Kipling and Chaucer


IN the material with which they worked, it would seem as if Chaucer and Kipling — our oldest story-teller and our youngest — could have little in common. Their personalities are, indeed, in some respects similar: they have the same kindly, wholesome humor, with possibilities of irony ; the same habit of looking keenly at the thing itself ; the same virile power that seems triumphantly healthy; the same tendency to semi-dramatic methods ; and, above all, the same infallible instinct to know a good story when it comes along. It is by virtue of this last quality that Chaucer and Kipling have once, at least, met and fairly touched hands.

Let those of us who have followed, fascinated, as Mowgli and Bagheera “ cried their trail ” in pursuit of the gemstudded Ankus, turn for a moment to the Canterbury Tales, and listen to the words of that arch - hypocrite the Pardoner. Briefly, this is the story which he tells:

Three robbers, drinking at a tavern, saw a dead man carried by, and were told that he had been slain by a " privee thief ” named Death, who had done much evil during the late pestilence. The robbers immediately arose, vowing to seek out that villain Death and have a word with him. As they journeyed they met an old man, whom they stopped and questioned. He told them that he had outlived his vigor, yet Death would not come to him, nor would Mother Earth let him rest in her bosom. At the word “ Death ” the robbers were all attention, and they insisted on knowing where that person was to be found. The old man directed them to an oak nearby; and on hastening thither they found at its base a mass of gold florins, “ wel ny an eighte busshels.” The pursuit of Death forgotten, they sat them down about the precious pile, and began to discuss ways and means. Clearly, they must wait till night before carrying it away, or risk being arrested and hung for thieves. So they drew lots to determine who should go to town to fetch bread and wine. The lot fell on the youngest, and he started out. In his absence the other two had time for scheming. Why not kill him, when he returned, and divide his third of the treasure between them ? The plan was made, and they awaited his coming. But the young fellow, on his side, had also time to consider many things. Why not have all the gold himself ? What could be simpler than to poison their wine, and thus get rid of them ? Accordingly, he went to a “ potecary ” and asked for poison, alleging that he was greatly annoyed by rats, and by a “ polcat ” that killed his capons. The poison he mingled with the wine, and, thus provided, he went back to his comrades. Both plans succeeded in part : the two elder men stabbed the younger, then sat down to eat and drink, and the poison did its work.

“ Thus ended been thise homycides two,
And eek the false empoysoner also.”

The likeness between this story and the one in the Second Jungle Book will be immediately apparent. Here is the same quaint and powerfully effective use of the death element ; the same fatal influence of treasure on those whom it touches : even the same coincidence of the double murders, by poison and by blow of weapon. To be sure, Chaucer’s old man, with his little-understood wisdom, has in Kipling’s story become the old White Cobra ; but common traits still linger, — both have learned from life a bitter wisdom, both have outlived their vigor, — for the Cobra’s poison gland was “ thuu.” The moral platitudes of the Pardoner are replaced by the naive reflections of Little Brother and Bagheera. Yet, with much superficial difference, the fundamental similarity of the two stories and their occasional parallelism in details are enough to arouse curiosity.

Here are two tales, the one emanating from fourteenth-century England, the other from nineteenth-century India, yet so similar that independent origin is scarcely supposable. The question at once arises, Where did our story-tellers get their idea ? Kipling can, if he will, speak for himself; Chaucer cannot, though if he could his testimony might be of little help to us, for in regard to the ultimate sources of his own tales he undoubtedly knew less than the average college student of to-day. In this case Chaucer’s immediate original is not known, but what is virtually the same story is found in the Cento Novelle Antiche, one of those mediæval collections of short stories in which were preserved the traditions of centuries.

But what Chaucer and the other mediæval writers did not know is that this story, thus passed from hand to hand among them, — now appearing in Latin, now in Italian, now in French, or in Portuguese, or in English,—that this story was not originally theirs, but had come to them out of the East, There is a Buddhist version of it, of great antiquity, with variants in other-languages, — Persian, Arabic, Kashmiri, and Tibetan. In the Buddhist tale there were two robbers, of whom one stayed by the treasure, while the other took some rice to the village to have it cooked. Moved by avarice, he poisoned the rice, and returned with it to his comrade. “ No sooner had he put the rice down than the other cut him in two with his sword, and threw his body into a tangled thicket. Then he ate the rice, and fell dead on the spot.”

The last sentence is worth quoting, because the accidental parallelism with Kipling’s story is rather striking, — the poisoned flour cake instead of Chaucer’s wine, and the little circumstance of the dead body thrown into the thicket. Other Eastern versions show variations in detail, — in the number of robbers, for instance, or the kind of food that was poisoned, — but all the forms clearly point to one original tale, a tale which was perhaps passed from lip to lip through long generations before it was written down at all. It is in this group of Indian stories, then, that we see a possible link between Chancer and Kipling, — a link that may have been forged a thousand years before the birth of the elder poet.

To venture remarks as to an author’s methods while he is still alive and sane is in truth, to tread on slippery ground, — Tennyson’s attitude toward his commentators was proof of this ; yet it is hard to resist hazarding a guess as to how much in the bare outline of The King’s Ankus is Kipling’s, and how much belongs to the Indian version he stumbled upon. — if indeed it was an Indian version from which he took his suggestion. In the truest sense, of course, the story is every whit his, — his none the less that it had existed some fifteen or twenty centuries before he was born. But one would like to know in what form he ran across it; whether it reached him through the written record or the spoken word, whether it was one of the typical versions, — the two, three, or four men, the treasure, the poison and the knife. Did Kipling add the Gond Hunter, or was he an earlier accretion About the White Cobra and Bagheera and Mowgli there can be no doubt, though even these, as we have seen, have their faintly traced analogues in the earlier tales ; about Little Foot and Big Foot we can be almost as sure, for they too bear the stamp of the author’s creative individuality ; it must be his touch, also, through which the “eight bushels” of gold or the vaguely mentioned wealth of the simpler versions has become the “ Treasure of the Kind’s City,’ of whose suggested glories the Ankus itself, with its glow of color, — ruby and jade and turquoise and emerald, — serves as the symbol.

These changes are, relatively, superficial ones ; rather, they might have been ; for they are in fact corollaries of a vital change in the art of the story’s telling. It is, moreover, a change that does more than mark the difference between the fourteenth century and the nineteenth, since it arises out of certain characteristics of Kipling as an artist which would distinguish him in any age, and which Chaucer in any age would not have possessed. But a discussion of the two stories from this standpoint is, in Kipling’s own phrase, “ another story,” not to be told here.