Rudyard Kipling is a beloved author and poet and at once, to some, a controversial figure. The author of the Jungle Book, and short stories like The Man Who Would Be King, Kipling’s work conjures up tales of exotic lands, mythic beasts and Britain’s colonial empire, specifically, perhaps, the footprint it pressed upon India. Today, a growing number of people suggest that Kipling and his work should be dismissed from bookshelves and ultimately from a place in literary and cultural history because of the picture of the British Empire in which his life and work emerged.Certainly not every author has been a fan of Kipling and his work. George Orwell dismissed Kipling as “Morally insensitive and aesthetically disgusting.” However, poet, playwright and literary critic T.S Elliot complimented Kipling’s writing: “[He had] an immense gift for using words…a writer quite impossible to belittle.”
Yet, is this not the purpose of art –– to provoke, to inspire and to debate?
Save for the few truly despicable artists, whose conduct history simply cannot ignore, and where the blood of innocents brought about their fortunes, should we not divorce the art from the artist’s personal life? Surely if one didn’t, there would be very little art hanging in galleries, few books on bookstore shelves or music on the radio or streaming online.
Regarding Kipling, his life experiences are quite typical of upper-middle-class Britain — even of those such as the Kipling family who referred to themselves as Anglo-Indian.
Born in India and educated in England Kipling began developing a gift for storytelling at a young age while boarding with strangers who were less than kind to a British child whose parents remained across the sea. Kipling learned how to use language as a way of answering and deflecting truth, in order to avoid being disciplined by his foster family whose matriarch had a penchant for mental and physical cruelty. But Kipling did not turn out to be a strong student; unable to get into Oxford, Kipling returned to India just shy of his seventeenth year. He eventually received work from a newspaper, sharpened his short-story skills and became a published author. He would return to England, marry at twenty-six and travel throughout the USA, even once calling spontaneously upon writer Mark Twain at his house where the two chatted for an afternoon. Kipling became a Freemason. While in the order he met Muslims, Jews, Sikhs and Hindus and wrote, “…another world was opened to me which I needed.” Kipling even possessed knowledge of Tibetan Buddhism. Yet, he could easily be seen, due to his views on Irish Unionists, as pro Protestant and anti-Catholic. He believed in Britain’s military presence during World War One and even helped his son, whose application had been denied twice due to poor eyesight, enter the war through the connections of a friend who was commander-in-chief of the British Army. Kipling’s son would be killed quickly after arrival to the battlefield. One might even argue that Kipling sent his son to his death. In 1907, Kipling was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature and turned down the opportunity to be knighted by the Queen. He died in 1936, at age 70 of a perforated ulcer.
What does any of this have to do with the story of Mowgli, or Rikki-Tikki-Tavi? The answer depends on how we receive Kipling’s writing as it comes to us from the context of his time, place and conventions. Does knowing a little of Kipling’s life deprive you from enjoying his stories? Are you to going the stop watching the Disney adaptations of the Jungle Book? How about Chuck Jones’ wonderful adaptation of Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, or John Houston’s film The Man Who Would Be King? Shall we mulch Kipling’s books and burn all the existing film adaptations on DVD and Blu-ray simply because his cultural presumptions do not correspond with many of our own?
Does reading about Mowgli and Baloo undermine Indian culture or denigrate its people? Or is the Jungle Book a wonderfully imaginative fantasy with no pretension to realism, set in an exotic locale – one that evokes striking imagery, otherworldly experiences and a promise of something extraordinary. Much like many of Kipling’s works. Are we no longer able to enjoy the tales as fiction ––which is exactly what they are –– even though we don’t recognize in them our collective moral reflection?
Even Orwell (with whom I suspect most of us do sense a moral affinity), changed his mind about Kipling: “I worshipped Kipling at thirteen, loathed him at seventeen, enjoyed him at twenty, despised him at twenty-five and now again rather admire him.”
Kaja Blackley is the author of Maggie MacCormack and the Witches’ Wheel now on sale at: maggiemaccormack.com