Rewards and Fairies by Rudyard Kipling (1910)

Take of English earth as much
As either hand may rightly clutch.
In the taking of it breathe
Prayer for all who lie beneath —
Not the great nor well-bespoke,
But the mere uncounted folk
Of whose life and death is none
Report or lamentation.
Lay that earth upon thy heart,
And thy sickness shall depart!

(A Charm)

Introduction

The book This is the sequel to the classic children’s book, Puck of Pook’s Hill (1906). Both consist of short stories in which Shakespeare’s Puck, last of ‘the People of the Hills’, introduces two nice young children, Dan and Una, to figures from English history, personages who tend to gossip and witter on before eventually getting round to telling a, by and large rather hard-to-follow, ‘story’. There are ten such tales in Rewards – which Kipling worked on from 1906 to 1910 – as well as 24 poems which are, frankly, much more accessible and, as a result, much more enjoyable.

The era The Edwardian era (1901-1910) saw a flourishing of children’s literature – Beatrix Potter published the first of her tales, about Peter Rabbit, in 1902; Peter Pan first appeared in a 1904 play; The Wind In the Willows 1908; E. Nesbit’s The Phoenix and the Carpet in 1904, The Railway Children in 1906. After the heady Imperialist rhetoric surrounding the Boer War, the post-war years saw a retreat into fantasy, children’s and rural writing, all trends epitomised in the Puck books.

The title is taken from a poem by Richard Corbet (1582-1635), which laments the passage of the fairy people out of England, scared by the religious strife under Queen Elizabeth I and especially James I (1603 – 1625), namely the rise of the disruptive Puritans.

Witness those rings and roundelays
Of theirs, which yet remain,
Were footed in Queen Mary’s days
On many a grassy plain;
But since of late, Elizabeth,
And later, James came in,
They never danced on any heath
As when the time hath been.

(Kipling had described this flight of the fairies out of England in the penultimate story in Puck of Pook’s Hill, ‘Dymchurch Flit’ – where it was wonderfully illustrated by Arthur Rackham.)

The stories

1. Cold Iron – Dan and Una are older than in the previous book – symbolised by the fact that they are now boots!, boots which have iron nails in them. Puck explains that the fairy folk can’t abide ‘cold iron’ and tells the story of how he stole a human child and gave it to the fairy people – Sir Huon and his wife Lady Esclairmonde – to raise. As he grew, Puck took the growing lad roistering until they got into so much trouble that Sir Huon and his wife forbade him the boy’s company, soon after which the boy picks up a slave’s collar made and left in his path deliberately to snare him by old Thor, the blacksmith. By touching it the boy becomes doomed to becoming a servant to the humans. Eerie and strange. I enjoy Kipling’s evocations of the pagan/Saxon/Norse gods.

2. Gloriana – Dan and Una go up to their secret base in the woods and bump into Gloriana, Queen Elizabeth I, who tells them a story about being hosted at a nearby country house where a fight breaks out between two brothers who she forces to make peace and then offers a mission to Virginia, in America, to forestall what she thinks might be an attack by forces of King Philip of Spain. The boys and their fleet are never heard of again: did she do right? The characterisation of Elizabth is beguiling and strange, an uncertain but decisive woman trapped by her duties.

She took off her cloak slowly, and stood forth in dove-coloured satin, worked over with pearls that trembled like running water in the running shadows of the trees. Still talking — more to herself than to the children — she swam into a majestical dance of the stateliest balancings, the naughtiest wheelings and turnings aside, the most dignified sinkings, the gravest risings, all joined together by the elaboratest interlacing steps and circles. They leaned forward breathlessly to watch the splendid acting.

3. The Wrong Thing – Dan is carving a model boat in the workshop of the village handyman, Mr Springett, when both are surprised by the arrival of Hal o’ the Draft, the draughtsman and artist we met in the story of the same name in the first volume. As in most Kipling stories the two old blokes fall to yarning and shaking their heads about the modern world – in this instance lamenting the rise of ‘unions’ with their damn-fool insistence that a man be a specialist and not a Jack-of-all-trades.

Only after a lot of this yarning do we get to Hal’s story, in which he is apprenticed to a demanding Italian master of Works in Oxford, Torrigiano. He is commissioned by an employee of the king’s to design a relief for the bow of a new ship, all Neptunes and dolphins – a warship which his foreign girlfriend, Catherine of Castile, wants the king to give her as a pleasure boat.

But Hal is not very happy with his design and Torrigiano mocks it to pieces. So when he’s called along to a local tavern to meet a more senior king’s official to discuss it, Hal says it would cost a good £30 to create and gild, and criticises his own design, adding that in any case it won’t stand up to hard wear at sea. The official is persuaded to scrap it, laughs in relief that Hal has saved him some thirty pound in expense, picks up a nearby rusty sword and, to Hal’s amazement, knights him. For it is the king, Henry VII, himself! Who then exits, leaving Hal stunned.

And moprtified that the king knighted him – not for the excellent chapel and carvings and statues he’s building for him – but for saving him £30 and (also) helping him get one over on a woman he obviously doesn’t like. For the wrong thing!

Meanwhile, Hal had an enemy among the other architects and designers, a vengeful man named Benedetto whose work Hal had criticised once or twice and who had taken it very personally. This Benedetto has crept up behind Hal in the king’s chamber, and now seizes him and puts his knife to his throat, insisting that Hal tell his story before he kills him. So Hal tells him the story of the bad Neptune design for the ship and how he talked the official out of using it and how the official turned out to be the king – and Benedetto bursts out laughing and is so overcome with mirth that he puts his knife away, puts his arm round Hal’s shoulders, and the two become best friends ever since.

Back in ‘the present’, in the frame story, Hal and Mr Springett laugh long and hard at this, and then old Mr Springett tells his own story of how he built an elaborate blue-brick stables for a local lord of the manor. When the rich man’s hoity-toity wife – fresh down from ‘Lunnon’ – asked Springett if he could create a ha-ha (i.e. a ditch) across the main lawn Springett said, ‘Aw no, me lady, there be so any springs around here you’d end up flooding the park.’ Which wasn’t true but he didn’t want to go to the bother of digging it. So the wife dropped the idea and, later, the Lord of the Manor came round and paid Springett a tenner in gratitude – he didn’t want a ha-ha and is delighted that Springett put the kibosh on it. But no mention of the beautiful tiled stables which Springett has laboured so long over.

Thus both Hal and old Springett were rewarded for ‘the wrong thing’, not the thing they thought was important – chapel, stables – but what their masters thought was important – saving £30 and abandoning the ha-ha idea. Both, as it happens, also involved helping the lords get one over on their womenfolk…

‘Stories’ like this seem to come from a sense of human nature and shared values that is so alien to our 21st century sensibilities that they are difficult to relate to.

4. Marklake Witches – Una is learning how to milk cows with Mrs Vincey, the farmer’s wife at Little Lindens, when out of nowhere appears an imperious young lady in historical outfit who calls herself Miss Philadelphia and starts prattling on at length about everything and nothing like so many Kipling characters. Eventually her prattle about her mother and her father and her nurse, Old Cissie, settles down into the time Cissie stole three silver spoons and gave them to Jerry Gamm, the Witchmaster on the Green, and Miss Philly went to get them back. Jerry Gamm returned them readily enough, but gave her a stick of maple wood and told her to prop her window open with it and say prayers five times a day to get rid of her spitting cough, which the ‘proper’ doctor, Dr Break, can’t seem to do anything about.

There’s also a French prisoner of war, René staying locally, who is himself training to be a doctor and after curing the Lord of the manor, is given more freedom than most of the prisoners. Miss Philly climbs into an oak tree overlooking Jerry’s garden and is surprised to find Jerry and René chatting away like old friends and trying out a kind of trumpet which René has whittled, putting it against each others’ chests and listening. (It is in fact an early version of the stethoscope.) In the middle of this scene, fat Dr Break and a deputation of drunk villagers arrive, claiming Jerry has been bewitching them, putting the trumpet against their chests and leaving a ‘bewitched’ red mark.

René leaps to his feet and exchanges hard words with Dr Break, who replies in kind, which prompts the hot-blooded Frenchman to challenge him to a duel. The villagers run off in a fright, and just as René is wrestling Dr Break to the ground up ride Philly’s father and Arthur Wellesly, head of the garrison at nearby Hastings (and, we the readers know, the future Duke of Wellington). Startled by their appearance Philly falls out of the tree at the adults’ feet and they all burst into laughter.

The Duke is invited by Philly’s father to dinner that evening at the Hall, along with René and Dr Break, and here Miss Philly sings them a sad song about a man who falls in love with a fading flower although he knows that it will die and leave him pining. To her surprise all four men present are reduced to sobs and tears. What she doesn’t realise, but the alert reader has come to understand from her persistent coughing and from some remarks of René and Jerry which she overheard but didn’t understand – is that all the adults know she is dying of incurable tuberculosis. Hence these four strong men breaking down as she sings such a soulful song about death.

This simple technique – the fallible narrator not realising what the adults are talking about – is a rare touch of ‘literary effect’ among Kipling’s stories.

5. The Knife and the Naked Chalk – Una and Dan go on holiday to a cottage on the South Downs. They get to know an old shepherd, called Mr Dudeney, and his dogs Old Jim and Young Jim. There is a bit of banter with him singing the praises of the Sussex Downland, with the children preferring the woods and streams of the Weald. In his excellent biography of Kipling, Charles Carrington often refers to the pre-Raphaelite brilliance of his framing, i.e. the initial descriptions which set the scene in which his various characters then yarn away. And so it is here, with a lovely description of the Sussex Downs on a hot summer’s day.

The air trembled a little as though it could not make up its mind whether to slide into the Pit or move across the open. But it seemed easiest to go downhill, and the children felt one soft puff after another slip and sidle down the slope in fragrant breaths that baffed on their eyelids. The little whisper of the sea by the cliffs joined with the whisper of the wind over the grass, the hum of insects in the thyme, the ruffle and rustle of the flock below, and a thickish mutter deep in the very chalk beneath them. Mr Dudeney stopped explaining, and went on with his knitting. They were roused by voices. The shadow had crept halfway down the steep side of Norton Pit, and on the edge of it, his back to them, Puck sat beside a half-naked man who seemed busy at some work. The wind had dropped, and in that funnel of ground every least noise and movement reached them like whispers up a water-Pipe.

The half-naked man is carving flints. He is a Stone Age man. He sings his titles to Puck:

‘I am of the People of the Worked Flint. I am the one son of the Priestess who sells the Winds to the Men of the Sea. I am the Buyer of the Knife — the Keeper of the People.’

Then he tells Puck how he lost his eye; how as a man of the sheep people who used sharpened flints as cutting tools, he saw one of the wood people use a ‘knife’ to kill one of the ever-threatening Beasts (the wolves who were widespread and dangerous back in those days). So he went on a pilgrimage into the Forest and there met the Knife People and their Holy Woman, who said the Gods demanded that he must lose an eye to gain a knife. And so he let her put out his eye and was given a ‘knife’, and his people given many knives, and the Beasts knew it and kept away.

And so his people came to think he was a God, the god Tyr, and asked him judgements and a young man asked permission to marry his woman, and so he gave his people everything and freed them from the Beasts, but lost his eye and his woman and his peace of mind.

6. Brother Square-Toes – Puck appears with a local, nicknamed ‘Pharaoh’, who lived during the 1790s. He was a smuggler and Kipling lays on a lot of information and slang about Sussex smuggling families, techniques and so on. One night he’s out on a smuggling run, when his ship is run over by a French ship bound for the States, which he manages to scramble aboard before  his own vessel sinks.

And so he’s taken all the way to Philadelphia where he finds crowds protesting in the streets and follows a Red Indian – Red Jacket – into a house where he falls in with a white trader named Toby (Apothecary Tobias Hirte). All three go up into the hills to meet another Indian, Cornplanter, and Pharaoh spends enough time with them that he becomes adopted as a fellow Red Indian. More facts and info about Native Americans.

The main scene in this convoluted ‘story’ comes when the Indians and Pharaoh go back to Philadelphia to hear George Washington give his decision about the Big Issue of the Day: should or shouldn’t America join the French in war against the British? Washington, or ‘Big Hand’, as he’s known to the Indians, says No.

Washington is depicted as a special friend of the Indians, and shares with the Indians the knowledge that being a leader is tough, when you’re surrounded by ambassadors (the French ambassador in this instance) and other special interests (businessmen, jingo politicians) all trying to jockey you into their point of view.

And it’s in this context – Washington being a firm, clear-sighted leader – that Kipling ends the story with by far his most famous poem, If.

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise;

If you can dream — and not make dreams your master;
If you can think — and not make thoughts your aim,
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools;

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings — nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And — which is more — you’ll be a Man, my son!

7. ‘A Priest in spite of himself’ – Follows on from the previous story. Pharaoh Lee, back in Philadelphia, meets a battered French émigré begging in the street. Pharaoh rescues him from an angry mob and takes him back to Toby’s place where, over a few drinks, the battered man unwinds and gives indications of being more educated, grand and noble than he seems. Pharaoh sees him on subsequent occasions – comes across him gambling with loaded dice – and learns that he is Count Talleyrand, former Ambassador from the French King to Britain, who managed the feat of becoming Ambassador to the new, revolutionary French regime to Britain, until the disgusted Brits chucked him out.

Talleyrand hears that Pharaoh heard what George Washington told the Red Indians in the previous story and is desperate to find out what Washington told the French ambassador, Genêt, about the possibility of the Americans coming in on the French side in the war. This information would be gold dust; if he could take it back to the revolutionary regime it would restore his position. But Pharaoh refuses to disclose what he has heard despite the offer of a massive 500 dollars. As so often, what counts for Kipling is fidelity, loyalty, honour.

After returning from a sojourn with his Indian friends up country, Pharaoh learns that Talleyrand left him the 500 dollars anyway. He invests in horses, then buys a cargo of tobacco and a sailing ship to take it to Britain – starved of baccy by a French blockade. But Pharaoh’s ship is seized by a French ship. It is confiscated in a french harbour and the cargo of baccy shipped to Paris for the authorities to dispose of. Pharaoh, with all his worldly goods invested in the cargo of baccy, follows it to Paris where – by an extraordinary coincidence – he once again encounters Talleyrand, now restored to favour and riding in a carriage with none other than Napoleon Bonaparte!

This allows Kipling to give us a pen portrait of the little Corsican general, as he is invited into their palace, observes the relationship between the little emperor and the canny diplomat, and the story ends with the surprising twist that Talleyrand makes Napoleon give Pharaoh back his ship and double the price of his confiscated cargo.

In case it wasn’t obvious before, by this stage it is clear that there is little or no magic and no fairies whatsoever in this ‘fairy’ book. Instead it is a fairly thorough rummage through Great Figures from History.

8. The Conversion of St Wilfrid The children are in the village church while local craftsmen fix the bells, particularly ‘Old Mr Kidbrooke’ (it’s noticeable how many of the locals are ‘old’ so-and-so, giving a kind of insistent sense of their antiquity and venerableness). An old lady is practicing the organ giving a thread which underpins the ‘frame’. A shadowy figure at the altar stands and reveals himself to be Wilfrid, Saint of Sussex, and Archbishop of York (633-709), chaperoned – as all these historical personages are – by Puck. There is a great deal of detail – as usual – about different hymn tunes, how they sound to the children, about old memorials in the church and so on – before we get anywhere near a ‘story’.

This is: Wilfred, his chaplain Eddi, and a well-educated pagan named Meon, go out in Meon’s boat a-fishing. A storm comes up and wrecks them on a rock off the coast. After surviving a day and a night on the rock, Meon’s tame seal, Padda, finds them, brings them fish to eat, then swims to the mainland and attracts some of Meon’s people out to the rock to rescue them. While they were out on the rock shivering, Meon asked Wilfred whether he should abandon his pagan gods and call on the Christian god for help. Wilfred said, ‘No, cleave to the faith of your ancestors’. And, after they’re rescued, Meon is so impressed by this example of Wilfred’s integrity under duress, that he – Meon – chooses, of his own free will, to convert to Christianity.

I tell you now that a faith which takes care that every man shall keep faith, even though he may save his soul by breaking faith, is the faith for a man to believe in. So I believe in the Christian God, and in Wilfrid His Bishop, and in the Church that Wilfrid rules.

And then – Wilfred is gone in a flash! – like all the personages Puck presents, and the children – having, as usual, been administered the leaves which make them forget the ‘magic’ incident – forget the whole ting, and end the ‘story’ enjoying the thrilling sound of the organ playing a grand tune in the dark and atmospheric church.

Convoluted and overstuffed with detail as most of the stories are, Kipling excels at the gentle introduction and then gentle postlude to each tale. He himself referred to them as the ‘frames’ for the yarns, and they’re often the most accessible and therefore enjoyable bits.

9. A Doctor of Medicine The children are playing hide-and-seek with bicycle lamps after dark when Puck arrives with the Jacobean herbalist and astrologer Nicholas Culpeper (1616 – 1654). Culpeper is portrayed as a comic figure, proud of his ‘exquisite knowledge’ but in reality full of outrageously tendentious twaddle about ailments being caused by elements loyal to Mars and combated by plants loyal to Venus, and so on. As usual the description in the ‘framing’, the setting of the story, is much the best thing.

Their shadows jumped and slid on the fruit-tree walls. They filed out of the garden by the snoring pig-pound and the crooning hen-house, to the shed where Middenboro the old lawn-mower pony lives. His friendly eyes showed green in the light as they set their lamps down on the chickens’ drinking-trough outside, and pushed past to the hay-mow. Mr Culpeper stooped at the door.

We learn that Culpeper was a strong Puritan, very much against the King during the Civil War. There is a lot of confusing detail about who has loaned the King what, which Culpeper discovers, or overhears, when he’s shot and taken prisoner at the King’s stronghold of Oxford. Once healed, Culpeper is released and goes with a friend to his village nearby which they discover to be in the grip of the plague. Here, through a series of preposterous and deluded calculations based on ancient lore about Mars and Venus, Culpeper suggests a policy of killing all the rats (creatures of the Moon) which is, in fact, the key to quelling the plague. Thus through completely bogus medieval superstitious reasoning, he stumbles on the true remedy, the villager kill the rats and cleanse and block up all their hidey-holes, and the plague abates.

10. Simple Simon The children go to watch half-a-dozen men and a team of horses extracting a forty-foot oak log from a muddy hollow. Suddenly Puck is among them and introducing a stranger, Simon Cheyneys, shipbuilder of Rye Port. Through a blizzard of circumstantial detail, local dialect and references back to a story in Puck of Pook’s Hill, a story of sorts emerges.

It transpires that Simon knew young Francis Drake when he was learning sailing in Kent and round the coast to Sussex; that they were both in a boat which came under half-hearted attack from a Spanish ship which they met in the channel, that ‘Frankie’ carried the wounded Simon ashore and to his aunt’s house to be treated for a wound received.

Then their paths diverge and Drake circumnavigates the world and goes on to become a famous man. Then the story jumps twenty years to the year of the Armada (1588) when Simon and his aunt hear that Drake is commanding the English fleet opposing the Spanish. He realises that, by the time the English ships get to the Sussex coast, chances are they’ll be low on ammunition. So Simon and his Aunt load up his ship –

We was ballasted on cannon-shot of all three sizes; and iron rods and straps for his carpenters; and a nice passel of clean three-inch oak planking and hide breech-ropes for his cannon, and gubs of good oakum, and bolts o’ canvas, and all the sound rope in the yard.

… and sail out into the English fleet. Simon and his Aunt ignore – and I think this is the point of the story – they ignore requests and then threats from all the other ships and senior admirals they sail past to give them these supplies, and hold out until they find Drake’s ship and hand over all the goods in person to him. Drake swings down into Simon’s schooner and kisses him in front of all his men.

“Here’s a friend that sticketh closer than a brother!” he says.

These provisions, it is implied, will give the impetus Drake needs to drive the Spanish fleet into harbour in the Low Country and then send in fireships to devastate it. Loyalty is not only a moral virtue in itself – it saves the day. It is Simon’s loyalty to a comrade which saves England and freedom.

11. The Tree of Justice This is quite an intense and moving story, told in Kipling’s usual convoluted manner. The children are introduced again to Sir Richard Dalyngridge who tells a story involving Hugh the Saxon – both familiar from a set of three stories in Puck of Pook’s Hill.

It is the reign of King Henry I (1100 to 1135) and he is in the woods hunting, with local Saxon villagers acting as beaters. One among the beaters is a lot older and, apparently, deranged and calls out threats against the king. The story focuses on the way the King’s jester, Rahere, establishes his ascendancy over the king and then explains to a cowed assembly of nobles that the white-haired, one-eyed old man is none other than Harold Godwinson, the former King Harold, supposed killed at the Battle of Hastings, but who survived and has been wandering his lost kingdom for nigh on forty years, berating himself for all his failures.

In the final pages Rahere is able to show to the old man that the current king and his nobles do not mock him nor blame him.

‘“Hearken,” said Rahere, his arm round Harold’s neck. “The King — his bishops — the knights — all the world’s crazy chessboard neither mock nor judge thee. Take that comfort with thee, Harold of England!”

And Harold is able to die a happy man, supported by the loyal Hugh the Saxon, one of the first historical personages we met back in the first story of Puck, who now rounds the whole series off as an exemplar of the virtue which all these stories promote with growing emphasis – loyalty unto death.


Where are the fairies?

The cover of the Penguin Children’s Classic edition of Puck of Pook’s Hill features a detail from a late Victorian painting of fairies. After all, Rewards and Fairies has the word ‘fairies’ in the title. And yet there are no fairies at all in either book. What there is is lots of people – people from historical times, it’s true, but very flesh-and-blood people whose stories contain barely a shred of magic, focusing instead on all-too-human incidents and concerns.

In fact, the average reader might tend to associate fairies with lightness and deftness, whereas the stories come over as incredibly heavy in at least four respects:

  1. Jargon They are packed to overflowing with Kipling’s delight in the slang, historic speech, technical terms and specialist knowledge of whichever period the character is from.
  2. Gossip The first half of all of them is generally chat and banter and gossip and yarning with Puck about this and that incident from the past – before they get anywhere near an actual ‘story’.
  3. Convoluted The stories themselves are often so convoluted as to be hard to follow – the story of Pharaoh’s smuggling activities, wreck aboard a French warship, arrival in America, adoption by a Red Indian tribe and climactic scene with George Washington, is enough material for a novel and feels very compressed.
  4. Moralising Last and most important – all the stories point a moral. The Puck books are extremely moralising – they preach the virtues of comradeship and loyalty, whether to one’s fellow centurions, to the friends one makes in dangerous times, or to the old gods. Over and again Kipling rams home the message that it is vital, it is the only thing in life, to stay loyal and to stay true.

Related links

A big thank you to the University of Adelaide for making most of Kipling’s works available online in such a stylish design, and to the comprehensive notes on The Kipling Society’s website.

Other Kipling reviews

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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