The most interesting, and shocking fact about history is just how young so many of the military commanders and leaders actually were down through time. One of the most famous, Alexander III of Macedon, was barely into his 20’s when he began conquering the known world. Wars today are still fought by people the same age as Alexander (some even younger), and there will always be glory in war for a young man wanting to make a name for himself.
Kim begins with a gun, a giant canon representing the strength, struggle, and oppression of India and the people who wanted control of the subcontinent. The book ends with a choice. In between we get the education of young Kim by his elders who see great promise in this talented, smart, cunning, and devious boy. Some wish to use him for the Great Game, that struggle for control over India (and now Pakistan), others wish to see him stay true to his native people (though little do they know he’s actually white – a ‘Sahib’), and one man, Teshoo Lama, wishes to set him on the path of ‘the way’, the true path of eternal salvation and freedom from sin.
And this struggle for Kim’s soul – both figuratively and literally – makes up the heart of the book, and not so much for the character’s sake, bot for our own. Kipling is forcing us to decide which way we would choose to go (war, peace, or indifference) by letting us inhabit a main character who makes us feel smarter than we probably are in real life, more cunning than we are even on our best of days, braver, stronger, and more experienced than we would admit to being and then leaving the final decision open to our own interpretation as a test to see what we would do with Kim’s talents and teachers influence.
The novel does seem to aim for an audience of boys aged somewhere between 10 and 16 and Kipling does seem to be square in the camp of hoping young men will grow up to choose the way of peace, like the Lama, yet he doesn’t beat you over the head with his morality, either. The life of the Great Game is very exciting, could lead to great renown, money, women, respect: all the things us boys dream of when we’re young (and pretty much till the day we die old men, too). And even the simple life of just living your life out with basic comfort, a family, your head down and nose clean (the typical life most of us wind up choosing) is here seen as exotic, profitable, and, at the least, interesting.
In fact considering how much of the novel is focused on the relationship between Kim and the Lama and how relatively little is devoted to a more exciting life, goes to show just how difficult it is to steer people away from war, from vain glory, from ‘illusion’ as the Lama would say. Just one encounter with a spy, with a Russian with a gun, with a mysterious gem trader can nearly undo years of fellowship with a peaceful Lama whose earthly reward is begging and heavenly reward is uncertain.
And so looking deeper into these decisions it seems much clearer how in that particular part of the world even today it’s not so difficult to see why young men chose to join up with groups that offer far more attractive and comfortable rewards here on Earth instead of following the ways of a prophet. Life in Pakistan and the surrounding area is harsh, dangerous, other cultures and foreigners look down on them as dirty and stupid, there are no real opportunities, and so it’s not hard to understand why on the one hand even a powerful religion such as Islam can teach peace and on the other young men will kill in the name of it.
So in many ways that I doubt Kipling would have ever imagined, Kim is a very relevant novel today that teaches us quite a bit about ourselves as well as the people of an ‘exotic’ land in the middle east and subcontinent. Kipling shows us the struggle between right and wrong, good and evil, and though he aims for a younger audience, the book is filled with a wisdom that is well beyond the age of the intended reader.
I am a little uncomfortable with some of the generalizations Kipling paints with concerning nearly all the ethnicity. Mahbub Ali, a Muslim, is dangerously close to the stereotypical dangerous and shady Afghan Muslim, Hurree is a buffoon even when he’s tough as nails and brilliant, Creighton is far too fatherly and pretty much stands for all of British colonialism, the two chaplains (a Catholic and a Protestant) are comic relief, and even the Lama seems very one-dimensional and straight out of a bad Hollywood interpretation of the wise, Tibetan monk.
Yet there is also real friendship between Kim and the Lama that transcends the page and in moments of crisis for the two of them genuinely had me worried for the outcome and that strength of the friendship helps sell the idea of the way of peace in the face of so many more tempting options. And it’s that friendship on the page, the real art of the novel that made me really love the book despite its flaws.