In the High and Far-off Times there were the …
Just So Stories
How many stories are we talking about?
Twelve plus two.
Why ‘Just So’?
Because they started off as bed-time stories for Kipling’s daughter, Josephine (Effie), and ‘they had to be told just so; or Effie would wake up and put back the missing sentence…’
What are they about?
Most of them could fit under the title that Ted Hughes chose for a slightly similar collection: ‘tales of the early world’. They are home-made fables about how things come to be the way they are: elephants with long trunks, rhinoceroses with wrinkly skins, absolutely supercilious cats… Only one, ‘The Crab that Played with the Sea’ is loosely based on a popular myth – a Malaysian one about why the sea has tides.
When were they first published?
All but one – ‘How the Alphabet was Made’ – appeared originally in periodicals; the first, ‘How the Whale Got his Throat’, came out in 1897 in St. Nicholas , the American monthly that is arguably the greatest magazine ever published for children. The stories were patchily illustrated by artists well-enough known at the time: Oliver Herford, Frank Verbeck, Cecil Aldin etc.
And the book?
Round about 1901 Kipling decided that he would collect the stories in a single volume. Twelve of them were organised into a coherent sequence, roughly from short and playful to longer and more complex. Verses were written to round off each episode (a favourite, and very attractive, dodge which Kipling employed in much of his children’s fiction), and the resultant array was furnished with decorations and full-page pen-and-ink drawings by the author. The book was published as a small quarto by Macmillan in 1902 and has never been out of print, in one form or another, since.
What’s ‘classic’ about all that?
Almost everything – and in a peculiarly indissoluble way. There may not be much unity in the kinds of story that are told – what common ground is there between the mad fancies of the rhinoceros tale and the semi-didacticism of the alphabet one? The dramatic thrust may be uneven: ‘Old Man Kangaroo’ seems a mite laboured alongside ‘The Elephant’s Child’. Words, phrases, authorial comments, and even the talk of mummies and daddies, can give offence to people who are on the look-out to be offended. But the collection as a whole takes on the character of a virtuoso vaudeville performance through the storyteller’s revelling in the mastery of his craft. Some phrases are recognised almost universally: the address to the listener, ‘Oh my Best Beloved’, or the elephant child’s misfortune on the banks of ‘the great, grey-green, greasy Limpopo River’, or the matriarchal jaguar ‘graciously waving her tail’; but every page of the book echoes with jokes and elaborate phrases and school-child colloquialisms that are the gift of a consummate storyteller. ‘How the First Letter was Written’ is not one of the foremost tales in the set, but look at that unreeling of the members of the Tribe of Tegumai with all their accoutrements (p.141 of the standard edition) and relish the author’s amazed judgement of what he has found himself saying: ‘Aren’t those beautiful words, Best Beloved?’
Effie was right enough to demand that the words should always be given ‘just so’, but – uniquely – this applies also to the illustrations. Kipling’s younger daughter, Elsie, remembered ‘the immense pleasure’ that he took in making his drawings for the book (Effie, woefully, had died of pneumonia in 1899 and is memorialized in the stanzas that follow the alphabet story). These drawings though are not mere representations of events but bring their own contribution of jokes and narrative extras, accompanied by long and often deliciously comic annotations. Thus they become integral parts of the storytelling process itself, without which an indispensable dimension to the performance is lost. There may be ‘nine-and-sixty ways of constructing tribal lays’, and every single one of them may be right, but where Just So Stories are concerned no alternative construction can be justified. Ever since the book came out of copyright in the United States and in Britain (where it has now gone back into copyright again) people have been trying to re-illustrate it, either in collected volumes or in picture-book interpretations of single stories. These attempts are hopelessly misconceived and, for the most part, have been incompetently done anyway. ‘Just So’ means ‘Just So’.
And what about the ‘Plus Two’?
Oh, yes – one of these latecomers to the canon was ‘The Tabu Tale’ of 1903 which can now be found in the complete (but shrunken-sized) edition of the stories published by the Folio Society and the British Library. The second one, ‘Ham and the Porcupine’ came out in The Princess Elizabeth Gift Book of 1935 and is too insignificant to bother about.
The illustrations and cover are taken from the edition published jointly in 1991 by The Folio Society and The British Library. Only available by mail order from The Folio Society (tel: 0171 400 4200), price £18.95 + £2.95 p&p
Brian Alderson is Chair of the Children’s Books History Society and the chief children’s book consultant for The Times .
An article by Brian Alderson, documenting and commenting on the illustrations, has been issued as a 28-page pamphlet, Just So Pictures . Copies may be had from Books for Keeps for £5, post free.