Tuesday, September 3, 2013

You could very seldom see them, and then only when you knew precisely where to look - cracking the code in the Just So Stories

At time the Jungle Books were clearly books for children, at times something else.  The animal and origin fables in Kipling’s  Just So Stories (1902) aim younger and are therefore more purely childish, not just stories for little children, three or four years old, but stories meant to be read to children.  That is not right either.  They are meant to be performed.

They scuttled for days and days and days till they came to a great forest, 'sclusively full of trees and bushes and stripy, speckly, patchy-blatchy shadows, and there they hid: and after another long time, what with standing half in the shade and half out of it, and what with the slippery-slidy shadows of the trees falling on them, the Giraffe grew blotchy, and the Zebra grew stripy, and the Eland and the Koodoo grew darker, with little wavy grey lines on their backs like bark on a tree trunk; and so, though you could hear them and smell them, you could very seldom see them, and then only when you knew precisely where to look.  (from “How the Leopard Got His Spots”)

That is a pretty long sentence for a book aimed at four year-olds.  But for a ham actor parent, perfect.

My understanding is that the stories mostly have oral origins, Kipling improvising and perfecting a tale for his infant daughter.  At some point the tale was firm enough to be transferred to paper, perhaps even sent to a magazine.  A poem was always added, and a couple of Kipling’s peculiar illustrations.  My favorite running joke is his lament that he is not allowed to use color, that the illos would be much better if he were allowed to use color.  “I think it would look better if you painted the banana-tree green and the Elephant’s Child red.”

I assume that the latter is meant to elicit a squeal from the child:  Daddy, elephants ain’t red!  Thus distracting the youngster from all of the pedagogy embedded in the stories: the vocabulary words(sagacity, comestible), science (neap-tide, equinox), anthropology, and moral lessons (“The rest of the time he picked up the melon rinds that he had dropped on his way to Limpopo – for he was a Tidy Pachyderm”).

Then there are the puzzles.  “The letters round the tusk are magic – Runic magic, - and if you can read them you will find out something rather new” – this from “How the First Letter Was Written.”  I tried I don’t know how many combinations of search terms to get the internet to solve the code for me.  No luck.  The internet is useless.

I had to solve the puzzle myself.  Email me if you want the answer.  It turns out to be kind of meta, a message about cracking the code.

How strange Kipling’s imagination must have been.  How many writers are capable of writing animal fables of any quality at all, or original heroic legends.  Kipling’s mythic imagination is perhaps a clue to his uncertain status.  Myth-makers are supposed to be anonymous, and long dead. 


  1. Try "Just-So Stories" and "runes": I found the solution within seconds. It's not a code, you know, it's just the old Anglo-Saxon runes, or futhorc. But no doubt more fun to crack it yourself!

  2. I find certain texts really do take on a different character when read out loud or perhaps as you observe here, "performed". Of course it is true of much poetry. Lately I have been experimenting with Dickens as I have heard that he advocated reading his work as such.

    Cracking that code must have indeed been fun. I will likely take a crack at it later.

  3. For little kids (and for me - like I read runes), it's also a code. So it is C. S. Lewis with the answer on the internet. Bing completely missed that. Good company.

    Dickens was quite the ham actor himself. I have never read any of his "performance texts," the cut-down version of A Christmas Carol and so on that he performed.

  4. Here's Kipling himself writing it out:

    Damn runes!

  5. Oooh, that is highly neato. I have reverted to a child. But it is.

    I hope the link remains stable. There is some additional Kipling text that is actually of interest. "I, Rudyard Kipling drew this, but as there was no mutton bone in the house I faked the anatomy from memory. RK."

    I love that the book is identified as "THE PROPERTY OF A LADY."

  6. What's particularly meta about using Doug's search terms to find the runes solution is that they take one right back to your post.

  7. Ha! I should have posted a link to the C. S. Lewis, but it was too damn long.

  8. Doug, you restored my faith in the internet, while undermining my faith in Bing.

    Scott - appropriate given the subject. Good. Circles within circles.