First published in Pearson’s Magazine and Everybody’s Magazine in March 1912, and collected in A Diversity of Creatures in 1917 where it is followed by the verse “Jobson’s Amen”, part of which had appeared in 1914. It is also collected in the Sussex Edition Volume IX, the Burwash Edition Volume IX, and Scribner’s Edition, Volume XXVI.
Theme and background
As Daniel Karlin has noted: King Edward VII died of pneumonia on 6 May 1910. The body lay in state in St George’s Hall, Westminster, as described in the story, until 21 May, when it was taken by train for the state funeral at Windsor. The description of the Gurkha soldiers’ vigil is historical: see Reginald Harbord’s article in KJ 129 (March 1959) for the verbatim account of one of the participants, Subadar-Major Santbir Gurung. He was accompanied by two other senior officers and by his son. (Kipling transposes this relationship to the Sikh part of the story.) The Subadar-Major says that when the King’s body lay in state sentries were posted, among them one Indian officer:
‘British Officers were relieved after every hour and so were we … Daily from Reveille to Retreat, the public were allowed to come there and pay their respects to their late King…. Continuously for four days we were on duty. Did not change our uniform even.’
Some critical comments
In his Rudyard Kipling, a Critical Edition of the Major Works (Oxford 1999), Daniel Karlin writes:
The story juxtaposes two kinds of honour—one concerning a blood-feud, the other the endurance of physical and psychological strain—and in both cases the honour belongs to Indian subjects of the Empire. But the scope of the story widens as it goes on: for whereas the Subadar-Major and the Chaplain admire the heroic propriety with which men of their own race and regiment have conducted themselves, the Havildar-Major, who has crossed the ‘Black Water’ and seen sights beyond the knowledge of his seniors, requires them to admire the behaviour of men who are not Sikhs, but ‘idolaters’ of a different race. The action which he reports is one not of martial valour, but of supreme self-discipline in the observance of a ritual, and it takes place on an international stage, a performance witnessed by hundreds of thousands of people of every race and creed.
In the evocation of the bowed figures forced to witness the endless, maddening procession of feet around the coffin of the dead King, Kipling creates one of the most haunting images of psychological stress in literature. Documentary realism and the narrator’s even, sober tone unfold a Gothic and urban horror, a nightmare of alienating, multitudinous repetition.
The values of courage, caste loyalty, and ruthless determination, exemplified by Rutton Singh and Attar Singh, are also present in the behaviour of the four Gurkhas, who share the Sikhs’ unbending meticulousness (the Sikhs’ scrupulous accounting for the ‘borrowed’ cartridges, the Gurkhas’ refusal to loosen their high, painfully stiff collars, even though they have to bend their heads twice as low in order to give the same impression of grief as the British grenadiers).
But though the Chaplain equates the two ‘affairs’, the story suggests that the Gurkhas’ faith measures, and goes beyond, that of the Sikhs. The context of their heroic loyalty is sharpened by the glancing implication that the ‘integrity of certain regiments’ in the Imdian Army is suspect, a matter about which the Havildar-Major evidently knows more than he reveals.
The poem which follows the story, “Jobson’s Amen”, is one of Kipling’s last and clearest expressions of distaste for imperialism as as an extension of Little Englandism.
“The Debt” (Limits and Renewals, 1932), in which two Muslims in India discuss the dangerous illness of Edward VII’s successor, George V, makes an interesting post-war pendant to this story.
C A Bodelsen (p. 104) sees the piece as oddly constructed:
…where the theme is the Sikh code of honour illustrated by a story of revenge, the frame is almost as long as the story it leads up to (which deals with another aspect of the Sikh concept of honour), so that frame and story really constitute two separate tales loosely joined together.
But Dr Tompkins in her Chapter 4, “Simplicity and Complexity” (pp. 102–3), notes that the two, at first sight extremely different anecdotes, are linked together :
The priest of a Sikh regiment tells how two of his men accomplished, at the cost of their lives, a ritual revenge: and the young corporal, returned from England, tells how the four Gurkha aides-de-camp kept their exhausting watch, with unremitted rigour of observance, at the lying-in-state of Edward VII. The underlying conception is honour, and the accepted rituals through which it is preserved.
(The young Havildar-Major was strictly equivalent to a Regimental Sergeant-Major in the British army, the most senior non-commissioned officer, and a much higher rank than Corporal: Ed.} See also our notes on
“The Dead King”. KJ 313/62, and KJ 315/62.
[J H McG]
©John McGivering 2008 and Daniel Karlin 1999. All rights reserved