Just So Stories by Rudyard Kipling (1902)

There are twelve Just So stories for children – and any reader needs to remember that they’re aimed at very little children. Also that they are meant to be read aloud. Charles Carrington’s biography of Kipling quotes his children’s cousin, Angela Mackail, who remembered Kipling’s reading style:

The Just So Stories are a poor thing in print compared with the fun of hearing them told in Cousin Ruddy’s deep unhesitating voice. There was a ritual about them, each phrase having its special intonation which had to be exactly the same each time and without which the stories are dried husks. There was an inimitable cadence, an emphasis of certain words, an exaggeration of certain phrases, a kind of intoning here and there which made his telling unforgettable.
(Rudyard Kipling His Life and Work by Charles Carrintgon, Penguin paperback edition p.344)

The settings are various: the details of the first few stories suggest The Arabian Nights (e.g. the Djinn from the deserts of Arabia who gives the camel its hump in story two, the Parsee in the desert in the Rhinoceros story). The idea of origin stories in which we find out how animals got their names or attributes obviously has Biblical overtones, reminding us of Adam’s naming of the animals in the Book of Genesis. But later stories are set in Africa and South America and then – surprisingly – Stone Age England. So maybe the settings (and animals) are chosen simply because they’re ones which an Edwardian child would find wonderfully exotic.

As they would the language – I’ve no idea whether Kipling coined the phrase ‘it was in the High and Far-Off Times’ and calling the hypothetical child to which the tales are told ‘O Best Belovèd’ – but like his use of ‘thees’ and ‘thous’ in the Jungle Books – these turns of phrase seem immediately right and appropriate. As does the baby language he uses – ‘scruciating’,

Like a lot of Kipling’s prose, it’s a good idea, indeed a brilliant idea – made-up fables which explain the origin of the animals which all children know about from books and toys. But the actual stories, the plots, the narratives themselves, sometimes feel a bit laboured and effortful. My kids didn’t like the Just So stories when I tried to read them to them when they were small – and I’m not sure I really enjoyed any of them this time round.

  • How the Whale Got His Throat – location: the Ocean. The whale opens his huge mouth to take in a clever Mariner on a raft who – while he’s swilling around in the mouth – quickly chops up the raft and uses his suspenders to make the fragments into a grating which he stuffs down the whale’s throat so the whale can’t swallow him. And that’s why the whale to this day can only eat teeny-tiny plankton and krill.
  • How the Camel Got His Hump – location: the Howling Desert. The lazy camel refuses to work, scornfully saying ‘humph’ to the horse and the dog and the ox who ask for his help with their labours over the course of three days, and so the horse and the dog and the ox complain to the djinn who takes the camel’s ‘humph’ at his word and gives him a hump which will supply him with food and drink for three days so he can catch up.
  • How the Rhinoceros Got His Skin – location: the shores of the Red Sea. The smooth-skinned easy-going rhinoceros scares off the Parsee who is just about to eat a cake and eats it instead. So when the rhinoceros unbuttons his skin (with its three buttons) to bathe in the sea, the Parsee sneaks down and fills the skin with the crumbs left from the cake so that when the rhinoceros gets back into it he finds it immensely fidgety and itchy and rubs his skin all over the place until it is immensely wrinkled and the rhinoceros is left permanently bad-tempered.
  • How the Leopard Got His Spots – location: the High Veldt in South Africa. The other savannah animals hide in the forest, including the Ethiopian, who puts on a shiny black skin to blend in with the dark shadows. The leopard asks the Ethiopian to touch him with his still wet black fingers, which is why leopards have black spots in clusters of five.
  • The Elephant’s Child – location: Africa, near ‘the great grey-green, greasy Limpopo river’ i.e. Botswana. The elephant child, who has a big snub nose like all his kind, asks endless ‘scruciating questions, of the ostrich and hippopotamus and baboon, who all smack and spank him for his cheek. So he goes down to the river to ask the Crocodile, who promptly grabs his nose and starts pulling; the watching snake helps the elephant child pull back – and so bit by bit his nose is pulled longer and longer and longer until it becomes a trunk, which turns out to be handy for swatting flies and ripping up grass.
  • The Sing-Song of Old Man Kangaroo – location: Australia, the Flinders mountain range is mentioned. The kangaroo is a woolly, fluffy grey mammal who asks three local gods if they can make him more interesting and popular. The third of the gods sets the Yellow-Dog Dingo on him, who chases him for days and days until the kangaroo’s rear legs grow all long and powerful from all that running, and all hoppy from jumping across countless creeks, and he is all tawny from the desert dust.
  • The Beginning of the Armadillos – location: the Amazon River, South America. The juvenile Painted Jaguar’s mummy tells it how to recognise the Tortoise and the Prickly Hedgehog and how to extract their bodies from their spines and their shells. But when he meets them the Tortoise and the Hedgehog hopelessly confuse the infant Jaguar and before making their getaway across the mighty Amazon river. Having discovered that swimming is a good way to escape jaguars, the pair decide to practice swimming and, to make it easier, unstrap their spines and the plates of their shell. Slowly, over a long day, unbuckling everything and stretching and swimming, they morph into armadillos. (I liked the characterisation of the mother Jaguar, lying in the sun, lazily tapping her long tail and trying to give her useless son advice.)
  • How the First Letter Was Written – location: the poem attached to the story indicates that this story of Neolithic peoples and tribes is set beside the River Wey, not far from modern Guildford, but thousands of years ago. Tegumai Bopsulai, a Neolithic Man, takes his daughter, Taffimai Metallumai – Taffy for short – down to the river to catch fish. Almost immediately he breaks his spear and, while he’s repairing it, Taffy has the idea to draw a picture of the situation on a fragment of bark and give it to a man from a neighbouring tribe (the Tewara), who happens to have strolled by, to take back to her mummy. He does so but the mummy proceeds to completely misinterpret the bark-message as showing some kind of armed attack on her husband and daughter, and so all the Neolithic Wives attack the Tewara man and all the men get armed and go on the warpath along to where Tegumai is – only to discover him peacefully fishing with Taffy. Oops. Apologies all round. If only there was a better way of conveying messages…
  • How the Alphabet Was Made – Following directly on from the above, Taffy and her father conceive ‘writing’, coming up with a series of symbols which mimic the shape of the mouth when forming vowels and consonants (O looks like the ‘o’ shape the mouth makes, and so on.)
  • The Crab That Played with the Sea – location: the Malaysian archipelago. This occurs way back in the dawn of time and has a really primeval feel as the Eldest magician discusses with the First Man and the Fisherman in the Moon, how to manage Pau Amma, the giant crab higher than volcanoes, whose coming in and going out of his underwater home causes the entire world’s sea to rise and fall in the tides. This story more than all the others conjures up a truly ancient world complete with deities and myths – too many of the others seem arbitrary and thin; this one, especially the vision of the Fisherman in the Moon permanently trying catch the Earth and the Moon Rat which permanently eats away his fishing line, have a deeper resonance.
  • The Cat That Walked by Himself – location: some primeval place near the Wet Wild Wood when early man lived in a cave. The fable tells how the Man’s Wife tamed the Dog, the Horse and the Cow but how the Cat kept aloof, but then made clever bargains with the Wife, which he keeps to this day – to catch mice and be rewarded with milk – but was outwitted by the Man and the Dog who chase him to this day.
  • The Butterfly That Stamped – location: presumably the ‘Holy Land’. A story about Solomon, son of King David, but styled Suleiman-bin-Daoud and so sounding like he is out of the Arabian Nights, and his nine hundred and ninety-nine quarrelsome wives who are thrown into mortal terror when the king has his djinns throw the palace a thousand miles into the air to please a butterfly who is trying to assert his authority over his wife; all observed by Suleiman’s number one wife, the wise Queen of Sheba.

Kipling’s poems

As was his practice with his short stories for adults (in a habit that his biographer, Charles Carrington says he copied from the American author, Emerson) Kipling prefaces or follows each story with a poem, which comments directly or obliquely on the main action. Thus the poem at the end of the first Neolithic story (and which reveals the location is near the place which, many millenia later, will become Guildford):

THERE runs a road by Merrow Down—
A grassy track to-day it is
An hour out of Guildford town,
Above the river Wey it is.

Here, when they heard the horse-bells ring,
The ancient Britons dressed and rode
To watch the dark Phoenicians bring
Their goods along the Western Road.

And here, or hereabouts, they met
To hold their racial talks and such—
To barter beads for Whitby jet,
And tin for gay shell torques and such.

But long and long before that time
(When bison used to roam on it)
Did Taffy and her Daddy climb
That down, and had their home on it.

Then beavers built in Broadstone brook
And made a swamp where Bramley stands:
And bears from Shere would come and look
For Taffimai where Shamley stands.

The Wey, that Taffy called Wagai,
Was more than six times bigger then;
And all the Tribe of Tegumai
They cut a noble figure then!

The most obvious reflection on the Just So poems is how little they differ from Kipling’s ‘adult’ poems, in form – chunky ballads with full rhymes – or tone – a kind of full-square, unsubtle ballad style which can be understood at first reading (or hearing).

Only the absence of booming thees and thous and addresses to Kings and Queens and Powers tells you it’s not Kipling in full Imperial mode – and the inclusion of words like ‘Daddy’ indicate its childish audience. Broadly speaking, Kipling’s poetry is better than his prose – it does what it sets out to do more completely, whereas a lot of the tales don’t quite deliver on their initial promise.

Kipling’s illustrations

The inclusion of Kipling’s own illustrations is a mixed blessing since they, also, like the man himself, feel rather crabbed and cranky – they don’t have a flowing lightness when depicting people or animals. His style does work, in my opinion, when it’s depicting its subjects in a deliberately stylised way or decorative. So my favourite was the least realistic, the depiction of a hypothetical Stone Age tusk on which the story of Taffy’s Neolithic misunderstanding is carved. Several of the images depicting animals and people also include more stylised decorative elements, the former not so good, the latter excellent.

1. An example of a purely figurative image – the whale swallowing the mariner: not great.

Kipling's illustration of the whale swallowing the mariner

Kipling’s illustration of the whale swallowing the mariner

2. A mixed image. In the top part the djinn is giving the camel his hump – both elaborately but not persuasively drawn, while the author has to explain that the strange piece of waving fabric is the ‘magic’ carrying the hump onto the camel’s back. In the lower panel as a more decorative relief showing the mountains north of Arabia (with a detail showing Mount Ararat with Noah’s ark resting on it). To me, this is a more pleasing because it is setting out to be a more decorative, semi-abstract, less naturalistic image – and it succeeds.

Kipling's illustration of the camel getting his hump

Kipling’s illustration of the camel getting his hump

3. And his illustration of the Neolithic tusk on which the story of Taffimai Metallumai is carved, which I find most pleasing of all because it has abandoned naturalistic depiction for the jokey primitivism of the tusk, set against the backdrop of the ancient runes.

The story of Taffimai Metallumai carved on an old tusk

The story of Taffimai Metallumai carved on an old tusk

Related links

Other Kipling reviews

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