titles and Kipling: a correspondence


I recently enjoyed a lively email exchange with the remarkable Katherine Langrish, as she was kindly giving advice about the last stages of a YA manuscript I’ve been working on for rather a while. We started by talking about fish (it made sense at the time) and wound up discussing YA literature in general and Kipling in particular—and round about the time I was enthusiastically looking up quotations from The Jungle Book, it occurred to me that you all might like to get in on the conversation. Here it is, then, reproduced with Kath’s kind permission. Chime in the comments, or email me directly, or both. Enjoy.

The agent just said to send [her the manuscript] whenever it was ready—[…] One thing I have no clue about is a title–even a working title. But I’ve already drafted a short pitch for my second novel…yeah, I’m a nutter…. 🙂


Do try and come up with SOME title, even if something vague, before you send it out.  Anything!  What’s the river called?  ‘The Falls of Something?’  Doesn’t matter what it is, the poor woman is going to want some mental tag for it, and it looks feeble not to name it anything.


I wonder if eels is better than herring, for descriptive purposes.

The title is–gah. A few ideas floating round are ‘Once, Twice and Again’ (a line from Kipling), ‘The City on the Falls’, ‘The King’s Own Players’, and–less seriously, perhaps, but is shows the general desperation–’Fateful Shaman Saina’.

An intriguing idea I had today was ‘Bitter Karela’, again from Kipling, though that’s would be an oblique choice, and may make readers think they’re getting a book about someone named Karela. ‘Remember the Wolf is a Hunter’ was another possibility, the wolf being a main symbol throughout–but if I put the word ‘Wolf’ in the title then everyone and (especially) their aunt will expect paranormal romance. Perhaps a better title is ‘Wood and Water, Wind and Tree’.

I’m not entirely sure why I’ve turned to Kipling for titles. Perhaps because I can’t write YA fiction without bowing to Kipling anymore than we can write poetry without bowing to Shakespeare. Perhaps also because of my choice of epigraph:

Now this is the Law of the Jungle–as old and as true as the sky;
And the Wolf that shall keep it may prosper, but the Wolf that shall break it must die.

thanks again,


800px-Tor_tor_DayAn eel would be fine, I’m sure. Or else some more exotic river fish?  Quickly looked at Himalayas and there’s a thing called the mahseer (from maha = great and sher = lion), also apparently known as the Indian salmon.  Or you could have carp or catfish…

I like ‘The City on the Falls’.  Not ‘Once, Twice and Again’ – I know where it comes from but as you say it’s a bit obscure for most people.  (I am pleased to discover you are a Kipling fan!)  ‘Bitter Karela’ is nice, but I think you might have to incorporate some karela in the book, just to explain it? (It’s becoming intriguing!)

‘Wood and Water, Wind and Tree’ may BE Kipling, but it SOUNDS like Tolkien.  (‘Wood and water, wind and grass/Let them pass, let them pass’ – off the top of my head?  No doubt he was remembering it too?)

Again, good luck.

I think a case can be made, and a good one, that The Jungle Book is the greatest children’s/YA book ever written. That’s treating picture books as something a bit different, of course–there Where the Wild Things Are takes the laurel–and they are. But I think it’s difficult if not impossible to develop of cogent explanation of what children’s literature is that doesn’t give The Jungle Book top place, or near it. Perhaps it’s locked in grim struggle with Winnie the Pooh, but that’s kind of a Sgt Pepper vs. Revolver scenario.

Jungle_Book_Rudyard_Kipling_posterIt’s the sheer virtuosity of Kipling’s work that’s astonishing–and how fiercely and vividly he empathizes with his child readers–there’s never a moment of that Golden Afternoon sense of an adult reminiscing about childhood. Plus he had an astounding amount of raw natural talent–a truly literary mind. He’s in category by himself, really–perhaps the only comparisons Velasquez or Picasso or Haydn for sheer virtuosity and seemingly effortless inspiration. He seemed to have dashed off every week or so what must writers hope to achieve in a lifetime of toil. Amazing author.

I’m quite sure that Tolkien was alluding to Kipling in that poem! Which is a very intriguing connection–I’ll need to bear that in mind when next I read LOTR.

Anyway, fish: you’re probably right and the mahseer is appropriate for the fish–seems to be more of a sportsman’s fish these days, though, so I’m not sure it’s quite the right nuance–probably just carp is fine. Or eels. I’ll need to check what would be in season.

‘The City on the Falls’ is possibly the more sensible title, since that’s the dominant image of the story. But ‘Bitter Karela’ is–how can I say this?–more apt, I think. Ehh, I’ll make some decision before I send it–not as if the publisher won’t give it their own title, anyway.


You know what?  I LIKE ‘Bitter Karela’. And you are right, this is only for the agent; publishers have their own ideas.  I got away with the Troll titles (all my own) but I would never have picked ‘Dark Angels’. (I wanted ‘Devil’s Edge.)

I grew up on Kipling.  Just So Stories, and then The White Seal and Rikki Tikki Tavi, as well as the Mowgli stories, and Puck of Pook’s Hill and Rewards and Fairies (a WONDERFUL book, that last – esp. The Tree of Justice ) – and I had Anglo-Indian grandparents too, so it was all quite immediate. You are right.  He can be annoying, but he never ever patronises.  I happen to like Stalky, too.  It’s brutal, but whoever pretends public-school life wasn’t? And ‘Kim’… and In fact Kipling must be our most underrated writer – never has there been a more brilliant English short story writer.  I blame Leavis.

I grew up on all these classics, but Winnie the Pooh I can, actually, take or leave.  The Wind in the Willows was more my cup of tea.


Yeah–’Bitter Karela’ is the oblique-but-precise title–like the name of hymn tune or poem, in some way. My wife expressed incredulity at the choice, I confess. But I need something and it’s better than ‘Fateful Shaman Saina’.

I spent much of the evening eulogizing on Kipling in my head–he had the lyrical facility of T. S. Eliot, but the innate sense for ear and language of Burns. Except unlike Burns, he wasn’t working from traditional models–Tam Lin, even Tam O’ Shanter–Kipling pulls the ideas out of his own imagination. And if you take the highly wrought lyricism of Eliot, the next step down in Housman; but the next step down from Kipling is ‘Sir Patrick Spens’. Eliot was undeniably the greater poet and the more careful craftsman, but Kipling had a unique genius. Every other writer of his day was trying to affect a stentorian, Old Testament/Spenserian style, and I think it’s proof of Kipling’s innate ability that, when he wants to, he actually does sound like the King James:

Never again shall the Jungle Peoples come to thee. They shall never cross thy trail, nor sleep near thee, nor follow after thee, nor browse thy lair. Only Fear shall follow thee, and with a blow that thou canst not see he shall bid thee wait his pleasure. He shall make the ground open under thy feet, and the creeper to twist about thy neck, and the tree-trunks to grow together about thee higher than thou cast leap, and at the last he shall take thy hide to wrap his cubs in when they are cold. Thou hast shown him no mercy, and none will he show thee.

And yet–this is the really remarkable thing–he’s just as easy and comfortably writing rough vernacular:

‘Things!’ he said. ‘Fearful and horrible things, Billy! They came into our line while we were asleep. D’you think they’ll kill us?’

‘I’ve a great mind to give you a number-one kicking,’ said Billy. ‘The idea of a fourteen-hand mule with your training disgracing the battery before this gentleman!’

Of course, this also shows up the main reason for his neglect–a peculiarly fierce and vocal Imperialism, with its implicit racism–heck, he invented ‘the White Man’s burden’. I’m not familiar with Leavis–he’s suffered a similar fall-from-grace, I think–but there’s no denying that the furious and brilliant period of Empire seems to be a great embarrassment to modern England. Not without reason. And there is a genuine moral and ethical argument to be made against if (cf. Ghandi). But I do worry sometimes that, at the moment, it’s just the fashion to look down on it–because we’re so much more enlightened now, aren’t we? taking our factories and technology and movies and digital watches to the Far East, instead of our guns and wallahs. NSRW_Rudyard_Kipling

And coupled with this is a distressing tendency that suggest that any literature that doesn’t align with our particular prejudices is therefore not Good Literature, and not worth reading. (I think we’ve talked about this particular topic before.) Seriously–I remember one academic expressing rather vocal incredulity that anyone could read and enjoy LOTR, since (to her, but she assumed it as a point of universal knowledge) it was so obviously a racist book. A point which I’d dispute, of course, but I was and am bewildered that she thought it should be shunned for that reason.

(Still more bewildering is the other academic who calmly insisted that Walter Scott was terribly racist–because, well, just look at how noble and dignified and considerate he makes Saladin. Clearly imposing Christian virtues on a non-Christian society! A medieval historian who was listening mildly remarked that in fact contemporary accounts of Saladin give precisely the same picture–but that’s another story.)

But I do worry that in our ideological zeal, we too often want to eradicate and belittle the past, rather than facing it and accepting it as part of our heritage, good and ill. Still more worrying is a creeping tendency to insist, though perhaps not in these words, that nothing is good art unless it agrees with our ideologies. It’s easy to see this when, say, it’s fundamentalists trumpeting this–less easy but, I think, no less damaging, when the ideology is one we agree with, and a good one.

</lecture> OK, I’ll stop!

Let me add, quickly, that I love both Wind in the Willows and Pooh, grew up on both of them. But I was mistaken in my assessment last night–realized afterward that if any book is struggling with The Jungle Book for pride of place, it’s surely Charlotte’s Web.


I find [Kipling’s] sheer range amazing, and also I’ve always liked a comment by Siegfried Sassoon, in converation with Rupert Brooke, in 1914 – in his memoir The Weald of Youth. Here it is, in Sassoon’s characteristically self-deprecating style:

Soon afterwards [W. H.] Davies departed, and I was left alone with Rupert Brooke for about half an hour. […] He may have been shy, but I am afraid he was also a little bored with me. We agreed that Davies was an excellent poet and a most likeable man.  I then asked him a few clumsy questions about his travels.  His replies were reserved and unilluminating.  One fragment of our talk which I remember clearly was – as such recoveries often are – wholly to my disadvantage.

“What were the white people like in the places you stayed in the tropics?” I had asked. (“The tropics” sounds somehow inept, but it was too late to correct myself now!)

“Some of them,” he said, “were rather like composite characters out of Conrad and Kipling.”

Hoping that it would go down well, I made a disparaging remark about Kipling’s poetry being terribly tub-thumping stuff.

“But not always, surely,” he answered; and then let me off easily by adding, “I used to think the same myself until Eddie [Edward Marsh] made me read Cities and Thrones and Powers.  There aren’t many better modern poems than that, you know.”

I could only admit that I had never read it.  And yet, if I’d been more at my ease, I might have saved my credit by telling him that I knew by heart the first eight lines, which I really loved, of Kipling’s “Neither the harps nor the crowns amused, nor the cherubs’ dove-winged races.”


4 thoughts on “titles and Kipling: a correspondence

  1. Walk with Wolves
    Wood, Water, and a Walk with Wolves
    I quite like “The City on the Falls”

    Not Karela because you are right, readers being single minded will wade through the book expecting Karela.


  2. The problem with ‘Wolves’ in the title is that in this case it’s just one particular Wolf. And this book really isn’t a paranormal romance in any conceivable sense, so talk of wolves may be misleading.

    My thought was and is that ‘The City on the Falls’ is perhaps the more relevant title, as such things go, but ‘Bitter Karela’ is right. That’s what I would title it if it were a poem, certainly, though I’m aware the conventions are different. We like novel titles to be pedantic and descriptive, I guess. Maybe it needs to be more obviously a quotation. But the allusion to Kipling with ‘Bitter Karlea’ is, I think, subtle and apt for the story. I dunno–it’s ultimately not really my decision. And I still feel like there may be something perfect and obvious which I’m just not seeing.

  3. You could, you know, always add a scene where the heroine finds some bitter karela and reflects on its symbolism. (“Mother made a stew of karela the night she died….”) That might satisfy the literal readers and editors, and if it’s artfully done you might even be able to persuade the publishers that the title is a good idea. Then the eager grad students can figure out the Kipling allusion on their own.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s