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.
Of course Kipling – and doubtless Effie too – didn’t really think that these accounts of djinns and shipwrecked mariners explained how the world and its creatures came to be. Part of the fun came from their shared suspension of disbelief, a kind of bedtime egging on of mutual nonsense. Above all, Batchelor is keen that we understand the stories as part of a larger turn in children’s literature towards the animal fantastic. The year 1902 was when Beatrix Potter unleashed Peter Rabbit on the long-suffering Mr McGregor, and E Nesbit created the Psammead, the sand fairy in Five Children and It. Within just four years Mole and Toad would be sculling down Kenneth Graham’s riverbank in The Wind in the Willows.
What’s more, none of this was remotely pastoral. On the evidence of its children’s literature, Edwardian England was a dog-eat-dog, or at least crocodile-eat-elephant, world. Peter Rabbit’s dad is in a pie, the toad-like Psammead lives in a gravel quarry, and Mole and Toad will soon be fighting against the marauders of the Wild Wood. In the same Darwinian way, the creatures of the Just So universe are engaged in a constant battle to avoid being maimed, eaten, or reduced to dust. Far from providing a moment of ontological security, Kipling’s stories offer children a reminder of intense physical vulnerability. The whale is sick, the camel is doomed to walk for days over sand, the kangaroo’s exaggerated back legs come from having to hop incessantly to escape the arch-enemy, Yellow-Dog Dingo.
And human children, even the Best Beloveds, can also turn out to be heartbreakingly fragile. It is a shock to learn that Effie died at the age of seven, three years before the Just So Stories were published in book form. So while she is the child reader addressed directly in the first three stories, thereafter she is a ghostly presence. Batchelor believes that we can see her best in the character of “Taffy”, who features in the two stories concerned with the creation of written language – “How the First Letter Was Written” and “How the Alphabet Was Made”. Set in Neolithic Britain, the linked tales feature a bossy, noisy, ebullient little girl out for adventures with her “daddy”, fishing and confidently accosting strangers and sending them on garbled errands.
There is a sadness that the setting to these stories is recognisably Batemans, the Jacobean manor house in Sussex that Kipling bought three years after Effie’s death from pneumonia. Yet, Batchelor argues, by the magic of consoling fiction, Kipling has been able to transport his best beloved first-born child to this family home where he actually lived with Effie’s younger siblings, Elsie and John. It is a delicate act of imaginative reparation.
It is always tricky writing about Kipling. By the time of his death in 1936 his jingoism, with its babble about the “white man’s burden” in Africa, made many moderate souls feel queasy. Batchelor is too scrupulous a scholar to ignore what came after the Just So Stories – indeed he points out that within two years of the book’s publication the satirist Max Beerbohm was drawing Kipling as an imperial stooge, the diminutive bugle-blowing cockney lover of a blousy-looking Britannia.
Nonetheless, Batchelor urges us to see the stories as evidence that as a young man Kipling was an imaginative artist of the first rank. Full of bustling linguistic ingenuity, conjured by a man whose first language was actually Hindi rather than English, the stories themselves are hopeful, expansive, joyfully attentive to a world where difference and separation can be mended by imaginative acts. There is the grey-green greasy Limpopo river visited by an elephant child who, it is quite clear from the illustration that Kipling himself drew, is of Asian rather than African heritage. The Rhinoceros tale involves a Parsee and action that appears to take place in pre-Colombian Mexico. This is not carelessness, insists Batchelor, but a deliberately riddling quality that looks back to an earlier mid-Victorian tradition of revelatory nonsense. We are in the world of Alice’s Queen of Hearts and Lear’s Pobble who has no toes, places of infinite morphology and endless adaptation.
How sad then, Batchelor argues, that from this point on, Kipling turned aside from this playful, endlessly generative inner world. With Effie dead, something closed down inside him and from then on he projected his need for control outwards on to to a world that was, as all those children’s books from Peter Rabbit to The Wind in the Willows hinted, a place where difference and danger had already begun to press in from all sides.
• How the Just So Stories were Made: The Brilliance and Tragedy Behind Kipling’s Celebrated Tales for Little Children is published by Yale (£18.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.