[May 5th 2006]
This story first appeared in the Civil and Military Gazette on 29 May 1889 and as No. IV of the Abaft the Funnel series. Collected in Life’s Handicap, 1891. [See the reference to the review by Francis Adams in the headnote to “Namgay Doola,” the previous story in this volume.]
In a small settlement near Penang in Malaya, there happen to live three very tall Scotsmen. A visiting American, who is also a very tall man, bets that he is the tallest man on the island. As one by one the three tall Scots appear, each taller than the next, and overtopping him by many inches, he confesses himself beaten, and an epic drinking bout ensues.
Some critical comments
This story has elicited a rather negative response from the critics. Norman Page (p. 101) quotes a contemporary critic in The Fortnightly Review who called this: 'unspeakably mediocre and wretched stuff', while another called it; 'one of the shortest and poorest of Kipling’s tales'. The Athenaeum brackets it with “The Wandering Jew” later in this volume, describing them both as; 'tawdry trifles' (p. 133).
Gilmour calls this: 'most boring' (p. 92) and most of the other critics we have consulted do not mention it: those that do - apart from Hart - have not a good word to say, which seems a pity. Slight as it is, it belongs in Abaft the Funnel with the other 'smoking-room' anecdotes where it once appeared, and, even though possessing no particular literary merit, demonstrates how Kipling can develop an entertaining story from very unpromising and meagre material. [A 'smoking-room' was a well-furnished room with comfortable leather chairs and waiter-service provided in clubs, hotels and liners where ladies were not admitted and gentlemen could relax with drinks, cigars and conversation; Ed.]
Hart [Walter Morris Hart, Kipling, the Story-Writer, University of California Press, Berkeley 1918] (p. 54) refers to this item as;
too essentially brief, too slight, too insignificant , to be or to become anything but anecdote. But it is the anecdote of genius. It fulfils admirably the conditions of the so-called “funny story” – the comic tale, told by word of mouth, which must be immediately effective on a single hearing, must lead up to the point so that the point, when it comes, may be unmistakable, must finish with the point….[Obviously a man of discernment, Hart also suggests (p. 139 note) that the Chief Engineer who tells this anecdote is McPhee who also figures briefly in “Brugglesmith” (Many Inventions) and relates the greater part of “Bread Upon the Waters” (The Day’s Work); Ed.]
[J H McG]
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