How the Just So Stories were Made by John Batchelor review – an origin story of origin stories

A scrupulous account of the brilliance and family tragedy that lies behind Kipling’s joyful collection of animal stories

Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories are often described, O Best Beloved, as creation myths. In 13 tales, more varied in tone and shape than most grownups ever quite remember, Kipling explains how the elephant got his trunk, the leopard his spots and the rhinoceros his saggy, baggy skin. The stories appeared in their final form in 1902 when Kipling was 36 and already a literary star, thanks to the success of Kim and The Jungle Book, both of which drew heavily on his Indian childhood to tell fables of social and emotional maturation. Now here he was, circling back to the shorter forms with which he had started his career, most obviously in his breakthrough collection Plain Tales from the Hills, assembled when he was working as a cub journalist in Lahore in the 1880s.

In this origin story of origins stories, John Batchelor sets out to explain the genesis of Just So. The first three tales – concerning the whale, the camel and the rhinoceros – were conceived as bedtime performances for Kipling’s eldest child, Josephine, and published initially in an American children’s magazine in the 1890s. It is “Effie” who wanted things “just so” in the way that small listeners often do. If her father changed the rhythm, or swapped a word, let alone altered the ending, she would insist that he correct his course until everything was as it was before. From here the phrase “just-so story” came to be used by evolutionary biologists in the 1960s to describe a fictional or fantastical origin yarn that politely yet stubbornly resisted rational challenge. It is so because I say so, O Best Beloved.

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