Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Just So Stories, best beloved

More than any other book, Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories have influenced the way I see the world. They may seem like nothing but little animal tales for children, but if that’s all they were there would be no way I could talk about them as much as I do.

My first encounter with the Just So Stories was as a little kid in the backseat. I was given the book on story-tape for Christmas (or my birthday) and it quickly became a pretty regular feature of car rides.

I didn’t buy the stories in book-form until much later. In fact, I’d never really thought of them existing on the page because they were so alive when they came through our car speakers. I can’t for the life of me remember who did the reading on those cassettes (it isn’t the same man who does the latest BBC version), but even when I read the stories to myself now I hear his voice in my head.

And I do continue to read the stories to myself. I get reminded of them all the time and then need to go back and read the original to make sure I’m remembering properly.

Although all the stories come up in real life eventually, “How the Camel Got His Hump” is probably the only story I am reminded of daily. Kipling’s explanation of the camel’s hump begins with the camel’s lazy reply of “humph” whenever any work was required of him and how it angered the harder-working animals. So, a very cross Djinn made the camel a “humph” of his own, which would allow him to work longer periods of time without rest to make up for lost time. Every time I hear someone say “humph” (or I say it myself), I think of that camel and usually have to restrain myself from telling Kipling’s story.

I wouldn’t say Kipling’s stories are morality tales—there’s too much sarcasm and humour in them for that—but they are origin tales of a sort. And despite Kipling’s general fixation on India, many of his stories take place elsewhere (the Amazon, Australia, Africa, etc.). And, although the majority of the Just So Stories revolve around animals, there are a couple of human-centric stories.

“How the First Letter Was Written” and “How the Alphabet Was Made” are stories about a Neolithic family who live in cave and go fishing. Needless to say, the writing of the first letter before there was an alphabet causes a great deal of trouble, especially for the poor “stranger-man” who becomes the victim of a very unfortunate misunderstanding. So, to keep that from happening again, Tegumai (the dad) and Taffy (his daughter) set about to make an alphabet that will describe all the sounds they notice in words. And really, the whole scenario seems rather plausible, if also hilarious.

One of my favourite things about the Just So Stories, though, is that most of the mysteries Kipling explains don’t have any other obvious explanation besides “that’s the way it is.” The very audacity of writing stories to explain things such as “How the Whale Got His Throat” and “How the Rhinoceros Got His Skin” make this a pretty great book.

And as much as I loved it growing up, I think it’s almost more important for me to read now. It’s too easy to stop questioning why things are the way they are, or how things became the way they are, and Kipling doesn’t allow that. Granted, his explanations are made up, but they are so beautiful and so, so funny that they are irresistible.

And they don’t stop being relevant. Kipling wrote his stories with a wink to the parents who would be reading them aloud at bedtime, and there are several stories that had my dad laughing louder than anyone else in the car when we listened to the tapes on long drives.

Marriage and family are the focus of several of the stories, which is not something you notice as a kid. But that’s the beauty of books like this: they grow up with you and offer something different for every stage of your life. So really, it doesn’t matter when you discover the Just So Stories, it just matters that you do.

Just So Stories
by Rudyard Kipling
First published in 1902 (cover image shown from Penguin edition)

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