The Propagation of Knowledge

(Notes edited by Isabel Quigly and Lisa Lewis)


Publication history

The story was first published in McCall’s Magazine (Jan 1926) and Strand Magazine (Jan 1926) illustrated by C.E. Brock. Collected, with a few minor alterations, in Debits and Credits (1926), also in The Complete Stalky & Co. (1929), illustrated by L. Raven-Hill.

The story

At the boys’ boarding-school that was the setting for Stalky & Co., Stalky, McTurk and Beetle are among a class of senior pupils being prepared by Mr King for an English Literature exam, which they must pass if they are to be accepted for training as Army officers. The syllabus consists of eighteenth century writers and Shakespeare’s King Lear. Beetle is sleepy from too much sun and sea. The offended King compares him to Macaulay’s description of Samuel Johnson, exposing him to the class’s derision. Beetle retaliates with a limerick that restores him in their eyes, and he is punished for impertinence.

Since his short sight disqualifies him from an Army career, he has been exempted from mathematics lessons and instead is allowed to do his own work in the Headmaster’s library.

There he finds Isaac D’Israeli’s Curiosities of Literature, full of useful anecdotes which he is persuaded to pass to his friends for inclusion in their answers to a test paper. Not knowing who or where these came from, King is impressed, and congratulates himself on the literary interests he has aroused. Then Beetle finds Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Authorship of Shakespeare, which argues that Shakespeare was incapable of writing his plays and that the true author was Francis Bacon. Realising that this will infuriate King, Beetle persuades McTurk to use it in an essay. King’s explosive reaction occupies an entire lesson and delights the class. On the day of the exam, they try the Baconian theory on the visiting examiner, and find that he subscribes to it. The examiner awards them high marks for this, and assuming that King is responsible, warmly congratulates him. King is outraged, but dare not answer.


In Carrington’s notes from Mrs Kipling’s diaries, Kipling was writing “a Stalky story” on 13th August 1925, believed to be the present one. He had just had a visit from an old schoolfriend called Griffiths. There may have been an earlier version, or the story may have had some subsequent revision, since the manuscript in Durham University Library does not include the scene with the outside examiner, while the final scene between King and the Padre is on a separate sheet, headed “Finish to the Curiosities of Literature” – evidently a working title.

Of his own schooldays, Kipling wrote in Something of Myself that “swimming in the big open sea baths, or off the Pebble Ridge, was the one [physical] accomplishment that brought me any credit” [p. 25]. The story includes a lyrical description of sea-bathing on a hot summer’s day on the north Devon coast. For further autobiographical background, see the quotations below from Something of Myself and “An English School” (Youth’s Companion (1893); collected in Land and Sea Tales).

The main characters in the story have already been established in Stalky & Co., “Regulus” (A Diversity of Creatures) and “The United Idolaters” (Debits and Credits), but see E.N. Houlton under

Critical Opinions

below for alterations to the character of King, for whom at least two originals have been suggested. In Something of Myself, Kipling would write:

My main interest as I grew older was C – [W.C. Crofts], my English and Classics Master, a rowing-man of splendid physique, and a scholar who lived in secret hope of translating Theocritus worthily. He had a violent temper, no disadvantage in handling boys used to direct speech, and a gift of schoolmaster’s ‘sarcasm’ which must have been a relief to him and was certainly a treasure-trove to me… Under him I came to feel that words could be used as weapons, for he did me the honour to talk at me plentifully; and our year-in year-out form-room bickerings gave us both something to play with. [pp. 31-32].

Another pupil, General Sidney Powell, described Crofts as “a scorner of the opposite sex, [who] revelled in classical allusions that were uncomplimentary to women” [Lycett p. 66]. Earlier, in “An English School,” Kipling had written:

Some of the masters, particularly on the classical side, vowed that Army examinations were making education no more than mark-hunting; but there are a great many kinds of education, and I think the Head knew it, for he taught us hosts of things that we never found out we knew till afterwards. (Land and Sea Tales, p. 258).

Beetle’s explorations in the Head’s Library feed his imagination and inform his mind. These, as well as the official syllabus, permeate the story. Besides the King James Bible, 25 authors in English are either mentioned or quoted, and five in other languages (if we count Fénélon and “Michel Ange” in the limerick by George Du Maurier quoted on page 276). Even granted that the theme is the teaching of English literature, this seems a large number. They range from examination texts to popular adventure stories; from the historical miscellanies of Isaac D’Israeli to the humorous contemporary magazine Punch; from scholarly critics to amateur theorists, whom some would call cranks.
Baconian theories

There still exists a society devoted to the theory that it was Bacon, not Shakespeare, who wrote the famous plays. Kipling had already made fun of such beliefs in Just So Stories (1902), where his vignette at the beginning of “The Cat that Walked by Himself” shows an initial H, of which the crossbar reads in runic script: “I also urote all the plais ascribed by Mrs Gallup.” In The bi-literal Cypher of Sir Francis Bacon discovered in his Works and Deciphered (Detroit, 1899), Elizabeth Wells Gallup claimed to find coded messages where there were variations in typeface in the early printings of Shakespeare’s plays. There is a more overt reference to the Baconians in “The Marréd Drives of Windsor” [The Flag, 1908], one of the series of literary parodies in “The Muse among the Motors” collected in The Years Between (1919) and subsequent editions of the verse:

HAMLET: Prince. Hamlet of Denmark. Your pardon too. ’Tis the Rhenish … but conceive, sirrah, how it comes about ’neath the unjust stars, that by a few ink-spirts and frail pretences of the plays, a bald-pated ostler to Pegasus conjures life into such as we. In which continuance, mark you, we live and inextinguishably shake spheres: he having left the globe – how long? But I’ll go find my double.

This has a parodic footnote:

… After the transparent reference to “the unjust stars,” the word “ink-spirts” leaps to the eye of the initiated as the simplest anagram of “scripsit” (the “k” being used, of course, for the desiderated “c”, and the apparently superfluous “n,” for the initial of Nicholas, Bacon’s father). “Frail pretences” (taking the first three letters of the first, and the last four of the second, word) reveals, beyond negation, the same “Frances” who wrote to his King (Mar. 25, 1631) that he might be “frail and partake, etc.” The “bald-pated ostler” who “conjures life into, etc.,” is even more palpable and needs not the additional continuance” which follows. Nor does this exhaust the category. Miss Nessa Droenbergh acutely explains Hamlet’s opening remark to Prince Henry as a well-bred man’s apology for phenomena due to liquor-excess – briefly as a hiccough. But we must remember that Bacon, where possible, always “doubles his clues,” on the principle of the British railroads’ “distant” and “home” signals. Thus after “Your pardon too,” comes “’Tis the Rhenish,” a German wine long traded into Britain and the Baltic, and later known as “hoc(k).” So we have, all but en clair, the author of “Shakespeare’s” plays proclaiming, “Hoc scripsit Frances Bacon.” (Francis Bacon wrote this.) What more, in the name of sanity, is needed to convince anyone who is not delivered over to the “man of Stratford” complex? – From PROFESSOR O.P. CALLOWITZ’s William the World-Impostor.

“The Propagation of Knowledge” seems to owe something to Francis Bacon’s The Advancement of Learning. Part XIX, 2 of this compares education to methods of propagation in horticulture:

For as the wronging or cherishing of seeds or young plants is that that is most important to their thriving: … so the culture and manurance of minds in youth, hath such a forcible, though unseen operation, as hardly any length of time or contention of labour can counterfeit it afterwards.

In Part XIX, 1, Bacon argues that:

…knowledge is either delivered by teachers, or attained by men’s proper endeavours: and therefore as the principal part of tradition of knowledge concerneth chiefly writing of books, so the relative part thereof concerneth reading of books…

Kipling’s thinking

Kipling’s thinking behind the story is set out in “Something of Myself”:

I taught Turkey all he ever knew of French, and he tried to make Stalky and me comprehend a little Latin. There is much to be said for this system, if you want a boy to learn anything, because he will remember what he gets from an equal where his master’s words are forgotten [p. 27].

One learns more from a good scholar in a rage than from a score of lucid and laborious drudges; and to be made the butt of one’s companions in full form is no bad preparation for later experiences. I think this ‘approach’ is now discouraged for fear of hurting the soul of youth, but in essence it is no more than rattling tins or firing squibs under a colt’s nose. I remember nothing save satisfaction or envy when C— broke his precious ointments over my head [p. 32].

In “The Propagation of Knowledge,” the boys’ original intention is to distract King from his task to something more entertaining: as Stalky says in “Regulus,” “When King’s really on tap he’s an interestin’ dog.” With the examiner they are flagrantly seeking to affect their results: as King puts it, they are “young swine rooting for marks.” They believe that they have learned a useful tool for manipulating those in authority. But since they listen attentively, they will have absorbed from King’s diatribe a fine example of rhetoric, “with a passion, force, and wealth of imagery which would have crowned his discourse at any university”; and also an exploration of the methods of textual analysis used by Holmes. Both the examiner and King have given them views of the logic, or lack of logic, with which Holmes and Delia Bacon drew their conclusions. Beetle, meanwhile, has graduated from recreational reading (as vilified by King) to research, a skill that will be useful to him when he becomes a journalist (see “The Last Term”, in Stalky & Co.).

Critical Opinions

In a review in The Saturday Review of Literature, Vol. III, p. 155 (2 October
1926), Christopher Morley argued that a great professor of English Literature had been lost in Kipling. He commented that: “The Propagation of Knowledge” might have been written specially to wring the withers of the Modern Language Association”. [ Lancelyn Green (ed.) p. 334.]

In his book Kipling and the Children Lancelyn Green wrote:

This is the story which I found the dullest when I read it as a boy, and which now seems the best one in the whole cycle. The jape is a purely intellectual one… [1971, pp. 166-7.]

E.N. Houlton, himself a schoolmaster, noted that King exists in two forms: the “Demon King” of Stalky & Co., and the gifted teacher of “Regulus.” With “The Propagation of Knowledge,” he argued:

we are back in the fabulous world where diabolical children, of never-failing skill, torment their infinitely gullible elders. Beetle causes King to believe that the other boys are Baconians, and they suggest to the Inspector that they have learnt their views from King. I hear Mr. King Two saying “I do wish you’d tried that Baconian game with me, Beetle;” but this, surely is King One again, offensive, excitable, and foolish. And yet: he is not quite the old King of “Stalky & Co.” In the first place he is an eager and competent teacher, a scholar and a great reader, a jealous honourer of Shakespeare – and “a hog on Scott,” which shows his good judgment. In the second place, he is ill-used as well as foolish.

Teachers are much exposed to experts: generally persons who either have never taught, or have got out of teaching (“Who’s Who” is full of people who have found teaching a good job to get out of). King of Balliol chose teaching, Hume of Sutton “wisely chose the Civil Service”; he is now the expert, he inspects King. He compliments him, and goes away self-satisfied. King suffers the most complicated agony. The praise of his teaching – which he deserves – is partly due to Hume’s delusion that he teaches Baconianism. He has to take patronage from a Baconian – in his view, a fool.

So, what is reputation, and what is an expert? Credit goes to the wrong person, or to the right one for the wrong reason. Stalky and the rest get credit from King – the expert – for knowing about Tom-a-Bedlams. Beetle, who instructed them, gets none. They make both experts, King and Hume, believe they are Baconians. The clever amateur fools all the experts, like the joker who manufactured the Piltdown skull. Be careful, this tale seems to say, where you give credit, especially when you give it to yourself. King honestly believes he practises reverentia towards the boys; in fact, he falls into his “calling’s snare,” the danger of letting exasperation issue in unkind speech. “Young swine rooting for marks” may be witty, even true, but it isn’t civil, or wise. King Two wouldn’t say it. Also, there is the disturbing account of “a happy, and therefore not too likeable, King” bragging to the Reverend John – can’t you hear that “therefore” cut like a knife? I am pleased with myself, therefore most odious to my neighbour. An ingenious tale: sad, but cautionary. [E.N. Houlton, “Under which King?”, The Kipling Journal, 208, December 1978, p. 8.]