Wet Socks

John Bayley

The high noon of imperial expansion towards the end of the 19th century produced an archetypal tale. Kipling’s version of it is ‘The Man Who Would Be King’, which like all Kipling’s early tales made a great impression on Jack London. His own version, ‘An Odyssey of the North’, concerns an Aleutian Indian whose betrothed is stolen from him by a Norwegian seal poacher, a giant with a golden mane and the blood of the Vikings, much the same as the hero of Kipling’s story, and also of Rider Haggard’s romances. Together with his faithful friend, the tale-teller and survivor, Kipling’s hero founds a fabulous kingdom in the wilds beyond Afghanistan, and meets his fate when his wish for a wife from among his native subjects makes them realise he is no god but a man, whereupon they kill him.

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