Saturday, 28 February 2009

Déjà view

The Growlery currently has a very interesting post, Déjà vu, all over again, on the fictional theme of "trial and improvement", where characters must revisit the same scenario over and over (as in Groundhog Day) as a kind of Purgatory to learn from their mistakes. Go and read it; it's good.

Of related interest, I just dug out of the archives a blog piece I wrote in 2001 (but somehow managed to delete in blog housekeeping) that focused on a literary dispute hinged on the ubiquity of this theme.

June 28th 2001: I just read an article in The Author (Society of Authors house mag) Summer 2001 edition: Rights in Ideas: how not to sell a novel to Hollywood, by Leon Arden. Arden describes in some detail how he sued - and lost - in a case based on his claim that Columbia Pictures plagiarised his 1981 novel, The Devil's Trill (retitled One Fine Day) which they had read and rejected as a movie script. Arden's hero finds himself stuck in a time loop, he alone realising that he's repeating a single day over and over. He tries and fails to seduce the heroine, collects personal information about her to help him succeed, etc etc. You get the picture: sounds not a million miles from Groundhog Day.

Arden's $15m lawsuit failed because, basically, you can't copyright an idea. You do have a case if the precise treatment of that idea matches closely, point for point. But the court, though sympathising with Arden to some extent, decided that the style and treatment of Groundhog Day and One Fine Day were sufficiently different. Arden disagrees with the view of Judge Denny Chin that the book was "dark and introspective": but whatever may be similar, the Detroit News, December 12 1995 account mentions details of One Fine Day that differ radically in style from the light comedy of Groundhog Day. For instance, it features "witchcraft, an encounter with God ... an aeroplane explosion that kills 192 people, a rape, and a woman's suicide".

But hang on a moment! If you look at SF Recollections by Richard Lupoff at the Timebinders SF fan website, you'll find veteran science fiction author Richard Lupoff making exactly the same claim. He suggests that "a major theatrical film" (identifiable as Groundhog Day) plagiarised his work. He and filmmaker Jonathan Heap "were outraged and tried very hard to go after the rascals who had robbed us, but alas, the Hollywood establishment closed ranks ... After half a year of lawyers' conferences and emotional stress, we agreed to put the matter behind us and get on with our lives."

What's going on? Surely both Arden and Lupoff can't be right? SF movie buffs will recall the Lupoff work in question, a 1993 TV movie called 12:01, which had a very similar plot to Groundhog Day, though with a hard-SF rationale. It was widely assumed that this was derivative of Groundhog Day, but in fact it was a scheduled remake (according to Lupoff, a "very loose" adaptation) of a 1990 Oscar-nominated short film, 12:01 PM, based on a short story by Lupoff published in Fantasy And Science Fiction magazine in 1973.

So who, if anyone, has been plagiarised? Clearly, one shouldn't dismiss the claim that producers recycle ideas, and quite closely. Since Groundhog Day, any number of programmes have reused the time-loop theme: for instance, a Xena episode, Been There, Done That; a 1992 Star Trek:TNG episode, Cause and Effect; an X-Files episode, Monday; and an early episode, Come Again, of the Seven Days time travel series. But Arden's One Fine Day and Lupoff's 12:01 PM appear to have been thought up independently.

Coincidences can happen. I was surprised recently at remarkable similarities between one of my published stories and one I encountered self-published on the Web; yet an e-mail chat confirmed that there was no connection. The other author and I had started from the same premise, and thought through the consequences nearly identically. This sort of coincidence applies especially to SF, where just about anything you can think of has been done before. As the Turkey City Lexicon comments, the worst offenders for reinventing SF wheels tend to be mainstream writers who "try to write an SF novel without actually reading any of the existing stuff". Such writers tend, in my view, to vastly overestimate the uniqueness of their ideas.

Discussion at Fiction-L Archives - 'Replay': Second Chance or Infinite Recurrence Novels shows that the idea of time-loop is quite common in SF. It seems well possible that the writers of One Fine Day and 12:01 PM, like many others before them, came up with the same scenario and developed it logically along the same lines.

Nevertheless, given the many other reworkings of the time-loop theme since Groundhog Day, I wouldn't be surprised if Columbia had, in turn, got the idea from elsewhere. But if they did, it's really anyone's guess what the exact contributions were from the work of Arden, Lupoff, and the many other previous explorers of the same theme.

Since writing this, I ran into yet another possible precursor: the blog post at Gutbrain Records for 2nd February 2005 mentions

On January 1, 1939, The Shadow's radio audience heard "The Man Who Murdered Time", about a mad scientist who uses a time machine to loop New Year's Eve. In anticipation of perpetually reliving these 24 hours, he's borrowed tons of money (which he won't have to pay back) and invited his hated cousin over so he can enjoy the pleasure of murdering him again and again and again. Lamont Cranston is aware of the time loop, thanks to the same mental powers that make him The Shadow, but his resistance is weakening. If he doesn't stop the madman soon, he will also succumb and the whole world will be stuck in the loop forever.

You can even find it on YouTube: Part 1 / 2 / 3. I'd also be interested to read the BFI imprint of the Groundhog Day screenplay (Groundhog Day, Ryan Gilbey, Danny Rubin, Harold Ramis, BFI, 2004, ISBN 1844570320) which contains an account by Danny Rubin of the its gestation...

Originally I'd thought about this guy repeating the same day over and over again. But it didn't have a heart; I didn't know who the character was, or what to do with it. A couple of years later, I bought one of the Anne Rice Vampire novels ... I started thinking about what it would be like to like for a really long time. Would you change, or are you stuck as yourself no matter what? The idea of repeating one day is just a two-dimensional comedy idea. But when you think of it in terms of immortality, then all of a sudden it's about something. After that, the ideas came together very quickly.

...which very much fits my view of the script arising from logical development of a basic idea not in itself unique.
- Ray

Friday, 27 February 2009

Philip José Farmer obits

From the Guardian, Philip José Farmer ("An award-winning sci-fi writer who mixed sex, pulp and literature") and Philip José Farmer, rebel against reality: obituaries for an author who, judging by the number of his books on my shelf, must be one of my favourite SF writers. It's quite pertinent to current JSBlog themes that Farmer got there before Alan Moore in the enjoyable conceit of weaving Victorian and pulp characters into a single mythos. In Farmer's case, this revolved around the "Wold Newton family", the idea that occupants of a carriage in Yorkshire on 13th December 1795 were irradiated by the Wold Newton meteorite, giving rise to superhuman descendants comprising all the heroes and villains of Victorian and pulp literature (notably Sherlock Holmes, Tarzan and Doc Savage).

As with The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, this unifying theory makes for a nice vehicle for literary analysis, criticism and subversion. Farmer's Doc Savage, His Apocalyptic Life is an authoritative account of Lester Dent's Doc Savage series of pulp novels, and the peripherally connected The Other Log of Phileas Fogg a neat reinvention of Around the World in Eighty Days, taking the inconsistencies and pecularities of Verne's novel and weaving them into a backstory about a conflict between two alien races. Tarzan, too, is a prominent figure, both in his conventional identity as Lord Greystoke in the biographical Tarzan Alive (see Tarzan Alive at Ed Stephan's Tarzan of the Internet) and as "Ras Tyger" in Lord Tyger, an unbowdlerized reimagining of Tarzan:

My Mother is an Ape
My Father is God
I come from the Land of Ghosts

So sings Ras Tyger, Philip José Farmer's superb incarnation of a modern-day Jungle Lord. He is fluent in four languages. He devours grubs, insects, and palpitating flesh. He communes with wild beasts and proffers them his love. Men he butchers. He is feared as a ghost, yet the village women welcome him at night. savage, heroic and beautiful, he is the master of his world - until the day when the incredible truth of his existence begins to unfold...
- cover blurb to the 1974 Panther Books edition

It's like a jungle Truman Show - Ras Tyger comes to the realisation that his whole environment is a construct, the scheme of a millionaire who wants to create a duplicate of the fictional Tarzan.

Lord Tyger also grades into another aspect of Farmer's work, its frank exploration of sexual themes as one of the "New Wave" SF authors. His first published story in 1952, The Lovers, set the scene with its story of a puritanically-conditioned linguist's relationship with an uninhibited humanoid woman who turns out to be an insectoid mimic: a miscegenation that "nauseated" John W Campbell but didn't stop the story winning a 1953 Hugo Award when published elsewhere. This vein continued in various guises throughout his career: Flesh, in which a starship captain takes on the role of a Golden Bough style priapic god; Strange Relations, a lower-key exploration of family-like aspects of alien-human interactions (see the Addendum); the erotic horror of A Feast Unknown (which brings Wold Newton characters into a pastiche making explicit the homoerotic subtexts of the action hero genre); and the borderline-pornographic Image of the Beast and Blown, which again involve classic fictional characters.

As with many authors, some of Farmer's work tended toward the potboiling. I found his "World of Tiers" parallel-world series unexceptional, and the superb and also Hugo-winning To Your Scattered Bodies Go (in which Sir Richard Burton, Alice Liddell and other historical figures interact in a seeming afterlife among all humanity on the shores of an endlessly stretching river) also stretched seemingly endlessly to the far too many sequels of the Riverworld series. When he cut to the chase, however, Farmer was invariably readable and inventive. He was also a brilliant and adaptable prose stylist, an aspect that shone in such conceits as The Jungle Rot Kid on the Nod, a short story about Tarzan as if it had been written by William Burroughs rather than Edgar Rice Burroughs.

For more background, see the official Philip José Farmer Home Page (The Brobdingnagian collection of all things Farmerian) and the Philip José Farmer International Bibliography.

Addendum (topic upgraded from comments): Felix Grant just reminded me of our conversation a while back of Farmer's story Mother, from Strange Relations. In The Lovers, Farmer had introduced one example of a strange reproductive biology, in which mimicry is achieved by the mother literally "photographing" the father at the moment of conception. Strange Relations is a story collection not so much about sex as about human encounters with other unusual reproductive biologies. Mother, for instance, tells of a mother-dominated man who survives a starship crash, but finds himself literally returning to the womb when he is trapped inside the comfortable interior of the sessile female breeding stage (the "Mother") of an alien life-form that relies on non-sessile creatures ("mobiles") for food and pollination-style fertilisation.
- Ray

Wednesday, 25 February 2009

Watchmen: the movie - update

Further to Watchmen: the movie, time for graphic novel enthusiasts to start looking at cinema schedules: Watchmen just had its premiere screening, and initial reviews are good. 1 The MetaFilter post links to a couple of interesting Wired magazine interviews with the graphic novel's creators. Artist Dave Gibbons' Gut Feelings on the Watchmen Movie explores an artist's reaction to seeing his 2D work expanded into a realistic medium, and Legendary Comics Writer Alan Moore on Superheroes, The League, and Making Magic explores various themes from his work (Moore, following past unsatisfactory dealings with Hollywood, has dissociated himself from the film).

Moore and O'Neill's forthcoming The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (Vol III) (previewed here) looks worth checking out: moving on 12 years from Vol II, which retold The War of the Worlds, its setting is the early 20th century of The Threepenny Opera

Because—as ever with the League—we tend to base the adventures upon the fictional landscape that was around at that particular time. Since this is set in 1910, we found the idea of bringing in Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill irresistible. So I've rewritten the libretto for a number of the more gutsy and dark and powerful and sardonic Kurt Weill numbers. There's a new "Mack the Knife," a new "Pirate Jenny," a new "MacHeath's Plea From the Gallows," a new "What Keeps Mankind Alive."

The third part of the Moore interview is especially interesting for his exposition of what the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen mythos is attempting to achieve

Moore: ... I suppose we're attempting to come up with a kind of unified field theory of culture that actually links up all of these various works, whether they're high culture or low culture or no culture.

Wired: How do you position yourself on the continuum from homage to parody to commentary? If you're engaging with all of these other texts to try to do what they did, to talk about what they did?

Moore: ... It's a matter of tying these things in. Sometimes they are lesser-known works that we think should be better known, and we're including them in the hope that people might actually go out and pick up the original books. Sometimes we have characters who are greatly revered that we feel are perhaps too revered, and we would like to give a more accurate picture of them ... So, yes, it is a big literary game, but it is one that lets us touch upon a surprising amount of stuff that's in some way relevant to the contemporary world

Moore goes on to give examples from The Black Dossier' (the interim volume) of its deconstruction of various characters and literary relationships: the sadism and misogyny of James Bond (who appears in TBD as a brutal womanizer called "Jimmy"); the literary interconnections of the spy Kim Philby (nicknamed after Kipling's Kim and, as a friend of Graham Greene, quite possibly a model for The Third Man, Harry Lime); and the hostility between George Orwell and "Frank Richards" 2 over Billy Bunter books (see Orwell's essay, Boys' Weeklies, and Richards' reply - which is fairly embarrassing. Taken to task for depicting foreigners as figures of fun, Richards' reply is "I must shock Mr Orwell by telling him that foreigners are funny: they lack the sense of humour which is the special gift of our own chosen nation...").

A literary game maybe, but one that takes the reader down such intriguing byways is worth playing. For more on the mythos, see Jess Nevins' Black Dossier Annotations. While it obviously needs reading in juxtaposition with the graphic novel, it is quite readable in itself (a set of footnotes that have a life of their own) for the tasters and followable references to historical miscellanea and little-known works of fiction.

1. And if you want local interest, I didn't realise that Matthew Goode, who plays Ozymandias, is from Exeter (see City actor's sci-fi blockbuster role); he's the son of Jenny Goode, director of the Exeter Gilbert & Sullivan society St David's Players.
2. "Frank Richards" was the pseudonym of the fairly enigmatic author Charles Harold St John Hamilton (1876–1961), who is probably the most prolific English language writer of all time, having written "the equivalent of nearly a thousand full-length novels" (ODNB). Certainly this beats the 904 books of Mary Faulkner: see league table. See Billy Bunter and 'The Magnet' by Bill Nagelkerke for an analysis of the Bunter mythos in relation to the rather complex peronsality of its author.


Monday, 16 February 2009

Litcrit models and more on Colin Wilson

Further reading from yesterday's post that mentioned psychoanalytic literary criticism: Critical Approaches, a handy guide to a number of the approaches to analysis/critique of a text. One not mentioned, however, is existential criticism, which is the style of the author and philosopher Colin Wilson's The Strength to Dream (much of it online at Google Books). It's a very clear overview of the works of many authors of the late 1800s to early 1900s, loosely groupable together as "imaginative" 1. They're seen through the filter of existential criticism (as Wilson puts it, "the attempt to judge works of art by the contribution they make to the science of living, to judge them by standards of meaning as well as impact") as opposed to literary criticism, which Wilson characterises as concerning itself "with the general artistic 'satisfactoriness' of the work".

It's a pleasantly robust stance: commonsense without being in the least anti-intellectual, and not afraid to tackle stylistically iconic experimental works for their failure to engage the reader...

No matter what their rewards may be, Ulysses and A la Recherche du Temps Perdu are about as readable as a telephone directory

... his point being "not in disparagement of two great works" but to highlight the fallacy of assuming reader bafflement to be down to significant radical developments in the novel form. Some experiments, he argues, are "fishes gasping on the strand" that in hindsight failed to move the novel form onward.

The Strength to Dream, I didn't know because of its nominally different subject matter, is one of Wilson's seven books at the core of his "New Existentialism" philosophy: The Outsider (1956), Religion and the Rebel (1957), The Age of Defeat (aka The Stature of Man) (1959), The Strength to Dream: literature and the imagination (1962), Origins of the Sexual Impulse (1963), Beyond the Outsider: the philosophy of the future (1965), and Introduction to the New Existentialism (aka The New Existentialism) (1966)

This comes from news Colin Stanley just sent us about the forthcoming release of his book Colin Wilson's Outsider Cycle: a guide for students (Pauper's Press, 2009, ISBN 9780946650965), which comprises essays, critical appraisal and bibliographies on these works (with an explanatory afterword by Colin Wilson himself). Stanley, as I've mentioned before - see Colin Wilson connections - is the bibliographer and probably the chief authority on Wilson's works, so this is likely to be an extremely astute analysis of works that need to be considered in relation to each other (Wilson has said that "These books are closely linked-so closely that it is impossible for any one of them to be understood without the others").

1. A diverse bunch including Lovecraft, Yeats, Wilde, Strindberg, Zola, Nathanael West, Faulkner, Waugh, Greene, Sartre, Robbe-Grillet, Sarraute, Andreyev, Beckett, Wells, Zamyatin, Lovecraft, Hoffman, Gogol, Le Fanu, MR James, Tolkien, De Sade, Maupassant, Wedekind, Artsybashev, DH Lawrence, Huxley, Kazantzakis, and Dürrenmatt.

Addendum (point just promoted from comments): in The Strength to Dream, I particularly like Wilson's identification of trends in fiction, such as its highlighting the sameness of format of many novels written in the early 20th century, a trend previously satirised as "Little Percy" novels by Aldous Huxley in chapter 3 of Crome Yellow:

"Prose?" Mr. Scogan pounced alarmingly on the word. "You've been writing prose?"


"Not a novel?"


"My poor Denis!" exclaimed Mr. Scogan. "What about?"

Denis felt rather uncomfortable. "Oh, about the usual things, you know."

"Of course," Mr. Scogan groaned. "I'll describe the plot for you. Little Percy, the hero, was never good at games, but he was always clever. He passes through the usual public school and the usual university and comes to London, where he lives among the artists. He is bowed down with melancholy thought; he carries the whole weight of the universe upon his shoulders. He writes a novel of dazzling brilliance; he dabbles delicately in Amour and disappears, at the end of the book, into the luminous Future."

Denis blushed scarlet. Mr. Scogan had described the plan of his novel with an accuracy that was appalling. He made an effort to laugh. "You're entirely wrong," he said. "My novel is not in the least like that." It was a heroic lie. Luckily, he reflected, only two chapters were written. He would tear them up that very evening when he unpacked.

- a syndrome presumably arising from the typical career of the middle-class arts-educated men of a temperament likely to write novels.

- Ray

Sunday, 15 February 2009

Shamanic shamuses

Bill Poser at Language Log - see One shaman, two shamuses? - just commented on a typographical (probably spellchecker) slip here that mistakenly renders the plural of "shaman" as "shamuses" (= private detectives).

Angered by her reluctance, the rich shaman called upon other equally strong shamuses to punish her.

There doesn't appear to be an etymological connection between the words, and the origin of "shamus" itself is uncertain: it originally referred to police, and is likely some cross-fertilisation of Yiddish shammes (a beadle or sexton in a synagogue) and the Irish personal name Séamus (historically, many New York police were of Irish stock). But idly Googling led me to a different connection via Not Remotely Controlled: Notes on Television (Lee Siegel, Westview Press, 2007, ISBN 0465078109) - a scholarly analysis of US television whose chapter on Monk finds close analogies:

Adrian Monk is the ancient shaman as modern shamus.

Monk, for those who haven't seen the programme, is a deeply neurotic detective who, following a psychological crisis after the murder of his wife, suffers from a variety of phobias and compulsions. These, paradoxically, aid him in his work ("It’s a gift ... and a curse"). Siegel's analysis notes the similarity to the psychology of shamans, who typically suffer "shamanic illness" of a recognisably psychological flavour, and begin their career after a particular initiatory crisis: see Is the Shaman Sane? in Shamanic Worlds: Rituals and Lore of Siberia and Central Asia (Marjorie Mandelstam Balzer, M.E. Sharpe, 1997, ISBN 1563249731).

It wouldn't be hard to extend this analogy to other fictional detectives: for instance, Sherlock Holmes, with his intense concentration, mood swings and ragged nerves (not to mention drug use, another common feature of shamanic ritual). In this vein, Dysthymic Dicks (On the Melancholic Shamus, from Dupin to Cracker) by Harvey Roy Greenberg, Clinical Professor of Psychiatry, offers a tour of the many psychologically troubled fictional detectives. While he doesn't mention shamans directly, his description of such detectives as "wounded healer" is a phrase classically applied to shamans. Greenberg's site The Movies on Your Mind is well worth exploring for its interesting takes on media critique from a psychoanalytic perspective.

Addendum: 16th February 2009. Having slept on the idea, a few other examples of shamanic fictional detectives surfaced. In Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased), Randall achieves his results by, like shamans, communicating with a guiding spirit. There's Colin Dexter's Inspector Morse, in which Morse gains some of his powers by contemplation in a drug-altered mental state (he believes beer is an aid to thought) and has a distinctly shamanic motif of a hidden true name that relates to his spiritual origins ("Endeavour", a name from the same Quaker roots that gave him his sense of duty). And there's the reinvented Inspector Abberline in the film version of From Hell, who gains insights from clairvoyance under the influence of absinthe and opium.

Addendum: 23rd February 2009. I just ran into a further example, the Sonny Baca series of novels by the acclaimed Mexican-American author Rudolfo Anaya (Zia Summer (1995), Rio Grande Fall (1996), Shaman Winter (1999), and Jemez Spring) in which the New Mexico private detective hero literally becomes a shaman.

Addendum 2: March 6 2009. Detail promoted from Comments: Dr C just drew my attention to another example of the crossover, Tony Hillerman's Leaphorn and Chee novels. See Tony Hillerman's Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn Mysteries.
- Ray

Monday, 9 February 2009

The Great Game and other adventures

I always find it an interesting experience to revisit literature with a greater knowledge of context. Kipling's Kim (Gutenberg EText-No. 2226) was set reading when I first was at secondary school, but even though it explicitly mentions "The Great Game", that part made little sense, and I don't recall any analysis or discussion.

For those who don't know it, Kim is the story of an Anglo-Irish orphan, Kimball O'Hara, who has grown up as a street urchin in Lahore and who (with various spiritual asides involving a kindly lama) is recruited and trained as a Secret Service agent - via exercises such as what's now called "Kim's Game" - to go undercover on missions to thwart Russians in the Himalayas. Only now that I know a bit more history, does Kim fit into the complex game of espionage and diplomacy played out in 19th century central Asia between the Russian and British empires. Nor was I aware of the sensitivity of Kipling's politics. Kim appears to be one of many books that has fallen into the "children's literature" slot by virtue of having a juvenile protagonist, but is really rather heavy in its demands on the modern reader in understanding cultural context.

A further level of complexity is that Kipling's stance - he has been called "prophet of Empire" - is not quite a simple as once thought: see, for instance, Artist of empire: Kipling and Kim (Clara Clairborne Park, The Hudson Review, Winter 2003). Although Kim doesn't fit this description, many of Kipling's works can be read as ironic commentary on imperialism. A prime example is the 1888 The Man Who Would Be King (Gutenberg EText-No. 8147), which is a story of the inevitable downfall from hubris when its protagonists go to Kafiristan - now Nuristan - to set up their own kingdom, but ultimately fail through lack of understanding of the local culture.

Nowadays The Man Who Would Be King is widely known from John Houston's film version, which manages to be largely faithful to the story while expanding it creatively: for instance, making Kipling himself part of the framing device, and building an aside about Alexander the Great into a central plot element. It's extremely well cast (I can't imagine without mentally - no, actually physically - wincing at the thought of Houston's various previous ideas for the pairing of Daniel Dravot and Peachey Carnehan: Humphrey Bogart and Clark Gable, then Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas, then Robert Redford and Paul Newman). However, the personas of Connery and Caine, good as they are, sanitize the activities of Daniel Dravot and Peachey Carnehan, making them into largely likable rogues. In the story, they achieve their aims with considerably more cynicism, brutality and cultural insensitivity, such as shooting their own followers to encourage the others; creating demeaning rituals such as demanding food but only accepting it when a chief brings it; and not bothering to learn locals' names, instead calling them English names after people they look like.

... he brings forward that same Chief that I left at Bashkai—Billy Fish we called him afterwards, because he was so like Billy Fish that drove the big tank-engine at Mach on the Bolan in the old days
We gave them names according as they was like men we had known in India—Billy Fish, Holly Dilworth, Pikky Kergan that was Bazar-master when I was at Mhow, and so on, and so on.

Nor does Dravot fall for a specific local woman as in the film (even there, it can scarcely be called love - just unreciprocated attraction combined with her role in slotting into Dravot's delusion of destiny). In the crowning and ultimately fatal cultural blunder, he just demands a wife, with menaces, until an unnamed woman is brought to him:

All that night there was a blowing of horns in a little dark temple half-way down the hill, and I heard a girl crying fit to die. One of the priests told us that she was being prepared to marry the King.

"'I'll have no nonsense of that kind,' says Dan. 'I don’t want to interfere with your customs, but I’ll take my own wife. 'The girl’s a little bit afraid,' says the priest. 'She thinks she’s going to die, and they are a-heartening of her up down in the temple.'

"'Hearten her very tender, then,' says Dravot, 'or I’ll hearten you with the butt of a gun so that you’ll never want to be heartened again.'
Up comes the girl, and a strapping wench she was, covered with silver and turquoises but white as death, and looking back every minute at the priests.

"'She’ll do,' said Dan, looking her over.

Charming fellow! The story includes a number of interesting regional details omitted in the film. Kipling is more or less correct about Kafiristan being pagan. Before its Islamization and renaming in 1896, it was an enclave of ethnic religions incorporating elements of animism, polytheism and shamanism. The Kafiristani in the story are also pale-skinned:

Then the Chiefs come round to shake hands, and they was so hairy and white and fair it was just shaking hands with old friends.

This has a large grain of truth: like some other ethnic groups in the region, such as the Pashtuns - recall the iconic image of Sharbat Gula - the Nuristani frequently have European-like colouring of light hair, eyes and skin (the consequence of multiple migrations into the region from the West). Kipling weaves this into a story of their descent from Alexander the Great's people. The primary influences for the overall scenario are generally cited as the careers of James Brooke, the "White Rajah of Sarawak", and Josiah Harlan, "Prince of Ghor". See also Rudyard Kipling and his Masonic Career for background on the Freemasonry aspects that are crucial to both Kim and The Man Who Would Be King.

Elements of Kim and The Man Who Would Be King impinge on a different piece of literature, Sir Henry Newbolt's melodramatic ballad He Fell Among Thieves (which appeared in Newbolt's 1898 anthology of jingoistic poetry The Island Race). Again, I remembered this from school minus context. The poem dramatises the murder in 1870 of the explorer George W Hayward in Darkot, Dardistan, on an expedition to reach the Pamirs region. At the time, accounts predictably took an un-nuanced view of events:

Thus, this intrepid and accomplished traveller, in the prime of his youth, was treacherously slain, and his body lies under a heap of stones in that inhospitable region
- The Times, Thursday, Nov 17, 1870

However, without diminishing an unpleasant death, Hayward must have known he was in very dangerous territory. An ex-soldier, he was first hired by the Royal Geographical Society to explore central Asia after approaching Sir Henry Rawlinson (and it's significant context that Rawlinson was a known Russophobe, and that geographical information was highly significant intelligence in the Great Game - as The Great Game, linked below says, "the dividing line at that time between exploration and intelligence-gathering was often extremely narrow"). The Great Game was not the gung-ho boy's game portrayed in Kim, but a deadly serious one. After one close shave - capture by Yaqub Beg, an Uzbek ruler who was negotiating with the Russians - he returned to India; then, after a harrowing winter trek to and from Gilgit via a warzone, had a letter published in a Calcutta newspaper about alleged atrocities committed by the Kashmiri in that region.

At this point, sense would suggest not returning, at least not immediately. However, even after having been told he'd get no help or protection from the Crown or Geographical Society (from which he resigned) Hayward went back to the region via Gilgit, and was killed en route to the Pamirs. Theories for the perpetrators and motive vary: the two main versions say a) he had argued publicly with the friend, Mir Wali, who had told him about the atrocities; or b) that Mir Wali was framed by the Maharajah of Kashmir, who had Hayward killed in revenge for the unfavourable newspaper exposure. Whatever, Hayward had put himself in astonishingly dangerous circumstances: maybe he was simply reckless, maybe a danger-lover, and maybe his geographical activities were serving the Great Game in some capacity (some sources actively say he was working for the British government 1, 2 - which would make his murder by agents or allies of the Russians a third and highly plausible option).

There's a very clear account of his career at Death in the Morning. The sources aren't cited, but it concurs largely with Chapter 26, The Feel of Cold Steel Across His Throat, The Great Game: On Secret Service in High Asia (Peter Hopkirk, Oxford University Press, 1991, ISBN 0192802321). This book has some fascinating details about espionage in the era that inspired Kim, such as details of the work of "Pundits", native explorer-spies who carried out clandestine surveying through artifices such as disguise as Buddhist pilgrims, carrying rosaries modified for tallying distances and various other equipment hidden in everyday gear. For more detail, see The Pundits: British Exploration of Tibet and Central Asia (Derek John Waller, University Press of Kentucky, 2004, ISBN 0813191009 - Google Books preview).

Apart from Kim, a number of other novels use a Great Game setting, such as John Buchan's The Half-Hearted and John Masters The Lotus and the Wind.

Addendum, Feb 10th 2009: We just had a very nice e-mail from Robert Middleton who comments: "Congratulations on posting interesting historical information on your website. The mystery surrounding Hayward's death will probably never be cleared to everyone's satisfaction". Robert is co-author of the recently-published Odyssey guidebook Tajikistan & The High Pamirs: the heart of the Great Game, this is the region that Hayward was trying to reach. Robert mentions that his research for the book included the little-known reports of the original Pundits: "one of these, 'The Havildar' 3, gives an account of an interview with Mir Wali a few weeks after the murder in which the latter provides some interesting additional information - see pp. 349 and 357 of my book!" Robert sent me a sampler, and I can highly recommend the book on its basis. For instance, one snippet I can give away as I've seen it elsewhere, online, is that the final scene of The Man Who Would Be King appears to have been based on a real event, when the head of the explorer Adolph Schlagintweit was brought back to colonial administrators (see Central Eurasia Experts Directory).

Robert runs a highly informative website about the Pamirs region, with a comprehensive bibliography. Aside from the more academic aspects of the region's uniqueness, my immediate impression is that its inhabitants are incredibly striking in appearance - a remarkable and varied mix from the distinctly Asiatic, via people that one wouldn't be surprised to see in Eastern Europe, the Mediterranean and the Middle East, to many indistinguishable from Western Europeans - the result of the area's role as "a crossroads for the passage of the many different tribes and ethnic groups that controlled Central Asia over the past 3000 years".

Addendum 2, February 11th 2009. I've just been reading The Imitation of Alexander the Great in Afghanistan (Robert J Rabel, Helios, Volume 34, Number 1, Spring 2007, PDF format). In an extended analysis, the paper quotes the scene in the screenplay by John Huston and Gladys Hill, not in the Kipling story, where Dravot comes to a deluded realisation of his destiny:

Danny: I ain’t going, Peachy.

Peachy: What? ...Have you gone barmy?

Danny: No, I ain’t been drinking neither. I see things clear. It’s like bandages have been removed from my eyes. Have you ever walked into a strange room, and it’s like you’ve been there before? . . . This isn’t the first time I’ve worn a crown. There’s more to this than meets the eye. It all adds up . . . More than chance has been at work here . . . One more thing is needful for my destiny to be fulfilled. That I take her [Roxanne] to wife...A queen to breed a king’s son for the king . . . The contract only lasted until such time as we was kings, and king I’ve been these months past! The first king here since Alexander, the first to wear his crown in 2,200 and . . . 14 years. Him, and now me. They call me his son and I am, in spirit anyway. It’s a huge responsibility . . . It’s big, I tell you. It’s big.

Peachy: And, I tell you, you need a physic!

Compare and contrast:

LADY MARY (shivering). You hurt me. You say these things, but you say them like a king. To me it is the past that was not real.

CRICHTON (too grandly). A king! I sometimes feel--(For a moment the yellow light gleams in his green eyes. We remember suddenly what TREHERNE and ERNEST said about his regal look. He checks himself.) I say it harshly, it is so hard to say, and all the time there is another voice within me crying--(He stops.)

LADY MARY (trembling but not afraid). If it is the voice of nature--

CRICHTON (strongly). I know it to be the voice of nature.

LADY MARY (in a whisper). Then, if you want to say it very much, Gov., please say it to Polly Lasenby.

CRICHTON (again in the grip of an idea). A king! Polly, some people hold that the soul but leaves one human tenement for another, and so lives on through all the ages. I have occasionally thought of late that, in some past existence, I may have been a king. It has all come to me so naturally, not as if I had had to work it out, but-as-if-I-remembered. 'Or ever the knightly years were gone, With the old world to the grave, I was a king in Babylon, And you were a Christian slave.'4 It may have been; you hear me, it may have been.

The latter section comes from JM Barrie's The Admirable Crichton, the scene where the butler Crichton, having become effectively king of an island, declares similar feelings of destiny to Lady Mary. I wonder if Huston and Hill had this in mind.

1. "the British Government deputed Lt. George Hayward on reconnaissance purposes to the Pamirs" - British Policy Towards Kashmir, 1846-1921: Kashmir in Anglo-Russian Politics, FM Hassnain, Sterling Publishers, 1974
2. "George Hayward had become an ambitious and successful explorer-cum-agent", Chapter 6, Playing the Great Game, For a Pagan Song: Travels in India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, Jonny Bealby, by William Heinemann, 1998
3. Pundits went by code names such as "The Pundit", "the Havildar" and "the Mirza".
4. Quote from William Ernest Henley's Echoes of Life and Death XXXVII. How exactly a King of Babylon, which was destroyed in the Hellenistic period at least a century BC, could have a Christian slave is not explained.

See update: The Great Game and other adventures #2.

- Ray