Posted in Short Stories

“Bees are not men.”

Since I’ve been reading the works of Jack London and Rudyard Kipling, I’ve wondered whether they knew each other and what they may have thought of each other’s work.  As they lived and wrote during approximately the same time period (turn of the twentieth century), I’d be curious as to whether they would have anything to say to each other.  After reading London’s short story, “The Strength of the Strong”, I have an inkling of what might have taken place if they had met.

The anthology I’ve been using to read London’s short stories has been Jack London: Short Stories edited by Earle Labor; Robert C. Leitz III; I. Milo Shepard.  The notes for this short story indicate that London wrote this as a reply to a short story that Kipling wrote called “The Adventures of Melissa” (originally published as “The Mother Hive”) in which Kipling attacked Socialism.  According to these notes, London also told a fellow writer that “No one was in the slightest way aware of the point of my story”.

Short stories of Jack London: Authorized one-volume edition

“The Strength of the Strong” is told by a prehistoric grandfather to his prehistoric grandsons.  The grandfather explains that people used to live in trees by themselves and they only had the strength of “one”.  When they realized that together, they might have the strength of “ten”, people moved from the trees to caves.  Then they discovered that some of them could hunt, some could protect, some could cook.  After a while, some of the people became stronger than others and took all the land.  Some of the people learned how to hunt better and took all the food.  Eventually, the majority worked very hard for very little, while a select few didn’t work at all and had tons of food and land.  At one point, someone decides they need “money”, so they string sea shells together and call it “money”.  For some, all they did all day was (literally) make “money”.  After reading the story, I had to agree with London’s own assessment.  I’m not really sure what point he was trying to make.  It was difficult to figure out which political and economic ideals he was satirizing and which ones he was embracing.

However, London brilliantly satirizes Kipling’s writing style and story-telling methods.  All the characters in London’s story have Kipling style names with a slight twist that pokes fun of them.  The grandfather’s name is Long-Beard while his grandsons are Deer-Runner, Yellow-Head, and Afraid-of-the-Dark.  Other characters had names like Strong-Arm, Three-Clams, One-Eye, Little-Belly, Dog-Tooth, Pig-Jaw, Big-Fat, Twisted-Lip.  My favorite was The Bug.  He went around making up songs and stories about bees to calm people down whenever anyone got too riled up and distraught over their circumstances.  I have a hunch that The Bug was supposed to be Kipling.

In previous posts, I’ve mentioned that, while both London and Kipling extensively used animals in their stories, London’s animals were more like animals whereas Kipling’s animals were more like humans (anthropomorphic – there’s that word again).   London seems to make a very clear point in what he thinks of this aspect of Kipling’s writing when, in the last line of “The Strength of the Strong”, he states “all that will come to pass in the time when the fools are dead, and when there will be no more singers to stand still and sing the ‘Song of the Bees.’  Bees are not men.”

Tune in next week when I’ll let you know what this story of Kipling’s, “The Mother Hive”, is all about.

Posted in Fiction

“O Little Friend of All the World!”

After reading Rudyard Kipling’s novel, Kim, I’ve come to the conclusion that I think I enjoy his short stories more than his novels.  Aspects of the story certainly are beautiful and I could rank the character of Kimball O’Hara up there with some of my favorites.  However, my lack of knowledge of the historical details of Kim’s timeperiod made for some tedious reading.

Kim (Classic, 20th-Century, Penguin) Publisher: Penguin Classics

Kim is an orphan of British descent who lives alone on the streets of Lahore in India.  He’s taken on a dark complexion so is, therefore, considered a low-caste Indian native.  Like most street orphans, he’s considered lovable by some and a nuisance by others who live in his community.

One afternoon a Buddhist lama finds Kim sitting by a large gun at a museum, referred to by the lama as the Wonder House.  I found this introduction both brilliant and comical as the lama and Kim join “forces” both for Holy aspirations and for political intrigue.

The entire novel is the journey on which Kim embarks with the lama.  The lama is looking for The River of the Arrow in which to cleanse himself of his sins  and Kim becomes his disciple.  However,  Kim’s streetwise abilities pull him into “The Great Game” of spying for the British during their conflict with the Russians over Central Asia, a skill in which he is quite adept.

Kipling depicts India as a picaresque land of many races and religions.  Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity (both Catholic and Protestant) and Islam all meld together in both conflict and friendship.  Having grown up alone in this land, Kim is given the title “Little Friend of All the World” by a Muslim acquaintence.

In spite of Kiplings seeming fascination with India, the British Empire is never portrayed as “the bad guy” and even on a few occasions, Kipling slips in his own imperialistic point of view.  This has given the novel a certain amount of controversy in the century-plus since it was written.  In spite of this “political incorrectness”, it still captures the mystery and beauty of both India and Kim.

As I mentioned, I was unfamiliar with much of the historical details described in the novel.  If I had a considerable amount of time, perhaps I could have researched all of the names and places and conflicts that were dropped in just the normal everyday conversation of Kim and the friends and enemies he meets along his journey.  I’m not sure when I would have the time and even if I did, I would end up having to dedicate an entire blog to this novel – which doesn’t sound very appealing.

However, I do have on my list to read in the near future a book called Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity by Katherine Boo.  Maybe this book will give me some factual understanding of the history of India as well as shed some light on modern elements of this country.

Posted in Short Stories

“A brave heart and a courteous tongue…”

The next story in Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book is “Kaa’s Hunting”.  As I’ve mentioned previously, I have difficulty separating the stories from the Disney movie in my imagination.  I don’t know whether this should be considered good or bad, but either way, I’m not sure I can do anything about it!  So even before reading the story, I knew that Kaa was a snake.

The movie doesn’t stray very far from the story, surprisingly.  This time, though warned by his friends Bagheera and Baloo, Mowgli fraternizes with the Monkey-People and gets captured by them.  The description of Mowgli’s capture and his subsequent “swing” through the upper echelons of the jungle (literally) made for a great section of the story and could very well be the next ride at Disney World.  As in the movie, the Monkey-People want Mowgli for his “man” abilities such as building huts.  They take him to a ruined city where they proceed to party into the wee hours of the night, something they tend to do every night – and day.  Their attention span doesn’t really lend itself to building huts.

Bagheera and Baloo, not being able to fight the Monkey-People by themselves, call on the services of one of the few members of the Jungle feared by the Monkey-People, Kaa, the Python:

Generations of monkeys had been scared into good behaviour by the stories their elders told them of Kaa, the night-thief, who could slip along the branches as quietly as moss grows, and steal away the strongest monkey that ever lived.

The Law of the Jungle allowed Bagheer and Baloo to join forces with Kaa and rescue Mowgli from the monkeys.  After Mowgli’s friends battle the monkeys and Kaa puts them in a trance with his “Dance of Hunger”, Kaa and Mowgli exchange pleasantries with Kaa telling the “manling” that he has “a brave heart and a courteous tongue”.  And while they part ways as friends of sorts, the reader gets the idea that Mowgli might be wise not to keep his back turned on Kaa for very long.

What I find interesting about these stories is the relationships between the various creatures of the jungle.  The alliances and enmities do not always keep with those of the natural world.  They also can change on a moment’s notice- possibly, more like humanity than the animal kingdom.

Posted in Short Stories

“…for the price of a bull and on Baloo’s good word.”

I read Rudyard Kipling’s short story “Mowgli’s Brothers” last night – it’s a part of Kipling’s The Jungle Book.  I confess that in reading this story I can’t help but picture the Disney animated movie that I’ve grown up with.  The real story is a little less tame than Disney’s, but I think Walt Disney and his associates must have at least read the Kipling stories to create the characters in the movie.  One note of interest (at least to me) is that Disney’s movie version was the last movie that Walt Disney worked on, himself.

Click to show "The Jungle Book" result 7

The story is the opposite of the novel I just read, Jack London’s White Fang.  In that novel, a wolf goes to live with “man”.  In this story, Mowgli, a child, goes to live in the jungle with wolves.  Bagheera, the panther, while ferocious to the rest of the jungle displays a firm gentleness in protecting and befriending Mowgli.  Baloo, the bear, teaches Mowgli all about how to find food – without a lot of effort.

When the wolves are at their council to determine whether Mowgli should stay, Bagheera offers a dead bull to the pack.  Because the council needs two members to speak up for Mowgli (other than his wolf parents), Baloo offers his affirmation of Mowgli.  Therefore, Mowgli is allowed to stay with the pack “for the price of a bull and on Baloo’s good word.”

As Akela, the wolf leader, grows old, the question comes up again as to whether Mowgli can stay.  Sheera Khan, the tiger that originally chased Mowgli into the jungle as a child, continues to hold a grudge against him.  As he has planted seeds of doubt into the minds of many of Mowgli’s “brothers”, they try to hand him over to the tiger.  Mowgli uses “Red Flower” (fire) that he’s stolen from the man-village to ward off his attackers on the council and then decides it is his time to return to his village, though it’s not without much grief and tears.

The animals in Kipling’s stories are more anthropomorphic ( I like using that word) than in London’s novels.  While there is still talk of the “Law of the Jungle”, it’s a law that is made up by Kipling himself for his stories; whereas, London’s “law” seems to be based more on nature in “real life”.

Posted in Fiction

” ‘What’s to be afraid of, lass? Come and kiss me.’ “

I’m counting Rudyard Kipling’s story The Man Who Would Be King as a short novel (novella?) as opposed to a short story.  I don’t know if there is any formal rule about what constitutes each.  If anybody out there has any knowledge on this topic, feel free to let me know.

The title of this story has been familiar to me for a long time, but I’ve never been familiar with the plotline.  I know a movie was made in the 1970’s with Sean Connery.  After reading the story, I might have to see if I can watch it.  From what I can tell, it may not exactly follow the book.  I’ve also discovered that the Dreamworks animated film, The Road to El Dorado, was based on this story, although only loosely.

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The narrator is an English newspaper man in India.   The research I’ve done has most believing this person to be Kipling himself.  He just doesn’t name himself as such.  The narrator encounters two quirky English vagabonds during the first few years of his career. Their names are Peachey Carnehan and Daniel Dravot.  They tell him of their rather odd plans to become Kings of Kafiristan, a country by or province of Afghanistan.

A number of years later, when the narrator has become an established newspaper man, Peachey Carnehan comes crawling into his office.  He tells the story of their eventual coronation in Kafiristan, in which they not only become Kings, but are looked upon as actual gods.  Given the fact that they started out as nothing but vagabonds (with a few guns) the story is humorous because it is so absurd – or perhaps it’s absurd because it’s so funny.  Hard to say.  It’s also somewhat disheartening to see the villagers so readily accept anyone.  Maybe this is the point of what Kipling is trying to get to, but due to the absurdity, I’m not sure.

One of the items in their contract is that they will stay away from liquor and women.  This becomes problematic when Dravot decides he needs a wife.  The villagers offer up a girl to Dravot who is rather fearful of both the men since they are reported to be gods.  When Dravot says ” ‘What’s to be afraid of, lass?  Come and kiss me’ “, the girl buries her head in his beard and bites him on the hand.  The bite draws blood bringing into question their status as gods – because gods don’t bleed.  This is the beginning of their downfall and Dravot is eventually killed.  Carnehan survives in order to make his way back to the newspaper man to tell him the story.

I haven’t done a lot of research on the meaning of this story, if their is one.  I liked the basic absurdity of the whole thing – and don’t really need to understand anything about it in order to enjoy it.  My initial guess is that Kipling is trying to make some sort of statement about the way governements and religions can dupe the “people”, but that seems a little beside the point, so I’ll settle to just enjoy it for what it is.  It kind of reminds me of something that Kurt Vonnegut might write.

Posted in Short Stories

“…a belt-loosening silence about the fires…”

I have come to learn that Kipling’s short stories have been put into a number of different categories.  I was familiar with his “Just So” stories and his “Jungle Book” stories.  This week I read a story called “The Courting of Dinah Shadd”, which is considered one of his “Soldier Stories”.  I believe this is one of several stories involving the same characters.

The narrator camps out with his troops and as they begin to settle in to the “belt-loosening silence about the fires”, one of his comrades, Terance Mulvaney, an Irishmen, begins to tell the story of how he met his wife, Dinah Shadd.  As the story progresses, the reader begins to understand what the narrator already knows.  Mulvaney likes his drink and likes his women.

Mulvaney bemoans the fact that after all the time he’s spent in the army, he is still only a private.  He then goes on to explain that after courting Dinah Shadd, one of his colonel’s daughters, and after getting “serious” with her, he happens upon another young lady, Judy Sheehy, and for no other reason than because he can, he begins to “court” her.

Of course, eventually, the two women meet up with Mulvaney at the same time – along with their mothers.  Mrs. Sheehy gives up on Mulvaney actually choosing her daughter over Dinah Shadd, but not without cursing him, of which one of the curses is that he’ll never be more than a private.

Mulvaney’s story within a story is told in an Irish brogue that is brilliant writing but also sometimes agonizingly frustrating to a reader that is unfamiliar with this accent.  I’ve found that I get more out of stories written this way if I read it quickly as opposed to reading it slowly and trying to understand what each syllable and word means.  I can also figure out better what the character is saying if I read it out loud.  This isn’t always practical and is difficult to do sometimes without getting strange looks from others.

Posted in Short Stories

” ‘Wild Thing out of the Wild Woods, go back to the Woods again…’ “

I’ve only read one of Rudyard Kipling’s “Just So” stories, so far,  but I get the idea from this one that they are similar in nature to a Greek myth or to one of Aesop’s fables.  They are not very long and they tend to provide an explanation for “how things are” or “how things came to be”.

“The Cat That Walked By Himself”  is a smart and funny story that anyone who has had any experience with cats will understand and appreciate.  It takes place somewhere around the beginning of time, or at least early in time, before many of the domesticated animals we have today were domesticated.  The Dog, Cow, Horse and Cat were still considered “wild”.  Actually, Man was still considered “wild”.  Guess who had to come along and “tame” him?  Yeah, that’s right – Woman.  The Dog, Cow and Horse all make a visit to the Woman (the Man is out hunting – he hasn’t been completely tamed!) and decide that domesticity isn’t such a bad thing – the woman makes a deal with them and the three of them end up becoming the Woman and Man’s friends and servants.

During these dealings, the Cat continues to be the Cat that walks by himself.  He has no intentions of giving in to the Woman’s requests and becoming domesticated.  The Woman tells him “Wild Thing out of the Woods, go back to the Woods again…”.   The Cat then makes his own “bet” with the Woman.  One in which the Woman loses and the Cat gets to hang out by the Woman’s fire and drink milk and generally slink around the Cave (The Man and Woman still live in a Cave).

The question that has to be asked after reading this story is “Who is the real winner of this bet”?  While the Cat does not crave domesticity, he ends up looking as though he has been domesticated, although it’s on his terms and not the Woman’s.  Intriguing.