The God from the Machine

(notes edited by John McGivering)


This story was first published in The Week’s News for January 7th 1888. It was collected as the first story in Soldiers Three, No. 1 of the Indian Railway Library, published in India the same year, and in Soldiers Three and Other Stories in 1899 and numerous later editions of that collection.

The story

This is a story of the ‘Soldiers Three’, Mulvaney the Irishman, Learoyd the Yorkshireman, and Ortheris the Londoner, who first appeared in “The Three Musketeers” in Plain Tales from the Hills (also published in 1888). Mulvaney tells how, in the days of his youth as a smart young Corporal, he foils a plot by a ruffianly Captain to run away with the Colonel’s pretty daughter.

Critical comments

“The God from the Machine” is a slight story, which has not attracted much critical attention, but there has been much interest over the years in the ‘Soldiers Three’.
Carrington (page 134) records Sidney Low (Editor of the St. James’s Gazette) who seems to have published Kipling’s first piece in London (probably “The Comet of the Season” though Kipling later repudiated it) as writing:

I spent an afternoon reading Soldiers Three and when I went out to a dinner party that evening I could talk of nothing but this marvellous youth who had dawned upon the eastern horizon. My host, a well-known journalist and critic of those days, laughed at my enthusiasm, which he said would hardly be justified by the appearance of another Dickens. ‘It may be’, I answered hotly, ‘that a greater than Dickens is here.’

See also the notes on “The Three Musketeers” in Plain Tales from the Hills.
Marghanita Laski (page 34) observes that: “Mulvaney, Ortheris and Learoyd stand with Shakespeare’s Nym and Bardolph and Pistol as the most famous soldiers in literature.” Charles Carrington makes similar observations in his edition of Barrack-Room Ballads (page 5), and in his biography of Kipling (page 106):

Search English literature and you will find no treatment of the English soldier on any adequate scale between Shakespeare and Kipling.

Kingsley Amis does not agree:

Soldiers Three and Wee Willie Winkie … contain little of Kipling’s best work. The soldiers … have not yet come to their maturity … Mulvaney recites long, not very funny anecdotes in Irish dialect, every other word conscientiously mutilated by an apostrophe or a would-be phonetic spelling. (page 59)

But see also Patrick Braybrooke’s Kipling and his Soldiers (The C. W. Daniel Company, 1925):

Avoiding absurd hero-worship of the soldier on the one hand and condemnation of him on the other, Kipling has drawn a picture of the British soldier with an accuracy that can only come from a perfect combination of knowledge and sympathy. (Preface)

This view was echoed forty years later by the anonymous author of Giants of Literature – Kipling (Sampson Low, ed. Arnoldo Mondadori, 1968):

These are no stylised soldiers but flesh-and-blood men – cynical, good-natured, undisciplined, rowdy, hard-drinking and rough-speaking. (page 34)

Kipling Journal references

There are numerous references to Soldiers Three and Other Stories in the Kipling Journal, including the following: KJ 052/27, 099/03, 100/02, 139/08, 188/02, 191/12, 216/19, 216/25, 254/29, 284/60, and 286/45.

[J H McG]

©John McGivering 2004 All rights reserved