The magic realism of Rudyard Kipling

My friend Judith took exception to my posting that “The Man Who Would Be King” was Rudyard Kipling’s greatest short story.  She said Kipling wrote a great many others that were better than that one.  

She loaned me several of her Kipling anthologies.  I didn’t read all the stories, but I read enough of them to convince me she was right.

Kipling is known for his stories of India.  He was born in 1865 and spent his early childhood there, then returned to work from 1883 to 1889 on newspapers there.  

As a newspaperman, he met all kinds of people, as he also did as a Freemason.  The Masonic Order admitted monotheists of many ethnicities and varied social standings.

He wrote poems and stories, including The Man Who Would Be King (1888), that made him an overnight success.  He left India at age 24 as a literary celebrity, and never went back except for one brief visit.  He died in 1936.  

As Judith pointed out, many of his best stories have nothing to do with India.

Kipling was a keen observer, a master of the English language and an inspired storyteller.  His stories bring to mind the phrase “magic realism.” 

He had a keen eye for details and got the details right, whether he was writing about civil engineering, tiger hunting or life in the trenches during World War One.  

At the same time, many of his stories had a supernatural or mystical or some other angle that went beyond the mundane, like the Latin American magic realist stories.  Maybe that’s one reason Jorge Luis Borges liked his writing so much.

Here is an account of my recent Judith-inspired reading of Kipling.

One of my faults is reading too fast, and not stopping to appreciate literary style or take in detail.  

Probably I would have done better just to have read a few and appreciated them more deeply, rather than greedily gobbling down so many in a short time, as is my habit.  But, as G.K. Chesterton said, anything worth doing is worth doing badly.

The first three in my list below are, in my opinion, equal to or better than “The Man Who Would Be King,” which I still think is great.   Not all of them are equally good, but I enjoyed them all and together they give an idea of Kipling’s range.


The Bridge-Builders (1893)

This was a mind-blowing story.

The bridge builders are Findlayson, a civil engineer in charge of building a bridge across the Ganges, plus Hitchcock, his assistant, and Peroo, his native assistant.  

These three are presented as the only important characters because only they are dedicated to the mission of completing the bridge.  Deaths of individual workers because of disease or accidents are not regarded as important.

Peroo is accepted by the other two as their equal in terms of competence and character, the only qualities they value, although he will never be, and never aspires to be, their equal in rank.

The first part of the story is about the obstacles they overcome—technical, administrative and political—and I at first thought the story was going to be about to be about heroes of science, engineering, discipline and the work ethic.  

But then, just as the bridge is almost, but not quite, completed, it is hit by a devastating flood.

Findlayson and Peroo are swept away by the waters and find themselves on an island in mid-river, where animals have also taken refuge.  

Peroo gives Findlayson a bit of opium to help him get through the night, and he begins to perceive the animals as talking avatars of the Hindu gods.

The crocodile, avatar of Mother Gunga, the goddess of the river, asks the other gods for their help in destroying the bridge and, by implication, Western civilization.

A tigress, representing Kali, the goddess of death is inclined to agree.  But Hanuman, the monkey god, recalls how his own exploit as a bridge-builder described in the Ramayana.

Other gods recall that the new bridges and roads have brought new worshipers to their shrines.  

Finally Lord Krishna arrives, and convinces them that they will flourish in the new civilization under different names, and, that in the end, it doesn’t matter because everything will revert to the jungle in the end.

Findlayson wakes up, barely remembering his vision, but it is implied that Peroo had the same vision and does remember.  Hitchcock and a local rajah show up on a steam launch, and tell Findlayson that the bridge has held.

 The Anglicized rajah says he’d like to stay, but unfortunately has to preside in a religious ceremony that afternoon, which is a damn bore.

The Miracle of Puron Bhagat (1894)

A high-caste Brahmin named Purum Dass gets an English education, becomes Prime Minister of one of India’s semi-independent princely states and influences its ruler to institute modern reforms, including road-building, medical dispensaries and education of girls.  

He is honored and respected by the English, receives honorary degrees from British universities and is made a Knight Commander of the Indian Empire by the Viceroy himself.  The day after, he disappears.  Unknown to all, he has become a mendicant beggar.

This is in line with the ideal four stages of a Brahmin’s life—20 years as a student, 20 years as a warrior (or in a career), 20 years as a householder (or executive) and the rest devoted to mystical practice.

Puron, now named Puron Bhagat, winds up in a village on the side of a mountain in northern India.  Animals become his friend, because he sits still and never looks at them directly.  Villagers bring him food because he is so obviously holy.

One stormy night, the animals come to him and urge him to leave his shelter.  He sees that a landslide is about to happen and will wipe out the village.  

Using his best Puron Dass command voice, he orders the villagers to leave their homes and flee to safety.  He himself stays behind and dies in the landslide.  The villagers build a shrine to him.

This illustrates one of Kipling’s key beliefs—that no Asian can ever become fully Europeanized, that they will always revert to type or live a double life.  It also illustrates his respect for the life of contemplation, but perhaps also his belief that action is what counts in the end.

The Church That Was at Antioch (1929) 

A Roman officer is involved with a key event in the history of early Christianity, the decision by Peter and Paul to refrain from enforcing Jewish dietary laws on non-Jewish Christians, without at all understanding the significance of the Christian movement.

The story reflects deep knowledge of both Roman culture and early Christian history.  The viewpoint character, Valens, is a follower of Mithras, a now-forgotten religion with many parallels to Christianity.  He regards the conflict between Christians and Synagogue Jews, and between Greek and Jewish Christians as a administrative matter, much as a British colonial official would regard conflicts between Muslims and Hindus.

But in the story, the actions of Valens are crucial to the survival and emergence of Christianity.  His practical wisdom and sense of justice motivate him to protect the Antioch Christian community from the anti-Christian mob.

And then, when he is fatally wounded, he urges his friends to forgive his killer for the killer knew not what he did.  Impressed by this Christian sentiment in a pagan and idol worshiper, Paul suggests the dying Valens be baptized.  Peter replies that God does not need human action to certify Valens is one of His own.

The Tomb of His Ancestors (1897)

A British family named Chinn has a tradition of serving a tribal people called the Bhil, some as civil servants and some as military officers of a Bhil regiment.  A new young lieutenant named John Chinn is believed to be the reincarnation of his revered grandfather, whose tomb is in the tribal area.

A tiger, with a mottled instead of a striped pelt, is terrorizing the tribal Bhir.  They say that the ghost of grandfather Chinn has come back and he is riding that tiger.  They wonder what they have done to displease Chinn’s spirit and how they can appease it.

It is up to the younger Chinn to kill the tiger, which he does standing and facing the tiger, with a single shot, and then to make things right with the tribal Bhir, which he also does.  His colonel wonders how he is going to put all this in a report.

Once again we see Kipling’s idea of the two-sidedness of native Indian life.  There is an obvious side, but also a hidden side that only the discerning see.  Also, we see the wish-fulfillment fantasy of having a foreign people treat you as a demigod.  It is a fine story, though.

The Wish House  (1924)

Grace Ashcroft, an elderly Sussex woman, tells an old friend about how she became separated from the love of her life, Harry Mockler, and how she met him many years later, sick and failing.  

She was told that such-and-such a house was a Wish House, and you could go there and ask that someone’s suffering be shifted onto yourself.  She goes to the house and asks to take on her lover’s suffering.

She has an ulcer on her leg, which is growing progressively worse, but she willingly takes on the burden of suffering because it will somehow help Harry, even though Harry will never know of it.

Was the Wish House real or delusional?  Did Grace’s embrace of suffering accomplish anything?  Is suffering redemptive?  How much does believing suffering is redemptive make it endurable?  Kipling left it to the reader to answer.

The Eye of Allah  (1926)

In the 13th century, a medieval monk named John Otho, aka John of Burgos, is a specialist in illuminating manuscripts.  He journeys to Spain for art supplies, where he has a mistress who dies in childbirth, and comes back.

John’s desire is to find new and better ways to paint devils, because he thinks evil is as deserving of attention as goodness.  He draws the devils that are driven out of Mary Magdalene as female, and the devils driven out of the Gadarene as beings similar to those he has seen through the Eye of Allah—that is, a microscope he had brought back from Spain.

He discusses the revelations of the Eye of Allah with the surgeon Roger of Salerno, Thomas the infirmarian,  the visiting philosopher Roger Bacon and Friar Stephen, the head abbot, each from their different standpoints as artist, philosopher, physicians and churchman.  So far as I can tell, Roger Bacon is the only known historical figure in the story.

Friar Stephen destroys the lens in the microscope.  He says it is less of a sin to suppress the Light than to give the world a Light for which it is not yet ready.

The Head of the District (1890)

The Viceroy appoints an over-educated Anglicized Bengali to be administrator of a northern district inhabited by fierce Muslim warriors.

The people of the district don’t mind being ruled by British, who are warriors like themselves, but they cannot tolerate being ruled by a Babu clerk. 

They immediately rebel against this perceived insult, but the rebellion is ruthlessly and bloodily put down by the British second in command and a Muslim tribal leader loyal to the British.

This is a counterpoint to the Puron Bhagat story.  Its point is the folly of would-be progressives who think they know more than the devoted practical men in the field.  It is also a tribute administrators in the field who don’t receive due compensation or appreciation from higher levels.

Dayspring Mishandled (1928)

A writer named Manallace comes to hate a critic named Castorley, but pretends to still be his friend.  

Castorley is regarded as a leading authority on Chaucer, and Manallace arranges for him to find what seems to be a previously unknown manuscript of Chaucer’s, but actually is Mallance’s forgery.

His plan is to wait until Castorley writes a book about his new finding, and then either show the public or just show Castorley himself that it is fake.

He finds that Castorley’s wife and his physician, who are lovers, want his plan to succeed, but he doesn’t want to be used for their purposes and holds back.  Castorley dies without knowing the truth, and Manallace never reveals it.

A Madonna of the Trenches (1924)

In a meeting of the Lodge of Instruction of the Masonic Order, a young man has a breakdown, evidently the result of post-traumatic stress disorder from his experience in the trenches during World War One.

It develops that he was triggered by a reminder of having first discovered that the death a sergeant, who was an old family friend, was a suicide, and then seeing seeing the sergeant’s ghost join with the ghost of his aunt, who had recently died.  The two had loved each other in life, although they were married to other people.  Now they were able to make love in the afterlife.

The title of the story makes me think it is a send-up of all the stories that came out of the war about miraculous sightings of angels, Jesus, the Virgin Mary, etc.

The Wireless (1902)

At the turn of the previous century, electricity and radio were regarded as magical and mysterious.  In this story, a pharmacist undertakes to receive a nighttime radio transmission from a fellow enthusiast.  

The transmission goes awry, but his assistant, who is tubercular and infatuated with a young women named Fanny, starts to channel the poetry of John Keats.  He evidently is a-tuned to Keats, just as the radio receiver is a-tuned to the transmitter.

The transmission is not Keats word-for-word.  Evidently Kipling thought he could improve on Keats.

Friendly Brook (1914)

Two Sussex farm laborers can’t understand why a certain farmer refuses to protect his hay rick from possible flooding by a nearby brook.  

He tells them the brook had been a good friend to him in drowning an extortionist who had been bleeding him and his mother for money.  If it pleased the brook “to take a snatch at my hay,” he says, he “wouldn’t withstand her.”

Among other things, the story reflects Kipling’s understanding of the environmental impact of road paving.  And also, like many of his other stories, his attention to ethnic and regional accents.


One Response to “The magic realism of Rudyard Kipling”

  1. Hank Stone Says:

    What extraordinary stories! Thanks for digging these up and sharing!


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