Closer Readings Commentary

Rudyard Kipling at 150

Oh, East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet…
But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth,
When two strong men stand face to face, though they come from the ends of the earth!

—Rudyard Kipling “The Ballad of East and West” 

This week we mark the 150th anniversary of the birth of Rudyard Kipling, born in Bombay (Mumbai), India, on December 30, 1865.

The Author

Over the course of his long life (1865–1936), Rudyard Kipling became one of the world’s most popular English writers in both prose and verse. Heralded as "the voice of the British Empire" Kipling became known for his journalistic dispatches—first issued from posts across India and later as a war correspondent—and for his poetry that captured the spirit of the era.

Kipling was an unabashedly staunch supporter of British Imperialism and the Empire, believing in the right of the stronger power to colonize weaker nations and teach them how to live as a mirror image of Britain. According to Victorian Web, Kipling’s Imperialism “assumed a complex mythical or legendary function, which he passed on to his readers. It was a positive force in the sense that it ordered and unified his creativity and a negative one to the extent that it limited his perspective.”

Kipling’s poetry continues to attract admirers and provoke detractors. The poem “If” was voted Britain’s favorite in the mid-1990s, and it ranks among the most-searched-for titles in the Poetry Foundation’s online archive. A quote from “If” (“If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster, and treat those two imposters just the same…”) even graces the players’ entrance at Wimbledon’s Centre Court to inspire 21st-century tennis greats.

But it was his stories, where Kipling’s imagination soared and his language surpassed the prose of his fellow Modernists. He reached the pinnacle of his literary vocation when he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1907. The Nobel committee cited his “power of observation, originality of imagination, virility of ideas, and remarkable talent for narration which characterizes [his] creations." Though his fictional narratives have often been pigeonholed as elementary, Kipling’s masterful storytelling and timeless truths transcend the artificial barriers of age as well as race and culture to hold a universal appeal for readers.  

“Rikki-Tikki-Tavi” Lessons

Upon entering the world that Kipling brought alive in his classic, “Rikki-Tikki-Tavi,” we encounter moral lessons through the guise of animals. Kipling invested nearly everything he knew or "heard or dreamed about the Indian jungle" in The Jungle Book (1894) collection of stories. His unique ability to mix scientific and historical fact with imaginative characters creates a believable and entertaining story.

The following two EDSITEment lessons help teachers tackle that mix of fact and fiction. They are indicated for elementary school level; however, they can be easily adapted for older grades.

Lesson 1. Mixing Fact and Fiction encourages students to use interactive materials to learn how Kipling effectively infuses personification into his animal characters. Activity three has students read an encyclopedia article on mongooses. Then they look back through the text to find evidence of actual mongoose characteristics and behavior, to record on the Fact or Personification? Chart. This is repeated for the characters of cobra and tailor-bird.

(Aligns with CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.3.3 Describe characters in a story and explain how their actions contribute to the sequence of events and CCSS.ELA-Literacy.L.3.5: Demonstrate understanding of figurative language, word relationships and nuances in word meanings.)

Lesson 2. Mixing Words and Pictures leads students through a close reading of the illustrated version to examine how Kipling’s words and W. H. Drake’s original drawings integrate observation with imagination. Activity one introduces students to "Art Safari" from the Museum of Modern Art to see how artists create "stories" in their works. Younger children can be prompted to talk about their observations; older children can interact with the program on their own. Following each discussion, students create their own artwork on the computer, or in 2D or 3D. Then they return to the text for a discussion relating to Drake’s original illustrations.  

(Aligns with CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.3.7: Explain how specific aspects of a text’s illustrations contribute to what is conveyed by the words in a story.)

The best of fiction incorporates elements of imagination and factual reality, and in Kipling’s works, we find a climate where “the twain shall meet!” In a speech delivered to the Royal Literature Society in 1926, Kipling weighed in on the familial relationship between storytelling and truth: 

For Fiction is Truth’s elder sister. Obviously. No one in the world knew what truth was till someone had told a story. So it is the oldest of the arts, the mother of history, biography, philosophy dogmatic ... and, of course, of politics.

Note: The Jungle Book including chapter 9. "Rikki-Tikki-Tavi" with Drake’s original illustrations is available as an e-text through ebooks@Adelaide from The University of Adelaide Library.