"The Eye of Allah"

(notes edited
by Lisa Lewis)

notes on the text
[February 28 2008]


First published in Strand Magazine (illustrated by F. Matania) and McCall’s Magazine (illustrated by Arthur E. Becher), Sept. 1926. Collected in Debits and Credits (1926), with the poems “Untimely” and “The Last Ode”.

The story

In the 13th century abbey St Illod’s, the artist John Otho is illuminating the Gospel of St Luke. The Sub-Cantor admires his painting of the Annunciation. They speak of John’s projected journey to Spain, where he will buy materials for paint and drugs for the abbey’s infirmary. To prepare for his journey, he has his tonsure barbered by Thomas the Infirmarian and is given a general absolution for his sins by Abbot Stephen, an ex-Crusader and doctor, whom he tells of his search for new demonic images. He also confides that he has a non-Christian mistress in Spain.

Twenty months later, he returns with his purchases. He has seen his mistress die in childbed, along with his newborn son. To deaden his pain, he works on a painting of the Gadarene swine. Some weeks later, he and Thomas are invited to dinner with the Abbot, the other guests being the scientist Friar Roger Bacon and the surgeon Roger of Salerno, who has been consulted by the Abbot’s Lady and has diagnosed cancer. After dinner, they discuss in confidence the causes of disease and lament the Church’s embargo on dissection and new medical theories.

The Abbot asks John to show his paintings of the Magdalene and the Gadarene swine, in which the cast-out devils have strange new shapes. John has seen these through a microscope he says he found in Moorish Granada. He demonstrates this, and the visitors are fascinated, while Thomas thanks God that his theory of germs can be proved. But the Abbot, who has seen such things as a prisoner of war in Cairo, insists on destroying it, because otherwise they would all be burned for witchcraft.

The origins of the story

According to Carrington’s notes from Mrs Kipling’s diary, her husband was working on this story on 7 July 1924, and on 6 Nov. 1924 he consulted a Catholic friend about it. In Something of Myself (p.209), Kipling would give further details of its composition:

If ever I held back, Ananias fashion, anything of myself (even though I had to throw it out afterwards) I paid for it by missing what I then knew the tale lacked. As an instance, many years later I wrote about a mediaeval artist, a monastery, and the premature discovery of the microscope. (“The Eye of Allah.”)

Again and again it went dead under my hand, and for the life of me I could not see why. I put it away and waited. Then said my Daemon – and I was meditating something else at the time – “Treat it as an illuminated manuscript.”

I had ridden off on hard black-and-white decoration, instead of pumicing the whole thing ivory-smooth, and loading it with thick colour and gilt.
The manuscript does not greatly differ from the published story, except for the deleted title “God.”

We do not know when the “black-and-white” version was begun. At least one of the main characters must date from after 10th May 1914, when Kipling wrote to his friend Sir William Osler, who was planning an event on the 700th anniversary of Roger Bacon’s birth: “I don’t know Bacon except from the popular legend,” and begged him to “send me, as soon as you can, your paper on R.B. to file with my old doctors” [Pinney, ed., Letters, vol. 4, p. 234].

Osler was Regius Professor of Medicine at Oxford, and was interested in medical history; his student Charles Singer would compile a standard work on the subject, dedicated to his memory. The Kiplings had stayed with the Oslers while visiting Oxford in 1907. The two husbands met from time to time at a London Club. Osler was also closely involved with the Rhodes Trust, of which Kipling was a trustee 1917-25 [Lycett, p. 375]. Osler had been curator of the Bodleian Library; at his death in 1919 he would bequeath to the library several mediaeval manuscripts, including one by Roger of Salerno [Lycett, p. 525], another character in the story. Kipling could have seen this.

He could also have seen a microscope resembling the one described in the story, either in the Orrery collection at Christchurch College, or at the Museum of the History of Science, to which the collection was presented when the Museum opened in May 1925.

G. L’E. Turner of the Museum kindly replied to a query from the present writer, saying that the description in the story looks like a compass microscope with a lieberkuhn mirror, as shown by Dr Lieberkuhn to the Royal Society in 1740; adding that microscopes would not be invented until about 1600, so that in the 13th century no such thing could have existed; and suggesting that Kipling might have adapted a compass microscope he had seen to something he thought the 13th century might have produced, and then devised a leather box which was consistent with the period. The story, then, is a historical fantasy. [See Fred Lerner on Kipling as a science fiction writer.]

In Kipling’s study there is a book by another of his friends, Abbot (later Cardinal) Gasquet, English Monastic Life [London, Methuen 1904], which he evidently found useful for details of the Abbey’s personnel and routines (see notes on the text). ORG reprints a letter from C.E. Carrington [Kipling Journal, March 1966, pp. 28-9], arguing that the idea for the story’s climax may have come from another book: Isaac D’Israeli’s Curiosities of Literature [see notes on “The Propagation of Knowledge.”] In the section “The Persecuted Learned,” D’Israeli wrote that when St Albertus Magnus “constructed a curious piece of mechanism which sent forth distinct vocal sounds, Thomas Aquinas was so much terrified at it, that he struck it with his staff, and, to the mortification of Albert, annihilated the curious labour of thirty years.”

Another inspiration for the story is suggested by a speech at the University College of Dundee in 1923, when Kipling spoke of:

Swammerdam, half-crazed at the sight of the marvels his microscope showed him in a drop of water, shutting his notebook and vowing such revelations were not to be communicated to mankind. [“The Classics and the Sciences,” A Book of Words].
Swammerdam was a 17th century Dutch naturalist who wrote a famous book on insects, but he also studied medicine and gained his doctorate for anatomical dissection. Swammerdam pioneered a technique of floating materials in water to see them through a microscope more clearly. In later life, however, he adopted a more extreme religion and gave up science for good [Jan Swammerdam, The Book of Nature, or the History of Insects, tr. Thomas Flloyd, (London 1758), with an introductory life of the author by H. Boerhaave.]

One or two of Swammerdam’s black and white drawings in the book resemble the “surpassing devils” of John Otho’s paintings.

The Kiplings had visited southern Spain, home of John Otho’s mistress, in 1922. During their frequent travels, they liked to see old churches, cathedrals and abbeys. On their way back from Scotland in October 1923, they stopped to visit the ruins of Fountains Abbey, a Cistercian house with a large infirmary. We are not told what order St Illod’s belonged to, except that it was not “the gloomy Cistercians.” However, the Benedictines were famous for books, music and the arts. When John Otho wants to compliment the Sub-Cantor he says: “there’s no Librarian from Durham to Torre fit to clean up after you.” Both Durham and Torre were Benedictine houses, so that this can be read as suggesting that the fictional St Illod’s is Benedictine too.

One of the most famous Benedictine authors and painters of the period was Matthew Paris.
In his History of England [1235-1273; tr. Rev. J.A. Giles (Bohn, London 1853)] can be found details that suggest that this too was one of Kipling’s source-books (see notes on the text). There is also an account of the disastrous crusade ending in the battle of Mansura (1250), in which King Louis of France (later St Louis) was captured and taken to Cairo, as was Kipling’s Abbot Stephen.

But John Coates (pp. 114-5) has plausibly argued that Kipling found this in Jean de Joinville’s Life of St Louis, either in the original French or in a translation published in 1908. The chapter on “The Eye of Allah” was originally published as “Memories of Mansura: the Tints and Textures of Kipling’s late Art in ‘The Eye of Allah,’” [MLR 85, no. 3 (1990).].

A correspondent in Canada, Robert Dawson, has suggested another possible inspiration for the story. He writes:

A supposedly mediaeval illustrated book, "The Voynich Manuscript", written in a code that has never been successfully decyphered, has been the subject of many theories. (See Wikipedia; see also Kennedy and Churchill, The Voynich Manuscript: The Unsolved Riddle of an Extraordinary 16th Century Book Which Even Today Defies Interpretation, Orion 2005.)

One theory, current in the 1920s but by now more or less completely discredited, ascribes it to Roger Bacon. It is 'supported' by a possibly forged letter dated 1665 or 1666 (which does not make a definite ascription.) This theory was espoused by Willliam Newbold, one of the earliest researchers to study the VMS. For some time after the manuscript's appearance in 1912, it was the dominant theory of authorship.

Newbold believed that he had discovered a micrographic shorthand within the letters of the text (modern researchers believe this to be merely the result of the rough surface of the vellum affecting the ink.) He believed that both the creation of the text, and the observations that it recorded, were performed by Bacon using a compound microscope. He gave a lecture to to College of Physicians of Philadelphia on the subject on April 20, 1921 (Kennedy & Churchill pp. 36-37), and also announced his theories elsewhere. It was not until 1931, well after Newbold's 1926 death, that any published article demonstrated the serious flaws in Newbold's theory.

Since Kipling was working on "The Eye of Allah" in July 1924 - not so long after Newbold's announcement of his theory - it is interesting to speculate on whether it was the original inspiration for this story? It does not seem improbable.

I note also Kipling's reference in Something of Myself of his Daemon's advice to "Treat it an an illuminated manuscript". An interesting coincidence or a natural association? [R.D.]
This would certainly have interested Kipling if he knew of it, for several reasons. There is, however, no evidence that he did know of it. [Ed.]

Historical background

As the Abbot says, the 13th century was a 'dark age'. The fifth and sixth crusades had failed to win back the Holy Land, and there had been bitter fighting against the Albigensian heretics in southern France. In England, there was civil war between King Henry III and his barons. Eastern Europe had been devastated by the Mongols under Genghis Khan. Italy was riven by wars between the Holy Roman Emperor and the Pope; in Rome, the Holy Office (later known as the Inquisition) was founded to combat heresy. The discovery of Aristotle’s scientific works and other classical texts that had been preserved among the Arabs, although previously lost to Christendom, had set up a conflict in mediaeval minds with orthodox church doctrine.

The story can be dated by the references to Cardinal Falcodi
or Foulke, who became Pope Clement IV in 1265. In 1266 he sent for a copy of Roger Bacon’s works, but in 1268 he died. So the Abbot’s dinner-party must take place in either 1266 or 1267. In 1265, Simon de Montfort had called an assembly that has been seen as the beginning of parliamentary democracy in England, while in Italy the artist Giotto and the poet Dante were born in that year. If this was a time of upheaval and doubt, it was also one that foreshadowed great changes, political, artistic and scientific.

Contemporary relevance

In a letter of 1931, Kipling would describe the story as “an allegory” [Pinney, ed., Letters, vol. 6, p. 54], as would the Times Literary Supplement’s 1926 reviewer (see below). Neither writer explained further. It may also be worth noting that Kipling frequently deplored the British tendency to undervalue other cultures; see e.g. the poem “We and They” earlier in the same collection.

Critical Opinions

The Times Literary Supplement’s reviewer [Sep. 16, 1926, p. 611] thought that the story “recalls Rewards and Fairies in rather grimmer vein and not for young children,” but decided that:

it does not equal the best in that volume, still less the best of “Puck of Pook’s Hill.” There is a certain stiffness about it, whereof the origin would seem to be increased recourse to the book-shelf. Though it is a noble tale, though a noble allegory is within it, we greatly prefer the simplicity of “The Gardener.”
J.M.S. Tompkins [p. 168] found the story “complex,” since:

it is doing several things at once. The scientist is contrasted not only with Abbot Stephen, the administrator, but with John of Burgos, the artist, “to whom men were but matter for drawings.” … It is not only that the audacious scientist would face the fire, but that in the struggle what order there is would be shaken and debased. The Eye of Allah would but bring “more division and greater darkness in this dark age.” Western man is not yet ready to see with it [pp. 168-9].
C.A. Bodelsen also saw the story as “many-layered,” and “permeated with symbolic meanings and recurrent similes and themes” [p. 91]:

[it] is, on one level, a story about what happens to a group of people in a mediaeval monastery; on another level it is a story about a premature discovery; on a third it is about the impact of the Renaissance on the mediaeval world picture; on a fourth about the attitude of the artist, the physician, and the philosopher to science; and on the fifth about four aspects of civilization, personified as the artist, the scientist, the philosopher and the church dignitary and statesman, and illustrated by confronting them with an emblem of the new science: the microscope [pp. 91-2].
Philip Mason placed it among the eight best of Kipling’s late work [p. 210]. The necessary destruction of the microscope:

though it is the main theme, is only one of many in a story that is in danger of being too rich. There is also a variation on the most frequent of all Kipling themes – man going on with his craft or art or duty against the background of death and personal sorrow, both for the artist John and for the Abbot. And for almost everyone in the story there is conflict between the single-hearted pursuit of his special craft and the pressures of the world, or the church, or both … but sanity and healing run through the story like the kingfisher atilt through the irises and the freed man stretching his limbs [pp. 262-3].
Mason compared the story to Browning’s “Bishop Blougram’s Apology”:

With all this richness, the central message is simple and it is pure Blougramism. If the world is not yet ready for a truth or a discovery, it may be better to jettison the discovery than to try to change a world that is far too big and complicated for one man to alter [p. 263].
John Coates argued that, in indicating the date of the story:

Kipling builds a number of allusions and suggestions around this precise dating that impart a specific quality to the story, [p. 101].
The monastery, he pointed out:

is a world of ardent specialists… a collegiate body with an atmosphere somewhat resenbling the one a university was once ideally supposed to achieve, and sometimes did. It is a place in which individuals pursue their own studies to the highest point of perfection while regarding those of others with indifference or bemused toleration. Yet the monastery is still a body. The specialists live under a corporate discipline and their skills serve and glorify the religion that they share. “The Eye of Allah” is concerned with imperiled but valuable balance between the appetites and enthusiasms of individuals and the claims of the community, as much as it is with the balance or unity between sacred and profane within the individual sensibility. [pp. 105-6].

The story catches the very moment of poise in a civilization between germination and decay … What the tale implies about such a moment is that it is one of peculiar value, when the ripest fruits appear and the culture gives of its best [p. 107].
Coates noticed that:

“The Eye of Allah” is set within the last years of Thomas Aquinas’s life and at the culmination of his career, during which he was engaged on the Summa Contra Gentiles and the Summa Theologica. These great works of synthesis represent, among much else, answers to “the panic upon the Aristotelian peril, that had passed across the high places of the Church.
This panic was because:

[the Moslem scientist] Averroes had taken a statement in the third book of Aristotle’s De Anima “as meaning that there is one immortal intellect which enters into temporary union with, or performs a function in, individual men. There is therefore no personal immortality.” [p. 110].
This was also seen by Moslems, Coates noted, as dangerous:

Averroes tried to evade the charge of heresy by formulating the third of his ‘pernicious’ doctrines, that of the ‘double truth’ of science and theology. [p. 111].
In this story, argued Coates:
Kipling demonstrates not merely the psychological perception and deliberate ambivalence all readers detect and most readers admire in his later fiction, but a depth of historical and cultural understanding less often noticed but equally striking [p. 119].