How the Camel got his Hump

Publication history

First published in St Nicholas Magazine, January 1898, illustrated by Oliver Herford. Collected in Just So Stories, 1902, illustrated by the author, and introduced by: “Now this is the second tale, and it tells how the camel got his big hump.”

The story

When the animals began to work for Man, the Camel lived in a desert because he was idle and refused to help. The Dog, the Horse and the Ox all urged him to join in their work, but he only answered “Humph!” They complained to the Man, who said he was sorry, but they would just have to work longer hours themselves.

Then they complained to the Djinn in charge of All Deserts. So the Djinn went to see the Camel and told him to work, but still all he would say was “Humph!” The Djinn made a magic that puffed up the Camel’s back into a humph (or hump) and condemned him to work for three days without eating, living on his hump instead, to make up for the days he had missed. He still has his hump, he never did make up the lost time, and he still behaves badly.

Background notes

The manuscript of the story is in the volume Just So Stories in the British Library.

In a letter to Mrs Mary Mapes Dodge, editor of St Nicholas Magazine, dated November 1892, Kipling listed some ideas for short stories for children about animals, including a camel tale [Pinney, ed., Letters, vol. ii p. 71]. The previous year his father Lockwood Kipling had published Beast and Man in India [Macmillan, London, 1891], in which it is said of the camel:

It was on his back that the body of Shah Ali Shah was laid after his death, and he was sent into the wilderness till the Angel Gabriel met him and, taking the rope, led him no man knew whither. Before that ghostly funeral the camel resembled a horse, but the Angel Gabriel gave him a hump like the mountains into which he disappeared … [p. 245].

In the summer of 1894, the Kiplings (who were then living in Vermont, New England) paid a visit to London. There Kipling discussed the projected animal stories with his father. According to Carrington’s notes from Mrs Kipling’s diary, it was then that the Camel story was begun. On a visit to Vermont the previous autumn, Lockwood had carved over the fireplace in his son’s study the second (italicised) part of this verse from the Gospel of St John:

I must work the works of him that sent me, while it is day: the night cometh, when no man can work.

If the first inspiration for the Camel came from a Moslem legend, another ingredient in the story comes from the Bible and the Protestant work ethic: Kipling’s camel is not given his hump as a reward for piety, but as a punishment for idleness. The substitution of a Djinn for the Angel Gabriel in the legend recalls E.W. Lane’s version of the Arabian Nights, a set of which is in Kipling’s study at Bateman’s, his home in Sussex. The book had been a favourite of his since his Aunt Georgie (Lady Burne-Jones) had read it to him in childhood.

Critical Opinions

Cyril Falls wrote:

Some of the poems between the stories are delightful, particularly that after How the Camel got his Hump, which tells little boys and girls how to avoid a like calamity [p. 142].

Writing of the speech patterns of the characters in Just So Stories, Rosalind Meyer said [Kipling Journal, 232, December 1984, p. 16]:

In the tale of the Camel… mature accents very familiar to Kipling’s readers may already be discerned – granted the other hints given by the story. The Horse, the Dog, and the Ox, angered by the Camel’s defection from the day’s work, make representations to him and then to the Man, who is in charge of local operations. Harassed, the Man has no solution but for the three to work harder, so that in the evening the three hold “a palaver, and a punchayet, and a pow-wow on the edge of the Desert”. Their ability to discourse poses a threat, as is remarked by the Djinn of All Deserts as he passes, quick in his exalted capacity to note discontent among the staff.
“Djinn of All Deserts,” said the Horse, “is it right for any one to be idle, with the world so new-and-all?” He words his appeal with the respect, but also with the directness, of a professional Civil Servant employed in the establishment of the British Raj.

Equally, the expansiveness of his superior is nicely delineated:
“Whew!” said the Djinn, whistling. “that’s my Camel, for all the gold in Arabia! What does he say about it?” He is swift to investigate, and swift to ensure the Camel’s contribution to the work force. Reprisals are tempered with diplomatic bluffness, and the reminder of the necessity to bow to the Law, enforced by a hint of the availability of promotion – “and don’t you ever say I never did anything for you.”

These slight touches reveal themselves only in “the shifting light of sex, youth and experience”. But they suggest the underlying structure of a tale whose maxim the author had illustrated before and was to illustrate again. The unlicked cubs must be licked into shape, and Work make its claim on the work force.

©Lisa Lewis 2005 All rights reserved