Monday, December 30, 2013

A Young Boy's Epic Quest

by Rudyard Kipling

“He sat in defiance of municipal orders, astride the gun Zam-Zammeh, on her old platform, opposite the old Ajaib gher, the Wonder House, as the natives called the Lahore Museum. Who hold Zam-Zammah, that 'fire-breathing dragon', hold the Punjab, for the great green-bronze piece is always first of the conqueror's loot.”   ― Rudyard Kipling, Kim

Today is the anniversary of the birth of Rudyard Kipling on this day in 1865. As a young boy I enjoyed reading the stories of the young boy Mowgli who is raised by wolves in the Indian jungle and "Rikki-Tikki-Tavi", the story of a heroic mongoose, in his wonderful Jungle Books.  But my favorite book of all the Kipling I have read is his novel entitled simply Kim.

While it is one of the most beautiful tales of friendship I have ever read, Kim is much more. Rudyard Kipling created in Kim a novel in the mold of the classic heroic journey that has a pedigree reaching back to Gilgamesh and the Odyssey. With Kim, a young white boy, sahib, at it's center and his friend and mentor the Lama, we see the world of India in the nineteenth century as it is ruled by Great Britain. The story unfolds against the backdrop of The Great Game, the international political conflict between Russia and Britain in Central Asia. It is set after the Second Afghan War which ended in 1881, but before the Third. The novel is notable for its detailed portrait of the people, culture, and varied religions of India.

While Kim is often categorized as a children's novel it has much to offer adult readers not unlike other "children's" books like Huckleberry Finn. Kipling raises questions of identity (Who is Kim? In appearance a young Indian boy, but in reality an orphan whose Irish father came to India as representative of the Crown), culture, spirituality and the nature of fate. Most of all he depicts the growth of a young man through his quest to find his destiny and the bond that develops between Kim as 'chela' or disciple and his Lama. The young boy Kim starts out with the cleverness he obtains from living in the streets, but his cleverness gradually becomes thoughtfulness as his adventures and his Lama stimulate his growing maturity.  

The greatness of this novel lies in Kipling's ability to combine all of these themes with a natural style that conveys the richness both of the lives of Kim and his friends and the fecundity of life in India; a vivid picture of India, its teeming populations, religions, and superstitions, and the life of the bazaars and the road. One of the most enduring images for me was the close tie Kim has with the land itself. This is shown several times throughout the novel culminating in his final renewal when he is stretched out on the earth near the end of the novel. The epic quest is successful as this novel unfolds a positive and uplifting narrative.

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Brian Joseph said...

Great commentary James.

Though I have not read this many like yourself have recommenced it. The greatest "children's" novels do indeed tackle issues of great weight,

Have a Happy New Years!

James said...

Thanks for your comment. And a Happy New Year to you as well.