Mr Kipling’s three soldiers—Mulvaney, Ortheris and Learoyd—are a literary tradition. They are the Horatii and the Curatii, the three Musketeers; Og, Gog and Magog; Captains Fluellin, Macmorris and Jamy; Bardolph, Pistol and Nym. That Kipling’s soldiers three are a literary tradition is significant of their quality and rank as part of their author’s achievement. They belong rather to the efficient literary workman who wrote the Simla tales than to the inspired author of the Jungle books. Though we have run from the House of Suddhu to the barrack-yard, we have not yet lost sight of Mr Kipling, decorator and colourman in words. We shall find him conspicuously at work upon Mulvaney, Ortheris and Learoyd. Where, at first, he seems most closely to rub sleeves with the raw stuff of life we shall find him most aloof, most deliberately an artificer. Mr Kipling has seemed to the judicious, who have duly grieved, to be in his soldier tales throwing all crafty scruples to the winds in order that he may the more joyfully indulge a natural genius for ferocity. Mr Kipling’s soldiers are regarded as an instance of his love for low company, of his readiness to sacrifice aesthetic beauty to vulgar truth.
This is quite the wrong direction from which to approach Mr Kipling’s soldier tales. Mr Kipling’s ferocity on paper is not to be explained as the result of a natural delight in violence and blood. On the contrary, it is distinctively a literary ferocity—the ferocity, not of a man who has killed people, but of a man who sits down and conscientiously tries to imagine what it is like to kill people. It is essentially the same kind of ferocity in imaginative fiction as the ferocity of Nietzsche in lyrical philosophy or of Malthus in speculative politics. When Mr Kipling talks of men carved in battle to the nasty noise of beef-cutting upon the block, or of men falling over like the rattle of fire-irons in the fender and the grunt of a pole-axed ox, or of a hot encounter between two combatants wherein one of them after feeling for his opponent’s eyes finds it necessary to wipe his thumb on his trousers, or of gun wheels greasy from contact with a late gunner—when Mr Kipling writes like this, we admit that his pages are disagreeable. But let us be clear as to the reason. These things are disagreeable, not because they are horrible fact, but because they are deliberate fiction. We feel that these things have been written, not from inspired impulse, but by taking careful thought. Here, clearly, is a writer who writes of war, not because he is by nature full of pugnacity, or necessarily loosed from hell to speak of horrors, but because war is a good “subject” with opportunities for effective treatment.