East and West and Strong Men

Rudyard Kipling’s “The Ballad of East and West” is one of my favorites, and I can declaim large chunks from memory. The Australian poet A.B. “Banjo” Patterson observed that Kipling had a gift for describing horses, and that shines through in the mid-section of the poem. But I want to focus on Kamal and the Colonel’s son.

“Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet,
Till Earth and Sky stand presently at God’s great Judgment Seat;
But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth,
When two strong men stand face to face,
tho’ they come from the ends of the earth!”

For two, or three, strong men, a chase after a stolen horse becomes an occasion for a feat of daring, a display of honor, and a moment of brotherhood.

Kamal has gripped him by the hand and set him upon his feet.
“No talk shall be of dogs,” said he, “when wolf and gray wolf meet.
May I eat dirt if thou hast hurt of me in deed or breath;
What dam of lances brought thee forth to jest at the dawn with Death?”
Lightly answered the Colonel’s son: “I hold by the blood of my clan:
Take up the mare for my father’s gift — by God, she has carried a man!”
The red mare ran to the Colonel’s son, and nuzzled against his breast;
“We be two strong men,” said Kamal then, “but she loveth the younger best.
So she shall go with a lifter’s dower, my turquoise-studded rein,
My broidered saddle and saddle-cloth, and silver stirrups twain.”
The Colonel’s son a pistol drew and held it muzzle-end,
“Ye have taken the one from a foe,” said he; “will ye take the mate from a friend?”
“A gift for a gift,” said Kamal straight; “a limb for the risk of a limb.
Thy father has sent his son to me, I’ll send my son to him!”
With that he whistled his only son, that dropped from a mountain-crest —
He trod the ling like a buck in spring, and he looked like a lance in rest. . .

They have looked each other between the eyes, and there they found no fault,
They have taken the Oath of the Brother-in-Blood on leavened bread and salt:
They have taken the Oath of the Brother-in-Blood on fire and fresh-cut sod,
On the hilt and the haft of the Khyber knife, and the Wondrous Names of God.”

The Ballad of East and West.” Rudyard Kipling

Two strong men, one older, one younger, both brave, both determined, and both seeing honor and respect in the other, even though they are sworn enemies (more or less). And it doesn’t matter, not in that moment.

I grew up understanding what Kipling meant, and what veterans and others meant, when they showed respect (if at times grudging) for opponents and foes. The loss of that sense is something I feel keenly. “The honorable opponent” seems to be fading from popular culture. I try to explain it to younger people, that you can respect people you disagree with, and even feel sorrow at their passing even as you know that they’d have killed you first if given the chance. “For true comrades and true foemen, Madonna, intercede!” Kipling wrote in a different place.

There’s an academic I vehemently disagree with. She sets my teeth on edge. Her work broke major ground in our field, and has opened up useful new lines of questioning and uses of archaeological and archival material. So when I had the chance, I told her how much I admired her work and how valuable it has been to me. She was glad that a younger generation still read and engaged with her ideas. I still don’t care for her, and she probably would not care for me, were we to meet in other than an academic setting. It didn’t—and doesn’t—matter.

“But there is neither east nor west, border, nor breed, nor birth

When two strong men stand face to face, though they come from the ends of the earth!”