The Bull that Thought

(notes by Lisa Lewis and Max Rives)


First published in Cosmopolitan, December 1924; Nash’s and Pall Mall, January 1925, illustrated by John Flanagan. Collected in Debits and Credits (1926), with the poem
“Alnaschar and the Oxen.”

The story

The narrator is touring in the South of France in his chauffeur-driven car. At a hotel they meet Monsieur Voiron, a wealthy merchant and wine-grower, who is impressed by the car’s performance over a measured distance. Back at the hotel, Voiron treats the narrator to a special champagne, and tells him the story of Apis, a fighting bull that he once bred.

Apis proved unusually intelligent, first in play-fights in the farmyard, next defeating his rivals in the herd, and afterwards in the non-fatal bullfights at Arles. Then the herdsman Christophe successfully claimed ownership and sold Apis to the Spaniards. Voiron and Christophe went to watch him appear in a Spanish bullfight. Instead of being killed, Apis killed several men who were trying to play him and made a fool of the star matador, whom he chased out of the ring. Chisto, an older matador who understood bulls, challenged him and the two of them put on what proved to be a superb performance. When tension rose too high, they descended into farce, and Chisto saved Apis’s life with a final joke, leading him off in triumph.


The story was written in May 1924 [Carrington’s notes from Mrs Kipling’s diaries]. Kipling’s friend the surgeon Sir John Bland Sutton was a keen follower of the bull ring, and it was probably he who interested the Kiplings [Lycett, 1999, p. 509]. They attended several bullfights while visiting France and Spain. On 1st March 1914, at Vernet-les-Bains, they had lunched with a M. Viollet, described by Carrie Kipling as “the wine millionaire.” On 24th April 1924, they drove through a town called Voiron [TS “Rudyard Kipling’s Motor Tours,” Wimpole Papers, University of Sussex Library].

A number of contrasts and comparisons can be made between this story and “The Prophet and the Country,” which immediately precedes it in Debits and Credits. Both have themes of artistic endeavour, unsuccessful and in this case triumphantly successful. In both, the main narrative is told at night, beginning at or soon after 11 p.m. In the first, a car breaks down, but here it performs exceptionally well. “A weak moon struggled up out of a mist-patch” contrasts with moonlight strong enough to show “every rounded pebble” and flood into a room. The doomed and labelled “beeves” the first narrator sees in the opening paragraphs of “Prophet” can be set against Apis, a potent figure with many “wives,” controller of his destiny and the fates of the men who fight him.
Critics, noting the frequent references to art in the story, and the comparisons with authors such as Moliere and the elder Dumas, have seen it is a metaphor for artistic creation. However Kipling’s daughter wrote: “My father read the story to me (‘The Bull that Thought’) and we discussed it often, and I promise you it is a straight tale and nothing more.” [Quoted, Dobree 1967, p. 165n.]

Critical Opinions

Jean Maler, a French expert on bullfighting, has analysed the bullfighting theme in the story [Jean Maler, adapted by Max Rives, “Comments on ‘The Bull that Thought,’” KJ 306, June 2003, pp. 9-11]. According to him, the tale “induces both admiration and resentment in the aficionado. Admiration because everything makes him feel that an essential side of the corrida has been well understood; resentment, because an important principle of the corrida has been overlooked.” Maler said that the sparing of a bull who has performed exceptionally well and pleased the crowd is plausible. He also approved the contrast of temperaments between Chisto, whose “qualities of heart and of respect … do indeed exist in the toreros who enjoy the best artistic gifts,” and the ambitious star Villamarti, who is one of the “others [who] face the bull more with the haughtiness and arrogance of the gladiator, only to look clumsy during the ballet phase.” What Kipling apparently got wrong is:

a fundamental law in “tauromachy”: a bull that enters the arena must do so for the very first time in his life, and he should never have seen a cloth, never had the opportunity of “thinking.” A bull who has already lived through the “passages” close to the body of the torero while following the cloth will soon be spotted by the professionals and they will not agree to meet him; moreover he will be a public disgrace to his breeder.

Max Rives, the translator of the article, pointed out that a human death in the ring would mean that “the performance is immediately stopped.” However, Maler commented:

the writer is entitled to use fantasy for the pleasure of the reader. In this tale, it is useful to underline it, fantasy results from an amalgamation of dispersed facts that are individually true, the combination of which, however, is not true.

He added that in the Camargue there is a tradition of bullfights in which the bull is not killed, the “capea”, but a bull who has experienced this cannot be used in other fights, since “what he has learned beyond the first instinct – his having ‘thought’ – biases the game. Lastly, the relaxation that Kipling describes and the peak of the harmonious communion between Apis and Chisto is also to be found in another type of show in the arena: the bullfighting clowns. There, a specialised clown will grasp the tail of a young bull to play like a child, or puts his arm around the bull’s neck, playing two friends who are going arm in arm to drink the health of someone.”
Maler concluded:

As he proceeds, the aficionado realises that, reading the tale, in which he expected to read about bullfight matters, he is drawn towards a growing interest in Kipling’s character and his literary techniques.

Bonamy Dobree (1967, p. 163) saw the story as “Kipling’s great triumph in the genre of concealed fable, about art, the artist, and the public.” C.A. Bodelsen gave it an entire chapter. Noting that the words “art” and “artist” “are sprinkled all over the story,” he argued that Apis symbolises both an artist and “an embodiment of Art itself,” “the very God of Art.” But since many of the specific references are French, Apis also stands for “the genius of France.” Bodelsen also saw references to Kipling’s own career. Apis, like Kipling, refuses “to repeat himself, which no true artist will tolerate.”

In fact, the way in which the Chisto motif is handled does suggest that Kipling identifies himself with the middle-aged bullfighter who is overshadowed by a younger and more popular rival, and that Chisto’s triumph over adversity and over his meretricious rival is something that Kipling dreamed of for himself. This is borne out by his remarks on Chisto’s and Apis’s “art” which are throughout valid for Kipling’s own.

The many references to the war, Bodelsen suggests, may mean that:

as it was the challenge of the fighting bull that permitted the middle-aged matador to achieve his triumph – the perfect work of art – so it was the challenge of the War that inspired Kipling, or that he was confident would inspire him, to do his best work; those stories of the War in which, like Chisto, he reduced a welter of suffering and death to the orderly cosmos of great art.

Elliot L. Gilbert (1972) saw the story as “the one which most fully explores the relationship of brutality to art” in Kipling’s work:

In particular, the actions of the bull permit the author to make the point that at the heart of even the most delicate creative act is a brutal, primal energy, and to emphasize the extent to which creativity is a function of that violent, often destructive force (pp. 168-9).

Gilbert noted the links between the car in the frame story and certain metaphors applied to Apis: “like a car with four brakes.” The murders the bull commits are:

extremely significant for conveying Kipling’s vision of the young artist’s egotism and violent competitiveness. Still more telling, however, is the fact that at the conclusion of each performance, the murderer withdraws a little from the victim, kneels down, and carefully cleans his horns in the earth. This devastating fastidiousness, the author clearly means us to see – terrible yet admirable – is the authentic mark of the true artist, of one more concerned with aesthetics than ethics, more dedicated to the beautiful than to the good (p. 174).

For Gilbert, the story “embodies, in a remarkably coherent structure and in what appears to be virtually final form, the author’s own mature conception of art” (p. 179).

For Angus Wilson, however (1977, pp. 335-6):

Those who think that Kipling’s creed was ultimately that of an aesthete tend to place [this story and “Teem, a Treasure-Hunter”] very high in his canon as expositions of his real creed of life. I do not myself find them convincing parables of art’s power, for if that is what they seek to describe, they tell only of ploys and tactics and ruses – things that Kipling sometimes used in his stories with telling effect, sometimes with embarrassingly self-conscious cleverness. They are certainly not the key to his artistic magic.

(See also “Kipling’s Cars”  kip_cars3  and notes to “Alnaschar and the Oxen.” )


[L.L. and M.R.]