The Beginning of the Armadilloes

(notes by Lisa Lewis)

Publication history

First published in the Ladies’ Home Journal, May 1900. Collected in Just So Stories, illustrated by the author, and followed by the poem “I’ve never sailed the Amazon” (titled “Rolling down to Rio” in Edward German’s Just So Song Book and in The Kipling Reader).

The story

Stickly-Prickly Hedgehog and Slow-Solid Tortoise lived on the banks of the Amazon river. Painted Jaguar also lived there. He was told by his Mother how to catch hedgehogs and tortoises so that he could eat them, by dropping the Hedgehog into water and scooping the Tortoise out of his shell. He found them, and the Hedgehog curled up while the Tortoise hid in his shell. Painted Jaguar repeated his mother’s advice and asked them which of them was which. They answered by scrambling her words until the Jaguar was thoroughly confused.

He tried to scoop out the Hedgehog and got his paw full of prickles. Then he argued with the Tortoise till he was even more confused, and told the Tortoise to jump into the water, whereupon the Tortoise swam away. He turned his mother’s instructions into a rhyme to help him remember. The Hedgehog and the Tortoise overheard, and decided to share their skills, the Tortoise learning to curl up and the Hedgehog to swim.

In the process, both were changed, so that the Hedgehog’s prickles became armour and the Tortoise’s shell grew flexible. They sought out Painted Jaguar and rolled around him till he was dizzy. He complained to his mother, who told him to call the new animal “Armadillo” and to leave it alone. So he did.

Background notes

The manuscript of the story is in the volume Just So Stories in the British Library. It is not mentioned in Carrington’s notes from Mrs Kipling’s diaries. Roger Lancelyn Green (1965, p. 176) listed it, without a reference, as one of the stories Kipling began to write in August 1899, as he first began to recover from the death of his elder daughter in March of that year.

Kipling had never visited Brazil when he wrote this story and its poem. But that area had been vital to his imagination since his childhood: according to Something of Myself [p. 9], one of his earliest literary passions was for Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, in which the hero was wrecked on an island off the coast of “the Brazils.” Two books which can be found in Kipling’s study may have contributed ideas to the story: Charles Darwin, The Voyage of the “Beagle” (1839), which describes [ch. vi] the armadillo’s method of curling up against enemies; and Oliver Goldsmith’s A History of the Earth and Animated Nature (1774) [vol. ii, bk vi] which places the armadillo’s description just after “Animals of the Hedgehog, or Prickly kind.”

Another likely source is Jataka, Bk XXII, no. 543 (Bhuridatta-Jataka), in which a tortoise escapes a king who wishes to kill it by persuading him to put it into water; Something of Myself [p. 141] and Kim [ch. ix] both mention Jataka. Kipling also read Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko (c. 1688) [Pinney, ed., Letters, vol. 3, p. 394], which refers to the animal’s “armour.” In an Indian oral tale “Wash me before eating”, a turtle tells a jackal he must be soaked in water to soften his shell; the jackal drops the turtle into water, where upon it swims away [Antti Aarne and Stith Thompson, ‘The Types of the Folk-Tale’ (Helsinki, Academia Scientiarum Fennica, 1961, p. 49, no. 122G)]. Kipling could have heard this as a child in India.

Another version, which Kipling might have come across in South Africa, is recorded in Edward Steere, Swahili Tales as told by Natives of Zanzibar [SPCK, 1889, p. 273] involving a lion and a tortoise. When Kipling was at boarding-school, a favourite book was Uncle Remus by Joel Chandler Harris [see notes to “The United Idolaters”, Debits and Credits], in which a similar ruse is employed by Brer Rabbit to escape being eaten by Brer Fox.

Among the books in Kipling’s study is a set of the reissued Principall Navigations, Voiages, Traffiques and Discoveries of the English Nation (1598-1600) by Richard Hakluyt, from which he took the title of his collection Traffics and Discoveries. The first illustration to “The Beginning of the Armadilloes” is a pictorial map, on which is inscribed a fictional account in mock Elizabethan language of a similar expedition somewhere in South America. For a transcript, see Notes on the Text. ORG compares it to Sir Walter Raleigh’s expedition to the Orinoco in 1617.

In 1927 the Kiplings would take a cruise to Brazil. On arrival at Rio de Janeiro, since he had said in the poem with this story that he had never seen an armadillo, he was presented with one in a cage. He commented in a letter to his surviving daughter that he felt unable to keep the creature alive and happy, and so had returned it to the donor with thanks, but that the poem “seems to have been my pass-port [sic] to this land!” [Pinney, ed., Letters, vol. 5, p. 343].

Critical Opinions

Angus Wilson wrote [1977, p. 231]:

As for the Armadillo story, it is full of more obvious, but perhaps slightly more grown-up tongue-twisting fun [than the earlier stories in the collection], as the Tortoise and the Hedgehog evade the young Jaguar’s hunger by confusing him. [quoted, page 92 lines 26-31].

For Rosalind Meyer:

It is again the style of speech which gives the clue in “The Beginning of the Armadilloes.” Stickly-Prickly and Slow-and-Solid [sic] speak rhythmically and even poetically at times; but for all that, on occasion their phraseology may be parallelled in Stalky & Co., published the previous year.

“I don’t like this old lady one little bit,” said Stickly-Prickly. “I wonder what else she knows?”

And later he laments, in the manner of Beetle: “This is a mess!”

Their common warcry is “Won’t Painted Jaguar be surprised!” At one level of interpretation, and in their origins, they are Third Formers desperate for survival. If Stickly-Prickly is the quicker-witted, Slow-and-Solid is a competent partner, once given the lead, in the brilliant repartee with which they buy time from Painted Jaguar; while in their tormentor’s uneasy if beautiful adolescence may be descried the outlines of a maturing Sixth Former.

It seems far from unlikely that the exquisite Painted Jaguar shares the same original with the bully Sefton of “The Moral Reformers” (in Stalky & Co.) That silky-moustached young man already has his animal associations as a “crammer’s pup”, and is, as the Reverend John comments to the Head, “the only son of his mother, and she a widow.” This mother also receives her son’s confidences to the full, as her outraged letter to the School reveals.

Not impossibly, Kipling had in mind a private joke as he composed this tale. Third Formers who win through their early traumas by dint of exerting themselves will acquire some carapace of confidence by the time they reach the Middle or Upper Fourth – which still today, in some English schools, is known as “the Shell.” The term was common late last century. [Kipling Journal 232, Dec. 1984, pp. 16-7].

Nora Crook [1989, captions to plates 7 and 8] compares the second illustration to Blake’s “Behemoth and Leviathan” in Gilchrist’s Life of Blake, I, p. 336, adding:

In The Elements of Drawing (owned by Kipling) Ruskin advised novices to study this plate.

Brian Alderson deplored the tendency of publishers to substitute illustrations by other artists for Kipling’s drawings:

To tell the story of, say, “The Beginning of the Armadilloes” without the wonderful, absorbing “inciting map of the Turbid Amazon done in Red and Black,” or without the “whole story”design (and the attendant information that “the Jaguar’s pet name with his Mummy was Doffles”), is first to eliminate bits of the author from his own book, and second to deprive the reader of half the fun of the story. [“Just so Pictures: Illustrated Versions of Just So Stories for Little Children”, in Judith A. Plotz (ed.), vol.20 of Annual of the Modern Language Association Division on Children’s Literature and the Children’s Literature Association, (New Haven, Yale University Press, 1992) pp. 160-1].

©Lisa Lewis 2005 All rights reserved