‘The Finest Story in the World’

Notes on the text

These notes, by Peter Havholm, are partly new, and partly based on the ORG. The page and line numbers below refer to the Macmillan (London) Standard Edition of Many Inventions, as published and frequently reprinted between 1899 and 1950.

[Page 95, lines 1-4] Or ever the knightly years were gone … This is the first verse of the poem by W E Henley, Editor of the Scots Oberver, “Or Ever the Knightly Years”.

[Page 95, line 10-11] go back to his mother This jokey relationship allows “I” to remain at some distance from Charlie’s personal concerns during what follows. In fact, this kind of distancing has been one of the functions of “I” since “The House of Suddhoo” in 1886 (Plain Tales from the Hills). Here, the reader is not asked to feel pity for either Charlie or the frustrated “I” but simply awe at the glimpse of reincarnation.

[Page 96, lines 6-7] the self-revelations of a young man In many of the stories set in India, “I” is a reporter, interested in novel events and people. “I” becomes a writer in stories like this one, here interested initially in the type of young man Charlie represents. Charlie is not presented as offering any other attraction. See the note to Page 376, lines 2 through 13 in “Children of the Zodiac” in this collection, where it is clear that a vital quality in Leo’s art is its evident knowledge of the details of human life.

[Page 96, line 14] twenty-five shillings In fact, a bank clerk of Charlie’s age would have been paid £100 a year in 1900 by any of the joint stock banks in London, more like 40 shillings a week.

[Page 96, line 24] the edge of his washstand i.e., he had to write in his bedroom.

[Page 97, line 29] I hate cutting my things down Charlie’s unselfconscious conceit, in addition to being completely believable, keeps the reader from worrying about him.

[Page 98, line 20] when I could do so much with it And this conceit, perhaps half-humorous, ensures that readers will not be too disturbed by the loss at the story’s end.

[Page 100, line 6] What sort of ship? Biremes (galleys with two rows of oars and a sail) were probably invented by the Phoenicians before the fifth century BC, and triremes (three rows) fought in naval battles during the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC).

Although there seems to be good evidence that the Romans used galley slaves in the Punic wars against the Carthaginians, scholars have argued spiritedly that ancient Greek galleys were rowed by skilled— and valued—oarsmen.

[Page 100, line 25] on the lower deck Charlie’s station is on the upper deck (see page 109, line 27), so he is a witness to his hero’s progress rather than himself being the hero.

[Page 101, line 5] but cut up in his chains This seems impractical. It functions as an amazing detail, impossible to check.

[Page 102, line 20] Longfellow Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, 1807-1882.

[Page 102, line 15] These four lines are from “The Secret of the Sea”.

[Page 102, line 27] These five lines are from “My Lost Youth”.

[Page 103, line 6] These lines are from “Seaweed”.

[Page 103, line 24] Treasure Island Robert Louis Stevenson published this celebrated story in 1881.

[Page 105, line 26] Pollock, Erckmann, Tauchnitz, Henniker perhaps the Greek words pollak ekamon Tou kniz eneka, which translate roughly as: ‘Many times I have been wearied, the vexation/the rasping on account of.’

It has been suggested that an alternative to the Professor’s translation (lines 30-31) would be: ‘Many times by means of the coil of the whip he grazed my neck, I assure you.’ (See KJ 109, April 1954, p. 17.)

The Professor’s translation may be read as a paraphrase of ‘Oft was I weary when I toiled at thee’, which is from Longfellow’s “The Broken Oar”.

[Page 105, line 27] four names familiar to me The narrator mistook the words as contemporary names. As the ORG suggests: ‘Tauchnitz’ is the German publisher and ‘Pollock’ is Walter Herries Pollock (1850-1926), Editor of the Saturday Review in the early 1890s and a friend of Kipling’s. ‘Erckmann’ and ‘Henniker’ have multiple plausible literary associations, none more likely than another.

[Page 106, line 15] metempsychosis Transmigration of the soul, passage of the soul from one body to another; especially (chiefly in Pythagoreanism and certain Eastern religions) the transmigration of the soul of a human being or animal at or after death into a new body of the same or a different species (Oxford English Dictionary).

[Page 106, line 31] surcharged phonograph that is, a wax phonograph cylinder whose grooves have been overstamped. See Page 108, line 7: ‘the plastic mind of the bank-clerk had been overlaid…’

[Page 107, line 22] Lara a poem (1814) by Lord Byron.

[Page 107, line 31] did not know that he knew this has been marvellously represented in Charlie’s line [lines 24–25 above], ‘that damned ship that you call a galley.’ Of course a fifth-century Greek oarsman would not be more technical than ‘ship’ or ‘my ship’.

[Page 108, line 10] mutter and hum the second use of modern technology as illustration of something supernatural.

[Page 108, lines 14, 15, 17] “Bride of Abydos”, “The Corsair”, “Cain”, “Manfred” all work by Lord Byron, the last two are verse dramas.

[Page 108, line 25] “The Saga of King Olaf” the “Musician’s Tale” in Longfellow’s Tales of a Wayside Inn. See “The Knights of the Joyous Venture” in Puck of Pook’s Hill.

[Page 108, line 28] “The Song of Einar Tamberskelver” from “King Olaf”. The two quatrains quoted below are from this song.

[Page 109, line 13] “The Skerry of Shrieks” from “King Olaf”.

[Page 109, line 21] where I always sit this is the first time Charlie has placed himself in his story. He has always used third person before.

[Page 111, line 12] like a banjo-string drawn tight Note that Charlie manages to give a wonderfully detailed description of ‘his’ death in an ancient naval battle without losing his bank clerk’s speech patterns or vocabulary, which of course makes it more convincing.

[Page 111, line 25] I also must have died As he has throughout this story, “I” here assumes that transmigration occurs. The ‘proof’ that Charlie is remembering a past life is in the translation of his Greek graffiti. It could not be otherwise in this story, for if the narrator did not believe Charlie’s ‘memories’ were true, he would not have investigated further.

[Page 112, line 19] That’s curious The way in which Charlie’s narrative strands cross and break off recalls the ‘confused tangle of other voices’ above, though in this case the voices seem to be multiple lives.

[Page 113, line 4] Transmigration Collins (1827-76) published this three-volume novel in 1874.

[Page 114, line 8] You never told me he was red-headed Charlie has moved from one life to another, apparently. The Viking voyages to “Furdustrandir” (Kipling gets the spelling wrong in line 26 below) occurred long after the Mediterranean naval battle in which Charlie-the-galley-slave dies. But again, the point here is precisely not a coherent story from a past life but rather a cascade of teasing hints that leave behind only the yarn about glimpses.

[Page 115, line 3] But Othere from Longfellow’s “The Discoverer of the North See “The Knights of the Joyous Venture” in Puck of Pook’s Hill.

[Page 115, line 24] treasure-house guarded by a child the dilemma that makes this story.

[Page 115, line 25] knucklebones also called in its simpler form “fivestones”. A game of ancient origin, it is played with five small objects, at first the knuckle bones of a sheep, which are thrown up and caught in various ways. Its origin is closely connected with that of dice, and is probably Asiatic.

[Page 115, line 31] some desperate adventure of the Vikings The ORG cites Paul Henri Mallet (trans. Bishop Thomas Percy), Northern Antiquities, or an Historical Account of the Customs and Practices of the Ancient Scandinavians (1770; 1857) as Kipling’s source for these stories. It supplied the story of Thorfin Karlsefne’s journey with comrades to Lief Ericson’s Vinland, where they met indigenous peoples who were frightened by their bull, and with whom they later fought.

[Page 116, line 18] Bohn volume Henry George Bohn (1796-1884) started in business in London, chiefly as a second-hand book-seller, in 1831. In 1846 he began the publication of cheap reprints and translations. “The Bohn Library” was the equivalent, a century and a half ago, of today’s “Everyman Library”, now published by Random House U.K. and Knopf in the U.S.

[Page 116, line 28] Gracechurch Street In the City of London, near Lombard Street, the banking center of England.

[Page 116, line 29] Bill Book a long narrow leather wallet for holding bills without folding them. At the beginning of the twentieth century, a much greater proportion of the country’s business was done with ‘bills’ as distinct from cheques, which later came to monopolise trade transactions. Most are now electronic.

[Page 117, lines 9–10] The Skroelings ran away The episode is from Mallet’s Northern Antiquities (See the note on page 115, line 31 above).

[Page 117, line 23] Liverpool Handicap This reference does not work for someone familiar with horse-racing in England.

[Page 117, line 26] Eric the Red In his saga are recounted his banishment to Greenland as well as Leif Ericson’s discovery of Vinland. The saga is thought to have been written in the 13th century, about two hundred years after the voyages are believed to have occurred.

[Page 117, line 28] Leif’s booths that Leif’s group set up booths near the lake or bay is another detail from Mallet’s Northern Antiquities (See the note on page 115, line 31 above).

[Page 117, line 31] Rhode Island On the Eastern seabord of the U.S., just below Massachusetts, this was the smallest of the original thirteen colonies and is now the smallest state.

[Page 118, line 22] know what this meant to me? The joke here—“I” is joking about his own conceit—suggests again that a reader should not take too seriously what is at stake in this story, the bargaining with the Great Powers Above that follows and the accompanying fantasies about the consequences of the knowledge “I” seeks to winnow his wishes down to knowledge for its own sake.

[Page 118, line 24] Clive Robert, 1st Baron Clive of Plassey (1725-1774), won key battles for the East India Company in India, reformed Company administration to a degree, and hence was an important force in the creation of Empire in what is now India, Pakistan, and Burma. Clive’s achieved ambitions and consequent rewards were extraordinary, however one values them.

[Page 120, line 6] Aquarium the Aquarium Theatre, London, pulled down in 1908. The Central Hall (Westminster) stands on its site.

[Page 120, line 26-27] brutal Indian bureaucrats A common complaint in Anglo-Indian newspapers of Kipling’s time in India (1883-89) was that Indians in England libelled the English in India to an ignorant and therefore credulous population.

[Page 120, lines 31-Page 121, line 2] brutal Indian Government More Anglo-Indian political commonplaces. Grish Chunder is one of the ‘beggar-taught’ from “One View of the Question”; he joins other educated Bengalis in writing disloyal nonsense for a (fictional in this case) vernacular newspaper; and an unfortunate Hindu tradition is child marriage.

[Page 121, line 5] Northbrook Club The Northbrook Indian Club (later, Society), founded in 1879 through the efforts of Lord Northbrook, the former Viceroy, and British civil servants returned from India. According to a statement issued by Northbrook, the club was:

‘intended to be a common centre of social community for English gentlemen interested in India, and Indian gentlemen who may be in England, either as students or travellers.’

He added that:

‘the want had long been greatly felt of some club in London where Indian gentlemen coming to this country might find a place to mix with European gentlemen interested in or connected with India.’

During the first few years of its existence, the club attracted more Indians than Britons, leading its organizers to move it in 1883 from Bedford Row to Whitehall Gardens—which was considered both a more ‘central … and a more suitable situation.’
The Times heralded the Northbrook Club as a welcome and much-needed effort to bring Indians and Britons together ‘on a footing of social equality… Natives who come to this country have hitherto been at a certain disadvantage’.

This is where Shafiz Ullah Khan of “One View of the Question” was staying when he wrote his letter.

[Page 121, line 14] tulsi Popular name of a genus of aromatic sarub, including the culinary ‘sweet basil’, sacred to Vishnu.

purohit family priest (Hindu).

[Page 121, line 16] khuttri merchant (?)

[Page 121, line 17] Desi South Asian.

[Page 121, line 27] in the tongue best suited for its telling See the note to “My Lord the Elephant” Page 47, line 3.

[Page 122, line 1] beshak ‘certainly’—to be sure (Urdu).

[Page 122, line 6] mlechh the actual meaning of the word puts the person just above the Dalits (‘untouchables’).

[Page 122, line 8] cow-beef every day Another Anglo-Indian commonplace. The actual practice of Hindus visiting England varied, of course.

[Page 122, line 30] Tree of Life See Genesis 2,9.

[Page 122, line 33] afraid to be kicked Another Anglo-Indian commonplace. While the two attitudes proposed might reasonably arise from different beliefs with respect to reincarnation, a moment’s thought about actual Indian or English behaviour will dispose of the generalization.

[Page 123, line 10] cram-book on Wordsworth in common with the ‘crammer’s pups’ in Stalky & Co., it is possible that Grish Chunder has not actually read the “Immortality Ode”.

[Page 123, line 19] sack dismissed, fired. Grish Chunder is playing with English slang and gets the tense marker wrong. As for so many other speech patterns, Kipling’s ear for language learning seems good. See ‘Let it go on that—I mean at that’ at page 124, line 1.

[Page 124, line 9] bus—hogya literally, ‘Stop—at once!’

[Page 125, line 15] ink-pool In a spiritualist séance it is an aid to concentration to gaze into ink in the palm of the hand, along with the camphor mentioned in the same line.

[Page 125, line 26] into the future Grish Chunder apparently believes that Charlie’s access to the past might work in the other direction as well.

[Page 125, line 32] big black brute Another sign of Charlie’s callowness. While the way “I” thinks about Grish Chundur is not particularly sympathetic, it is more complex than Charlie’s casual racism.

[Page 126, line 2] dominoes For many years a popular after-luncheon game in restaurants and pubs in the City of London and elsewhere.

[Page 126, line 28] The Song of the
by Kipling. As collected in Sussex (vol xxxvii) and Burwash (vol xxiv) it is as given on pages 126 and 127 in this story.

[Page 129, line 2] Tit-Bits this was a weekly publication of small snippets of information. Education first became compulsory in England in 1870, and magazines like this one (begun in 1881 by George Newnes) became immensely popular among the newly literate.

[Page 129, line 24] Argo Jason’s ship in which he voyaged to recover the Golden Fleece. Perhaps this excursion into myth is the hyperbole of frustration.

[Page 130, line 25] Wardour Street work In 1891, this was a street full of shops that sold antique furniture, much of it counterfeit. Hence, in a literary context, this means ‘fake archaic English’, ‘stagey historical fiction’.

[Page 131, line 21] beaches “Furdurstrandi”. (See page 114, line 26, above.)

[Page 132, line 29] staring at the fire This is the same psychology as that behind the ink pool.

[Page 133, line 22] centipede metres i.e., with far too many feet.

[Page 134, line 15] very evil indeed The poetry as well as its fulfilment of Grish Chundur’s prediction? This is the only sample of Charlie’s work that Kipling gives us direct. On the previous page he describes it with an ironic groan as ‘shorter and choppier verse … with a motive at the back of it’. It was, in fact,
written by Kipling himself nine years before, at the age of sixteen, at a stage when much of his verse had a motive at the back of it. See the unpublished “After the Promise”, in Andrew Rutherford (ed.) p. 138.

The incessant pathetic fallacy, at least, is far from Kipling’s mature poetic practice, though the rhymes are above the level of ‘June’ and’moon’. Perhaps it is, like Charlie’s tale by firelight the night before, a swan song before the light winks out. One presumes that the married bank clerk will not have much time for poetry.

[Page 135, line 5] tobacconist’s assistant a final example of the way class functions as a kind of shortcut in this tale. That is, as Charlie’s glimpses of his previous lives are contrasted with his humble status in 1891 London, so ‘how he had loved in his past lives’ is contrasted with the drab business of loving a London girl; that she is a tobacconist’s assistant makes loving her drab, as Charlie’s pride in his bill book makes him an ironically ordinary vessel for such sensational visions.

[Page 135, line 15] may not remember Grish Chunder has said that Charlie will forget when he finds reciprocated love, and there has been some comment about the story’s misogyny (‘women wreck things’). But here, Kipling offers a more interesting explanation than Grish Chunder’s: we would not live this life fully if we were constantly comparing it with all the others. So as soon as Charlie engages intensely with life now, lives past disappear. ‘The love of woman that kills remembrance’ in the story’s last sentence is more about ‘love’ than ‘woman’. In “The Children of the Zodiac” at the end of this volume, Leo and the Girl become mortal the moment they fall in love, but there is no blame to the Girl; on the contrary. See the note to Page 370, line 1 of that story.

[P. H.]

©Peter Havholm 2006 All rights reserved