The Fairies’ Siege

(notes by Philip Holberton)


First published in McClure’s Magazine in October 1901, and Cassell’s Magazine in November 1901. ORG No. 767.

Collected in

  • Songs from Books (1912)
  • Inclusive Verse (1919)
  • Definitive Verse (1940)
  • Sussex Edition Vol. 34 p. 37
  • Burwash Edition Vol. 27
  • Cambridge Edition (2013 Ed. Pinney) p. 693

The poem

The speaker is in command of a castle under siege. He has held it successfully for many years against mortal foes, but this time the besiegers are fairies. He recognises that he cannot fight against them, for they are led by ‘The Dreamer whose dreams come true’.

The last verse is used as the epigraph to the final chapter of Kim (p.381), published on October 1st, 1901. The title there is “The Siege of the Fairies” and more significantly, the last line runs:

‘The Dreamer whose dream came true!’

The poem in the context of Kim

In Chapter 1 p. 13, the lama tells a story of the Buddha:

Listen to a true thing. When our gracious Lord, being as yet a youth, sought a mate, men said, in His father’s court, that he was too tender for marriage. So they made the triple trial of strength against all comers. And at the test of the Bow, our Lord called for such a bow as none might bend. And, overshooting all other marks, the arrow passed far and far beyond sight. At the last it fell; and where it touched earth, there broke out a stream, which presently became a River, whose nature, by our Lord’s beneficence, is that whoso bathes in it washes away all taint and speckle of sin.

We know He drew the bow! We know the arrow fell! We know the stream gushed! Where, then, is the River? My dream told me to find it.

Throughout the tale, the lama follows his dream and searches for the River of the Arrow. It is revealed to him in a vision. On the last page, he tells Kim, his chela, his disciple, his beloved:

So thus the Search is ended. The River of the Arrow is here. I have found it. Son of my Soul, I have wrenched my Soul back from the Threshold of Freedom to free thee from all sin – as I myself am free and sinless.
He crossed his hands on his lap and smiled, as a man may who has won Salvation for himself and his beloved.

The lama is the Dreamer whose dream came true.

The power of poets and dreamers

The conclusion of Kim seems to assert the ultimate primacy of the dreamers, people of ideas, over the men of action, the lama over Kim himself. The poem confirms this, and going beyond Kim to Kipling’s own day, it also asserts the elemental primacy of ideas against brute force. One is reminded of his poem “The Last Rhyme of True Thomas” (1894) in which he asserts the right of the poet to reject worldly recognition because his power to move people is deeper and stronger than mere political authority:

“I ha’ harpit a shadow out o’ the sun
“To stand before your face and cry;
“I ha’ armed the earth beneath your heel,
“And over your head I ha’ dusked the sky.

“I ha’ harpit ye up to the Throne o’ God,
“I ha’ harpit your midmost soul in three.
“I ha’ harpit ye down to the Hinges o’ Hell,
“And-ye-would-make-a Knight o’ me!”

In these lines Kipling was echoing Arthur O’Shaughnessy’s Ode of 1874:

We are the music makers,
And we are the dreamers of dreams,
Wandering by lone sea-breakers
And sitting by desolate streams;—
World-losers and world-forsakers,
On whom the pale moon gleams:
Yet we are the movers and shakers
Of the world for ever, it seems.

Notes on the Text

[Verse 1]

I’11 not fight against swords unseen, Or spears that I cannot view: the fairies carry invisible weapons

[Verse 2]

Ask him his terms and accept them at once: when a castle surrenders, the conqueror can impose conditions. Defenders who have fought bravely may be allowed to march out carrying their weapons. At the other end of the scale, unconditional surrender means that the lives of the defenders are entirely at the conqueror’s mercy. Whatever the Dreamer demands must be accepted without question.

[Verse 3]

the Triple Crown: the Pope’s Papal Tiara. Brewer’s Dictionary f Phrase and Fable (1894) quotes Pope Pius IX in 1871: ‘The symbol of my threefold dignity, in heaven, upon earth, and in purgatory.’

the Powers of Air:  See Ephesians 2.2

Wherein in time past ye walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that now worketh in the children of disobedience. –

The “prince of the power of the air“: is the devil, so Kipling is mixing Heaven (stanza 2: “Herald of God”) and hell.  [D.H.]



© Philip Holberton 2017 All rights reserved