Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1166
Kim grows up on the streets of Lahore. His Irish mother died when he was born, and his father, a former color-sergeant of an Irish regiment called the Mavericks, died eventually of drugs and drink. He left his son in the care of a half-caste woman. Young Kimball O’Hara thereupon became Kim, and under the hot Indian sun, his skin grew so dark that one could not tell he was a white boy.
One day, a Tibetan lama, in search of the holy River of the Arrow that will wash away all sin, comes to Lahore. Struck by the possibility of exciting adventure, Kim attaches himself to the lama as his chela. That night, at the edge of Lahore, Mahbub Ali, a horse trader, gives Kim a cryptic message to deliver to a British officer in Umballa. Kim does not know that Mahbub Ali is a member of the British secret service. He delivers the message as directed and then hides in the grass and watches and listens until he learns that his message means that eight thousand men will go to war.
Out on the big road, the lama and Kim encounter many people of all sorts. Conversation is easy. Kim is particularly interested in one group, an old lady traveling in a family bullock cart attended by a retinue of eight men. Kim and the lama attach themselves to her party. Toward evening, they see a group of soldiers making camp. It is the Maverick regiment. Kim, whose horoscope says that his life will be changed at the sign of a red bull in a field of green, is fascinated by the regimental flag, which is just that: a red bull against a background of bright green.
Caught by a chaplain, the Reverend Arthur Bennett, Kim accidentally jerks loose the amulet he carries around his neck. Mr. Bennett opens the amulet and discovers three papers folded inside, including Kim’s baptismal certificate and a note from his father asking that the boy be taken care of. Father Victor arrives in time to see the papers. When Kim tells his story, he is informed that he will be sent away to school. Though he parts sadly from the lama, Kim is sure that he will soon escape. The lama asks that Father Victor’s name and address and the costs of schooling Kim be written down and given to him. Then he disappears. Kim, pretending to prophesy, tells the priests and soldiers what he heard at Umballa. They laugh at him, but the next day his prophecy comes true, and eight thousand soldiers are sent to put down an uprising in the north. Kim remains in camp.
One day, a letter arrives from the lama. He encloses enough money for Kim’s first year at school and promises to provide the same amount yearly. He requests that the boy be sent to St. Xavier’s for his education. The drummer who is ordered to keep an eye on Kim is cruel to his charge. When Mahbub Ali comes upon the two boys, he gives the drummer a beating and begins talking to Kim. While they are thus engaged, Colonel Creighton comes up and learns from Mahbub Ali, in an indirect way, that once he is educated Kim will be a valuable member of the secret service.
On his way to St. Xavier’s, Kim spies the lama, who was waiting a day and a half to see him. They agree to see each other often. Kim is an apt pupil, but he dislikes being shut up in classrooms and dormitories. When vacation time comes, he goes to Umballa and persuades Mahbub Ali to let him return to the road until school reopens.
Traveling with Mahbub Ali, he plays the part of a horse boy and saves the trader’s life when he overhears two men plotting to kill the horse dealer. At Simla, Kim stays with Mr. Lurgan, who teaches him a great many subtle tricks and games and the art of make-up and disguise. Just as Mahbub Ali said, he now learns the great game, as the work of the secret service is called. At the end of the summer, Kim returns to his studies at St. Xavier’s, where he stays for three years.
At the end of that time, Mahbub Ali suggests to Mr. Lurgan and Colonel Creighton that Kim be permitted to go out on the road with his lama again. Kim’s skin is stained dark, and he resumes the dress of a street boy. Given the password by Hurree Chunder Mookerjee, a babu who is another member of the secret service, Kim sets out with his lama.
Still seeking his river, the lama moves up and down India with Kim as his disciple. The two of them once more encounter the old woman they met on the road three years before. A little later, Kim is surprised to see the babu, who tells him that two of the five kings of the north were bribed and that the Russians sent spies down into India through the passes that the kings agreed to guard. Two men, a Russian and a Frenchman, are to be apprehended, and the babu asks for Kim’s aid. Kim suggests to the lama a journey into the foothills of the Himalayas, and so he is able to follow the babu on his mission.
During a storm, the babu comes upon the two foreigners. Discovering that one of their baskets contains valuable letters, including a message from one of the traitorous kings, he offers to be their guide; in two days, he leads them to the spot where Kim and the lama are camped. When the foreigners tear almost in two a holy drawing made by the lama, the babu creates a disturbance in which the coolies, according to plan, carry off the men’s luggage. The lama conducts Kim to the village of Shamlegh. There, Kim examines all the baggage that the coolies brought. He throws everything except letters and notebooks over an unscalable cliff. He hides the documents on his person.
In a few days, Kim and the lama set out again. At last, they come to the house of the old woman who befriended them twice before. When she sees Kim’s emaciated condition, she puts him to bed, where he sleeps many days. Before he goes to sleep, he asks that a strongbox be brought to him. He deposits his papers in it, locks the box, and hides it under his bed. When he awakens, he hears that the babu arrived, and Kim delivers the papers to him. The babu tells him that Mahbub Ali is also in the vicinity. They assure Kim that he played his part well in the great game. The old lama knows nothing of these matters. He is happy because Kim brought him to his river at last, a brook on the old lady’s estate.