Secret Library

The Man Who Wrote by Himself: Kipling’s Just So Stories

In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle enjoys Kipling’s classic volume of tales for children

Rudyard Kipling has the dubious honour of being both famous and infamous in modern times. He is infamous for some because of his links with empire and the outdated views he is seen to have promoted regarding the British Empire, particularly in India, where he was born. But he remains one of the most famous writers of his age for The Jungle Book, ‘If-’, ‘Gunga Din’, Kim, Puck of Pook’s Hill, and the Just So Stories. The last of these, it has often been claimed, did for very young children’s literature what The Jungle Book had done for slightly more grown-up children. Moving away from the heavy-handed moralising and the condescending tone found in much Victorian and Edwardian children’s stories, Kipling offered, in the Just So Stories, a witty narrative voice and inventive little tales which talked to children rather than at them.

Until now, I’d always laboured under the belief that these tales were called Just So Stories because they’re about things being the way they are: it’s ‘just so’ that leopards have spots, camels have humps, and so on. But no: it’s only now I realise that they’re ‘just so’ stories because Kipling’s daughter Josephine (known as ‘Effie’), to whom he told many of these tales as bedtime stories, insisted that her father tell the stories to her ‘just so’, or in exactly the words she was used to. As Kipling later wrote of them, ‘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.’

I may have been in the minority in making this mistake. But then in fairness, I was probably influenced by the extended use, particularly in evolutionary biology, of the term ‘just-so story’ to describe a hypothesis which purports to explain – without evidence – how a particular cultural or biological trait came into being. But this use of the phrase was in honour of Kipling, rather than being an existing phrase which Kipling simply adopted as the title for his collection of tales.

And the tales are, in a sense, Lamarckian evolutionary origin-stories. If Lamarck thought that animals evolved with certain features because they inherited traits which their predecessors had cultivated over the course of their lives (rather than through genetic mutation and natural selection, which is the correction Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace provided), then Kipling’s Just So Stories are Lamarck off the leash, with tongue firmly in cheek. ‘How the Whale Got His Throat’ suggests that the whale’s throat is so small compared with the animal’s size because one whale swallowed a mariner, who blocked up the whale’s originally much larger throat to ensure that no further seafarers came a-cropper. ‘How the Camel Got His Hump’ explains that the humble ‘ship of the desert’ (or ‘horse designed by committee’ in Issigonis’s harsh words) got his ‘hump’ as a result of his ‘humph’ – that is, his moaning or ‘humphing’ at having to work, for which he was punished. ‘How the Leopard Got His Spots’ posits that leopards’ spots were originally painted on as a form of camouflage. ‘How the First Letter Was Written’ tells us how a family of cavepeople came up with the art of letter-writing.

Part of what makes the stories such a delight to revisit as an adult is the way Kipling offers them as amusing tales for children which also manage to carry deeper meaning. ‘The Cat That Walked by Himself’, for example, is a charming tale about a cat on one level, but it also hints at broader themes: the evolution of the home, for one, wittily suggesting as it does that the current domestic setup for Homo sapiens and their pet animals was a result of one family living in a cave at some distant point in mankind’s past, with all animals becoming domesticated – except for the cat, who insisted on remaining more independent and going his own way, or ‘walking by himself’. You can enjoy Kipling’s wonderful descriptions of an aloof cat, but you can also marvel at how he uses his story as a way of thinking about why and how domestication came about.

These are stories which encourage young readers to familiarise themselves with big questions: how animals became the way they are, why domestic society is the way it is, and how such a man-made thing as an alphabet is created. Kipling’s stories aren’t a treatise on evolution or the arbitrariness of human language, of course, but they encourage children with an inquisitive mind to start wondering why the world has turned out the way it is – or, if you will, and to make a virtue of my error, why things are ‘just so’.

Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.

3 Comments

  1. To add to the reading list for next year. Just So… I may re-appreciate them

  2. I wish I lived near enough to my granddaughter to read them to her. I loved the sound of them as well as the ideas but I think the listener has to be the right age to really enjoy them. Once a modern child gets to about nine they probably wouldn’t be so receptive. I hope I’m wrong.

  3. I read those when I was young. Interested in your comment about the origin of the title. I didn’t know that.