"The White Seal"


(Notes edited by Alan Underwood
and John Radcliffe)


notes on the text

[October 3rd 2007]

Publication

Kipling started writing this story on 3rd May, 1893 at Brattleboro, Vermont. It was first Published in the National Review in August 1893 and collected in The Jungle Book in 1894.

The Story

Kotick, a baby seal, is born amongst thousands of others on the beach at Novastosnah, on a distant northern island in the Bering Sea. He is unusual because he is white. As he grows up, he swims with his mother to the South Pacific, and back to the island at the end of the year. There he witnesses many seals being clubbed to death and skinned by Aleutian islanders. He resolves to look for a safe place for seals where there is no danger from men. He scours the world for such a place, and after many wanderings across thousands of miles of ocean, he finds one at last. He returns to Novastoshnah and, after many struggles, persuades thousands of the seals to follow him to the safe beaches where no man comes.

Kipling's sources

There is no doubt that Kipling had studied an official American Report entitled The History and Present Condition of the Pribilafs Fishing Industries, etc., The Seal Islands of Alaska by Henry W. Elliott (Washington D.C., 1881) and possibly another book by the same author, An Arctic Province (1886). Kipling obviously had an atlas by him and in the “Author’s Notes on the Names in The Jungle Books” (Sussex Edition) he wrote: 'All the islands and places mentioned in "The White Seal" are on the map. You had better look them up' . This would not have been an easy task with a school atlas. The Seal Islands is referred to below as “Elliott” and “The Author’s Notes” as “Kipling”/ Since Kipling had never crossed the Arctic Circle, the story, together with “Quiquern”, has been described as a tour de force (for instance in the ORG), but some agree with an early critic’s remark that it “smells of the lamp”, in other words that is is based on books and documents rather than living experience.

The reason why so many names and words in the story are of Russian origin is that until 1867 the Pribilof Islands belonged to that country. In that year they were sold with Alaska to the United States for £1,440,000. From 1870 to 1900 the U.S. Government leased the islands to two successive commercial companies, but the industry shrank owing to open-sea sealing. The islands were taken over by the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries in 1910, which has since administered sealing operations.


[F.A.U./J.R.]

©F A Underwood and John Radcliffe 2008 All rights reserved