Just So Stories by Rudyard Kipling
Introduced by Matthew Ward, owner of Back in BA Hostel in Buenos Aires and a regular visitor to Hay-on-Wye
This, O my Best Beloved is a story – a new and wonderful story – a story quite different from the other stories …. Now attend all over again, and listen!
(The Butterfly That Stamped)
The Just So Stories are childhood for me. The wonder and joy of discovering how the animals came into being, and why they are Just So. Kipling’s world of magic, mystery and word play were so captivating – and still are – and it never ceases to amaze me how he managed to blend mysticism, folklore, history and biology into his very own creation myths. My grandmother used to read them to me, and since she also had an Indian Colonial upbringing, I sometimes felt she, and not Kipling, was the one who had created these exotic stories.
Hear and attend and listen; for this befell and behappened and became and was, O my Best Beloved, when all the Tame animals were wild.
(The Cat that Walked By Himself)
The stories are mostly about how animals have developed certain physical or behavioural characteristics; such as the fierce mood and wrinkled skin of the Rhinoceros who is being punished by the parsee-man for eating his cake:
Them that takes cakes which the parsee-man bakes, makes dreadful mistakes
(How the Rhinoceros Got His Skin)
There are also lots of references to a child’s world of right and wrong, good and bad behaviour (the stories were originally told to Kipling’s young daughter at bed time); the ship-wrecked mariner who had his mummy’s leave to paddle; the lazy camel; the elephant and it’s ‘satiable curiosity.
In the High and Far-Off Times the Elephant, O Best Beloved, had no trunk…. he came to banks of the great grey-green, greasy Limpopo River, all set about with fever-trees, precisely as the Kolokolo Bird had said.
(The Elephant’s Child)
But the real joy is in the language. Kipling plays with words and concepts in a way that stick with you. Phrases from these stories will accompany me for the rest of my life: they are beautiful, whimsical, magical.
In the sea once upon a time, O best beloved, there was a whale, and he ate fishes. He ate the starfish and the garfish, and the crab and the dab, and the skate and his mate, and the makereel and the pickerel, and the really truly twirly-whirly eel
There you will find… one ship-wrecked mariner who, it is only fair to tell you, is a man of infinite-resource-and-sagacity… with nothing to wear except a pair of blue canvass breaches and a pair of suspenders (you must particularly remember the suspenders O Best Beloved)
(How the Whale got his Throat)
The stories are also peppered with Kipling’s own illustrations which are wonderfully detailed – and described with extensive footnotes – which show the amount of thought he put into these children’s tales – and his own joy in their creation.
These stories should be in every household that has a child – inner child or otherwise.
‘… an animal came out of the deep blue sea and ate up all the food in three mouthfuls… ‘O King live for ever! I am the smallest of thirty-thousand brothers… We heard you were going to feed all the animals in all the world, and my brothers sent me to ask when dinner would be ready.’
(The Butterfly that Stamped)
The Just So Stories are available to read in full online here: