A Book of Words, by Rudyard Kipling

A Thesis

WILL you permit me to speak in my dual capacity as a Doctor of your University and as a mere teller of stories? I cannot maintain arguments for the space of six weeks against all the learned Regents of the Sorbonne, as did the illustrious Pantagruel; but I venture to submit for your consideration this thèse Sorbonnique: That the nations of the world betray their essential characteristics and ideals more intimately and more precisely in the folk-tales which they tell to their children, than through any other medium. In public assemblies, man makes use of the lie proper to the occasion; but beside his own hearth, among his own family, he reveals unconsciously the absolute truth concerning all that he desires or fears. The folk-tales of a race never lie.

Now the ancient and immemorial fairy-tales of France and of England are of a charming simplicity. There is always a young man who goes out into the world to seek his fortune. On the road he is kind to a beggar, an old woman, or, perhaps a cat. This, though he knows it not, is a good investment. Very soon, he falls into the hands of giants or sorcerers. He is cast into prison, or compelled to perform impossible tasks. At that moment, the beggar, the old woman, or the cat whom he had befriended, comes to his rescue, tells him the magic word, that opens the prison door and achieves the impossible task; or gives him the magic sword which destroys the giants at one blow. In consequence, the youth possesses himself of all their treasure and, equally, he marries a Princess — that Princess which exists always in the dreams of youth. He becomes the Head of a Kingdom, and, in due course, the head of a family.

You perceive, do you not, that our national fairy-tales reflect the inmost desires of the Briton and the Gaul? Thus:—

There was a young man, who through lucky investments, became a wealthy rentier, consolidated his social position by a desirable alliance, and founded a family. You may say that the ideal is bourgeois, but on the pursuit of that ideal, as our youth has pursued it eternally, is based an enormous proportion of the progress and the continuity of our civilisation. Therefore, in France and in England, which together compose the twin fortresses of European civilisation of to-day, our folk-tales prefigure our racial temperaments.

Every race betrays itself thus in the tales it tells to its own children. Let us examine elsewhere. From the earliest ages comes down to us from out of the North, inhabited by the tribes of the Teuton and the Tartar, a mass of legend and story, almost a literature in itself, which deals with the Wehr-Wolf — the beast that can at pleasure or for profit change itself into the likeness of a man and for pleasure or profit become again the Wolf. In these tales, a villager meets a traveller who asks him the way; a family sitting round their hearth by night hear at the door a woman seeking shelter from the storm. The traveller is guided, the woman is admitted into the house. Confidence is established. The traveller rests and works in the village; the woman, perhaps, marries there and bears children; but in time — in due time — these creatures out of the darkness and the night of the North, practise, furtively or openly, the rituals and sabbats of the pack to which they belong. There are mysterious attacks on men, women, and little children in the village. For a while no suspicion is aroused. Men do not suspect men of the outrages of beasts. Then arrives, by chance, the sudden discovery of the Wehr-Wolf in its proper shape, its fangs in the victim’s throat. It runs off through the forest and the snow, wounded, howling, but looking over its shoulder. The village resumes its life. In due time the cycle of treachery and terror is repeated in that village. The traveller reappears more abject, and the woman more in need of help than before. They are received by human beings as human beings. They wait their time; they kill and again depart. You in France have reason to know these stories.

I confess that when I first read them I was fascinated by the cold tenacity and the ruthlessness of the Wehr-Wolves, as much as I despised the stupidity of their victims. For in those days I believed, with the rest of the world, that such tales came out of the twilight of primitive savagery. I did not know then, as you and I know now, that they were the dawn and the forecast of a modern philosophy of Absolute Evil which has since been made plain in the face of all mankind. I did not think then, as I think now, that if our leaders had accepted the folk-tales in their children’s storybooks for a guide our world, to-day desolated, would have prepared against the Wolves before they came down from the North, and would have made sure also that the cycle of suspense, treachery, and terror would never repeat itself.

To-day, we have not that security. You in France are exposed still to the direct ravages of the wolves who are men. We in England, to the indirect, but therefore more dangerous, attacks of the men who are wolves. Both our nations know this in our hearts because both have suffered, but this knowledge is not yet the basis of our common actions. Why?

I am, by your grace, a Doctor of Letters; but were I a Doctor of Medicine, I would venture the theory that the very continuance and pressure of the agony through which mankind is passing, has driven many minds to create and invent, as a relief to their nerves, grandiose, meticulously regulated, but none the less nebulous, organisations, and ceremonials of Utopian administrations in the sincere belief that by virtue of the intensity of thought bestowed upon them, these fantasies will achieve the peace of which the world still seeks. It is a state of mind which, in my calling, produces what is known as the Literature of Escape — that is to say, when an artist, recoiling from the harsh face of life as it is takes refuge in depicting a life that never was.

But I hold that, precisely as this mood passes from the individual so also will it pass away from the nations. In England at the present moment situations and opinions are controlled by those who not having foreseen war are perhaps the less capable to complete peace. But behind them are the men who stand upon the threshold of the councils of the nation; whose education to that end commenced seven years ago by the side of your own sons. These men desire for the future, above all, that elementary justice and reasoned safety against the wolves from the North for which they gave themselves in the past on the field of battle. Remember the association there of France and of England was no easy and unbroken progress towards overwhelming triumph. Such dreams exist only in the minds of races who have always exploited but never begotten a civilisation. With us it was otherwise. There was no anxiety, no humiliation, no compromise, no defeat, no catastrophe, and no splendour of recovery which the sons of France and England did not experience together from the first to the last days of the Gehenna through which they came.

And in that mutual realisation of the best and the worst, that sacred brotherhood of common life, shared by all the manhood of each race lies our strength for the future — a strength which neither our own weakness nor the devices of the enemy to work upon our weaknesses can ultimately shake.

For the present, France and England are still wandering in the confusion of the No Man’s Land that lies between the old world and the new. The Commands there are still sending out patrols in all directions which naturally impede each other. The very ground, on which we meet for our conference, is cicatrised with old trenches and sown with the traps and mines left by the enemy. But have patience. Though it be a heavier burden even than war — have patience!

For thirty generations, France and England in secular but fruitful conflict have engendered and sustained a civilisation which has been attacked by an immense and highly organised barbarism. It is threatened now not only by a recrudescence of that barbarism, impenitent and energetic as ever, but by the world-weakening reaction that has overtaken us after our prodigious battle. For that we, who know each other, must make allowance. One cannot resume a broken world as easily as one can resume a broken sentence. But before long, our sons who have spent themselves in suffering and toiling to abolish the menace of barbarism, will recover also from the menace of moral lassitude; and will re-establish together the foundations of the peace of the world, not on pious dreams or amiable hopes, but on those ancient virtues of logic, sanity and laboriousness with which her history and her own indomitable genius have dowered France.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38