(notes edited by Dr Gillian Sheehan and John McGivering)


First published in The Story-Teller Magazine for October 1930 and collected in Limits and Renewals, (1932) where it is accompanied by the verse “The Threshold”. Also collected in the Sussex Edition volume 11, the Burwash Edition volume 10, and Scribner’s Edition volume 33. It was at first called “Stars in their Courses” (Andrew Lycett page 545.) which we now know as an echo of Kipling’s “An Astrologer’s Song”:

What chariots, what horses
Against us shall bide
While the Stars in their courses
Do fight on our side ?

The Story

Four men are old comrades from the Great War. Three are doctors, Vaughan, a surgeon, Loftie, a pathologist, and Ackerman, a dilettante physician. The fourth is an astronomer, Harries, who has ‘notions’ about the possible influence of stars and planets on human life:

‘We can’t tell on what system this dam’ dynamo of our universe is wound, but we know we’re in the middle of every sort of wave, as we call ’em.’

Harries inherits £1 million and a big income, and funds a nursing-home for Vaughan and a laboratory for Loftie. At Harries’s behest, and despite the ‘professional’ scepticism of the doctors, they study specimens of tissue taken from cancer patients. They observe curious ripples, ‘tides’ as it were, that seem to vary with the time of day, and are different from patient to patient. They experiment with mice, and find a tidal flow in their tissues also, and that when they are treated for dangerous conditions, this is more likely to be successful if they are operated on at the ‘flood’. Mrs Berners, one of the cancer patients, needs another operation, and they apply the same principle, operating at midnight, when her ‘tides’ are at the flood, near the date and time of her birthday, and with her lying on a particular compass bearing. The operation is much more successful than they had expected.

They also see, though, a mouse, saved by a similar operation, developing a death wish, and killing itself by thrusting its head through the bars of its cage. This seems to have happened on the ‘ebb’ when two ‘tides’ have`clashed, and they see, with concern, that Mrs Berners is exhibiting the same gestures. She too tries to kill herself, but is narrowly prevented from doing so, and survives. C A Bodelsen (page 97) suggests that she knew she was doomed to die, even though she was, like the mouse, cured of cancer by an operation carried out at the right time of her ‘tides’.

In the eyes of Harries, the astronomer, what has been proved is ‘ not a dam’ thing, except that it may give us some data and inference which may serve as some sort of basis for some detail of someone else’s work in the future’. We are left with the thought that there are indeed mysterious processes at work in human tissues, which might be related to ‘waves’ from the universe, and that in order to understand them, imagination and intuition may be as important as scientific investigation.

Critical responses

J M S Tompkins considers this story at some length in her chapter on “Healing”:

To get the emotion of such a story, the sense of the exacting and complex toil, of the endless recording of minute facts, the emergence of unexpected questions, the startling moments when the shadow of a colossal and distant truth is glimpsed — an intellectual passion, humanised in this case by being focused on a particular petient so that the measure of what pure knowledge means when applied to human pain can be kept in view — Kipling needed to draw on the detail of a specific line of enquiry. He could not achieve the effect by means of general terms, and it is not likely that he could, even with expert help, make use of any authentic research, past or present…

He was forced to make the project and the procedure ‘unprofessional’. So he turned to the stars, whose influence on human lives was a commonplace in the India he knew, as he showed in Kim and much later in “The Debt”, and had been a commonplace in England, three hundred or so years before…

The vision in “The Astrologer’s Song” of the predominance of the stars over all earthly things is restored
on a vaster scale when Harries … describes the ultimate heavens as ‘all one generating station of one Power drawn from the Absolute, and of one essence and substance with all things.’ This “The Threshold” tells us, was also the vision of ‘resolute, unsatisfied Ionia’, but the truth had been ‘choked at birth’ , and the imagination loops back to “The Eye of Allah”, and ties it up to the greatest historical example of the delayed dawn of knowledge.

[This. as described in “The Eye of Allah” was the suppression by the Church of the invention of the microscope as early as the thirteenth century; Ed.]
Philip Mason (page 244) also examines this story at some length, and notes:

the governing idea is that men who look through microscopes should talk to men who look through telescopes, the atom becomes more and more like a universe and there are phenomena in both for which we cannot account.

Noel Annan, in his essay “Kipling’s Place in the History of Ideas”, in Kipling’s Mind and Art, (Andrew Rutherford, Ed.) looks at various stories where Kipling is ahead of his time, and remarks of this one that:

a new discovery in science would create a new social problem ….. a moral to those who imagined that a problem has only to be scientifically examined for the “correct” solution to be found. If Kipling admired the strides made in psychology and medicine and engineering, he also intended to demonstrate how limited were their potentiality and accuracy.

Angus Wilson (page 332) regards the story as a failure, but the grounds for his saying so are not clear. Wilson continues:

Kipling is anxious to assert what, I think, all but a few scientists will agree: that, in many of the most important scientific discoveries, an intuitive leap often carries the worker forward at a vital moment in an experiment, however much his discovery made from intuition must be checked and rechecked by deductive observed tests before it can be accepted.

John Coates, on the other hand, is enthusiastic (page 86) discussing the diverting ingenuity with which the researchers overcome obstacles and sidestep the ‘fated’ death of their patient.

Likewise Meryl Macdonald (page 240):

Kipling’s friend, the surgeon Bland-Sutton, was astonished by this tale which he said was as much in advance of the times as its author’s flying stories. Kipling was, in fact, anticipating by many years the research into biorhythms.

Charles Carrington (page 475) calls this:

a story that repays study … the revival of an old notion that stimulated the astrologers in antiquity but had led them astray.

Kipling and Science Fiction

In the view of many modern writers of Science Fiction, Kipling was a pioneer of the genre. Seed Fred :Lerner’s essay A Master of Our Art.

See also:

The Finest Story in the World
A Matter of Fact
The Ship that Found Herself
the Army of a Dream
With the  Night Mail
Cold Iron
A Doctor of Medicine
The Knife and the Naked Chalk
As Easy as ABC
In the Same Boat
The Eye of Allah

 Some further references

Kipling became particularly interested in medicine and healing, and the advance of science and technology, in his later stories. He knew many doctors, and many figured in his tales. See Dr Gillian Sheehan’s notes in this guide on “Some of Kipling’s medical acquaintances” and “Doctors in the stories”. He himself suffered protracted illness and much pain in his later years.

See also Kipling’s speeches collected in A Book of Words, to the Middlesex Hospital on “A Doctor’s Work”, to The Royal College of Surgeons on “Surgeons and the Soul”, and in particular to The Royal Society of Medicine on “Healing by the Stars”  (November 1928, only to be found in the Sussex Edition vol. 25 and the Burwash Edition vol. 24) in which he expresses many of the ideas on which this story is based, See also ORG volume 7 page 3255, for further observations.

See also:


[G S / J H McG]

©Gillian Sheehan and John McGivering 2008 All rights reserved