by John McGivering)
|notes on the text|
It is an old joke in the book trade that two classes of books will always find a market in England, books about doctors and books about dogs. After his medical stories Rudyard indeed turned to the other category and enjoyed his last success with dog stories, in a new mode. He had always been a dog-lover, and, from his earliest days as a writer, had introduced some favourite dogs into his stories about people. In "Garm, a Hostage" and "The Dog Hervey", the dogs had been among the leading characters, but dogs seen through the human eye. His beasts, in the Jungle Books and elsewhere, had been treated allegorically, in another traditional style, as characters personified appropriately, like Circe's swine, in some animal garb that suited them.See also Meryl Macdonald (p. 233 and passim) for life with the Aberdeen terriers at Bateman’s, also Harry Ricketts, p. 369.
"Thy Servant a Dog", published in 1930, was not a beast fable in the conventional form, but a genuine attempt to present a dog's point of view, in a simplified vocabulary which seemed adequate to a dog's intelligence, an experiment in the rudiments of language ... He had submitted to a dynasty of Aberdeen terriers ... on whom he turned his exact and penetrating gaze, to the renewed delight of his readers, who bought 100,000 copies of "Thy Servant" in six months.
Though personally I dislike the method of presenting it in dog-language, “The Great Play Hunt” is an amazing tour-de-force. No sporting writer could have done better. It abounds in little touches which make one wonder once more – where does he get it from ?Martin Fido (p. 138) reports the record sales of the collection, but missing the point and with a singular lack of humour goes on to assert that the work almost doomed Kipling's serious reputation: 'Few major writers have written so bad a book: almost none in their maturity.'
To most foxhunters the map of England is, not so much divided into shires as into hunting countries, and it would seem as if Kipling was aware of it. He knows that the Cotswold adjoins the Heythrop and much more. He tells us of poultry farmers who trap foxes and then claim damages from two Hunts through living on the boundary. Every hunt-secretary knows that type only too well.
The superior and the humourless may find Mr. Kipling’s stories of dogs light or even trivial entertainment, but those who know how to enter into their spirit will be very well content with them. Light indeed they are, nor would one compare them with some of his best animal stories of old times. Yet they are deft and charming, bubbling with fun, touched with pathos, full of acute observation. Their cleverest feature is the limitation of the dogs’ world. The human beings are seen through their eyes only.There is faint praise from R. L. Green (Tellers of Tales, Edward Ward, 1953, page 237), a former Editor of the Kipling Journal:
There is waiting for Gods going walks. If it is nothing-on-their-tops , it is only round the garden and “get off-the-flower-beds-you-two!” If it is wet it is hearth-rugs by fire, or “Who-said-you-could-sit-on-chairs-Little-men ?” It is always being-with Own-Gods.'Mingled with the tale of the little terriers are episodes connected with the neighbouring pack of foxhounds and especially with Ravager, their friend and confederate. We meet Ravager first as a puppy at walk; then, after a long gap during which he has become one of the leading hounds of the pack, he comes back, crippled by a motor-car, to live as a pensioner in the company of his old friends. Poor Ravager’s death brings the book to its end on a note of tragedy.
The other great character is Toby Dog, the disgraceful performer in a Punch and Judy show, who “held rat records at three pubs” , and, after some shameful beginnings, proved himself as a good and true temporary member of the household. Temporary only, because it was his “Own God’s” method to sell him for the winter when times were slack and whistle him back again when he was needed. Of the truce which was made with Kitchen Cat, of the great run for a young human staged by the terriers with Ravager and an old lame for of their acquaintance , of the undogful parlour tricks of Toby Dog, and their effect upon Ravager’s base rival Upstart, of the terrible business when the same young human called his governess a boney old Lady-Hound and the terriers went to rescue him from the fate which he deserved, we must not tell. Readers young and old will far rather extract all these plums for themselves – it indeed one can use that simile of a pudding which is almost all plums. Among them we must not forget the illustrations by G. L. Stampa.
...concerning the slight but amusing stories in his late book ... Unusual but amusing, and a most convincing fancy of how a dog might tell his story if suddenly endowed with human speech - but adding no extra glory to the author of Kim, of Stalky & Co., of the Just So Stories etc.And Angus Wilson is not particularly enthusiastic either (p. 314.):
Kipling’s emptiness was in part filled by studying (and loving) the Aberdeen terriers he kept at Bateman’s. He attempted, alas, to write a whole book out of this – Thy Servant a Dog. It is a worthy attempt to speak through a dog’s sense of feel and smell and sight, but it is marred by the sentimentality with which Kipling covers his egoistic conviction, which is that the magnificence of dogs lies in their complete subservience to their masters.Some further reading