The Prophet and the Country

(notes edited by Lisa Lewis)


First published in Hearst’s Magazine, October 1924 and Nash’s Magazine, November 1924, with illustrations by David Robinson. Some 350 words were cut when it was collected in Debits and Credits (1926). Introduced there by the poem “The Portent” and followed by “Gow’s Watch”: Act IV, Scene 4”.

The story

The narrator is driving north through the English Midlands, observing the passing scene with detached indifference. He is stopped in a market town for a police licence check. Later his car breaks down and as night falls he is stranded by the roadside. An American pulls up beside him, driving an improvised caravan, and invites the narrator inside.

The American confides how, after his wife died, he planned to make a film denouncing the effect on the national character of the current U.S. legislation against alcohol, for which he blames women. The film would have predicted how the nation would be corrupted and become powerless to resist foreign exploitation. To illustrate his theme, he produces four photographs: one of a vengeful-looking native American chief; two of his wife’s best friend, who hoped he would marry her, showing first her self-righteous character and then her despair at his rejection; and the fourth shows a party of tourists in the wilderness, looking “unutterably mean”. He tells how his project was universally denounced, not only by those in favour of Prohibition, but also as disloyal and un-American. He became, he says, so unpopular that he had to leave the country and is now a lonely wanderer. His story told, they go out into the dawn. In more cheerful mood, they watch the sun rise. A hearse goes by, then the American “kindly and efficiently” tows the narrator’s car to Doncaster to be repaired.


The story was written and finalised by early October 1923. [Alastair Wilson, who has been editing the extracts from Carrie Kipling’s diaries by Carrington and Rees, notes that five tales were sent to Watt: ”The Prophet and the Country”, noted on October 10th and a group of four on October 13th; “The United Idolaters”, “A Friend of the Family”,” The Janeites”, and “The Enemies to Each Other”. All were collected in Debits and Credits in 1926.]

At the end of September Kipling and his wife had set out in their chauffeur-driven car for a tour of Yorkshire and Scotland, culminating in his installation as Rector of St Andrew’s University on 9th October. In the diary fragment “Kipling’s Motor Tours” [TS, Kipling papers, University of Sussex Library], he would call it “the most marvellous of any tour yet.” On the way home (15th October) they had been stopped by “a system of insane police controls where licences were demanded and a filthy red-diamond label offered (by a man with a workmanlike pink tongue) to be stuck on the car as a ‘protection against further “inspections”. ” Kipling refused this, “not wishing [his car] to look like the cattle labelled on their rumps who were circulating unattended through Grantham. … A funeral was mixed up with the market cattle.” On a previous tour in France in May 1922, the car’s ignition had failed, due to “a broken make-and-break of the magneto. Smashed spring exhibited as evidence.” Both these episodes are used in the frame story.

In the manuscript, several references to the narrator’s “personal Demon” make it clear that, during the night described in the story, this has returned to him after long absence. (For Kipling’s Demon or Daemon of inspiration, see Something of Myself pp. 208-10.) Soon after their return from Scotland, Mrs Kipling noted that her husband was working on some stories he had begun while writing The Irish Guards in the Great War (published earlier that year). A week later he was “rearranging quantities of his work.” “The Prophet and the Country” is mentioned on 10th November [Carrington’s notes].

A comment in Something of Myself seems to refer to this story. He says (p. 118) that Vermont was a “dry” state when he lived there in the 1890s, and that men routinely drank on the sly. The passage may also be an oblique reference to Mrs Kipling’s brother, who became a chronic alcoholic.

Critical Opinions

Hugh Brogan saw the story as “affectionate” and “full of poise and kindly humour” [Journal of American Studies, 1973, 7. 1, p. 32]. But J.M.S. Tompkins wrote: “It may be the absence of warmth that makes “The Prophet and the Country” an awkward tale to approach… It is not quite without detached pity, but the atmosphere is chilly. Kipling has several subjects in hand, but we are not immediately convinced that they belong to each other.” The link, she suggests, is the fracture of the make-and-break, which:

is an obvious symbol of the psychic injury the American has received. … He bears his testimony in exile, beside the English road on which “I” has already been stopped that day by the “witch-doctoring” of a motor-licence control. It is not only in the States that the “Herd Impulse” and the “counter-balancing necessity for Individual Self-expression” are at odds.

This potentially serious material is treated for most of the tale as a comic extravaganza. Tarworth is an eccentric, and the amazing scenario of his projected anti-Prohibition film is in Kipling’s old style of cumulative, concrete, hyperbolic detail… I have had to worry at “The Prophet and the Country” and be ingenious; and I can readily believe that I may be quite wrong about it. [Tompkins, 1959, pp. 252-3.]

Bodelsen devoted a whole chapter to the story, suggesting that it:

… is one of the late stories in which close study is likely to uncover more than one layer of meaning, and where one must be prepared to find a technique involving symbolism, indirectness of presentation, counterbalancing passages with a contrapuntal effect, and hints at recondite analogies between the themes of which the tale is built up…. I believe that, by means of certain clues carefully planted by the writer, the two main strands of the tale can be shown to belong together and to present fairly close parallels to each other, in fact that they are meant to be two variations on the same fundamental theme. [Bodelsen, 1964, pp. 29-30.]

Bodelsen suggests that the symbol of the make-and-break “is meant to apply both to the American theme and to the theme of the transcendental Experience [i.e. communion with the Demon], and thus to link the two themes together.” An important part of his argument is the “key word”, a repeated or incongruous word that may convey a hidden meaning. “Presumption”, he posits: “is obviously meant to be a key word – it is repeated again and again, and the American nation is described as the Children of Presumption. What, then, is presumption meant to convey? It is the Sin of Pride, manifesting itself as an interference in the dictates of Nature, and a failure to understand that there are things that man cannot do with impunity, because of limits set by Nature. (Ibid., p. 35)
The narrator and the American, Bodelsen argues, “are fellow-fugitives from conformity, who meet in a territory where its mandate does not run: in an open space where one can smell the trees and feel the morning breeze.” [Ibid., p. 37].

In Something of Myself the Demon “occurs again and again as a mentor that guides Kipling’s pen and warns him where to stop. What made the American people go wrong in Tarworth’s film may be described by saying that they did not listen to the promptings of their demon.” [Ibid., p. 37].