Wee Willie Winkie

(notes edited by John McGivering)


This tale first appeared in The Week’s News of 28 January, 1888 and then, in the same year, as the first of the four stories in Volume VI of the Indian Railway Library, to which it gave its name. It was collected in “Wee Willie Winkie and Other Stories” in 1895 and in numerous subsequent reprints of that collection.

The story

Wee Willie Winkie is the six-year-old son of the Colonel, and much loved by all in the regiment. He is subject to military discipline, but breaks bounds on his pony to follow a young woman who is riding – very rashly – into tribal territory. They are captured by the tribesmen but Wee Willie Winkie sends back his pony for help, and behaves with great bravery until they are rescued. He is ‘wee’ no longer.

Some critical comments

Charles Carrington commented in 1955: “This story and “His Majesty the King” in the same collection are conventional tales in a genre which delighted our grandparents…The heroes of these two stories are angel-children whose innocent pranks reconcile quarrelling lovers and unite broken families. They are studio-pieces not much unlike Mrs. Burnett’s Little Lord Fauntleroy (1886), the masterpiece among sentimental juveniles…..these stories provide the crudest examples of the young Kipling’s characteristic faults.” (Carrington, p. 102)
J.I.M Stewart displays an unexpected touch of humour when in 1966 he refers to this story and “His Majesty the King” as: “thickly sentimental presentations of childhood in a manner not at all to our taste today…Kipling was to write with genius for children, but not invariably with genius about them. (p.48) Stewart does, however, find “Baa, Baa, Black Sheep” and “The Drums of the Fore and Aft “ more to his liking.

See Harry Ricketts (p.26) for Kipling’s childhood reading at Southsea, and Lady Gregory’s conversation with him in 1919 concerning the books which were to have a great influence on him in his later writings, including this story. See also KJ 024, KJ141/21, and KJ208/10. The story was made into a film by Twentieth-Century Fox in 1937 starring Shirley Temple and Victor McLagan.

Some editorial reflections in 2004

Looking at this story of a spoilt and precocious child in the cold light of the 21st Century, it seems at first sight most unlikely, even in a work of fiction, that such a child could so confront and outface a gang of wild armed men. However, considering the status of the British in India in that era, and looking at Kipling’s account of his own childhood in Bombay reflected in the first part of “Baa Baa, Black Sheep”(later in this volume) and in Something of Myself it is perhaps not as implausible as it seems.

When, for example, one considers Strickland’s little son Adam in “The Son of his Father” in Land and Sea Tales for Scouts and Guides, with his evident authority over his father’s men, it becomes more believable that a child who is treated with such deference and allowed such latitude may well develop the self-confidence which enables him to carry off an affair like this. The thought of eventual exile to the U.K. for education must also have inclined Anglo-Indian parents to indulge their children more than was really good for them, and such treatment may well have given them knowledge and an ability to communicate far beyond their years. Also, Wee Willie Winkie was – after all – the son of the Colonel, and the tribesmen knew very well what retribution would follow if he were harmed. See Pinney (p.112) and Lycett (p. 28) ” an angry Ruddy is coming !”

See also the notes to “Tods’ Amendment” in Plain Tales from the Hills (page 198, line 13) for the unhealthy climate of the plains and the frightful child mortality of those times, and “The Daughter of the Regiment” in the same collection. (page 207, line 20}

[J McG]