The Brushwood Boy
and William the Conqueror

(by the Hon. Austin Asche, AC QC.)

I am going to tell you about a story which is brilliant and thrilling and fatally flawed, since it contains one of the most un-Kipling-like characters that Kipling ever wrote about. And I am going to compare that story with another which I consider is one of the best things Kipling ever did in the short story line; although I seem to be alone in my view that this is one of his greatest – indeed, one of the most superb and perfect stories ever written.

Both are love stories, although they are many other things as well; and both end on a deliriously happy mood. One is of a love pre-ordained by mysterious, indeed supernatural, signs and portents. The other is of a love slowly realised in a harsh land in a harsh time; and properly and rightfully earned by the admiration and trust which two people find in each other by shared loyalty to the god of Duty – that great god whom Kipling worships.

In the process I will refer to some other works of Kipling, partly because I hope they will clarify why one of them is so wrong (though in many ways so wonderfully wrong) and the other is so right; and partly because, in a gathering of aficionados, one of the great delights is the shared enjoyment of venturing down familiar byways with a friend.

So, to ‘The Brushwood Boy. It is a tale of wonder; of magic; of action and Army life in India; of romance (in the true non-Hollywood sense of the word); and above all of dreams – splendid, frightening, exciting and prophetic dreams.

The tale commences with a very frightened little boy of three, waking from a nightmare. Since this is the first and last time that we shall feel sorry for George Cottar (for that is his name), it is well to remember that at least he starts out as human as the rest of us.

By the age of six the dreams are still coming, but there is a certain familiarity about them; and although they are still frightening at times, George is learning to control the fear and to enjoy the excitement. For there is much that is exciting about them; and they form themselves into a familiar pattern. The dreams continue into manhood; but they are kept separate from his working existence, and have no influence on his everyday actions. This is quite in order, and exactly as Robert Graves sets out in his delightful poem about Alice – who also knows the difference.

For Alice though a child could understand
That neither did this chance-discovered land
Make nohow or contrariwise the clean
Dull round of mid-Victorian routine,
Nor did Victoria’s golden rule extend
Beyond the glass: it came to the dead end
Where empty hearses turn about; thereafter
Begins that lubberland of dream and laughter.

This is an important point for the later development of the story, because it is made clear from the start that we are not dealing with a mystic. George ‘knows the difference’.

The dreams start with a pile of brushwood stacked somewhere near a beach. From that place he moves into fantastic adventures marvellously described. There is a dream sea, with ships running high up the dry land, and a clockwork steamer that he can board and sail to romantic places marked by floating stone lilies labelled ‘Hong-Kong’ and ‘Java’.

There, in ‘Java’, he realised that “he was at the world’s end”; but he sailed on to the Lily Lock; whence, on foot, he became “utterly lost in the world’s fourth dimension”. However, he was shown a way out by the girl whom “he had travelled to this world’s end to reach,” and there
follows the glory of the “Thirty-Mile Ride” along the dark purple downs near the beach, where “the road was eaten away in places, and the sea lashed at him – black, foamless tongues of smooth and glassy rollers .. .” And much more. You must read it yourself to get the magic.
But so well is it described that it was possible to supplement the story with a map of the dream-land.

Always there is a girl to meet during the dreams, to watch his adventures or to share them. When he is little, so is she; and he calls her Annieanlouise, because these were “the two finest names he had ever heard in his life”. But she grows up with him, loses the childish name Annieanlouise, and shares with him the glorious Thirty-Mile Ride by the booming sea. She is the perfect companion, the ideal friend. (In one of those fascinating hints which Kipling slips into his stories so that we only get the full significance on re-reading, George had met Annieanlouise in real life – once, fleetingly, when they were very young. But neither he nor we recognised her at the time.)

George goes to school, where he becomes a paragon of all the virtues, good at work and sport, immensely popular, and ultimately Head of School and Captain of Games. Leaving this unsullied reputation behind him, he joins the Army, sails to India, and achieves great glory in a short time. He studies hard at the soldiers’ art – no time for drinking or dalliance – tames the men under him so that they idolise him, becomes Adjutant of his Regiment, achieves great success in border skirmishes and a well conducted rearguard action, and is awarded the D.S.O. Throughout this he remains modest and unassuming, and a total innocent where women are concerned – treating them always with the courtesy of Chaucer’s “verray parfit gentil knight”, but nothing more. So they, too, worship him. Everyone worships George.

While returning home by ship for some well merited leave, George meets an older woman, Mrs Zuleika, who falls passionately in love with him and does her best to seduce him. But George meets her tentative advances with such total innocence and incomprehension that, wisely, she gives up the struggle and retires defeated and desolate. This Galahad is destined for one mate only; though he doesn’t know it yet.

At home, George meets with his adoring parents, and his father proudly introduces him all round as “the youngest major in the army”. George enjoys himself hugely in what appears to be a comfortable and spacious establishment, with everyone doting on him. But one day he is a little annoyed when his mother tells him she has invited a neighbour, Mrs Lacy, and her daughter Miriam, to come that evening and to stay. George had planned to go up to London to attend a military lecture, and he rather grudged putting it off. Meanwhile he went out fishing, and returned to the house late, after the visitors had arrived and dined.

From the garden he hears the voice of the girl, singing in the drawing-room:

Over the edge of the purple down,
Where the single lamplight gleams –
Know ye the road to the Merciful Town
That is hard by the Sea of Dreams …

and to his astonishment, wonder and delight he realises that she is singing about something that only he could know. The song relates with precise particulars some of the dreams he has had as boy and man. Meeting her next morning, he learns that she has composed the song herself. So this must be the girl who has shared his adventures over the years. He knows this immediately, but she does not, and she becomes flustered and embarrassed when he stares so amazedly at her.

But all is put right when they take out the horses, and George finds a suitable occasion to remind her that this is not the first time they have ridden together; and mentions the “Thirty-Mile Ride”. Now she knows. She has found him. “Then you’re the Boy – my Brushwood Boy, and I’ve known you all my life!” And the story ends in the total delight of two young people realising that some strange and marvellous destiny has brought them together.

When I first read this story I was young and callow. I thought it was splendid. I still do. But old age and cynicism or, to put it more kindly to myself, a greater knowledge of the world, has forced me to the conclusion that the dreams are real, the hero is not. Yet Kipling can certainly write about heroes or ideal characters, and make us believe them. He does so, superbly, in the character of the Lama in Kim. I can believe in the Lama: I can’t believe in George.

“Well,” you may say, “so what? Why should we accept this arrogant commentator’s subjective views?” Quite right. I must do more. I must speak objectively.

My thesis is that George is not a Kipling character. That is, he is not in that goodly company of characters whom we accept, no matter how strange their adventures or how visionary their origins, because the mirror held up to nature shows someone or something which exhibits a
humanity that we recognise – even if the “humanity” is in ‘The “Maltese Cat’ [The Day’s Work] or ‘The Elephant’s Child [Just So Stories] or ‘The Ship that Found Herself’ [The Day’s Work]; or even if the character only exists through the dreams of another. In Many Inventions, ‘The Finest Story in the World’ (which really is one of the finest stories in the world) is totally convincing because we can say of the galley-slave in the dream, “Yes, that is how he could have felt – the sickening tragedy of enslavement of a human being – “Will you never let us go?”” But can we recognise George with the same depth of understanding that allows us to recognise the galley-slave?

For it is the great strength of Kipling that he writes of humanity. Of course he enlarges on the human experience, gives colour and vividness, and moulds it to the story. That is his prerogative, and his fascination: he is the prince of story-tellers. But his stories are convincing because the basis is there in real life.

Of course he was writing fiction, not fact, although we know the immense effort he put into ensuring that the physical surroundings were exact. But the characters are believable. Their adventures may be the work of a brilliant imagination, but they are grounded solidly in
human nature. You may call ‘The Man Who Would be King’ [Wee Willie Winkie] a work of fiction, but we have all, I am sure, met a person like the one Kipling describes; and, given the situation Kipling puts him in, we can believe that that is exactly how he would react.
Kipling is drawing here, as in dozens of other cases, from his immense knowledge of the human animal. Captain Troop of Captains Courageous may be an idealised character, but he grows out of a realistic picture of hardbitten men working a dangerous trade. He epitomises the best of them, but he is still of them.

But you have only to read Soldiers Three and many of Kipling’s stories and poems of rough, tough Army life, the petty jealousies and casual affairs that go on in the camps, and the remorseless ravages of disease, heat, despair and madness to realise that George is not of this scene, even as the epitome of the best. He is too far above it. That is why the best part of the story is in the dreams: because Kipling is drawing convincingly from his own experience, and appealing convincingly to ours. We would not have had the same dreams; but we have all, I hope, had our own experience of fear, wonder and delight in the Land of Nod. Paradoxically, ‘The Brushwood Boy’ would have been more “believable” if the whole story was presented as a dream or legend. In that sense we accept Galahad – as a legend. But Kipling’s point is clearly the dichotomy between dreams and reality, albeit that the dreams foreshadow the reality. You must accept that George exists? No, he doesn’t.

The description of the dreams is compelling, and superbly done. The general view is that they were modelled on Kipling’s own dreams, and certainly they have a vividness which one feels could only be created by someone who had actually experienced them. It is interesting that
Kipling’, the essentially private person, would drop his guard here; but he was obviously intrigued by the Shadow Lands, and it is not the only time that he invites us into private territory. In his brief autobiography, Something of Myself he sets out in some detail a dream-sequence he experienced during his slow recovery from his near-fatal illness in New York in 1899.

At one stage of it I led an enormous force of cavalry mounted on
red horses with brand-new leather saddles, under the glare of a
green moon, across steppes so vast that they revealed the very
curve of earth . . .

There are obvious echoes of this in “The Brushwood Boy”. [N.B. but ‘The Brushwood Boy’ was written before his illness.]

There are other stories in which dreams occur – sometimes particularly horrible ones such as “In the Same Boat” [A Diversity of Creatures], where Kipling indulges in a little of what we would today call ‘group therapy’, although the group is only the two protagonists. Again the sheer profound fear which the dreams inspire must come from Kipling himself, for he writes of what he calls a ‘pivot’ experience of a time, in about 1886, when he had come to the end of all endurance. This is how he describes it:

As I entered my empty house in the dusk there was no more in me
except the horror of a great darkness, that I must have been fighting
for some days. I came through that darkness alive, but how I do not

The same sort of horror, almost demanding suicide, is described in “In the Same Boat”. And the ultimate horror, the nightmare that finally kills its man, is powerfully related in “At the End of the Passage” [Life’s Handicap].

Kipling remembered also one incident in his life which “passed beyond the bounds of ordinance”. He relates a rather insignificant dream, which however proved almost exactly correct in a subsequent waking encounter. But he hastens to say that he is not ‘psychic’, and
did not make use of the experience. Yet he does ask, “But how, and why, had I been shown an unreleased roll of my life-film?” Obviously the thing intrigued him. And, of course, the idea of a realised dream is the basis of The Brushwood Boy – and if these are not ‘psychic’ experiences, what are they?

G.K. Chesterton in one of the “Father Brown” stories makes an interesting distinction. The passage appears in ‘The Man with the Beards’. Father Brown, speaking of one of the characters, says:

It’s quite true she is what they call ‘psychic’. Her only mistake is
thinking that being psychic is being spiritual. Some animals are
psychic, she is a sensitive …

Father Brown the priest is making the distinction between a spiritual person (he would never use the term ‘spiritualist’ in this context) who has some contact with the divine, and the ‘sensitive’ person who has some increased sensory awareness of what is happening or is to happen. In that sense, Kipling might agree that some of his stories are about “sensitives”. The theme appears very strongly, for instance, in ‘The Wish House’ [Debits and Credits] and ‘They’ [Traffics and Discoveries].

To sum up, then. The writer of The Brushwood Boy was intrigued by the dream world, and had himself had some vivid experiences of it. That is what makes the dream sequences so marvellous. It is only when we come to the waking George that the story jars.

‘The Brushwood Boy’ has not had a good press. Lord Birkenhead in his biography of Kipling comments that the story contains some of Kipling’s most glaring lapses of taste and self-criticism, and describes the hero as a “smug paragon”. Angus Wilson complains of “over-lush
sentimental passages”. Sandra Kemp speaks of “echoes of a suppressed hysteria”. Adrian Poole calls it “a beguiling disturbing embarrassing fantasy”. Somerset Maugham comments that “The persons concerned in it are really too good to be true”. Philip Mason says that the hero is “like an advertisement for the hire of men’s evening wear”.

Regrettably, there is considerable force in these criticisms. On the other hand, to be fair, Conan Doyle numbers “The Brushwood Boy” as one of the four stories by Kipling which most impressed him.

My argument is that ‘The Brushwood Boy’ is just not Kipling. I appreciate, of course, that in the strict sense, anything that Kipling wrote must be Kipling. But my point is that this story is a lapse, something outside the general tenor of his work; and, paradoxically, the more interesting for that. I have already given you some reasons, but let me now give you one word, which I will ask you to reflect on, because many of you may need no further argument. That word is “Stalky”.

If there was anyone for whom Kipling had a constant and continuing admiration, it was the boy who later became Major-General L.C. Dunsterville. He served his country loyally and well throughout his career, and always retained his friendship with the author who
delineated him in the best of school stories. How could Kipling, with this real-life, vivid character before him, have thrown up someone as unbelievable as George Cottar? Stalky is the antithesis of George.

Stalky didn’t become a prefect, and he loved mocking those who did. I rather fear that George would have had an unpleasant time if Stalky had been with him at the same school. Stalky was not interested in becoming a sporting hero, or even in loyally supporting the team, rah, rah, rah! You may remember the incident when Prout, the Housemaster, orders Stalky, M’Turk and Beetle to go down and support the house team “for the honour of the house”, and the three, self-isolated, stood to attention for half an hour in full view of all the visitors, to whom fags, subsidised for that end, pointed them out as victims of Prout’s tyranny. And Prout was a
sensitive man.

Stalky and Co. break bounds, smoke in secret places, mock the pious, delude and take wonderful revenges on masters they dislike, crib unashamedly, tame bullies by unorthodox and highly improper means, and know of the splendid use to which a dead and smelly cat may be
put. They enjoy themselves thoroughly in ways which George would never countenance. George, alas, would be among the class of boys that Stalky despised; those who said “Yes, sir”, an’ “No, sir”, an’ “Oh, sir”, an’ “Please, sir”. In other words, he is a thoroughly un-Stalky-like

It pains me to say it, but George is a prig. In fairness, one must concede that it was not the author’s intention to make him a prig. But he really is too good to be true. He reminds me of that excellent story of Saki, of the girl who was so good that she was very properly eaten by a wolf. In Saki’s apt phrase, she was “horribly good”, and that seems a pretty fair description of George.

The girl Miriam is a bit of a shadow, although because of her ordinariness we can hardly accuse her of not being real. She can, it appears, compose songs, and sing them well; and she is an excellent rider. But it does not otherwise appear, or at least we are given no evidence, that she has any of the exceptional qualities to make her a fit heroine for the hero. Nevertheless, their ultimate recognition of each other is described in a way which gives much joy to the reader, and I cannot agree that these are the “over-lush sentimental passages” of which Angus Wilson complains. That description, however, can be correctly applied to the rather embarrassing scene between George and his mother, when she came ‘to tuck him up for the night’ and then blessed him and kissed him on the mouth, which is not always a mother’s property.’

There is another reason why “The Brushwood Boy” does not ring true; and this involves a comparison with another story that does. Here, the characters are real, and the love that occurs between them comes not from shared dreams but from shared dangers, hard work and
loyalty; and it is earned and deserved.

‘William the Conqueror, which Somerset Maugham correctly says is “unfortunately named” , has certainly a rather confusing title. One expects either a historical tale of the Puck of Pook’s Hill type, or at least something with a military theme. To add to the confusion, the William of the story is a girl, and this does jar on the senses at first; though one gets used to it as the power of a very powerful story carries one away. For William’s conquest is of famine and disease, and ultimately of a kindred spirit who shares these things with her.

William has come out to India to be with her brother Martyn because their parents are dead, and Martyn, being an underpaid Acting District Superintendent of Police, cannot afford to support her in England. She is not beautiful, and her face was white as bone, and in the centre of her forehead was a big silvery scar about the size of a shilling – the mark of a Delhi sore, which is the same as a “Bagdad date”. This comes from drinking bad water, and slowly eats into the flesh till it is ripe enough to be burned out with acids.

William has known Martyn’s friend Scott for some time, and is on friendly terms with him; but nothing more. Scott is the type of selfless dedicated civil servant which Kipling admired greatly and with good cause, for the legacy they gave India is there today in the shape of bridges, railways, dams, canals and roads. Kipling foresaw that their work would continue “deeper than their knowing” and he was their champion.

Scott and Martyn are sent from the Punjab, which they love, to deal with a severe famine in the South. William insists on going with her brother. In a time of death, starvation, disease and drought, all work with total dedication. That is, they readily accept the conditions of a
service where, as Kipling in another Indian story wryly comments, “the only liberty allowed is permission to work overtime and get no thanks.”

Kipling is at his best in describing the horrors and tragedy which the famine brings, the huge problems faced and solved by Scott, and the gradual awakening between Scott and William of respect and admiration, progressing to intense loyalty, and finally to a strong and abiding love. This love arises from the surest of foundations so far as Kipling is concerned – a mutual recognition by each of the work of the other, proved by duty well and splendidly done.

The dedication of Scott to his duty, and the recognition of this by William, is illustrated by the sort of significant incident which Kipling delights in to make his point.

Scott, in one of his treks with the starving children he has rescued, passes within five miles of the camp where William is staying. He could easily make a detour to see her, and they are now very much in love. But William understands her man:

“One minute,” said Mrs. Jim [Lady Hawkins] who was thinking.


“If he goes to Khanda, he passes within five miles of us. Of course he’ll ride in.”

“Oh no, he won’t,” said William.

“How do you know, dear?”

“It’ll take him off his work. He won’t have time.”

“He’ll make it,” said Mrs. Jim, with a twinkle.

“It depends on his own judgment. There’s absolutely no reason why he shouldn’t, if he thinks fit,” said Jim.

“He won’t see fit,” William replied, without sorrow or emotion. “It wouldn’t be him if he did.”

And, of course, Scott does not appear. Later, when the work is all over, Scott and William discuss the incident.

“Did you understand?”

“Why you didn’t ride in? Of course I did.”


“Because you couldn’t, of course I knew that.”

“Did you care?”

“If you had come in – but I knew you. wouldn’t – but if you had, I should have cared a great deal. You know I should.”

“Thank God I didn’t! Oh, but I wanted to!”

Does this say it all? Surely this is the true Kipling, telling us of those he most admires, the people who serve the great god Duty, and earn their reward. The delight of these two is cheerily depicted as they join their friends in their return to the beloved Punjab. They have won
through, and have the honour of their peers – “Souls that have toil’d, and wrought, and thought with me.” They are in Kipling’s tradition. George and Miriam are not.

We must of course recognise, as Kipling frequently reminds us, that life is unfair. Let us, for instance, extrapolate twenty years from the point where Kipling leaves the two stories. No doubt about it, George will continue on in his perfect run, and become Viceroy. Miriam will be
the excellent wife, helping his career, arranging the appropriate dinner-parties with the right people, and being gracious and well-groomed with the help of hordes of servants. Neither, I fear, will mix with ordinary mortals, and neither will venture from the lavish surroundings of the capital, save on comfortable and well-appointed visits to the larger cities. George will nevertheless be an efficient British Proconsul, hard working and incorruptible, though he will have little patience with, or understanding of, Indian ways. On retirement, he will certainly merit the Peerage which a grateful government will bestow upon him. And if we ask, with some mild exasperation, “What the Hell has Miriam done to deserve all this?”, we must put it down to the inscrutable workings of Providence – and lucky dreams.

[While realising that Mr. Asche was not entirely serious in his forecast of George and Miriam Cottar’s future life, I feel that he is not quite au fait with reality. In principle, he is absolutely right: George would have become a Pillar of the Establishment, and Miriam would have been a correct wife and hostess for him. But Viceroy – unlikely: George’s regiment was an English regiment, and after this tour of duty in India would have come home, so George, assuming he stayed in the army, would not even have become Commander-in-Chief, India. As has been explained in the notes under the heading Date and Cottar’s Schooldays and in the notes on the text notes on the text, George would probably have left the army within the next four or five years, since he would have had the Estate to run. He would have become a magistrate, the scourge of the local poachers (and possibly of motorists like Kipling!). Since he had a reasonable brain, and had learned that it pays to master the details of whatever you undertake, he might have become a prominent agriculturalist. He might even have become a Member of Parliament (almost certainly a Conservative, so he might not have retained his seat in 1906). Beyond that, the crystal ball grows hazy – the events of 1914 ensure that.]

Meanwhile Scott – if he doesn’t die of dysentery, cholera or fever – will ultimately obtain a moderately prominent position as Head of a District, which he and William will serve with immense competence and total dedication. With luck, they might even survive to retirement.

Well, Kipling would say that you play with the cards fate has given you, or, (as Stalky said on a different occasion – but he laughed uproariously as he said it), “I’m thinking of the flagrant injustice of it.”

But Scott has had his reward, for he has the greatest of companions by his side.

Kipling wrote very few bad stories. I would nominate “Wee Willie Winkie” as excruciating; and a few others. But Homer nods; Browning, Tennyson and Wordsworth wrote reams of forgettable verse; and Dickens sometimes descends into mush. Most good writers are prolific,and being prolific, will sometimes write rubbish. It does not detract from their greatness, and it makes them endearingly human.

Neither of the stories I have discussed falls into that category. (True, ‘The Brushwood Boy’ does not please everyone, but even if you agree with some of the critics it is worth reading for the powerful dream sequences.) For my part, they are both excellent and compelling stories by a master of his craft. If The Brushwood Boy’ is out of the Kipling mode, it is still worth studying, just as a biologist or botanist will study an uncharacteristic species for the light it sheds on the more orthodox.

But I ask, which is the true Kipling – the Kipling we joined this society to honour, the Kipling of the stunning phrase, the wonderful story, the powerful poetry – but above all, the great chronicler of humanity and humanity’s dreams, victories and tragedies? In this sense, I nominate “The Brushwood Boy” as a strange variant, a sport, a deviant, a rivulet from the main stream – and the linkage between dreams and reality is far less believable than in the many other
instances where he triumphantly succeeds.

Which of the stories is truly in the Kipling mode? Which couple would you want as friends?


©Austin Asche 2007 All rights reserved