The British Empire & the Roman Empire analogue in Kipling's short stories

Seminar Paper, 2000

29 Pages, Grade: very good


Table of Contents

A) Introduction

B) The Narrative Frame

C) Historical Facts and Literary Output

D) Empire and Empire-analogue

E) The Roman Empire and its Mythological Context

F) A Bunch of Heroes: Parnesius, Pertinax, Maximus, Allo; Valens

G) The Wall as a Central Image of Empire

H) Conclusion: Last Thoughts about the Analogue

I) Bibliography

J) Index 29

A) Introduction

Critics seem to differ widely in their opinion about the Puck-stories and what role they should play in regard of Kipling’s total work. Hinchcliffe (1989: 157) states that Puck of Pook’s Hill clearly is among the ‘neglected books’, and that its stories were neither liked by ‘children, for whom they were ostensibly written’, nor by adults, who seem to prefer ‘the more obviously adult stories’. Other critics, on the other hand (Henn 1967: 41 and Birkenhead 1978: 247), believe the book to be one of his most popular collections, equally and unquestionably loved by children and grown-ups for their humour and their liveliness in narration .

Indeed, when Puck of Pook’s Hill was published for the first time, the audience’s response seems to have been rather restrained. Readers and critics probably felt unsure of how these stories were to be taken and for which audience they were actually intended. From a present point of view and with regard to Kipling’s work it seems clear that to treat the Puck-stories simply as a collection of fairytales for children, which for many years has been the case, does not seem appropriate. Already in Something of Myself Kipling himself declared wittily, if not dramatically that ‘the tales had to be read by children, before people realised that they were meant for grown-ups’ (190). This hint, given by the author himself, does certainly confirm our hunch that there is and that there must be more to the stories than what seems apparent at a superficial first reading.

A closer look at the stories in Puck of Pook’s Hill reveals that despite fairly straight-forward, accessible language and story plots which can easily be followed by the reader or the audience, Kipling actually created some of the most wonderfully complex and artistically rich stories, by ‘working’, as he himself called it, ‘the material in three or four overlaid tints and textures, which might or might not reveal themselves according to the shifting light of sex, youth and experience’ (Something of Myself: 190).

In my seminar paper, which will have to focus on the three Roman stories within the Puck-collection (‘ A Centurion of the Thirtieth’, ‘On the Great Wall’, ‘The Winged Hats’), I will try to reveal some of these tints and textures which Kipling mentions in Something of Myself. In a further step, another short story (‘ The Church that Was At Antioch’), which Kipling wrote about 20 years later and which to some extent can be related to the other three stories for it is also set in the time and place of the Roman Empire, will be considered, too.

As the title of the seminar paper suggests, the British Empire and the Roman Empire analogue will be the central topic of the paper. In what way can Kipling’s stories about the Roman Empire, or, more precisely, about Britain in the Roman Empire be related to the British Empire in Kipling’s times? What do the stories reveal about Kipling’s view of history, and what is his approach to history as an author and poet?

Naturally, the stories will form the core of the analysis. What narrative frame does Kipling use to present his stories and what function does this frame have? What are the characters and heroes in the stories like, and what do they represent on a more abstract level? Can the empire analogy be traced in the stories easily and if so, what strategies do Kipling use to establish such?

During my research I realised the complexity involved in this matter. Not only had the stories to be analysed as literary works as such, but also had the socio-historical context to be carefully considered. In what way was history in Kipling’s times treated differently from today? Can an imperialistic touch be felt in British history books at the beginning of the century, which becomes evident in a rather biased description of Roman Britain, and how far do Kipling’s stories reflect a similar attitude? Last, but not least, Kipling’s life and his role as a citizen of the British Empire who dealt with, and thought about, the concept of Empire all his life, must be considered too.

I am aware of the fact that some of the questions raised and some of the tasks I set for myself will be very difficult to deal with, since after this relatively short time of preparation I believe I still do not really have the necessary overall knowledge to do justice to Kipling and his work. Nevertheless, I hope to cover some interesting aspects of the four short stories mentioned in the title and will try to find as many answers as possible.

B) The Narrative Frame: The Puck Stories

The beginning of Puck of Pook’s Hill, which Kipling wrote around the turn of the century and which eventually was published in 1906, sees two children, Dan and Una, acting and rehearsing Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream on Midsummer Eve in the middle of a wonderful nature setting. ‘A large old Fairy Ring of darkened grass’, next to ‘a little millstream’ and ‘banks, overgrown with willow, hazel, and guelder-rose (Puck of Pook’s Hill: 5) serves as their stage and the children seem to have become one with the play and its characters, so much do they enjoy the whole thing. After having acted the play for a third time, the children cannot believe their eyes when Puck, one of the main character of the Shakespeare play, and certainly a well-known mythological figure, suddenly appears in person and introduces the children to his magical world of old tales and times.

Kipling uses Puck as a narrating guide who leads the children and the audience through the history of Britain, beginning from the Neolithic Age up to the time of the Magna Carta, making them encounter some of the most fascinating historical characters and historical settings. At the beginning, we have heard that Dan and Una’s father ‘had made them a small play out of the big Shakespeare one’ (Puck: 5), and in a way Kipling’s strategy to present the big history of Britain within a small frame, wrapping up history in tiny little stories, is the same. Many readers would agree that Kipling’s survey of history is despite its incompleteness in regards of historical facts and figures probably more fascinating than any scholarly history book ever can be.

For Harrison (1982: 69) the ‘most felicitous touches’ for the reader ‘arise from the interaction of past and present’, and certainly this is one of the main aspects which make Kipling’s strategy so successful. Puck enters Dan and Una’s world which represents also the reader’s world and leads them into the magical worlds of the past by telling them some wonderful stories. At the same time, he even makes some of these historical figures of the stories, like the British-born Roman Centurion Parnesius, appear and serve as narrators of their own stories themselves. By developing historical characters into literary ones, who are even able to act and interact without any problems in the children’s and audience’s worlds, Kipling provides these characters with a great amount of authenticity and fills the gap in matters of time and space of historical past and literary present.

The three Roman stories are the only stories in the Puck-collection which form a unity in themselves, covering most of the life-time of Parnesius, a Centurion of Roman Britain at the end of the 4th century AD. As already mentioned, Kipling integrates Parnesius in the narrative frame around the actual stories, by making him appear in front of the children. By doing this, Kipling elevates Parnesius to one of the central characters of the whole collection. Parnesius remains not only a heroic historical figure, who is being portrayed in the stories in a rather two-dimensional way, but becomes, like Puck, flesh and blood before the eyes of the children. He manages to escape the short stories within the literary frame into that big frame story about Puck and the children, which by readers and audience is felt to be more real and authentic than the short stories within it.

So, Parnesius is, in a way, not one, but actually two characters. On the one hand, we meet him as the hero of the three stories, whose development from a young intelligent soldier-boy into a wise, though worn out Captain is presented in a chronological order. On the other hand, we also encounter a time-and space-less Parnesius in the frame story of the book, who does not show any obvious signs of age or decay, which the reader could probably expect following Parnesius’ own narration in which he describes himself as having become ‘old and grey-haired’ (Puck: 167) after the wearing years at Hadrian’s Wall.

The Parnesius we meet in the frame story of the book is young, beautiful and quite humorous, and his first appearance seems to have quite an effect on the little girl:

‘She looked down most cautiously, and saw a young man covered with hoopy bronze armour all glowing among the late broom. But what Una admired beyond all was his great bronze helmet with a red horse-tail that flicked in the wind. She could hear the long hairs rasp on his shimmery shoulder-plates. ‘ (Puck: 108-109)

Parnesius’ breath-taking appearance bears a great amount of irony and humour. Kipling cleverly plays with certain stereotype or cliché images of the typical Roman soldier hero, without making Parnesius appear ridiculous, since the narrator of the frame story stays with the eyes of the little girl. Sehrt (1979: 23 ff.) pointed to the fact that by using a good-looking, positive and humorous Parnesius in the frame story, Kipling brightens some of the rather disturbing impressions the children might have gained from the actual short stories about Parnesius and his struggle at the Wall. Sehrt’s approach, focusing on humorous elements in the Puck-stories, is very interesting. Nevertheless, it is of course not the only important aspect within the Puck-collection.

Another interesting fact worth mentioning is Kipling’s placement of poems and songs in and around the stories, which introduce or take up ideas and motifs of the stories on a lyrical level. Sometimes they point towards more general issues or create a certain atmosphere which appears to be relevant for the tales which are to follow.

A Centurion of the Thirtieth’ opens with ‘ Cities and Thrones and Powers’, a poem which impressively suggests the frailty of human works, no matter how strong or powerful they seem. Kipling uses the image of a daffodil and compares ‘cities, thrones and powers’ with the ‘flowers, which daily die’ (Puck: 105). In the opening poem Kipling in a very subtle manner already paints the frame for the Roman stories, which on a more abstract level are going to show us the decline of the Roman Empire. Of course, to exclusively relate the poem to the Roman stories in Puck of Pook’s Hill, would be short-sighted. It certainly also represents Kipling’s view of how human beings over-estimate their power, for history proves that coming and going seems to be the only constant in the endless process of time. Naturally, the poem can also be related to Kipling’s pessimistic view of the British Empire in his times, for Kipling always suspected and feared the Empire to decline.

C) Historical Facts and Literary Output

The three Roman stories, though actually covering only a few decades at the end of the 4th century, stand for an era which from a British point of view is commonly known as ‘Roman Britain’. The beginning of Roman Britain is usually dated back to the year 43 AD, when the Romans under Emperor Claudius started a permanent settlement which after a short time included the whole of modern England and Wales and lasted for about four-hundred years. What seems to be remarkable is the fact that despite the rather long occupation traces and evidence of Roman settlement were remarkably quickly destroyed or lost, which makes the period appear rather mythical and vague from a modern point of view.

Kipling’s stories are placed around the real historical character of Magnus Maximus, an Iberian general (Salway 1981: 402ff), who around 380 AD invaded the Roman province of Gaul (roughly the area of modern France) and became usurper of Britain, Gaul and Spain. In 388, Maximus was eventually defeated by Theodosius, the last great ruler of both parts of the Empire. There is only very little known about Maximus or his motives and plans. Kipling must have been aware of this and probably did not see it as a problem, since it gave him much more artistic freedom to deliberately create a Maximus from his own imagination. Nevertheless, Kipling uses the little known historical facts quite accurately.

Kipling correctly hints at Maximus’ origin, when Parnesius states that Maximus ‘neighed his words like an Iberian mule’ (Puck: 117) and there is also some evidence that Maximus’ actions in Gaul and Spain did weaken military forces in Britain because of troops which were being transferred from Britain to the continent. The latter, though, remains speculation, for it is entirely uncertain whether Maximus’ campaigns actually really ‘had any significant overall effect on the defensive capability of the army in Britain’, as Morgan (1988: 55) points out. For Kipling, lack of proof – again – provided him with more freedom.


Excerpt out of 29 pages


The British Empire & the Roman Empire analogue in Kipling's short stories
University of Vienna  (Anglistics/American Studies)
very good
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ISBN (eBook)
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Kipling Roman Empire British Empire Puck Pook s Hill
Quote paper
Martin Stepanek (Author), 2000, The British Empire & the Roman Empire analogue in Kipling's short stories, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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