Yaaaaaay, the really truly beautiful ending! One of the greatest moments in English writing to describe humanism and love and all good things. If you have read the whole book, I recommend skipping to this discussion, and then going back to the other two, because really the ending dominates all.
Kim has graduated from school and is given 6 months to wander with his Llama before officially taking assignments as a spy. But in their wanderings Kim runs across his Bengali spy friend who asks them to follow him into the mountains as he attempts to contact some Russian spies, just as backup for emergencies. Kim and the Llama go to the mountains and run across the Russians who disrespect and hit the Llama. Kim attacks them and their servants all abandon them in horror. Kim convinces the servants to let him take all the papers and secret documents from the luggage. He takes the ill Llama back to the plains to stay with his elderly patron, carrying the documents with him. By the time they arrive at the home of the elderly woman, both are terribly ill. She cures Kim and he thanks her as a mother, he gives the documents to the Bengali and is relieved of that burden, and then finds the Llama. Who declares he has found the water that cleans all sins and achieved nirvana. But he returned from nirvana because he remembered Kim and wished to give him that same gift. And that is the end of the book.
Let’s start with the end! What it reminds me of most of all is that wonderful moment of turning in the middle of Jane Eyre. Jane has the possibility of “living in sin” with the man she loves. She goes through in her mind how no one loves her, society would not care, family would not care, why won’t she do it? And then she realizes that SHE loves herself!!! She has value within herself and will follow her own mind and her own morals because she is a person and that is her right. It’s a fabulous moment of equality, Jane Eyre has value simply because she is a person, because she has value to herself. It rejects class, money, gender, all the things that would make her worthless and accepts human life as the only requirement, and a person’s own decisions as paramount.
This ending isn’t like that at all in the deeper meaning, but where it is the same is that it doesn’t matter if we agree with what the character believes, it’s more important to see how they act on those beliefs. Every person reads Jane Eyre and thinks Jane should have just run off with Rochester, because really why not? But Jane isn’t the reader, and in her mind this is what she believed and we are proud of her for being brave enough to stand by her beliefs. In Kim, no one reading it believes that the magic river of purity created by The Buddha really was in the backyard of their patroness this whole time. But what matters is that the Llama believed that, and he turned his back on perfection for the sake of love.
I don’t think Kipling is rejecting the Llama’s whole belief system with this ending, through out the book he has been very respectful of Buddhism and the Llama’s wisdom. But he sets this up carefully, the Llama is distraught over Kim and decides to meditate without eating. Half starved, he stumbles upon a body of water and has an out of body experience and almost dies. That moment gives him the sense of peace and cleansing he has been wanting this whole time, and instead of enjoying it, he wrenches himself back to the pain of his body and the world because he so loves Kim. It doesn’t matter that he was hallucinating, ill, all those things. What matters is that in his mind he had achieved the greatest freedom and joy of his life, and he gave up his own personal salvation because he had to come back for the boy he loved.
This whole book is about lies and illusions and multiple identities, spies and Anglo-Indians and lying travelers. But in the end, within the illusions is found the greatest truth. It doesn’t matter what the “truth” of the world is, it matters what the truth is for yourself within your own heart. Within their hearts, Kim and the Llama are one, they love each other, and all the differences do not matter. And they understand the manner of love that they show for each other, across their vast differences, the Llama knows that Kim’s lies and tricks are to make him more comfortable and help him in his search, and Kim knows that the Llama’s lessons and lectures are to help him gain paradise.
This ending also opens up the possibility that all of “The Great Game”, the spycraft and the British authorities and everything else, is also an earthly illusion. Spying is what Kim does, it is not who he is. What matters at the end of this book is the people who love him and the responsibility he takes for them, not some silly pieces of paper. Through out the book, the individual has been put above the State. Some British are stupid, some smart. Most folks they meet on the road are good, a few are crooked. To the vast majority it does not matter if the British are in charge or someone else, their lives are little effected. Don’t get me wrong, the book is definitely pro-British in India, arguing that they bring a necessary order and connectiveness to the country. But at the same time, it is strangely anti-state. Folks do best when left alone, when allowed to live however they want to live.
In the last section alone, we have a village with the women practice polygamy, we have servants happily planning to kill their employers and hide their bodies, we have Mahbub Ali planning to attack and rescue Kim with his own string of men, it’s all cheerful anarchy. There is no suggestion that these folks would be “better off” if they followed British standards or British codes of law, they are what they are.
This is a coming of age story. If you read only the first section, where Kim is still a child, it would read like a fun funny silly story of boy adventures. If you read the middle section, it sounds like a Training of a Spy handbook, with a smattering of British patriotism. But this final section is where Kim fully comes of age and learns that what matters at the heart of things is love.