“But Still I am the Cat”: The Uneasy Humor of Kipling’s Just So Stories

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Once an essential part of an English-speaking childhood, Kipling’s Just So Stories have fallen out of favor, replaced by the more contemporary wonders of The Hobbit and Harry Potter. Yet these stories are cut from the same cloth as his other children’s books, such as the more enduring The Jungle Books (1894–95), and the later Puck of Pook’s Hill (1906) and its companion, Rewards and Fairies (1910). Certainly the Just So Stories are a looser confederation of tales, each one giving a whimsical explanation for how the natural world came to be, leading up to the invention of writing itself. Yet of all his juvenile works, the Just So Stories best captures the paradox of Kipling’s art in all its wonder and contradiction.

While they superficially appear as charming, if dated fairy tales drawing on the animal lore of The Jungle Books, a closer reading reveals many of Kipling’s pet themes, as well as his desire to assert his English identity after a rootless existence abroad. Along with Puck of Pook’s Hill, the Just So Stories can be read as a sort of ‘primer’ of Englishness, as each one attempts to create a schoolroom mythos of the world as he knew it. Not surprisingly, both books are written for children, and in particular, his own children, reflecting the bedtime ‘lessons’ he might have concocted as an enchanting prelude to sleep.

Despite their picture of domestic bliss, the Just So Stories followed one of the more traumatic experiences of Kipling’s life. The family had to leave their beloved home in Vermont after anti-English sentiment (due to the Venezuelan Crisis of 1895) and threats of violence from his drunken brother-in-law. They settled in Sussex, though soon took an ill-fated trip to South Africa, where Kipling and his daughter, Josephine, caught a severe pneumonia; though Kipling recovered, Josephine died in 1899.

Kipling submerged his sorrow in journalism, reporting on the Second Boer War (1899–1902) and once back in England, began writing his Just So Stories. Each story is addressed to the “Best Beloved” (Josephine), and lovingly transcribes the private language they shared, along with her idiosyncratic pronunciations of grown-up words, such as “’stute” and “’satiable.” As Kipling could never bring himself to speak of his death, these stories were the only testament to how deeply her loss affected him, inspiring him to create art as a posthumous tribute.

Indeed, at times the sense of listening in to private conversations in the Kipling household becomes the work’s main attraction. Throughout, the reader can hear Kipling’s recurring arguments with his daughter, as in the passage from “How the First Letter was Written,” when the father admonishes his daughter, “Taffy…how often have I told you not to use slang? “Awful” isn’t a pretty word” (96). Elsewhere, the stories risk becoming a meditation on Josephine’s voice and character, as when the daughter in the same story defends her drawing (which has been hilariously misinterpreted) to the tribe:

“I wanted the Stranger-man to fetch Daddy’s spear, so I drawded [sic] it…There wasn’t lots of spears. There was only one spear. I drawded it three times to make sure. I couldn’t help it looking as if it stuck into Daddy’s head — there wasn’t room on the birch-bark; and those things that Mummy called bad people are my beavers” (102).

Clearly, this is modeled on an explanation Josephine might have given herself, while her mummy and daddy looked on in helpless hysterics.

Related to this, Kipling makes ready use of creative anachronism in the Just So Stories, much as later writers such as J.R.R. Tolkein and T.H. White would adopt tobacco and beer into their once-upon-a-time worlds. The homespun myths about how things came to be (literally, “just so,” as a father might say to his children), make humorous use of the raw material of the Kiplings’ daily lives. In the very first story, “How the Whale got his Throat,” a Mariner hitches a ride in a whale’s mouth, as the latter announces, “Change here for the Winchester, Ashuelot, Nashua, Keene, and stations on the Fitch-burg Road” (29). As these are all places in Vermont and New Hampshire, the children would have hooted with delight to hear themselves (and their former home) referenced in the story.

Even the common-sense (or child’s sense) explanation of how elephants go their trunks, and leopards their spots, must have come straight from the children’s own minds and voices. In this sense, the Just So Stories are among the most successful translation of childhood play in fiction, capturing how children blend the mundane and the miraculous into stories which — like the folk tradition itself — are designed for repetition.

Of course, for someone of Kipling’s reputation, writing a simple children’s story would never do. All the more so, as his new English environment inspired him, much as Vermont and the hill towns of India had previously done. Despite the wealth of foreign names and locales in the stories, the Just So Stories are of a piece with his more ‘English’ works, which try to ferret out the raw materials of the English character.

When read alongside Stalky and Co. (1899), the stories of his unorthodox education at the United Services College, and those of Puck of Pook’s Hill (1906), tales of the legendary inhabitants of Sussex, the Just So Stories suddenly appear less innocent. Like the Puck stories, Kipling goes back in time to trace the origin of the ‘modern’ world, but always with an English accent. The cleverness the most cunning animals portray is always what he defines in Stalky and Co. as “clever, well considered, and wily, as applied to plans of action; and ‘stalkiness’ was the one virtue Corkran toiled after” (13). Indeed, many of the stories read like Darwin filtered through Beetle, Stalky, and M’Turk (the heroes of Stalky and Co.), as they learn to subdue the Nature to their stalky ideals.

This is most apparent in one of the most overt stories of trickery, “The Beginning of the Armadilloes,” where a jaguar is instructed by his mother that tortoises have to be scooped out of their shells with a paw, while hedgehogs must be dropped into the water to uncoil. However, when the native jaguar meets the two creatures, they baffle him by mangling her instructions until he can no longer distinguish hers’ from theirs’:

“Are you sure of what your Mummy told you?…Perhaps she said that when you uncoil a Tortoise you must shell him out of the water with a scoop, and when you paw a Hedgehog you must drop him on the shell…[or] When you scoop water with your paw you uncoil it with a Hedgehog” (83).

The message in this story, and many others, is clear: being stalky, rather than strong, wins the day. In a book that includes two stories about the invention of language, the entire book is thus a celebration of the stalkiest power on earth, the written word. As the knight Aquila says in “Old Men at Pevensey” (from Puck of Pook’s Hill), “The pen cuts deep. I could never have fetched that grunt out of thee with any sword” (113). Language can fool the gullible, but only words can change the world; a pertinent lesson to children who may have been remiss in their penmanship lessons.

The book also functions as a schoolroom lesson in a more obvious way, by setting each story in a different colonial locale: from Africa, South America, North America, and even Australia, the Just So Stories are an all-inclusive survey of the never-setting light of the British sun. The book bears more than a passing resemblance with Walter Crane’s famous 1886 map of the British Empire, with its representation of the continents flanked by an art-nouveau parade of national subjects: American Indians, Samoans, Indians, and Africans. All are gazing in rapt wonder at the woman sitting astride the lower center of the map: Britannia herself, appearing like Athena with spear and a Union Jack shield. The crowded drawing, beautifully if stereotypically illustrated, mirrors Kipling’s own drawings for the Just So Stories, which are similarly cramped with characters and incident.

The illustration for “The Beginning of the Armadilloes” is entitled “The Manie Mouthes of the Amazons,” and offers a patronizingly colonial depiction of South America, complete with legends such as “Here are hid the Idols of Imoxatlan” and “Sir Malt Vowse having put on hys backe & front pieces after cleaningse of ’em brkynte was here worshipt as a Pagnd by divese sillie Indians” (85).

Clearly, Kipling wasn’t above winning some cheap laughs with his children over the ‘savage’ behavior of their colonial brethren. The less successful stories give in entirely to this sort of treatment, channeling Joel Chandler Harris’ Uncle Remus Stories (1881–1907), with their heavy use of stereotype and dialect. This can be most clearly seen in the wince-inducing, “How the Leopard Got His Spots,” where the leopard takes up with an Ethiopian, whom Kipling stereotypically names “Sambo.”

In the story, both characters learn how to camouflage themselves the better to hunt their prey, with the Ethiopian shedding his skin, snake-like, to emerge pure black — but with some to spare, which he daubs over the leopard’s skin to make spots. When the leopard asks why he didn’t opt for spots instead of being completely (and unsightly?) black, the Ethiopian responds, “Oh, plain black’s best for a n — r” (58). It’s a line that probably got hoots of laughter from his children, since only a “sillie Indian” or a “Sambo” would accept such a fate.

This sense of colonial dominion works its magic over the entire volume, as story after story concerns animals willingly learning to be subservient to Man, their natural superior. This is certainly the theme of “The Cat that Walked by Himself,” where one by one, the dogs, horses, and cows learn to take up Man’s yoke for the boon of safety and civilization. Only the cat refuses, and proves himself the cleverest one of all, by tricking the Woman into allowing him in their cave, and then giving him food and warmth without outright submission. But even the cat bears a penalty for defying his racial superiors: the Man promises to “throw my two boots and my little stone axe…at you whenever I meet you. And so shall all proper Men do after me!” (149).

Like Walter Crane’s map of 1886, all ‘creatures’ have learned to accept the yoke of Britannia. Perhaps Kipling secretly identified more with the cat, who protects Man’s children in exchange for a seat at the fire, but can go on telling itself, “but still I am the Cat who walks by himself, and all places are alike to me” (149). The Just So Stories remains his uneasy compromise with English identity, at once servile, occasionally racist, but always stalky enough to make us forget its artistic ‘sins.’

English professor at East Central University (OK); PhD from Miami University (OH); eternal student and lover of books

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