Kim (Rudyard Kipling)

Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010

Kim (Rudyard Kipling)

Kim (Rudyard Kipling) (1901)

Written for a British audience during the Second Boer War (1899-1902), RUDYARD KIPLING'S young adult spy novel Kim humanizes the face of the cultural masquerader in the British Empire. The author introduced his boy HERO story in 11 installments in McClure’s Magazine from December 1900 to October 1901 and simultaneously in Cassell’s Magazine from January to November 1901, the year of Queen Victoria's death. The episodic narrative reveals Britain's rivalry with Russia over Central Asia as well as nostalgia for outmoded concepts of colonization and control. The setting is the Grand Trunk Road from Afghanistan to Bengal along the western Indian frontier, a crucible of global power struggle. Details emphasize an exoticism that panders to the European's oriental stereotypes, such as the romance of the Punjab, the seediness of a bazaar, and the affinity of Asians for lying, deception, and superstition. Kipling rhapsodizes on foreign strangeness: “All India is full of holy men stammering gospels in strange tongues; shaken and consumed in the fires of their own zeal; dreams, babblers and visionaries: as it has been from the beginning and will continue to the end” (Kipling 1901, 32). His idealization of the mystic prepares the reader for Kim's first encounter with the hypocrisy of white Christians.

The protagonist, Kimball “Kim” O'Hara, a plucky white waif and introspective errand boy, lives a rootless Peter Pan existence in Lahore, India (present-day Pakistan), where Kipling worked from 1882 to January 1888 as the assistant editor of the Civil and Military Gazette. His fictional boy is the result of the marriage of English nursemaid Annie Shott to Kimball O'Hara, an Irish color sergeant. At their deaths in 1878 from the standard colonial scourges—she from cholera and he from addiction to alcohol and opium—the 13-year-old “goes native” by slipping into Indian street society. He becomes what Kipling calls “the Two-Sided Man” (179), a person capable of understanding Eastern and Western perspectives. The text indicates that Kim's melding into an Indian milieu is made possible by the boy's wily nature and by his familiarity with local squalor and with British militarism, two extremes of Asian colonization. A scion of imperial servants, he bears multiple inner strengths: “Temperate, kindly, wise, of ungrudging disposition, a merry heart upon the road, never forgetting, learned, truthful, courteous” (255). More practical to his journey are his skill in spying and his fluency in Hindi and Urdu as well as English and dialects spoken by Afghans, Muslims, Sikhs, and Tibetans.

Imperial Threats

While composing the picaresque exploits of an Anglo-Indian teenager, Kipling feared the threat at that time from Russian expansion into India through the Bolan and Khyber passes. He prefigured Russian incursions into the British Raj in the short story “The Man Who Was” (1890), the poems “The Ballad of the King's Jest” (1890) and “The Truce of the Bear” (1898), and he continued that theme in the cloak-and-dagger scenes of Kim. When the character is introduced, he is sitting astride Zam- Zammah (lion's roar), a 14-foot cannon that is an icon of “might makes right” from the old Afghan Durrani Empire. He accompanies Teshoo Lama, a wandering Buddhist holy man from Tibet, on the first of the novel's three adventures. A standard literature ploy dating to classic Greek drama, the identification of an orphan by a totem, birthmark, or symbol, rescues Kim from living by his wits. Recognized by the chaplain of his father's British regiment, he turns to the lama's spiritual influence and mourns his alienation: “I am all alone in this land, I know not where I go nor what shall befall me” (122). Enrolled for three years at St. Xavier's, an English school in Lucknow, during his holidays Kim masters surveillance and the “Great Game” of espionage. He accepts recruitment by Babu, a Bengali British intelligence agent (205). Subtextually, Kipling criticizes the British for inveigling an underage orphan into dangerous underground assignments, a career that literature stereotypes as the lone work of the expatriate, and outcast.

The author echoes Arthurian lore—the neophyte warrior king's dilemma between love for the world (Guenevere and Camelot) and for the spirit of duty, embodied in the magician and sage Merlin. As a member of the British Secret Service, Kim, by now age 17, seeks a clear vision of empire, symbolized by a red bull on a green field, the insignia of his father's regiment. The boy spy finds himself split between quasi-Indian discipleship to the Holy One and his membership by right of blood in the imperialist sahibs. Literary historian Zohreh T. Sullivan explains: “The contradictory pattern of desire—to be loved and to control—underlying the familial trope of a world in which mother England would be caretaker to lesser children of imperial Gods was produced by the political machinery of empire” (Sullivan 1993, 2). At a high point in the action, Kim's journey to the Himalayas along the IndoTibetan border brings him into direct contract with two Russian agents posing as hunters. The successful outcome is achieved by skills that only a wanderer of the empire can claim—a familiarity with the crossroads of culture and language and a sophistication acquired from self-redeeming experience in a multinational contretemps that presages the cold war.

In 1950, Errol Flynn and Dean Stockwell starred in an MGM adaptation of Kim. A made- for-TV version in 1984 paired Peter O'Toole and Ravi Sheth.


Hopkirk, Peter. Quest for Kim. Ann Arbor: University of

Michigan Press, 1999.

Kipling, Rudyard. Kim. London: Macmillan, 1901. Simmons, Diane. The Narcissism of Empire: Loss, Rage and Revenge in Thomas De Quincey, Robert Louis Stevenson, Arthur Conan Doyle, Rudyard Kipling, and Isak Dinesen. Eastbourne, U.K.: Sussex Academic Press, 2007.

Sullivan, Zohreh T. Narratives of Empire: The Fictions of Rudyard Kipling. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.