Only you can let it in; no one else, no one else

The Unwritten

Moving away from the story of Tom Taylor, issue #5 of The Unwritten steps back in time to 1886, to explore how the Cabal were involved in shaping popular thought and opinion around the world for decades before any of the Taylor family were even born. Our narrator is Rudyard Kipling, whose life story is recontextualised to be about his rise and fall in public opinion because of the involvement of the Cabal in first promoting and then burying his name.

Although possibly best known now for a series of children’s stories wherein the white Kipling sets out what other cultures believe – The Just-So Stories, The Jungle Book, and so on – in The Unwritten our interest lies instead with his work in spreading the word of the British Empire, a message of imperialism and accepting conquest. Finding that his praise of the empire isn’t finding as much purchase as he might like, Kipling falls in-step with the Cabal, who find him a wonderful tool to preach the messages they want the world to believe. As we’ve seen before in the series, there’s nothing more powerful than teaching the world to swallow a story, and Kipling is the ideal conduit for them. 

The lie that was (and is, if current UK Government is anything to go by) the British empire was a hugely important one. As the creative team recontextualises throughout this issue, Kipling’s genuine belief in the good of his empire is what sparks his desire to pass on the word to everyone else round the world. 

It doesn’t get addressed, but clearly we’d now see that Kipling’s belief is fueled through white supremacy; in the superiority of the British way of life to that of citizens living throughout the rest of the world. He believes his people have a god-given right to rule over everyone else. 

We see Kipling living in India at the chronological start of the issue, but he doesn’t write about Indian culture: in fact, it isn’t even visible to him. Writing for the local press, his time is spent covering “polo matches, public inaugurations, a bridge tournament” rather than any of the concerns of the Indian people themselves. He feels he’s being wasted on trivialities when he should be writing about the noble cause of the British empire, which throughout the issue he sees as an “unselfish endeavour”, despite it literally being a goal of imposing British will and ‘values’ onto other people at the cost of their own traditions and cultures. 

Ironically, once he sets his stall with the Cabal, he sees his rivals struck down (mostly notably in the form of Oscar Wilde, who in this issue is sent to jail for his crime of being homosexual as a result of Cabal intervention), and his voice elevated around the world. The voice is a profoundly racist one, at a time when racism was portrayed as reason. 

This issue uses his poem “The White Man’s Burden” as the emphasis on the profoundly misguided colonial view that Kipling celebrates. It’s a poem which declares that white people have a moral obligation to civilise other cultures, essentially, and that countries like America should invade areas like the Philippines in order to bring white values and civilisation to places which do not have either. Again: white supremacy. All of this, the issue supposes, is the will of the Cabal, and they are the ones who want this message to be spread – to whatever end they have. But the twist comes as Kipling starts to realise he’s being used. Again, he never actually learns that his viewpoint is an outreach of white supremacy: that’s not what his issue is. His problem comes when the Cabal tells him he has to start writing a new lie.

The lie of the new American empire. 

Kipling, still in love with the idea of Britain as moral superiors, baulks at the idea, not realising his own hypocrisy in refusing to change his values and traditions to those of a more dominant faction. His views on the superiority of the white man draw a line at anything other than Britain being the moral arbitrators of what is right and what is wrong, and his myopic view causes him to break with the Cabal, whose similarly racist but longer-term view on the world confuses him. He doesn’t think he is telling a lie, so his sense of duty stops him from switching from a British to an American viewpoint. The Cabal, by contrast, are only too aware that they’re telling two styles of the same lie, and have little regard for losing Kipling from their cause; they have plenty of other hacks they can recruit instead.

After his downfall, Kipling still thinks about the idea of selling a story to the public, and it causes him to write his poem “How The Whale Got His Throat”, the first in a series of moral stories which ironically take the cultures of other nations and rewrites them to be white Christian fables of good and wrong. The story sees a giant whale which swallows everything in its path. When it tries to swallow one particular fish, however, the fish sells it a story that man is the most delicious meat of all. It’s a trap for the whale, who swallows a man who subsequently causes digestion to be impossible. The man dances around in the whale’s belly, causing it pain and discomfort: when it finally agrees to let the man go, it finds that the man has built a grate and lodged it firmly into the whale’s throat. 

Essentially: the whale got too greedy and was punished for it. The Unwritten’s smartest trick here is to suggest this is part of a rebuttal to the Cabal, suggesting that Kipling is the fish which tricks the whale, which represents the Cabal. The man represents human spirit. So Kipling is trying to threaten the Cabal by suggesting that if they try to swallow the entire world, the human spirit will ultimately overcome them and stop them for good. They’ll have a story too grand to ever be swallowed. 

Neatly, Kipling’s plan here falls apart completely. The Cabal have already murdered his daughter as punishment, and when Kipling’s son is lost in battle, he comes pleading for them to save the boy. The Cabal laugh at him and leave him to hear the news of his son’s death, at which point Kipling realises that he was not powerful enough to lodge in the throat of the whale: his life has been swallowed into the belly of the beast, and he is lost forever. He ends the issue broken and unable to ever write again. 

Although a lie used to tie people together – again, see modern UK political debate for current-day examples that this is still going on – the lie of empire is a powerful one, which makes people give up their lives in service of something which does not exist. In the issue, as was true for the real Kipling, he genuinely believes that the white man has a burden which they must carry, a great work which they must take up with no need for reward. That puts him completely at the mercy of the great whale of the Cabal who are happy to claim all the rewards whilst forcing the rest of the world to fight over who sacrifices themselves most for “the work”. 

Sounds familiar that, doesn’t it?

The Written

Rudyard Kipling was obviously a real man, and the central beats of his life are covered in the issue as they happened. Motivations and intentions are inserted in order to fit him into the massive literary conspiracy which is The Unwritten, but largely speaking this is how his life progressed.

Mark Twain was the author of stories like The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the latter of which is considered to be “the great American novel”, for better and worse. Huck Finn is felt to represent the spirit of America, in other words, which brings us immediate contrast between Twain as “America” and Kipling as “England”. 

“The thing about the water-carrier” is a reference to Gunga Din, a poem by Kipling which tells the story of an English soldier in India and the Indian man who saves his life. Despite saving the narrator’s life, the man is shot and killed by the English. In this issue, there’s intended to be a contrast between this story and White Man’s Burden, which is far more open about white supremacy.

Although Kipling wrote a “Just-So Story” about how the whale’s throat became capable only for swallowing fish rather than larger prey, “How The Whale Became” is actually the name of a Ted Hughes story for children. In Hughes’ story, whales originally lived on the land with all the other creatures. When they became too big and started to crush the crops around them, however, they were banished to the sea. That’ll roughly match this story, where Kipling becomes swelled by self-importance and is similarly banished by the cabal.

Oscar Wilde is positioned as a natural opponent of Kipling here, noting that Kipling is writing imperialist propaganda with no reason behind it. Wilde would make some sense as an enemy of the system, as a gay man whose lover Lord Alfred Douglas appears alongside him here, called Bosie. Boise shows fleeting interest in Kipling’s message, suggesting the magically appealing power in the cabal-approved words Kipling writes. 

Wilde was tried for his homosexuality and sentenced to two years in prison. After serving that time, he promptly sailed away from Britain and never returned. He died a few years later, and only wrote one more poem in that time. 

White Man’s Burden, quoted here, was a poem in which Kipling asked America to embrace colonisation, in particular in connection to the Philippine–American War. Kipling was an Imperialist writer, and this poem was probably his best-known work – popularising manifest destiny.

Later in Kipling’s career he focused on moralistic children’s stories like the Just-So Stories, The Jungle Book, Rikki-Tikki-Tavi etc, which we see referenced towards the end of this issue.

 

 

The Unwritten #5 “How The Whale Became”
Story by Mike Carey and Peter Gross,
Colourists: Chris Chuckry and Jeanne McGee
Letterer: Todd Klein

 

Steve Morris runs this site! Having previously written for sites including The Beat, ComicsAlliance, CBR and The MNT, he can be found on Twitter here. He’s a bunny.

 

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