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TAISSUMANI: Around the Arctic December 07, 2012 - 8:00 am

Taissumani, Dec. 7

Quiquern – Kipling’s Arctic Story

Rudyard Kipling published his only Arctic story, set in the Tununirq region near Bylot Island, in 1895. (HARPER COLLECTION)
Rudyard Kipling published his only Arctic story, set in the Tununirq region near Bylot Island, in 1895. (HARPER COLLECTION)

In the late 19th and early twentieth centuries, Rudyard Kipling was one of the most popular writers in the English language. Born in Bombay in 1865 to a British art teacher, John Lockwood Kipling, and his wife, Alice, a vivacious woman about whom it was said that “dullness and Mrs. Kipling cannot exist in the same room,” Rudyard was raised in India until the age of five, when he was packed off to a boarding home in England for his education.

Kipling became a novelist, writer of short stories, and poet. Many of his stories were set in India. Probably his most famous books were “The Jungle Book” and “The Second Jungle Book,” in which many of the stories featured Mowgli, a child who had been reared by wolves.

His best-known poems are “If” and “The White Man’s Burden,” a controversial poem which caused George Orwell to call its author a “prophet of British imperialism.” Kipling was the first English-language author to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature and to this date remains its youngest recipient. He declined the honour of being named Britain’s poet laureate, and even turned down a knighthood.

By 1892 Kipling and his wife were living in Vermont, a peaceful environment that Kipling found conducive to his writing. Two years later, while visiting his parents in Tisbury, England,  Kipling wrote a curious story.

For a man who had lived in colonial India, Quiquern was a radical departure from familiar ground, for this story was set in the far north of Canada. It was his only Arctic story.

He published it first in the Pall Mall Gazette in October of 1895 under the heading “The People of the Eastern Ice.” A month later it appeared in McClure’s Magazine with a different title, “Angutivaun Taina.” In fact, when it was finally published in book form in “The Second Jungle Book,” by MacMillan, the two previous titles had become the titles of short poems, one preceding and one following the story itself.

Kipling provides the setting for the story:

“And all this happened far away to the north, beyond Labrador, beyond Hudson’s Strait, where the great tides heave the ice about, north of Melville Peninsula — north even of the narrow Fury and Hecla Straits – on the north shore of Baffin Land, where Bylot’s Island stands above the ice of Lancaster Sound like a pudding-bowl wrong side up.”

The story can be summarized simply enough. An isolated tribe of Inuit in the far north of Baffin Island are starving during a particularly desperate winter. Kadlu is the camp leader, his wife is Amoraq. They were Tununirmiut – and Kipling not only spells the word correctly but gives its meaning as “the country lying at the back of something,” noting, “In the maps that desolate coast is written Navy Board Inlet, but the Inuit name is best, because the country lies at the very back of everything in the world.”

Kipling even refers to the people as Inuit instead of Eskimo, a rarity in literature at the time. He writes, “Kadlu was an Inuit – what you call an Esquimau,” even correctly giving the rare singular version of the popular old usage “Esquimaux.”

The leader’s son, a boy on the verge of manhood, is named Kotuko and he has a dog of the same name which becomes the lead dog of his team. Kotuko the dog goes mad from cold and hunger and runs off.

Kotuko the boy, hauling a small sled, and accompanied by a girl who has been taken in from a farther northern group of Inuit, heads off in quest of seal to save the lives of his family and village. Interestingly, the girl, who plays a key role in the tale, remains nameless throughout.

Eventually they encounter a beast, described first as “a Thing” looking at them from an ice-cliff half a mile away. The mirage effect created by “hazy air” distorts the size of the beast so that it appears to be “forty feet long and ten feet high, with twenty feet of tail and a shape that quivered all along the outlines.” The girl identifies it. “That is Quiquern,” she says.

The author explained: “Quiquern… is the phantom of a gigantic toothless dog without any hair, who is supposed to live in the far North, and to wander about the country just before things are going to happen. They may be pleasant or unpleasant things, but not even the sorcerers care to speak about Quiquern. He makes the dogs go mad… he has several extra pairs of legs… and this Thing jumping up and down in the haze had more legs than any real dog needed.”

They discover, still from a distance, that Quiquern has eight legs and two heads. After cautiously following it to land, where the Thing disappears, the two Inuit fashion a snowhouse for shelter.

The mystery of Quiquern is revealed when the beast crawls into the shelter with them, for “there were two heads, one yellow and one black, that belonged to two of the most sorrowful and ashamed dogs that ever you saw.”

Kipling explained: “Kotuko the dog was one, and the black leader was the other. Both were now fat, well-looking, and quite restored to their proper minds, but coupled to each other in an extraordinary fashion.”

The black leader had run off earlier in the story, while still wearing his harness. Kotuko the dog also wore a collar, a special one made of plaited copper wire. The two dogs had met, fought or played, and the harness and the copper wire had become entangled “so that neither could get at the trace to gnaw it apart, but each was fastened sidelong to his neighbour’s neck.”

The girl sobbed with laughter as she pushed the two dogs toward Kotuko the man, crying, “That is Quiquern, who led us to safe ground. Look at his eight legs and double head!”

The happy ending quickly follows: Kotuko catches a number of seals and he, the girl and the two dogs, hauling a heavily-laden sled, return triumphantly to their village in time to save the villagers from starvation.

Next Week: Understanding Quiquern

Taissumani recounts a specific event of historic interest. Kenn Harper is a historian, writer and linguist who lives in Iqaluit. Feedback? Send your comments and questions to .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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