Kim, by Rudyard Kipling
Few modern English readers could enjoy Rudyard Kipling’s ‘Kim’ in the way Kipling intended it to be enjoyed. Kipling was an Imperialist, and ‘Kim’ embodies attitudes towards British rule in India which these days are unacceptable. But as a work of fiction it does have fine literary qualities, and it and deserves its unique place in the history of English literature.
The novel embodies a panoramic celebration of India, presenting as it does, a magnificent picture of its landscapes, both urban and rural, and a fascinating array of native characters who, for the most part, are warm, generous and tolerant.
Beyond that, ‘Kim’ is an adventure story of the Empire, giving it something in common with the novels of Joseph Conrad, such as Heart of Darkness (which is now also attacked for its colonial attitudes). The readership in 1901 would have been fascinated by ‘Kim’ as an exotic tale of adventure overseas.
By birth Kim is an Irish boy, Kimball O’Hara, whose father was a soldier. But he has grown up as an orphan on the streets of Lahore, ‘a poor white of the very poorest’, looked after by a half-cast woman, probably a prostitute.
The story begins when Kim teams up with a Tibetan lama, Teshoo lama, who wanders into Lahore to look at the Buddhist relics in Lahore museum. The lama is on a Buddhist quest, following ‘The Way’ to free himself from the ‘Wheel of Things’.
Kim is fascinated by the wandering stranger, and when the lama assumes that Kim has been sent to him as his ‘chela’ (disciple) Kim readily accepts the role and joins him on his journey, with the intention of also following his own quest, to find the meaning of a prophecy that was made by his father. This prophecy eventually gives rise to the second strand of the plot – Kim’s recruitment as a spy in the British Secret Service.
The friendship between this unlikely pair is one of the main attractions of ‘Kim’, which is a novel about male friendships, primarily between Kim and Teshoo lama, but also between Kim and Colonel Creighton and his colleagues.
Women do play a role in the novel, but not as objects of romantic or sexual attachment. Women feature as prostitutes, or providers, though some respect is shown for the two principle women characters, the woman of Shamlegh, and the widow of Kulu, the latter taking on a motherly role towards the end, healing Kim when he is ill.
The two companions become interdependent, Kim’s association with the lama providing him with an excuse to travel around India, and an ideal cover (later in the story) for his role as a spy, while the lama often relies on Kim to do their begging and find them shelter, often physically leaning on Kim’s shoulder as they travel.
Kim defines his identity during his adventures by being open to influences; responding positively to people he can look up to, while warding off influences which he finds abrasive. When the story opens the influences on him have been almost exclusively Indian. His white skin, his identity papers, and his in-built tendency to own and rule will prove to be central to the identity he is seeking to build, but neither at the beginning nor the end does he think of himself as a ‘sahib’, and his encounter with the white man’s world is at first a traumatic experience.
In chapter 5, when he finally finds the prophesied ‘Nine hundred first-class devils, whose God was a Red Bull on a green field’, (his father’s old regiment), he is captured by the soldiers and his instinct is to escape back to the lama. This is the first close encounter with a group of white men Kim has had in his life, and Kipling uses it to show a clash of native and British mentality, with Kim and the lama showing the native side, and the members of the regiment showing aspects of British mentality which Kipling holds up for criticism.
Kim is effectively imprisoned by the soldiers, forced to wear for the first time ‘a horrible stiff suit that rasped his arms and legs’, and told that the bazaar is ‘out o’ bounds’. And his torments grow worse as Kipling continues to subject him to the worst that the British have to offer. The schoolmaster is a brutal insensitive man from whom Kim scents ‘evil’, and the drummer boy who guards Kim, representing the average young British soldier, is shown as an ignorant fool who calls the natives ‘niggers’.
In Colonel Creighton Kim finds a white man he can respect; a father-figure, a European counterpart of the lama. Creighton is wise, educated, experienced, and compassionate; the opposite end of the spectrum to Reverend Bennett, the drummer boy, and the schoolmaster. He recognises Kim’s intelligence and special skills, and although he plays a small part in the story he is, as the highest-ranking representative of the British Government, and the person to whom Kim is responsible, a pillar of the whole novel and one of the most important influences on Kim in his quest to define himself.
When his schooling is complete Kim’s training as a spy under Creighton’s associates continues, one of his teachers being the ‘shaib’ Lurgan. Lurgan, in his house adorned with ritual devil-dance masks, and his ability to heal sick jewels, seems to be a practitioner of the occult, and perhaps in creating this character Kipling was drawing on his interest in the mysticism of Madame Blavatsky and Theosophists which was popular during his youth.
Kim takes to the ‘Great Game’ of spying like a duck to water. It suits his independent, inquisitive, adventurous personality perfectly, being a natural development for the child who loved the ‘game’ of running secret missions across the rooftops of Lahore.
During his schooling and training Kim and the lama have to part, although Kim insists on joining the lama in his holidays, and re-joins him permanently when his schooling is complete, though now using him partly as a cover for his spying operations.
At the climax of the novel Kim is sent on a mission to intercept two foreign spies, one Russian, one French, who are operating in the Himalayas.
High in the Himalayas Kim and the lama reach the road’s end, and both of their journeys reach a crisis point. Kim is instrumental, along with the Babu, in thwarting the foreign spies, their mission being particularly successful because the foreign spies never realise that Kim and the Babu are secret agents.
The lama is involved in bringing about the climax, because it is one of the spies tearing the lama’s diagram of the Buddhist universe, then striking him in the face, that provokes Kim into fighting him, which in turn leads to a mutiny of the foreign spies’ coolies, which enables Kim to get hold of the spies’ secret documents. The fight also seems to precipitate the end of the lama’s quest, by making him aware of all his remaining attachments.
Both are weakened and suffer as a result of the battles. Kim develops a worrying cough, and the lama is so weak that he needs to be carried down the mountains on a stretcher. Back on the plains their missions are completed. Kim passes on the secret documents, which have been weighing on his mind, to the Babu, and the lama, finds his River of the Arrow and comes face to face with the ‘Great Soul’.
One theme which might be felt to be running under the surface of ‘Kim’, is Kim’s search for parents. At the beginning it is emphasised that Kim is an orphan, who never knew his mother, and that his deceased father was a drunkard. Perhaps he is looking for new parents, and finds a combined father figure in the lama, who in the closing scene calls him ‘Son of my Soul’ and Colonel Creighton, who has been a father-figure since his time at St. Xavier’s.
As a mother figure, Kim finds the woman from Kulu, who, in the final chapter of the novel, heals and restores him. ‘She looks upon him as her son’, says the lama. Kim calls her ‘Mother’, and tells her, ‘I had no mother, my mother . . . died, they tell me, when I was young’.
This need for mothering comes to a head in the final chapter, but throughout the novel the orphan Kim has seemed to get along perfectly well without real parents, with surrogate mother and father figures being available when he needs them. The novel ends at the point where, on the brink of adulthood and secure in his career with the Secret Service, Kim no longer needs parents.
According to many accounts Kipling himself was happy growing up in India until the age of 6, then, when his family moved to England, he was sent to live with foster parents who were cruel and made his life a five-year-long trauma, (which Kipling recorded in his short story ‘Baa Baa Black Sheep’ and alluded to in the opening of ‘The Light That Failed’). Perhaps the young Kipling was furious with his parents for abandoning him and his sister without warning in this lodging house for five years, and perhaps the novel ‘Kim’ is the adult Kipling’s wish-fulfilment fantasy of how good life might have been if instead of being uprooted he could have stayed on in India, on his own, without his parents.
In the final chapter, as well as receiving ‘mothering’, Kim comes as close as he ever does to feeling he has discovered his identity:
‘I am Kim. I am Kim. And what is Kim? His soul repeated it again and again . . . tears trickled down his nose and with an almost audible click he felt the wheels of his being lock up anew on the world without.’
Copyright Ian Mackean. Read the full version of this essay at: