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Literature / Just So Stories

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How the elephant got its trunk.
A series of origin stories for children by Rudyard Kipling, first published in 1902. Kipling's Just So Stories are tied with The Jungle Book as being his most famous work. It pretty much set the standard for children's literature in the 20th century.

By the way, they're called "Just So" stories because you have to read them "just so", exactly as it is written, to put children to sleep. Because if you skip over anything, the child will wake up and complain that you missed a part (children do so love rote repetition). Mostly because the meter is so damn hypnotizing it'll relax anyone.

The fables featured in this collection include:

  1. "How the Whale Got His Throat": Once, the whale was a great and greedy predator, who devoured all of the other fishes in the sea. A small 'stute fish suggests he try eating man, and the whale swallows a cast-away sailor. But the sailor torments his stomach so much that the whale spits him out again—but not before the sailor uses his suspenders to wedge a grating in the whale's throat, making him only able to eat tiny things from that day on.
  2. "How the Camel Got His Hump": On the first three days of the world, the camel refuses to do any work, instead rudely muttering "Humph!" when asked. For this, a jinni punishes him by making an ugly great hump of fat grow on his back, and declaring that he can now go for three days without any food. But he has never caught up on the work he skipped, and he is still lazy as ever, so he never will—and now he's spiteful to boot.
  3. "How the Rhinoceros Got His Skin": When a rude rhino comes out of the desert and steals the cake of a beach-dwelling Parsee, the Parsee gets his revenge by waiting until the rhino comes to the beach to bathe and filling his skin—for he can take it off like an overcoat—with stale cake crumbs. The resultant itching makes the rhino rub and scratch until he stretches out his skin into its modern ugly, lumpy, wrinkly form, but because he rubbed off the buttons and still hasn't gotten the crumbs out, he's in a perpetual bad mood.
  4. "How the Leopard Got His Spots": The giraffe, the zebra, and various types of antelope (eland, kudu, hartebeest, bushbuck, and blesbok) flee the sandy yellowish brownish grassy High Veldt into the shifting light of the forest, where they develop new camouflage, in order to escape the hunting Ethiopian and his leopard companion. After following them to the forest, and seeing how well it works, the Ethiopian turns himself black and then paints the leopard with black spots with his fingertips, so they can stalk and hunt the creatures once again.
  5. "The Elephant's Child": A young and curious elephant asks all of his family and adopted relatives lots of questions, which they never answer but instead simply spank him for. He ultimately goes to see a crocodile, but is nearly eaten; although he escapes with the aid of a rock python, his nose is stretched out into a trunk, which he finds most useful. After he pays his tormentors back in kind, the other elephants get their noses stretched out too, and so all elephants have trunks.
  6. "The Sing-Song of Old Man Kangaroo": The arrogant and shameless kangaroo accosts the three gods of Australia, one by one, demanding they make him unique amongst the animals. Whilst the little god Nqa and the mid-sized god Nqing simply shout at him to go away, the big god Nqong instead has the dingo chase the kangaroo all around Australia, until the kangaroo is forced to learn to hop to try and get away from him.
  7. "The Beginning of the Armadillos": Two friends in the Amazon jungle, a hedgehog and a tortoise, use their wits and their friendship to outwit a naive jaguar cub who's learning how to hunt. But when they overhear his mother teach him a simple rhyme to help tell them apart, they begin teaching each other their special tricks—swimming for the hedgehog and curling up for the tortoise—and they change into a pair of entirely new creatures, which the mother jaguar names "armadillos", for lack of a proper name.
  8. "How the First Letter Was Written": The first of three stories involving a prehistoric family. In this story, father Tegumai and daughter Taffimai (usually called "Taffy") are out on a fishing trip when Tegumai breaks his spear. Wanting to help, Taffy draws a crude picture and gives it to a passing stranger, so that he will go and ask the family's matriarch, Teshumai, for Tegumai's spare spear. Though initially misunderstood (to put it mildly), this becomes the foundation for how writing will be made.
  9. "How the Alphabet Was Made": A direct sequel to How The First Letter Was Written. A week after the incident with the stranger and Taffy's primitive letter, Taffy and Tegumai discuss the idea of writing, and come up with the English alphabet as we know it today.
  10. "The Crab That Played with the Sea": At the dawn of the world, as the Eldest Magician creates all animals and begins directing them to listen to Man, the first crab sneaks away into the ocean, so he goes without being tamed. When Man complains to the Eldest Magician about how the sea comes in and goes out once a day, making his hut by the river miserable, the Man and the Magician seek to learn why the sea is playing this unwanted play, and ultimately find the cause is the first crab. The crab tries to defy the Eldest Magician, but he is defeated when the Eldest Magician makes his shell fall off. Taking pity on him, the Eldest Magician gives the crab his shell back for 11 months of the year, and the ability to live on land or in water, and his claws, but makes crabs small and tiny. He also punishes Man for being lazy, and charges the Old Fisherman in the Moon with moving the sea twice a day.
  11. "The Cat That Walked by Himself": In the prehistoric time, Woman tames Man and Dog and Horse and Cow, but the Cat refuses to be tamed. Though he tricks his way into being allowed to enter the cave and gain milk through a bargain with Woman, Man and Dog both place further demands on the Cat for the toleration of his presence—and whilst Cat agrees, he also insolently asserts his independence both times, and for that both Man and Dog vow to punish him by throwing things at him or chasing him.
  12. "The Butterfly That Stamped": Suleiman-bin-Daoud, a man who is gentle and humble despite being a great emperor with powerful magic at his command, is tormented by the incessant fighting of his 999 subordinate wives. When he overhears an argument between a butterfly and his wife, he offers to stand up for the butterfly—but his chief wife, Queen Balkis, takes the side of the butterfly's wife, using the argument as a proxy to make Suleiman-bin-Daoud perform a great magic on the palace, which frightens all of the other wives into behaving themselves from that day on. This story also contains a smaller story, in which Suleiman-bin-Daoud tries to boast about his wealth by feeding all of the animals of the world, only for an enormous sea monster named Small Porgies to appear and eat the entire feast—and then admits that not only was that not enough food for him, but he has 29,999 brothers, all much bigger.
  13. "The Tabu Tale": This story is actually not found in the original British printing, but was published in the United States in the Scribner edition in 1903. The third of the stories of Tegumai's family, it revolves around Taffy growing up and being taught the proper tabus of the tribe, so she no longer scares away the game when her father is out hunting.
  14. "Ham and the Porcupine": Like "The Tabu Tale," this one is a late addition, first being published in 1935, shortly before Kipling's death. At the time of Creation, the porcupine refuses to stand still when having his hair brushed, thus resulting in his being covered with sharp quills. On top of this, he's very unruly and ill-mannered. Come the Great Flood, when the animals are boarded on the Ark, Noah's son Ham decides to teach the prickly beast some respect.

Just So Stories is now in the public domain and can be read here, or here, if you want the illustrations.

Trope Namer for "Just So" Story.

This work provides examples of:

  • Affectionate Parody: Of various kinds of oral history. For example, "The Butterfly That Stamped" parodies the style of the Koran ("Now listen and attend all over again!")
  • Always a Bigger Fish: King Solomon makes a boast about being rich enough to feed all the animals in the world. Just as he sets out all the food, a gargantuan creature emerges from the sea and devours it all. That creature is the smallest of his 30,000 brothers and surfaced to ask when dinner would be ready.
  • All There in the Manual: In "How the Whale Got His Throat", the Mariner, the Whale, and the 'Stute Fish are only ever referred to as such and are not named. However, in Kipling's illustrations for the story he identifies them: The Mariner is Henry Albert Bivvens, the Whale is Smiler, and the 'Stute Fish is Pingle.
  • Annoyingly Repetitive Child: The Elephant's Child frequently irritates those around him by asking too many questions. Whenever his family members have had enough of his questions, they smack him.
  • Be Careful What You Wish For: Old Man Kangaroo wants to be very thoroughly run after and different from all the other animals. He gets his wish when Nqong sends Dingo to chase him for miles on end, which changes his legs and his gait to the way they are today. When Nqong points out that what he did fulfilled the wish Kangaroo made, Kangaroo says that he thought it would be accomplished differently.
  • Big Eater: The titular Whale from "How the Whale Got His Throat". He's described as a greedy creature who eats vast quantities of fish of every kind. And after he's eaten all the fish in the sea, he decides to see what man tastes like...
  • Bowdlerise: In the original book, the Ethiopian tells the Leopard "Plain black's best for a nigger". In more recent editions this is often changed to "Plain black's best for me" or just "plain black's best".
  • Catchphrase: "I am the Cat who walks by himself, and all places are alike to me."
  • Cats Are Mean: Seems to be Kipling's attitude in "The Cat Who Walked By Himself", though the Cat doesn't come across as particularly mean, just aloof and unwilling to be anyone's servant. This doesn't stop Kipling from ending the story with a poem about how dogs are so much better than cats because dogs are loyal and do what they're told while cats "only pretend" to love you since they aren't obedient and don't stay by your side 24/7.
  • Chekhov's Gun: Parodied mercilessly in "How The Whale Got His Throat", in which we are reminded practically every paragraph not to forget that the protagonist wears suspenders (braces). In the end these do play a part in the story (he ties a grate in place with them in the whale's throat) but this is hilariously minor compared to the leadup.
  • Confusion Fu: The tortoise and the hedgehog in "The Beginning of the Armadillos" confuse Painted Jaguar by mixing up the instructions his significantly wiser mother gave him.
  • Constantly Curious: The Elephant's Child is full of "'satiable curtiosity" [sic], which means he asks questions about everything he experiences nearly all the time. This also gets him punished a lot.
  • Corporal Punishment: The Elephant Child's various family members handle his "'satiable curtiosity" [sic] by giving him spankings whenever he asks something.
  • Curiosity Is a Crapshoot: The Elephant's Child got lucky.
  • Disproportionate Retribution: In "The Cat That Walked by Himself", the Cat agrees to the terms of Man and Dog, but they still vow that they and their descendants will torment the Cat for always and always just because he spoke out of turn. Earlier on in the story, the Dog immediately renounces his friendship with the Cat and says they can never be friends again, just because the Cat didn't want to come with him to the cave.
  • Eek, a Mouse!!: In "The Cat That Walked By Himself", when the Woman sees a mouse, she jumps on a footstool and quickly braids up her hair, because she's afraid that the mouse will run up on it.
  • Extreme Omnivore: Small Porgies. He eats up all the kinds of food that would feed all the other animals on earthnote , plus the packaging with no ill effects. His ability to eat anything is probably necessitated by the fact he has close to thirty-thousand brothers and that a single member of his species is large enough to out-eat the rest of the animal kingdom combined.
  • Fantastic Naming Convention: In the three Neolithic tales, the three names given all conform to the same pattern: a word consisting of three syllables, beginning with 'T-' and ending with '-mai' and a polysyllabic second word, all descriptive of the bearer's character:
    His name was Tegumai Bopsulai, and that means, 'Man-who-does-not-put-his-foot-forward-in-a-hurry'; but we, O Best Beloved, will call him Tegumai, for short. And his wife's name was Teshumai Tewindrow, and that means, 'Lady-who-asks-a-very-many-questions'; but we, O Best Beloved, will call her Teshumai, for short. And his little girl-daughter's name was Taffimai Metallumai, and that means 'Small-person-whithout-any-manners-who-ought-to-be-spanked'; but I'm going to call her Taffy.
  • First Friend: In "The Cat That Walked By Himself", mankind's first Canine Companion is literally given this epithet because he was also the first wild animal to be domesticated, making the title apply to dogs in general.
  • Fur Is Clothing: In "How the Rhinoceros Got His Skin", the rhinoceros can literally remove his hide like a suit. It even has buttons! However, he rubs the buttons off trying to scratch himself after the Parsee strews cake crumbs in his skin as revenge, meaning he now can't remove it and always has a bad temper from the itching.
  • Getting Eaten Is Harmless: A sailor is Swallowed Whole by a whale, spends a considerable amount of time in its belly, and in the end he escapes none the worse for wear.
  • Guile Hero: The Mariner from "How the Whale Got His Throat". At the start of the story he's stranded in the middle of the ocean with hardly anything and soon after he finds himself inside the stomach of a whale. Not only is he able to convince the Whale to release him, but he literally makes the beast give him a ride home. And on the way he's able to assemble a grate using nothing but his knife, suspenders, and raft which he can use to stop up the Whale's throat when he does escape so it won't swallow anyone else ever again.
  • Happily Ever After: According to "How the Whale Got His Throat", after escaping the Whale's stomach the Mariner returns home, gets married, and lives happily ever after.
  • Happily Married: Suleiman-bin-Daoud and his chief wife, Balkis. Too bad he has 999 others. Also Tegumai and Teshumai and, by all appearances, the Man and the Woman in "The Cat That Walked By Himself", although in both cases the wife seems to be the dominating partner.
  • Haughty "Hmph": "How the Camel Got His Hump" tells how the Camel's verbal "Humph!" was turned into a physical hump by the magical intervention of a Djinn.
  • Have a Gay Old Time: There's lots of this. Keep in mind it was published in 1902.
    • For example, in "How the Leopard Got His Spots":
      "But if I'm all this," said the Leopard, "why didn't you go spotty too?"
      "Oh, plain black's best for a nigger," said the Ethiopian.
    • "'Scuse me,' said the Elephant's Child most politely, 'but do you happen to have seen a Crocodile in these promiscuous parts?"
    • There's a swastika in a picture illustrating "The Crab that Played with the Sea", which is identified as "a magic mark". Remember the book was published decades before Those Wacky Nazis rose to power, when the swastika was known only as a generic positive mystical symbol by many people, especially in India. Pre-war editions of Kipling often have a small swastika as a title-page decoration.
  • Henpecked Husband: King Suleiman-bin-Daoud is henpecked by all but one of his thousand wives.
  • Honorary Uncle: The Elephant's Child has a pair of uncles and a pair of aunts who aren't elephants (a giraffe, a baboon, an ostrich, and a hippopotamus), presumably meaning they're honorary.
  • Inconvenient Itch: Invoked by the Parsee in "How the Rhinoceros Got His Skin". He strews cake crumbs in the Rhino's skin while the Rhino is doing something else. When the Rhino puts it back on, he feels the cake crumbs rubbing irritatingly against him all the time, and no matter how much he rubs on things, he can't get rid of the feeling. This is why rhinos are bad-tempered.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: The Bi-Colored-Python-Rock-Snake has as much patience for the Elephant's Child as everyone else and spanks him for his questions. However, the snake also saves him from the Crocodile, and gives him advice on how his new trunk could be useful, up to and including getting back at everyone who ever spanked him.
  • "Just So" Story: The Trope Namer. Most of these stories are (completely fictional) explanations as to why certain things are the way they are.
  • Lamarck Was Right: All of the origin stories feature Lamarckian evolution, but then so do many of the folk tales which inspired Kipling. Most of the stories can be summed up as: "At some point in history, a creature did something that caused it to change, and this is why nowadays all creatures of this type have this same trait". One exception is "How the Camel Got His Hump", where the hump is given by a djinn as a punishment for being lazy and missing three days of work at the start of Creation; another is "The Crab that Played with the Sea", where Pau Amma gets the scissors as a gift from the little girl-daughter.
  • Lampshade Hanging: Kipling's account of how the alphabet was made has the modern English Latin alphabet come into existence from the beginning, ignoring how it has evolved over time. Of course, he was well aware of this and put in a cute explanation:
    And after thousands and thousands and thousands of years, and after Hieroglyphics and Demotics, and Nilotics, and Cryptics, and Cufics, and Runics, and Dorics, and Ionics, and all sorts of other ricks and tricks (because the Woons, and the Neguses, and the Akhoonds, and the Repositories of Tradition would never leave a good thing alone when they saw it), the fine old easy, understandable Alphabet—A, B, C, D, E, and the rest of 'em—got back into its proper shape again for all Best Beloveds to learn when they are old enough.
  • Large Runt: In "The Butterfly That Stamped", King Solomon tries to arrange for all the animals in the world to be fed at once. When he gets all the food gathered in one place, a tremendous monster rises from the sea, eats everything in three bites and reveals that it was the smallest of thirty thousand brothers and had been sent to ask when dinner would be ready.
  • Laser-Guided Karma: In "How the Whale Got His Throat", the titular Whale is a large carnivore who enjoys eating anything he can fit in his mouth. He ends up with an improvised grate stuck in his throat, courtesy of a shipwrecked mariner, which severely limits his ability to eat other creatures.
  • Lost at Sea: At the beginning of "How the Whale Got His Throat", the Mariner is stranded on a raft in the middle of the ocean.
  • MacGyvering: The Mariner uses his jackknife to make his raft and suspenders into a grate which he uses to stop up the Whale's throat to prevent him from eating anything but the tiniest of fish.
  • Malaproper: Most of the characters, and indeed the narrators, use the wrong words; it's part of the humour. For instance, the Elephant's Child is said to have "'satiable curtiosity" rather than "insatiable curiosity".
  • Mix-and-Match Critter: The first Armadillos were created when a hedgehog and a tortoise chose to swap their respective defense mechanisms. The result: armor-plated animals that can curl up into a ball.
  • Momma's Boy: The Mariner from "How the Whale Got His Throat". He only went to sea after first receiving his mothers permission to do so. And after he escapes the Whale's belly the first thing he does is go home to see her.
  • Monster Whale: In "How the Whale Got His Throat", the Whale starts out the story this way, but by the end he's been reduced to only being able to eat the smallest of fish.
  • Nasal Trauma: Elephants have trunks because an overly-curious baby elephant made the mistake of asking a crocodile what it wanted for lunch—and it bit down on the baby's nose, stretching it into a trunk over the course of the ensuing tug-of-war. Then, when the other elephants asked how the baby had gotten its trunk, it told them that they'd have to ask the crocodile: by the end of the story, every elephant has a trunk, which are somehow passed onto the next generation.
  • Non-Indicative Name: Small Porgies. He's large enough to eat all the food intended for all the other animals (excluding his brothers) on earth combined. He's still the runt of his family, though.
  • Noodle Incident: The introduction to "The Butterfly that Stamped" mentions a number of the three hundred and fifty-five stories supposedly told about Suleiman-bin-Daoud, briefly outlining a number of other fairytale adventures with no real context and never mentioning them again.
    There are three hundred and fifty-five stories about Suleiman-bin-Daoud; but this is not one of them. It is not the story of the Lapwing who found the Water; or the Hoopoe who shaded Suleiman-bin-Daoud from the heat. It is not the story of the Glass Pavement, or the Ruby with the Crooked Hole, or the Gold Bars of Balkis. It is the story of the Butterfly that Stamped.
  • Omniglot: Suleiman-bin-Daoud could speak the languages of beasts, birds, fishes, insects and even trees and rocks.
  • Overly Long Name:
    • Temugai (or rather Temugai Bopsulai) and his family all have long names, which are even longer when translated (they all mean something like "[person] who [does/is something]").
    • The Bi-Colored-Python-Rock-Snake has one of the longest names/titles in the book.
  • Painting the Frost on Windows: According to "How the Leopard Got His Spots", the Ethiopian used his fingertips to create rosettes on the leopard so that he could blend in in the shadowy forest.
  • Playing Pictionary: Taffy's attempt to send a message back to her cave in "How The First Letter Was Written".
  • Public Domain Character: Suleiman-bin-Daoud, better known as King Solomon, son of David. As in the one that performed the Judgment of Solomon. Everything about him in "The Butterfly That Stamped" is taken from The Bible, The Qur'an, or folklore about him. Balkis is the Queen of Sheba.
  • Rule of Three: Kangaroo asks three times to be made different from the other animals before Nqong agrees.
  • Running Gag: Lots, most obviously "you must never forget the suspenders".
  • Sapient Eat Sapient: All the animals in the stories can talk and think like people, but it's very common for one of them to want to eat one of the others, such as Leopard pouncing on Zebra, Dingo chasing Kangaroo, or Painted Jaguar trying ineptly to hunt Hedgehog and Tortoise.
  • Sesquipedalian Loquaciousness:
    • The Bi-Coloured-Python-Rock-Snake in The Elephant's Child throws a lot of large words like "ulster" and "vitiate" into his sentences, albeit along with some slang like "before you can say 'Jack Robinson'". According to the narrator, all Bi-Coloured-Python-Rock-Snakes talk in this bizarre way.
    • The Ethiopian in "How the Leopard Got His Spots" uses phrases like "aboriginal fauna" to refer to the local wildlife. This may play into representing him as smarter than his fellow hunter Leopard.
    • The narrator often uses bigger words than are necessary; for instance, instead of just saying that Kangaroo was gray, woolly, and proud, he says, "he was gray and woolly and his pride was inordinate."
  • Sea Monster: Small Porgies and his 29,999 brothers, gigantic monsters that live at the bottom of the sea.
  • Shirtless Scene: The Mariner in "How the Whale Got His Throat" isn't wearing a shirt, possibly as a result of having been shipwrecked.
  • Shout-Out:
    • Since most of the stories were originally made up for Kipling's children, there are a number of these. In particular Taffy is a portrait of Josephine ("Effie") and the poem Merrow Down, while on the surface about Taffy and her father, mourns Effie's death by pneumonia at age six. Kipling's surviving daughter Elsie (who used to be nicknamed "Elsie Why") said that "The Elephant's Child" was "her" story. Many scholars see The Cat That Walked By Himself as a satirical portrait of the early days of Rudyard Kipling's marriage, with the Woman standing in for Carrie Kipling and either the Man or the Cat serving as an Author Avatar.
    • In the explanations to the illustrations, the name of the Parsee in "How the Rhinoceros Got His Skin" is given as Pestonjee Bomonjee. That was the name of an artist who Kipling's father had taught.
    • "How the Leopard Got His Spots" is inspired by a verse from the Book of Jeremiah (13:23). Kipling lampshades it:
    Oh, now and then you will hear grown-ups say, 'Can the Ethiopian change his skin, or the Leopard his spots?' I don't think even grown-ups would keep on saying such a silly thing if the Leopard and the Ethiopian hadn't done it once—do you?
  • Spell My Name With An S: Suleiman-bin-Daoud AKA King Solomon. As "The Butterfly That Stamped" is done in the style of the Qur'an, Kipling used the Arabic version of his name.
  • Swallowed Whole: A sailor is swallowed whole by a gluttonous whale who is curious to see what man tastes like.
  • Take Our Word for It: How the Ethiopian changes his skin (of course, played for laughs). All we are told is that the Leopard is very impressed.
  • The Trickster: The 'Stute Fish. He avoids being eaten by convincing the Whale to eat a man (specifically the Mariner) instead.
  • To Serve Man: The 'Stute Fish is able to convince the Whale to try eating a man instead of more fish by describing man as a delicacy.
    Then the Whale stood up on his tail and said 'I'm hungry.' And the small 'Stute Fish said in a small 'stute voice, 'Noble and generous Cetacean, have you ever tasted man?' 'No,' said the Whale, 'What is it like?' 'Nice,' said the small 'Stute Fish, 'Nice but nubbly.'
  • Too Spicy for Yog-Sothoth: After he's been swallowed by the Whale, the Mariner causes a lot of commotion inside the stomach. This gives the Whale great discomfort and prompts him to release the Mariner.
  • Unwanted Harem: You really do have to feel sorry for Suleiman-bin-Daoud.
    He didn't really want nine-hundred and ninety-nine wives, but in those days, everybody married ever so many wives, and of course the King had to marry ever so many more just to show that he was the King.
  • Villainous Glutton: In "How the Whale Got His Throat", the titular Whale is a big, dumb, and greedy creature who eats whatever he can fit into his mouth.
  • Well, This Is Not That Trope: "There are three hundred and fifty-five stories about Suleiman-bin-Daoud; but this is not one of them."
  • Women Are Wiser: Zigzagged with "The Butterfly That Stamped". Queen Balkis is just as clever as her husband, but the other 999 wives are squabbling shrews. The butterfly's wife isn't much better.