The Crab that Played with the Sea



First published in Collier’s, August 1902, illustrated by F. Dumond; and in Pearson’s Magazine, August 1902, illustrated by Lawson Wood as “The Crab that played the Tides”. Collected in Just So Stories (1902), illustrated by the author and followed by the poem “China-going P & Os” (titled “The Riddle” in The Just So Song Book).

The story

In the very beginning, the Eldest Magician made ready the Earth and the Seas. He called the animals and instructed each one to play at being itself. Then the Man came, bringing his little daughter, and while the magician was promising that all animals obey the Man, the Crab slipped away, vowing to take instructions from nobody. Only the little girl saw him go.

When all the other animals had been given their orders, the Magician went round the earth to check what they were doing, and to turn the areas they had disturbed into mountains, deserts, marshes and islands. By the Perak River he met the Man, who complained that while animals and earth were obedient the Sea was not; it alternately flooded his house and stranded his canoe.

With the little girl they boarded the canoe and were swept out to sea. All the inhabitants of Earth and Moon denied that they were responsible. The little girl told how she had seen the Crab escape and described him. They went to Pusat Tasek, the Heart of the Sea, with a hollow to the centre of the earth and a tree bearing magic nuts. There they found Pau Amma the monster crab, who had been causing the flood and ebb when he sank or surfaced. The Magician called him up and he tore off one of the nuts as he came. The daughter picked it up. The Magician caused his shell to fall off and Pau Amma begged for it back. He bargained with them and was made small enough to hide under stones and weeds, but must lose his shell yearly.

The girl gave him her scissors so that he could make holes in coconuts. The man complained at having to row home, and the Fisherman in the moon agreed to tow the sea in and out in tides. Pau Amma’s children live on the shore and can climb trees to eat coconuts. They hate being caught and taken home and will nip you with their scissors.



The manuscript of the story and poem are in the volume Just So Stories at the British Library, where the story is titled “How the Crab got his Claws.” According to Mrs Kipling’s diary, it was written on 4 December 1901.

On 5 January, 1935, Kipling wrote to W.W. Skeat:

You sent me, years ago, your Malay Magic; out of which I took (“pinched” is another word for it) my tale of “The Crab that played with the Tides” and used your eldest Magician, including the phrase Kun? Paya Kun: the Rat; the Man in the Moon; Rajas Moyong Kaban and Abdullah; the Pusat Tasek, etc.
etc. The evidence of this – shall we call it delicately “adaptation” – is as plain as print.
[Pinney, ed., Letters, vol. 6, p. 327].

ORG quotes a letter to Sir John Bland-Sutton (not in Pinney) for which no date is given:

In the Pusat Tasek, which is the navel of the sea – a large hole in the ocean bottom – sits a gigantic crab which, twice a day, goes out for food. While he is sitting in the hole, the waters of the ocean are unable to pour into the underworld, the whole of the aperture being filled and blocked by the crab’s bulk.

The inflowings of the rivers into the sea during these periods are supposed to cause the rising of the tides, while the downpouring of the waters through the great hole, while the crab is absent searching for food, is supposed to cause the ebb.

Over the gulf of Pusat Tasek grows an immense tree (Pauh-Janggi), probably a tradition of the Coco-de-mer existing only on the Seychelles, the nuts of which are sometimes cast up on the Malayan islands.

From what I know of the author of the tale to which you refer, I should imagine that he compounded Pau out of Pauh-Janggi, invented Amma, and presented the composite as the crab’s name.

You can rely on the crab being authentic Malay folklore.

According to B.E. Smythies in a letter to the Kipling Journal, Kipling’s translation of “kun” and “payah kun” is incorrect: what they really mean in the Creation myth quoted by Skeat is “Let there be” and “likewise let there be.” He suggests that Kipling got this wrong because he did not read, or did not remember, Skeat’s footnotes [KJ 237, March 1986, pp. 35-6].

As shown in the drawing, Pau Amma is a scary figure. Reassuringly, in exchange for his new resources and many refuges, the monster Pau Amma has to shrink until he is small enough for a child to pick up. On an adult level, one might compare another monster crab, Cancer, in the story “The Children of the Zodiac” (Many Inventions). Kipling had a particular dread of cancer.

The poem and its note complete the travel theme in the book, seen earlier in “When the cabin portholes are dark and green,” “This uninhabited island,” “I’ve never sailed the Amazon” and the map “Ye manie mouthes of ye Amazons River.”

Critical Opinions

J M S Tompkins wrote:

The charm lay in the mystery and remoteness … I was present at the creation of the world with “The Crab that Played with the Sea” (though I perfectly understood that this was fantasy) [p. 55].

To Rosalind Meyer [Kipling Journal, 232, December 1984, p. 32]:

All [Kipling’s] gifts find opportunity to expand and to declare themselves, as he creates his own Magic for little children.
[Quotes p. 160, line 21, to p. 161, line 5].
The plot has been set up by a twist on “playing”; it denotes an irresponsible idleness alien to the Work of the World, which taints Paradise with sin as it produces a malfunction of time and tide. But the denouement follows, after the Eldest Magician’s game is done with the Crab, and all falls smoothly into working order.
[Quotes pp. 170, line 30 to p. 171, line 5].

Of the illustrations, Brian Alderson wrote [Children’s Literature: Annual of the Modern Language Association Division on Children’s Literature and the Children’s Literature Association, Vol. 20, New Haven (Yale University Press, 1992)]:

Kipling’s command of technique here is combined with a playful attitude towards the illustrations’ content. He comments on this himself when he distinguishes between the “truly pictures” and those symbolic utterances like the one of Pau Amma and the Eldest Magician, which he calls “Big Medicine and Strong Magic.”
[Brian Alderson, “Just So Pictures: Illustrated versions of Just So Stories”, p. 155].

©Lisa Lewis 2006 All rights reserved