My rating: 7.5/10
Having been familiar with the most popular of these stories since childhood – The Elephant’s Child standing out in my memory, for it was read aloud to me a great number of times; I can clearly hear in my head the words “great, grey-green, greasy Limpopo River” deliciously rolled out in all their alliterative glory in my mother’s quietly precise voice – I of course acquired a volume to read to my own wee children.
And not just any old edition, but this deluxe Folio Society version, complete with the author’s original illustrations, chatty descriptions of the drawings, and abysmally cringe-inducing poems. And obviously unexpurgated, too, which I discovered as I read them aloud, requiring some think-fast editing to deal with little things such as this passage, from How the Leopard Got his Spots. Rolling along nicely, we all are, until we reach the last line in this passage, and oh, golly! – now how to slide through that one?! The clever reader-alouder becomes adept at looking a little way ahead and editing on the fly after one or two experiences like this.
…Zebra moved away to some little thorn-bushes where the sunlight fell all stripy, and Giraffe moved off to some tallish trees where the shadows fell all blotchy.
‘Now watch,’ said the Zebra and the Giraffe. ‘This is the way it’s done. One—two—three! And where’s your breakfast?’
Leopard stared, and Ethiopian stared, but all they could see were stripy shadows and blotched shadows in the forest, but never a sign of Zebra and Giraffe. They had just walked off and hidden themselves in the shadowy forest.
‘Hi! Hi!’ said the Ethiopian. ‘That’s a trick worth learning. Take a lesson by it, Leopard. You show up in this dark place like a bar of soap in a coal-scuttle.’
‘Ho! Ho!’ said the Leopard. ‘Would it surprise you very much to know that you show up in this dark place like a mustard-plaster on a sack of coals?’
‘Well, calling names won’t catch dinner,’ said the Ethiopian. ‘The long and the little of it is that we don’t match our backgrounds. I’m going to take Baviaan’s advice. He told me I ought to change; and as I’ve nothing to change except my skin I’m going to change that.’
‘What to?’ said the Leopard, tremendously excited.
‘To a nice working blackish-brownish colour, with a little purple in it, and touches of slaty-blue. It will be the very thing for hiding in hollows and behind trees.’
So he changed his skin then and there, and the Leopard was more excited than ever; he had never seen a man change his skin before.
‘But what about me?’ he said, when the Ethiopian had worked his last little finger into his fine new black skin.
‘You take Baviaan’s advice too. He told you to go into spots.’
‘So I did,’ said the Leopard. ‘I went into other spots as fast as I could. I went into this spot with you, and a lot of good it has done me.’
‘Oh,’ said the Ethiopian, ‘Baviaan didn’t mean spots in South Africa. He meant spots on your skin.’
‘What’s the use of that?’ said the Leopard.
‘Think of Giraffe,’ said the Ethiopian. ‘Or if you prefer stripes, think of Zebra. The find their spots and stripes give them perfect satisfaction.’
‘Umm,’ said the Leopard. ‘I wouldn’t look like Zebra—not for ever so.’
‘Well, make up your mind,’ said the Ethiopian, ‘because I’d hate to go hunting without you, but I must if you insist on looking like a sun-flower against a tarred fence.’
‘I’ll take spots, then,’ said the Leopard; ‘but don’t make ’em too vulgar-big. I wouldn’t look like Giraffe—not for ever so.’
‘I’ll make ’em with the tips of my fingers,’ said the Ethiopian. ‘There’s plenty of black left on my skin still. Stand over!’
Then the Ethiopian put his five fingers close together (there was plenty of black left on his new skin still) and pressed them all over the Leopard, and wherever the five fingers touched they left five little black marks, all close together. You can see them on any Leopard’s skin you like, Best Beloved. Sometimes the fingers slipped and the marks got a little blurred; but if you look closely at any Leopard now you will see that there are always five spots—off five fat black finger-tips.
‘Now you are a beauty!’ said the Ethiopian. ‘You can lie out on the bare ground and look like a heap of pebbles. You can lie out on the naked rocks and look like a piece of pudding-stone. You can lie out on a leafy branch and look like sunshine sifting through the leaves; and you can lie right across the centre of a path and look like nothing in particular. Think of that and purr!’
‘But if I’m all this,’ said the Leopard, ‘why didn’t you go spotty too?’
‘Oh, plain black’s best for a nigger,’ said the Ethiopian…
So racist bits aside – and there are a few here and there in many of the stories, in a very era-expected sort of way – these have become so much a part of our popular culture with their instantly recognizable tag lines that they are well worth passing along to children and grandchildren.
The Just So stories were originally written for Kipling’s young daughter Josephine, who died of pneumonia at the tragically tender age of seven in 1899; several years later the stories, which had been published singly from 1897 onward, were assembled into this collection. They are written as scripted read-aloud narratives; one can hear an avuncular fatherly voice rolling them out; the repetition and slangy contractions are distinctive and memorable, though sometimes a bit hard to read out loud with a straight face and sober tone.
A few of the stories are over-long and rather hard going; this is a collection which requires some serious editing if being shared with a young audience, but it rewards the older reader’s full attention once the little ones have left the room, for its period atmosphere and the vision it gives of the time when the stories were written. Lift a sardonic eyebrow over the worst of the politically incorrect bits, but spare a thought too for the all-too-common sorrow of the bereaved parent; Kipling’s “O Best Beloved” small daughter is a ghostly presence throughout.
- How the Whale got his Throat ~ Never swallow whole a ship-wrecked Mariner, for he may be a man of infinite-resource-and-sagacity.
- How the Camel Got his Hump ~ An awful warning to the perpetually scornful, especially those who reside where magic-making Djinn reside. Your “Humph!” may turn into a Horrible Hump, claims our narrator.
- How the Rhinoceros got his Skin ~ The tale of the cake-loving Parsee, who favours hat which reflects the rays of the sun in more-than-oriental-splendour, and his perfect revenge on the thieving rhinoceros. (One of our favourites.)
- How the Leopard got his Spots ~ See the excerpt above. A rather glorious tale, but requiring of the parental edit here and there. And I must warn you that if you have the Kipling illustrated version, he comments regarding the illustration that “The Ethiopian was really a negro, and so his name was Sambo.” (!)
- The Elephant’s Child ~ My childhood favourite, what with the elephant’s child getting his revenge on all of his spanking multi-species relatives. A slightly annoying repetition of ” ‘satiable curtiosity” (yes, the misspelling is deliberate) challenges the reader throughout, but as a treat one gets to roll out “great, grey-green, greasy Limpopo” just as many times.
- The Sing-Song of Old Man Kangaroo ~ Yellow-Dog Dingo is fated to chase Kangaroo, and Kangaroo had to run and run and run. Neither could stop, they simply “had to!” The moral: Those who wish to be really and truly popular and wonderfully run after may rue their desire.
- The Beginning of the Armadilloes ~ This was one that was something of a miss. An Amazonian turtle and hedgehog confound a predacious Jaguar by morphing into armadilloes.
- How the First Letter was Written ~ A Primitive father and daughter – very early Britons indeed – originate hieroglyphic writing, with hilariously confusing consequences.
- How the Alphabet was Made ~ An extension of the previous story, with detailed descriptions of how the letters of the alphabet were made. Sad to say, perhaps, too long and descriptive. We all lost interest in this one, and as a read-aloud it was a dismal failure, clever illustrations to no avail.
- The Crab that Played with the Sea ~ A crabby King Crab plays hob with sea levels to the great detriment of all seashore and ocean creatures. The Great Magician disciplines the Crab, and turns responsibility for the rise and fall over to the Moon. A rather good “origin tale”.
- The Cat that Walked by Himself ~ Our absolute favourite. This was one I read out loud over and over and over. “I am the Cat who walks by himself, and all places are alike to me…” Only to give in to the warmth of the fire and the bowl of milk from the Wife of his Enemy at the end, while still reserving his aloofness, at the cost of eternal feuding with Man and Dog.
- The Butterfly that Stamped ~ Written with an eye to the adult audience, Kipling spins a rather preachy homily about how to keep your wife under proper control, with the help of a handy Djinn.
- The Tabu Tale ~ The father-daughter of First Letter and Alphabet returns with a moralistic lecture on the benefits of growing up, and related responsibilities.
The illustrations in the Folio Edition of Just So Stories are a delightful addition, but the author’s poetry, of which the following is one of the less objectionable examples, not so much. Just couldn’t get through these with a straight face, and they engendered a certain amount of critical sneering, kiddies and grown-ups of this family alike.
The Camel’s hump is an ugly lump
Which well you may see at the Zoo;
But uglier yet is the hump we get
From having too little to do.
Kiddies and grown-ups too-oo-oo,
If we haven’t enough to do-oo-oo,
We get the hump—
The hump that is black and blue!
We climb out of bed with a frouzly head
And a snarly-yarly voice.
We shiver and scowl and we grunt and we growl
At our bath and our boots and our toys;
And there ought to be a corner for me
(And I know there is one for you)
When we get the hump—
The hump that is black and blue!
The cure for this ill is not to sit still,
Or frowst with a book by the fire;
But to take a large hoe and a shovel also,
And dig till you gently perspire;
And then you will find that the sun and the wind,
And the Djinn of the Garden too,
Have lifted the hump—
The horrible hump—
The hump that is black and blue!
I get it as well as you-oo-oo—
If I haven’t enough to do-oo-oo—
We all get hump—
Kiddies and grown-ups too!