The Elephant’s Child

Publication history

First published in the Ladies’ Home Journal, April 1900, illustrated by Frank Verbeck. Collected in Just So Stories (1902), illustrated by the author, and followed by the poem
“I keep six honest serving-men.” The drawing of the Elephant’s Child’s tug of war with the crocodile (above) was reproduced on the cover.

The story

Originally the elephant had a short nose the size of a boot, flexible but useless for grasping things. One little elephant was insatiably inquisitive. He asked so many questions that all his relations spanked him. One day he asked:

“What does the Crocodile have for dinner?”

They all spanked him and told him to hush. Then he asked Kolokolo Bird, who told him to go the Limpopo River and find out. On the way there he met and asked the Bi-Coloured-Python-Rock-Snake, who also spanked him. Then he came to the river and found the Crocodile, who told him to come and hear the whispered answer. When he came close, the Crocodile caught him by his nose and tried to pull him into the water.

The Elephant’s Child resisted, helped by the Bi-Coloured-Python-Rock-Snake, but his nose was pulled out into a long trunk before the Crocodile let go. He found he could use it to swat flies, pick grass, and gather mud to cool his head. It was also useful for picking up litter and for spanking his relatives when he got home. Eventually they all went to the river to get trunks from the Crocodile, and nobody spanked anybody any more.

Background notes

The manuscript of the story is in the volume Just So Stories in the British Library. This was one of the plots for a Just So story suggested by Nelson Doubleday, the seven-year-old son of Kipling’s American publisher (see headnote to “How the Leopard got his Spots”).

Roger Lancelyn Green [page 171] suggested that the oral version dated from 1898, when the Kiplings first took their children to South Africa for a winter holiday. It was on this visit that Kipling went north to Bulawayo in the newly-acquired territory of what became Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), following the same route as the little elephant. Carrington’s notes from Mrs Kipling’s diaries have him writing it on 18 August 1899. This was the first piece of creative writing she mentioned after the death of their daughter Josephine in March 1899. On 16th October, Mrs Kipling wrote that he was “finishing off” this and at least one other Just So story (probably “How the Leopard got his Spots”).

The Ramayana of Tulsi Dass, trans. F.S. Growse (N.W. Provinces and Oudh Government Press), Book I, p. 21n. records this legend of an elephant:

“An alligator had seized him by the foot while bathing, and though he struggled desperately for 2000 years, he was unable to escape his enemy …” Finally he realises that “god alone could save him.”

Kipling owned the second edition of 1880. The little elephant’s journey to the river recalls the classic folk-tale theme of a visit to an ogre or a monster’s den: other examples are Homer’s account of Odysseus in the cave of the Cyclops Polyphemus (of which there is a version in The Arabian Nights), and the giant’s house in the fairy-tale “Jack and the Beanstalk.”

The little elephant’s question evidently seems to the grown-up mind as likely to cause trouble. All his family greet it in “loud and dretful tones” and spank him soundly to discourage its repetition. His expedition to the Limpopo is both dangerous and naughty – Kipling makes it clear that he is lucky to escape with his life. But he and his ’satiable curtiosity” win a prize (his new trunk) that will be imitated by all elephants everywhere. The power shift at the end of the story, when he spanks all the relatives who once spanked him, carries the promise that one day the child will be the stronger.

ORG pointed out that the elephant in the drawings is an Indian not an African one. Kipling was familiar with Indian elephants, about which he wrote several stories (e.g. “Moti Guj, Mutineer” (Life’s Handicap), “My Lord the Elephant” (Many Inventions) and “Toomai of the Elephants” (The Jungle Book). He would have had many fewer opportunities to see African elephants.

Kipling’s daughter Elsie Bambridge claimed that “I keep six honest serving-men” referred to herself as a little girl, when she was known in the family as “Elsie Why” [ Carrington, p. 512]. ORG suggested as its origin a medieval Latin epigram in the Register of Daniel Rough, Clerk of Romney (Kent) in the 14th century:

Si sapiens fore vis sex servus qui tibi mando
Quid dicas et ubi, de quo, cur, quomodo, quando.


(If you wish to be wise I commend to you six servants,
Ask what, where, about what, why, how, when.)

See also our notes on “I Keep Six Honest Serving-men

Critical opinions

Of the illustrations, Francis Cecil Whitehouse wrote:

As to “the Elephant’s Child having his nose pulled by the Crocodile,” I find it difficult to concentrate upon this as a product of pen and ink for a counter attraction: a striving to visualise the mirth-racked author in the course of its creation. [Kipling Journal , 39, Sept. 1936, p. 98].

J.M.S. Tompkins wrote:

‘The great grey-green, greasy Limpopo river, all set about with fever-trees’ never sent me to the map but rolled through my imagination, and runs off my pen now without any reference to ‘The Elephant’s Child’. [p. 55].

Rosalind Meyer argued that the story is partly autobiographical:

At its inception, it seems to represent the cheerful obverse of which the reverse was written as “Baa Baa, Black Sheep”. It would be easy to read into its reprisals to “dear families” some wish-fulfilment of retaliation: but when carefully considered the tale appears in essence rather a humorous account of the author’s own eventual success after quitting first the House of Desolation at Southsea, next Westward Ho!, and finally those “Seven Years Hard” (as he describes them in Something of Myself) on the Civil and Military Gazette and the Pioneer – to emerge famous in early maturity. All his various mentors have their representation in the “dear families”: for, significantly, this tale makes no mention, as such, of the “Mummy” or the “Daddy” who figure so naturally in many other stories, and it speaks for itself. It was Lockwood Kipling, wise and benignant, who designed the elephant motif which supplemented and later replaced the swastika on editions of Kipling’s works.

Analogies in fact and fiction with aspects of the story are not far to seek. In his autobiography, though sanguine, Kipling does not diminish his early difficulties; while the stories based on his tutelary years show how deeply these had impressed the sensitive consciousness of an artist. The ‘Elephant’s Child’ with his ’satiable curtiosity is obviously the Black Sheep of his families; just as any intelligently precocious questions posed by Black Sheep in the House of Desolation were certainly quashed ’“in a loud and dretful tone”.

Thrashings were frequent then; and other chastisement of different kinds followed at school and in India, where, according to Lord Birkenhead, as a talented writer Kipling was still something of a misfit in provincial society. Kolokolo Bird, sketched in a few words as one who has seen the vanity of all human wishes, may owe something to many people; but surely most to Kipling’s first chief editor on the daily paper through which all human experience poured:

“The little I ever acquired of accuracy, the habit of trying at least to verify references … I owed solely to Stephen Wheeler.” Kolokolo Bird of course directs the Elephant’s Child to his sources – for the Limpopo was once known as Crocodile River.

The Elephant’s Child, undaunted by his early experiences, and still eager to explore his universe, soon finds himself in real danger; but even here he stoutly exerts himself, and by the help of the adult and equivocal Bi-Coloured-Rock-Snake, escapes with his life, though mourning apparent malformation. But the Rock Snake proves himself a kindred spirit and an active philosopher in more ways than one. He turns the tables on the Elephant’s Child by asking him questions, in the Socratic mode of instruction. As a result, the Elephant’s Child returns to his world enlightened, and equipped at last with a far-reaching all-purpose trunk to confront it.

In much the same way the near-blind Punch of “Baa Baa, Black Sheep”, endowed with an extension to his face in the form of the spectacles which Beetle was the only boy at the United Services College to wear, eventually acquired not only sight but insight before returning from India in his early twenties to an expectant London. Kolokolo Bird’s “wait-a-bit thorn-bush” has symbolic relevance: for after many trials the Elephant’s Child attains to happiness, asserting his individuality not in conforming to his world, but by achieving its respect in the end.
[Kipling Journal, 232, Dec. 1984, pp. 21-2].

©Lisa Lewis 2005 All rights reserved