On the Gate

a tale of ’16

(notes edited by Lisa Lewis and Elizabeth Breuilly)


First published in McCall’s Magazine, June 1926 as “The Gate,” illustrated by E.F. Ward; collected in Debits and Credits, with the poem “The Supports”.

The story

Near the Gate of Heaven, Death (the archangel Azrael) and St Peter are discussing the problems caused by the huge increase in deaths due to World War I. St Peter uses biblical texts to make excuses for admitting sinners. The angels on duty are reinforced by volunteer saints, whom St Peter relies on to continue his policy of lenience. The two then visit the bureaucrats in the department of Normal Civil Death, who are trying to show that the formalities of Victorian deathbeds, funerals and periods of mourning are still being observed, falsifying any records that do not fit. Death unmasks one of their clerks as an Imp infiltrated from Hell. But the Imp is starting to turn into an angel, so Death reassigns him to the war side.

Death and St Peter next visit the Domestic Induced Casualty Department, from which angels are sent to stop the relatives and widows of war casualties giving way to sin and despair. A Seraph having failed in one case, the reformed Imp is sent to “work on her pride.” Then a signal comes through about a “Deserter; spy; murderer” who seems certain of damnation, and they rush to the Gate. There a group of saints, reformed sinners and writers are dealing with a multitude of casualties, whom the representatives of Hell are trying to convince that they are irrevocably damned. A variety of cases are admitted to Heaven before the traitor appears. Shakespeare suggests a text under which he too may be saved, and he is issued with a pass that strictly limits his time in Purgatory. Their morale restored, the heavenly pickets go off duty, and the story ends with a hint that even Death, the only “created being” doomed to die, may one day be reprieved.


Carrington’s notes from Mrs Kipling’s diary have Kipling writing a “St Peter story” in April 1916. His close friend Rider Haggard recorded on 22nd May, 1918 a long conversation with Kipling on his son’s death, his religious beliefs, his own fame and current affairs. Haggard continued:

Also he read me a quaint story about Death and St Peter, written in modern language, almost in slang, which his wife would not let him publish. It would have been caviare to the General if he had, because the keynote of it is infinite mercy extending even to the case of Judas. [Rider Haggard’s diary: quoted, Morton Cohen (ed.), Rudyard Kipling to Rider Haggard (London: Hutchinson 1965), p. 101.]

According to ORG, “It was copyrighted in the U.S.A. in June 1916 under the title “The Department of Death”, but it was not published until ten years later.” Mrs Kipling’s diary has him beginning a story of that name on 29th October 1920.

“On the Gate” is identified with “The Department of Death” in the bound volume of manuscripts at Durham University Library. The section on Normal Civil Death is considerably longer, with a number of other characters. The manuscript stops short towards the end of p. 350. Two further folios of the story, taking it up to the end, are in the bound volume “Manuscripts,” Additional MS 45542 in the British Library, apparently caught up by mistake with what is otherwise a collection of Kipling’s war journalism, travel writings and speeches. ORG records that in a sale at Sotheby’s on 10th December 1968, there were two typed drafts of the story:

each containing autograph revisions and deletions, the later draft complete on 17 numbered leaves, the earlier draft containing 27 out of 34 numbered leaves (lacking nos. 3, 5, 6 and 22), unbound 4to. In both of these drafts the story is entitled The Department of Death.

It therefore seems certain that this was one of the stories of which Kipling wrote in Something of Myself [p. 208] that he had had tales by him for several years
“which shortened themselves almost yearly.”

Though based on Christian doctrine, the story is by no means orthodox. The opening sentence quotes from the so-called “father of alchemy,” the mythical sage Hermes Trismegistus (Hermes the Thrice-Great). This was the Greek name for Thoth, the Egyptian god of wisdom. The quotation comes from the Smaragdine Table, on which the sage was supposed to have inscribed thirteen sentences that summarised alchemical doctrine. According to a work ascribed (probably falsely) to St Albertus Magnus, the Table was discovered in a cave by Alexander the Great.

The rescued souls specified in the story are British, though the crowd at the gate includes “all races, tongues and creeds.” Their heavenly rescuers come from several European countries and held, in their lifetimes, a range of beliefs. They also include Judas and the atheist Charles Bradlaugh. ORG commented:

Why did Kipling choose these particular people? Note that he starts with the founder of the Christian Church among the Gentiles (Paul); therefore two highly appropriate assistants would be a leading Protestant (Calvin) and a leading Catholic (Loyola). St Christopher fits in well as the patron of the “wet and muddy,” while St Joan personified the youth of France, the main slaughter-ground of the War. To repel the outriders of the “Lower Establishment” moral strength is required – supplied in abundance by Bradlaugh – while Bunyan is presumably the greatest earthly authority on the road to Heaven. Putting “Iscariot J” there, is a stroke of genius, since obviously no one would fear total banishment if they knew he had reached harbour safely in the end. The hardest one to explain is Shakespeare and it is significant that the main use to which Kipling puts him is in suggesting a Ruling that covers the lost soul of the traitor (page 353, 11, 17 et seq.) Another was to praise his co-picket Bunyan for his handling of the atheist.

ORG described the orders of angels as follows (citing the 6th century authority Dionysus the Areopagite):

  1. Seraphim
  2. Cherubim
  3. Thrones
  4. Dominions or Dominations
  5. Virtues
  6. Powers
  7. Principalities
  8. Archangels
  9. Angels

ORG further commented:

Kipling refers to the various Angels as Powers and ascribes to them different qualities but they belong to a separate Order. He includes Seraph (plural Seraphim) as powers, i.e. 6th Class of Angel, whereas they belong to the first class. It seems clear that he was not in any way considering these various sub-divisions of Angels, perhaps he did not know there was such a precedence list, but [thought?] that all these names meant much the same thing.

The transformation of the Imp, and the possible salvation of Death/Azrael, derive from the theories of Origen (c.185-c.254), an Alexandrian biblical scholar and theologian. Origen was a prolific writer who got into trouble with the ecclesiastical authorities, so that only fragments of his works survive, quoted in translation by other writers. One of his most controversial theories was that all spirits were created equal, but some of them, having sinned, either became demons or were imprisoned as souls in bodies. After death the soul may turn into either a demon or an angel. Their ascent and descent continues, but eventually all of them, even the devil, will be saved.

The story exists on several levels. On one, it expresses Kipling’s lifelong rebellion against hellfire religion of the kind taught by the foster-mother with whom he was lodged at the age of six. As he wrote in Something of Myself [p. 6]:

It was an establishment run with the full vigour of the Evangelical as revealed to the Woman. I had never heard of Hell, so I was introduced to it in all its terrors …

On another level, it satirises the attitudes and problems of wartime bureaucracy. On a third, it suggests that a great writer like Shakespeare can play as important a part in saving souls as canonised saints.

Critical Opinions

The contemporary reviewer R. Ellis Roberts, in an article in the Empire Review [Vol. XLV, pp. 184-93, March 1928], saw this story as the “gem” of the collection:

I know of no modern story in any language, not even in Russian, in which sacred and deeply moving things are handled at once with such daring and such reverence. I know no story in which Mr. Kipling’s deep underlying pity, so often obscured by his cleverness of manner, is so well employed… I suppose the conventionally orthodox may be disturbed at Mr. Kipling’s vision of the other world: it is not the mythology of the Middle Ages, for here Judas is out of hell and, with a bold return to the eschatology of Origen and the earlier Christian tradition, there is hope for the “Lower Establishment.” I shall not be surprised if in the years to come this story may not be one of the greatest influences towards popularising the modern idea of the meaning of eternity. … “On the Gate” has a wider scope, a deeper beauty than any other of Mr. Kipling’s stories of the other world, and in it he justifies all his previous essays, whether in prose or verse, to snatch for a moment the veil from actual things and show to us the reality that alone supports and informs them.

But the Times Literary Supplement’s reviewer found the story “merely ‘slick’”:

All this machinery of card-indexes, telephones, passes, piquets is amusing enough; nor is there anything shocking in it, for Mr. Kipling watches his steps closely when he is following a sacred theme, and his genial buffoonery so obviously serves to cover a moral that it will not offend the most strait-laced. But it is too clever and too complicated. [Sep. 16, 1926, p. 6ll].

J.M.S. Tompkins [1959] compared the story to Byron’s “Vision of Judgement.” She also wrote:

In the fantasy “On the Gate” he produces, with relish, one after another, the stale and embarrassing data of the sentimentalist – the deserter before the firing-squad, the mottle-nosed major pushed into Heaven by his mother, the seraph whose sword is broken on a woman’s gin-bottle – and keeps them all light and aerated by the wit that transfers the administrative organisation of war to the “reception” of Heaven, struggling with an unusually heavy entry. So delicate and gay is this tune played on the bones of death that, when we read that St Peter, busy at the gate, “caught up a thick block of Free Passes, nodded to a group in khaki at a passport table, initialled their Commanding Officer’s personal pass as for ‘Officer and Party’, and left the numbers to be filled in by a quite competent-looking Quarter-Master-Sergeant”, it is a moment before we envisage this incident from the earthward end – as we are meant to do. [p. 183].

Tompkins further commented:

We have often heard of the malice of the civilian in the first Great War. There were also moments of helpless love for all the ordinary, normally rather unlovable people in a bus or on a platform. “On the Gate” is the imaginative satisfaction for such moods; and the satire, the fancy, the deliberately gay use of sentimental but natural clichés show that we are never for a moment supposed to forget that that is what it is. The amusingly contemporary décor, the romantic beauty of the angelic militia (for which Byron offers a hint), the dove-coloured patch on the pinions of the volunteer Imp, the fluttering of the papers on the desks “beneath the draught of his furious vans”, as he launches himself earthward on his mission, these are not merely self-indulgence, but also directives. This is a fable. There is no harm in calling it a fairy-tale, if we remember how deeply the roots of fairy-tales run into the needs and hopes of human beings. [pp.212-3].

Philip Mason [1975] saw the story as “a gloriously comic structure” [p. 265]. The episode in which a Seraph kisses St Peter’s foot, he thought, “open[s] vistas of enormous theological significance,” since “Peter has been human, he has failed through lack of courage and has redeemed himself. The Seraph, created stainless, ranks lower in the hierarchy”[pp. 266-7]. But Mason added:

I think there are rather too many distinguished figures among the pickets … In the references to some of these people, there is a hint of that note so familiar in the early stories: “See how clever I am! Are you clever enough to understand me?” And of course it is an absurdity – even within the terms of the fable – that the Peter here depicted should not have that verse from Samuel at his fingertips, since he could stretch it to cover everything. I cannot claim that “On the Gate” is of anything like the quality of “The Gardener.” But it is funny and I do find phrases in it heart-shaking with that sudden quality of freshness that is special to Kipling [p. 269].

To Angus Wilson, the story “has a muddled generality bordering on sentimentality which is, I think, one of the faults that deny many of his ambitious late stories success.” [1977, p. 313].
Sandra Kemp [1988] examines the story at some length, seeing it as:

The first evidence of Kipling’s growing predilection for the New Testament … Contrary to what one might expect in “A tale of ’16”, the main emphasis is upon forgiveness and redemption (although no Germans are admitted to Kipling’s heaven) [p. 91].

Intent upon exploring the mystery of Divine grace, Kipling abandons his earlier criticism of particular Christian denominations: in this story Bradlaugh, Bunyan and Calvin join forces as “pickets” at the gates of Hell. Judas and Mary Magdalene are also enlisted in the cause … Throughout the story the mystery of forgiveness and acceptance is conveyed through elements of the comic and the mock-heroic … The narrative also mocks the language and figures of conventional religion, but at times the delicate and tender word-play is strangely moving … [pp. 92-3].

On the one hand, as J.M.S. Tompkins suggests, the story demonstrates that there is enough hell on earth to suspend the notion of retribution: “What further payment should be exacted from those who were muddy and wet and did not desert?” .. On the other hand, the story also seeks to locate religion firmly in the world of ordinary reality.. [p. 94].