by Lisa Lewis
| notes on
“What does the Crocodile have for dinner?”They all spanked him and told him to hush. Then he asked Kolokolo Bird, who told him to go the Limpopo River and find out. On the way there he met and asked the Bi-Coloured-Python-Rock-Snake, who also spanked him. Then he came to the river and found the Crocodile, who told him to come and hear the whispered answer. When he came close, the Crocodile caught him by his nose and tried to pull him into the water.
“An alligator had seized him by the foot while bathing, and though he struggled desperately for 2000 years, he was unable to escape his enemy …” Finally he realises that “god alone could save him.”Kipling owned the second edition of 1880. The little elephant’s journey to the river recalls the classic folk-tale theme of a visit to an ogre or a monster’s den: other examples are Homer’s account of Odysseus in the cave of the Cyclops Polyphemus (of which there is a version in The Arabian Nights), and the giant’s house in the fairy-tale “Jack and the Beanstalk.”
Si sapiens fore vis sex servus qui tibi mandoCritical opinions
Quid dicas et ubi, de quo, cur, quomodo, quando.
(If you wish to be wise I commend to you six servants,
Ask what, where, about what, why, how, when.)
As to “the Elephant’s Child having his nose pulled by the Crocodile,” I find it difficult to concentrate upon this as a product of pen and ink for a counter attraction: a striving to visualise the mirth-racked author in the course of its creation. [Kipling Journal , 39, Sept. 1936, p. 98].J.M.S. Tompkins wrote:
‘The great grey-green, greasy Limpopo river, all set about with fever-trees’ never sent me to the map but rolled through my imagination, and runs off my pen now without any reference to ‘The Elephant’s Child’. [p. 55].Rosalind Meyer argued that the story is partly autobiographical:
At its inception, it seems to represent the cheerful obverse of which the reverse was written as “Baa Baa, Black Sheep”. It would be easy to read into its reprisals to “dear families” some wish-fulfilment of retaliation: but when carefully considered the tale appears in essence rather a humorous account of the author’s own eventual success after quitting first the House of Desolation at Southsea, next Westward Ho!, and finally those “Seven Years Hard” (as he describes them in Something of Myself) on the Civil and Military Gazette and the Pioneer – to emerge famous in early maturity. All his various mentors have their representation in the “dear families”: for, significantly, this tale makes no mention, as such, of the “Mummy” or the “Daddy” who figure so naturally in many other stories, and it speaks for itself. It was Lockwood Kipling, wise and benignant, who designed the elephant motif which supplemented and later replaced the swastika on editions of Kipling’s works.
Analogies in fact and fiction with aspects of the story are not far to seek. In his autobiography, though sanguine, Kipling does not diminish his early difficulties; while the stories based on his tutelary years show how deeply these had impressed the sensitive consciousness of an artist. The 'Elephant’s Child' with his ’satiable curtiosity is obviously the Black Sheep of his families; just as any intelligently precocious questions posed by Black Sheep in the House of Desolation were certainly quashed ’“in a loud and dretful tone”.
Thrashings were frequent then; and other chastisement of different kinds followed at school and in India, where, according to Lord Birkenhead, as a talented writer Kipling was still something of a misfit in provincial society. Kolokolo Bird, sketched in a few words as one who has seen the vanity of all human wishes, may owe something to many people; but surely most to Kipling’s first chief editor on the daily paper through which all human experience poured:
“The little I ever acquired of accuracy, the habit of trying at least to verify references … I owed solely to Stephen Wheeler.” Kolokolo Bird of course directs the Elephant’s Child to his sources – for the Limpopo was once known as Crocodile River.The Elephant’s Child, undaunted by his early experiences, and still eager to explore his universe, soon finds himself in real danger; but even here he stoutly exerts himself, and by the help of the adult and equivocal Bi-Coloured-Rock-Snake, escapes with his life, though mourning apparent malformation. But the Rock Snake proves himself a kindred spirit and an active philosopher in more ways than one. He turns the tables on the Elephant’s Child by asking him questions, in the Socratic mode of instruction. As a result, the Elephant’s Child returns to his world enlightened, and equipped at last with a far-reaching all-purpose trunk to confront it.
In much the same way the near-blind Punch of “Baa Baa, Black Sheep”, endowed with an extension to his face in the form of the spectacles which Beetle was the only boy at the United Services College to wear, eventually acquired not only sight but insight before returning from India in his early twenties to an expectant London. Kolokolo Bird’s “wait-a-bit thorn-bush” has symbolic relevance: for after many trials the Elephant’s Child attains to happiness, asserting his individuality not in conforming to his world, but by achieving its respect in the end.
[Kipling Journal, 232, Dec. 1984, pp. 21-2].