What is the significance of the "old soldier" in Rudyard Kipling's novel Kim?

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vangoghfan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The "old soldier" in Rudyard Kipling's novel Kim is an old man of Indian ethnicity who once served the British government in India. The narrator describes him succinctly as

an old, withered man, who had served the Government in the days of the Mutiny as a native officer in a newly raised cavalry regiment.

When Kim playfully pretends to have mystical knowledge of a forthcoming war (knowledge he has actually acquired from overhearing the comments of a British officer), the old soldier is highly skeptical. He questions Kim relentlessly about his supposed mystical vision. However, Kim is able to provide many precise and accurate details about the British officer (including his physical mannerism and ways of speaking):

“First the great man walks thus. Then He thinks thus.” (Kim drew a forefinger over his forehead and downwards till it came to rest by the angle of the jaw.) “Anon He twitches his fingers thus. Anon He thrusts his hat under his left armpit.” Kim illustrated the motion and stood like a stork.

The old soldier, who has served under the officer Kim describes, is so impressed by Kim’s apparently mystical knowledge of forthcoming events that he invites Kim back to his home to stay the night:

Kim had enjoyed a most interesting evening with the old man, who brought out his cavalry sabre and, balancing it on his dry knees, told tales of the Mutiny and young captains thirty years in their graves, till Kim dropped off to sleep.

The old soldier thus functions in this episode in a number of ways, including the following:

  • He is a splendid foil for Kim; he seems to pose a serious challenge to Kim’s claim, and thus his presence adds an element of suspense to the episode. We wonder if Kim will be able to pull off his mischievous deception, especially with the old soldier there to doubt and challenge his claims.
  • The old soldier’s ultimate belief in Kim’s story helps disarm the doubts of all the other listeners. If the old man believes in Kim, then so should (and do) the others who listen to Kim’s fantastic story.
  • In this episode, the old soldier functions as a comic figure. He is old and presumably wise, but he is nonetheless out-witted by the quick-witted young Kim. The episode helps establish the character of the old man, but, more significantly, it helps illustrate the mischievous, playful, daring nature of Kim.