"The Tabu Tale"

Notes edited by Lisa Lewis

the story

[November 27 2020]


First published in Colliers Weekly. August 29, 1903, illustrated by C.L. Brill; and in Windsor Magazine, September 1903, illustrated by L. Raven-Hill. Collected in the Outward Bound edition of Kipling’s works, Vol. XX (Just So Stories) New York, 1903 and in the Sussex Edition, vol. XVI (Land and Sea Tales); also the Burwash Edition, vol. XIV (Stalky & Co. and Land and Sea Tales): all three illustrated by the author.


The manuscript of the story, with the two illustrations and their captions, are in the bound volume “Just So Stories” in the British Library. According to Carrington’s notes from Mrs Kipling’s diaries, Kipling wrote a story “modelled on the totem tales” on 11 Oct. 1898.

As in “How the First Letter was Written” and “How the Alphabet was made”, the character of Taffy is based on Kipling’s older daughter Josephine, who would die of pneumonia five months after the totem story was written. Her portrait here combines with some contemporary evidence to suggest a highly-strung, overactive child.

Kipling had a copy of J.G. Frazer’s The Golden Bough (1890). Vol. I, ch. 2 of this gives an account of tabus in different communities of the world, but none of it appears to be a source for the story. In Something of Myself (p. 123), Kipling mentions a visit to the Native American collections in the Smithsonian, Washington, D.C., which may have given him some ideas.

Kipling evidently decided not to include this story in the various Just So editions published in his lifetime after 1903. Uli Knoepflmacher in KJ 366 for December 2016, commends this decision:
Kipling was correct to leave out “The Tabu Tale” from all standard editions of the Just So Stories. Closer to an adult ghost story such as "They", this tale hints at an impassable gulf between child and grown-up. The joyous traffic of the other tales no longer seems possible in a narrative that makes the sharing of "meanings and signs" difficult for both kinds of readers.

Notes on the text

Taffimai Metallumai See “How the First Letter was Written” and “How the Alphabet was Made.”

unstill See the note above.

Big Tribal Tabu-pole In Windsor Magazine, this continued: “painted red, twelve foot long and a foot thick …”.

Taffy and Tegumai made up the Alphabet See “How the Alphabet was Made.”


©Lisa Lewis 2006 All rights reserved