May 11

wtf moments rereading kipling #1-3

FT8 comments • 1,168 views

For reasons old and new, I started rereading Kipling about three months ago: just as I did for O-Level Eng Lit in 1974-75 , except a lot more systematically this time (ie all of it, soup to nuts: 1888-1937). I won’t be posting big reviews, probably — but I will be drawing attention, without too much comment, to stuff that made me LOL or gasp and stretch my eyes.

The first I actually unleashed on tumblr a few weeks ago:
“The rain had turned the pith of his huge and snowy solah topee into an evil-smelling dough, and it had closed on his head like a half-opened mushroom.” (From ‘The Arrest of Lieutenant Golightly’, in Plain Tales of the Hills, 1888)

The second is from the children’s story I remember most fondly (so the fact that I’m issuing a MAJOR TRIGGER WARNING about what’s under the cut perhaps signals the wtf-ness of it): “Then 10 or 12 men, each with an iron-bound club three or four feet long, came up, and Kerick pointed out one or two of the drove that were bitten by their companions or were too hot, and the men kicked those aside with their heavy boots made of the skin of a walrus’s throat, and then Kerick said: ‘Let go!’ and then the men clubbed the seals on the head as fast as they could. Ten minutes later little Kotick did not recognise his friends any more, for their skins were ripped off from the nose to the hind flippers—whipped off and thrown down on the ground in a pile.” (from ‘The White Seal’, The Jungle Book, 1894)

And the third, for now, is Kipling’s these-days startling (and upsetting) use of the (mainly other-way-round) swastika as his personal symbol. He adopted it (along with Ganesha the Elephant God) as a Hindu sign of good fortune, and dropped it, decisively and angrily, when the Nazis made it theirs–but several of the editions I have are my gran’s, published before WW1, and so still display it (v.awkward for book-handling on buses etc). I doubt it’s entirely random that the seal who rescues all his kind from the seal-clubbers, who discovers safe beaches that man can’t invade, is a WHITE seal, though I didn’t at all notice this as a kid (I read it as a sign of interesting fluffy cuteness; and RK does state that this is the only white seal there ever was). Kipling’s worldview was of course unremittingly racialised, but it was never exterminationist: if anything, he was aggressively multicultural, believing (correctly) that the jostle and tumult of difference was good for everyone; that gated communities are always stupid and boring communities. Anyway, that’s enough wtf and er non-commentary for now.


  1. 1
    Tom on 11 May 2011 #

    Most of my Kiplings are the swastika-editions too – including a copy of that very Rewards And Fairies – and, er, yes.

  2. 2
    thefatgit on 25 May 2011 #

    Somebody once told me that the swastika was 4 conjoined L’s (life, love, luck and learning) although that seems rather twee.

  3. 3
    enitharmon on 26 May 2011 #

    And hardly commensurate with the symbol’s origins in Hinduism. What are the Sanskrit words for life, love, luck and learning?

  4. 4
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 26 May 2011 #

    fatgit is correct that the figure had picked up this symbolic freight by the early 20th century, at least in the US: http://rexcurry.net/swastika-liberty-life-light-love-luck-alphabetic-symbolism1910.JPG

    kipling travelled and lived in america in the 1890s, so he may well have been aware of this — but as a tiny he lived at the museum his dad ran in lahore, which was full of artefacts of hindu and other indian mythology, and that’s where he would first have seen the swastika and ganesh

    to be honest, it’s the kind of layered joke and reference RK liked, and i’m not actually sure when he adopted it as his sigil

  5. 5
    thefatgit on 26 May 2011 #

    No idea, but I guess it could have been adopted to teach young children some kind of value system during The Raj, using familiar symbols…not by missionaries obv.

  6. 6
    thefatgit on 26 May 2011 #

    Cheers Mark, I had no knowledge of it’s use in the US.

  7. 7
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 26 May 2011 #

    Here’s the Kipling Society’s own page on it:

    which includes an 1894 illustration — by his dad, Lockwood K — for a story by someone else, featuring an elephant with a swastika head-dress

    But RK may well have encountered the American version — he was fascinated by symbolism, as well as an active freemason — and included that in his rationale: he liked stories that linked mankind together as much as he liked categorising peoples and faiths into boxes and types

  8. 8

    […] I tweeted my immediate feelings on what I’d read, and got a response from a thoughtful blogger of Kipling (amongst many other […]

Add your comment

(Register to guarantee your comments don't get marked as spam.)


Required (Your email address will not be published)

Top of page