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How the stories got their name: Kipling and the origins of the ‘Just-So’ stories

The storyteller has always been a figure of magic, and the circle a magic figure. This is Rudyard Kipling, casting his spell around 1902, the year the Just So Stories for Little Children were published. He is on a liner sailing from Southampton to Cape Town in South Africa, where the Kipling family had taken to spending the winter. It is a haunting image, because what lies behind the Just So Stories is another voyage, across the Atlantic to New York, four years earlier in the winter of 1898-99. Soon after their arrival, both Kipling and his firstborn child, Josephine, fell ill of pneumonia. The father lived; the child died. She was six years old.

The Just So Stories began as bedtime stories told to ‘Effie’; when the first three were published in a children’s magazine, a year before her death, Kipling explained:

. . . in the evening there were stories meant to put Effie to sleep, and you were not allowed to alter those by one single little word. They had to be told just so; or Effie would wake up and put back the missing sentence. So at last they came to be like charms, all three of them,—the whale tale, the camel tale, and the rhinoceros tale.

These are stories of origins: ‘How the Whale got his Throat’, ‘How the Camel got his Hump’, ‘How the Rhinoceros got his Skin’—stories that answer the kinds of question children ask, in ways that satisfy their taste for primitive and poetic justice. After Effie’s death, Kipling added nine others, so the number published in the first edition was twelve—a magic number, as everyone knows. Some were like the first three —‘How the Leopard got his Spots’, ‘The Elephant’s Child’, ‘The Sing-Song of Old Man Kangaroo’—and as a group these stories span the map of the Empire, from the High Veldt to the middle of Australia, from the shores of the Red Sea to the great grey-green, greasy Limpopo River, all set about with fever-trees. Other stories, however (‘The Crab that Played with the Sea’, ‘The Cat that Walked by Himself’), take us to places of myth or fable: the Time of the Very Beginnings, when the Eldest Magician calls on the Animals to come out and play, and talks to a hunchbacked old man who sits in the Moon, spinning a fishing-line with which he hopes one day to catch the world; or the time when the Tame animals were wild, and walked in the Wet Wild Woods by their wild lones, and in which a woman makes the First Singing Magic in the world, gazing at the wonderful marks on the bone of a shoulder of mutton. In these different and darker tales the child’s simplicity is doubled like a garment with adult knowledge.

Kipling on board ship in 1902 en route to South Africa. © National Trust / Charles Thomas.
Kipling on board ship in 1902 en route to South Africa. © National Trust / Charles Thomas.

Children take delight in order and method, in things worked out and resolved, in hierarchy and proper authority. They also delight in rebellion and recalcitrance. The Elephant’s Child returns home after his encounter with the crocodile on the banks of the great grey-green, greasy Limpopo River, all set about with fever-trees, and spanks his entire extended family with his newly-lengthened trunk—the reward, not of virtue and obedience, but of curiosity and undeserved luck. In Kipling the yearning to obey and belong is matched by the yearning to transgress and escape. These yearnings are not falsely ‘balanced’ against each other, but form unstable compounds. The figure of the outsider, Kipling’s great and perennial subject, can never be fully assimilated by any group. The storyteller in the photograph is both within and outside the circle.

On the title page of the first edition he gave to his two surviving children, Kipling crossed out ‘for Little Children’ and wrote ‘for John and Elsie’. But this was not true. Kipling loved these children, and Puck of Pook’s Hill (1906) and Rewards and Fairies (1910) were indeed written for them. They are wonderful books, but they are ‘children’s literature’, and the Just So Stories are something other. They were written for Effie, their genius loci. In ‘Merrow Down’, the poem that follows ‘How the Alphabet was Made’, she is metamorphosed into the goddess of spring, dancing through the fern, her brows bound with bracken-fronds. She is ‘Unfearing, free and fair’, but her father lags far behind, ‘So far she cannot call to him’. (It is an astonishing reversal, for what we would expect him to say is that he cannot hear her—not that she cannot speak.) Like the lame child at the end of Robert Browning’s ‘The Pied Piper’, Kipling is left alone; for the storyteller is always a survivor.

Image Credit: Elephants, CC0 via Pixabay

Recent Comments

  1. Pramila Koparkar

    Kipling’s writings in prose and verse shaped India in more ways than one. His love for the land can be felt through his great poetry and books. Time will never be able to erode the power of his words, come what may. TV and the Internet cannot produce the powerful impact that the had on children. Rarely acknowledged in India, Kipling shaped the mould in which we all grew up. Today on his 150th birth anniversary I honour him. And thanks to Mr.Karlin for a great writeup..

  2. Harish Trivedi

    I am an admirer of Kipling and fully agree that he is a great writer whose work will endure as long as the English language does. But as a fellow Indian I cannot at all agree with Pramilla Koparkar, whose comment above I have just chanced upon, that Kipling “shaped India” and that “we all grew up” under his deep influence and impact. Even now, no more than two or three per cent of Indian children grow up reading anything in English, and only because they belong to the most anglicized little stratum of our society. About 25% of Indians still can’t read at all, and over 70% can read only in their own mother-tongue.In ‘How the Alphabet Was Made’, the alphabet is Western, it’s not Indian. Nor does Karlin mention India even once.

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