot. On one level, Captains Courageous is fast-paced, action-packed; it can be read and enjoyed as such without ever needing to consider what else is unfolding. Then there is the coming-of-age aspect, as we witness Harvey’s maturation and his deepening appreciation for not just his fellow sailors (as he comes to see them by story’s end), but also for his own family, which he had begun to view as little more than objects of manipulation.
If one wants to delve a bit further, there is a reading that supports the notion that Kipling was interested in exploring fraternity by means of showing not just how Harvey manages to integrate himself into the ship’s culture, but in how the characters (with the possible exception of the cook; there are a few occasions of casual racism in this regard) come to form a greater brotherhood that is not divided by national origin or social/economic class. It certainly was something that Kipling has hinted at in the fictions that I’ve read, but here it is not alluded to as much as it can be detected through certain character interactions. In Kim, this sense of fraternity is much stronger; Kim’s love for the Lama, his interactions with the Pashtun horse trader Mahbub Ali, and his eventual involvement in the “Great Game” (a sort of Cold War analogue between the British and the Russians over Afghanistan, Persia/Iran, and Central Asia during the last decades of the 19th century) make him a metaphorical bridge over several socio-cultural divides present in late 19th century India.
Kim is an orphan who grew up living on the streets of Lahore; he is “white” and yet not so culturally due to his being raised outside his culture. For many, Kipling’s treatment of Kim and his non-white friends is somewhat problematic; in his attempt to convey this sense of brotherhood, there are occasions in which a simplistic, if not distorted, view of the issues confronting Indians of all sects and nationalities. Yet despite these problematic areas, Kim resonates with readers because of its expert melding of espionage and adventure elements with its nuanced treatment of spiritual matters. One gets the sense that by the novel’s conclusion, there is no one set way to interpret the events that have unfolded; as Ali says above, “like the horses…each has merit in his own country.”
Both Captains Courageous and Kim are exemplary examples of late Victorian juvenile (and adult) literature. Each possesses its own inimitable style; certainly there are several passages from each that could be quoted here to illustrate this. The characterizations are developed quickly and yet there is never the sense that even the minor characters are sketchy or underdeveloped. As noted above, each can be read on multiple levels, depending upon one’s preference. All in all, each are classics that deserve to be read and re-read as one ages.