Old Man Kangaroo"
by Lisa Lewis
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Search where one might, it would be difficult to find a more perfect portrayal of motion than Kipling’s illustration of Old Man Kangaroo, bounding joyfully with his beautiful new hind legs, and the Yellow-Dog Dingo galloping in hot pursuit. Regret over the disallowed “paint box” is expressed by the author as to this picture; but colour could lend nothing to that splendid draughtsmanship. Conscious of performance, he must have regretted nothing.On the story, Rosalind Meyer commented [Kipling Journal 232, Dec. 1984, p. 28]:
One story, the Kangaroo’s, experiments with metre rather than rhythm. The Sing-Song of Old Man Kangaroo is precisely that: in loose form, a ballad, after the manner of the interminable folksongs of the Australian outback. Generally speaking, two or three lines of four stresses each are followed by one of three:[L.L.]
He was grey and he was woolly and his pride was inordinate: he danced on an outcrop in the middle of Australia, and he went to the Little God Nqa.The intoned stanzas catch the peculiar drily humorous drone and drawl of the speech “back of the black stump”. The characters, too, are indicated only by the stock epithets of ballads – like the “jolly swagman” or the “squatter, mounted on his thoroughbred” of “Waltzing Matilda”. Yet in its spare harshness the Sing-Song is not only Australian but surprisingly Greek. The hubris of inordinate pride swiftly attracts Nemesis – Yellow-Dog Dingo, “always hungry” – at the bidding of the Gods.
In this case, the tale ends relatively happily: but the Kangaroo’s chagrin at his metamorphosis perhaps cuts in two directions. “This is a practical joke” might well have been the reflection of some fleeing nymph suddenly transformed into a flowering shrub in response to her appeals for divine intervention; but may it not also, perhaps, be a sly thrust at the Darwin controversy of some forty years earlier? Many of the tales furnish such a commentary on evolution – which perhaps implies one more connotation of “Just So.”