This story was first published in Harper's Weekly, New York, December 5 1891, and Black and White Magazine, London, Christmas Number 1891.
The story is collected in:
Many Inventions, 1893, page 239,
Scribner’s Edition, Volume V, page 362
Sussex Edition, Volume V, page 463
Burwash Edition, Volume V
'Thousands of years ago', wrote Kipling, when men were greater than they are to-day, the Children of the Zodiac lived in the world. There were six Children of the Zodiac—the Ram, the Bull, Leo, the Twins, and the Girl; and they were afraid of the Six Houses which belonged to the Scorpion, the Balance, the Crab, the Fishes, the Archer, and the Waterman.
The Children are Gods, without the feelings of men, and believe they will live for ever, but one by one they come down to earth and live among men working as their duty dictates, though they like it not, and coming to know that - like men - they are doomed to die. They live in that fear, but do their work as they musr.
Leo and the Girl are the central figures of the story; they become lovers, like men and women, and delight in each other. The Girl makes friends with a woman and plays with her children, and Leo becomes a great singer, singing songs of the Girl and the Bull, and the Twins, and the Song of the Children of the Zodiac—the war-whoop of the young Gods who are afraid of nothing. His singing lifts the hearts of men. The Girl dies, and he mourns her, and in the end Leo dies himself at the hands of Cancer, the Crab. But dying he knows that he has helped men endure the fear of death, that is always with them. He has taught them that 'whatever comes or does not come, we men must not be afraid'.
The tale was published at the end of a period of great turmoil in Kipling’s life. While it was written before the death of Wolcott Balestier, it came after the huge productivity of 1888–90 and the consequent breakdown. Kipling had lived briefly on little money in Embankment Chambers, met Florence Garrard on the street in London, had re-declared his love for her and again been rejected, had been lionized and patronized by literary London, had met a soul mate in Wolcott Balestier and perhaps another in his sister Caroline. (He was to marry Caroline in London on 18 January 1892.) “The Children of the Zodiac” was written at a time when he might well have been thinking deeply about his purpose in life.
Some critical comments
J M S Tompkins calls this the first tale of cancer. 'The whole fable is an arrangement of symbols, statement of the conditions of human life and the spirit in which these can be supported'.
A.N. Wilson takes it seriously but does not value it particularly. Helen Pike Bauer says that 'art, in this story, subsumes the role of religion. It becomes the highest expression of the human spirit.' Charles Carrington remarks (p.542): 'The fable ... is personal—something between himself and the woman he was about to marry.'
Allegory and meaning
The story is an allegory, as Tompkins and Bauer suggest, and an ancient method of dealing with allegory is to begin with the 'literal' level of meaning and then to move from oddities or hints in that story to 'higher' levels, which may be moral, political, historical, or philosophical. At the literal level, heavenly beings loosely based on the signs of the Zodiac live on earth and are worshipped by humanity. Because they are immortal, they do not understand either human unhappiness or human laughter.
But then Leo, the story’s protagonist, and the Girl, fall in love and begin to learn from people how to express it. Still puzzled by the death that comes to humans, Leo goes to the Scorpion and tells him that he wishes humans to 'live as I—as we do'. The Scorpion answers, ironically, that Leo’s wish has been granted long ago, and Leo learns quickly that the Bull, the Ram, and the Twins have become mortal and now work for humans. And when he questions the Crab, he finds that he and the Girl are also mortal, and both must be afraid for two. When they decide never to leave one another, they are able to laugh at death, but they still fear it, and Leo rushes off in anguish. He encounters the Bull and tells him what he has learned, and the Bull asks him 'what will you do?’ And when Leo says he does not know, the Bull tells him to sing one of the songs 'that we sang when we thought we were all Gods together’.
So Leo and the Girl go about the world, gypsy-like, and he sings songs while she talks with the women and cares for their children, and she collects money at the end of his concerts. Leo writes his best songs only after the Girl has died, and they are The Song of the Bull, The Song of the Twins, and The Song of the Girl. People make clear to Leo that his songs have helped them laugh and lose their fear, and he is 'very well paid’. When the Crab comes for him at the end, he tells Leo that he has 'taken the world by the shoulders' with his three great songs, and Leo, heartened by the memory of the Girl’s bravery, dies well. What he has taught to people, the text ends, is 'whatever comes or does not come we men must not be afraid.’
But the basic story turns on something that never happens in mythic stories: gods become people and die. That anti-convention turns the reader’s attention to the questions Leo asks as soon as he feels the human emotion of love for the Girl: how should mortals live? Leo’s question about life—everyone’s life—takes the reader away from the particular adventures and joys and sufferings of the Children become people (plowing, teaching husbandry, comforting the childless, Leo’s and the Girl’s falling in love) to a figured homily answering moral questions about how people should live their lives. At this moral level, the story teaches that if you don’t work you live in terror—for yourself and for those you love—which is a death in life. Moreover, work that matters is work for others.
About the middle of the story, however, the text shifts from figuring these moral truths—in the work and comments of the Bull, the Ram, and the Twins—to Leo’s work, which is singing. In fact, the rest of the story explores the sources, nature, and powers of Leo’s songs, which leads the reader to think about the nature of singing, or of art. At this philosophical level, the allegory teaches that art allows people to take pride in the wonderful happiness of romantic love, in good work, and in the achievement of children and a loving home. Such pride justifies art, for it shows that art makes people able to face death without fear, even with laughter.