The Sing Song of Old Man Kangaroo

Publication history

First published in the Ladies’ Home Journal, June 1900, illustrated by Frank Verbeck. Collected in Just So Stories (1902), illustrated by the author, and followed by the poem
“This is the mouth-filling song”. The poem is entitled “Kangaroo and Dingo” in Edward German’s Just So Song Book [London, Macmillan 1903]; and “Old Man Kangaroo and Yellow-Dog Dingo” in The Kipling Reader [Chicago, 1912].

The story

The Kangaroo used to have four short legs. He asked Little God Nqa to make him different from all other animals by five o’clock that afternoon and was told to go away. He asked Middle God Nquing the same, also to be “wonderfully popular,” and received the same answer. But when he asked Big God Nqong to be different, popular and “wonderfully run after” Nqong called up Yellow Dog Dingo.

The Kangaroo was chased by the Dingo all across Australia till his legs ached. He came to a river and hopped across it on his hind legs; then continued hopping till his hind legs grew longer, he tucked up his front legs, and stuck out his tail for balance. At five o’clock, when they were both exhausted and the Kangaroo’s shape was permanently changed, Nqong called a halt and told the Kangaroo to thank the Dingo for fulfilling his wish. Both animals complained that they had had nothing to eat, but Nqong just told them to come back next day. Each blamed the other for their ordeal.

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, but Roger Lancelyn Green [1965, p. 176] suggested that it was one of the stories drafted in August 1899 and completed that October. No reference was given for this suggestion.

Kipling’s only visit to Australia had been for two weeks in 1891. It had mainly been spent in Sydney and Melbourne, with short stops in Hobart and Adelaide. (For a full account, see Rosalind Kennedy and Thomas Pinney, Kipling Down Under, Xlibris 2000.) Though he never went back, he continued to take an interest in the country, writing about it in the poems “The Lost Legion” and “The Song of the Cities” [The Seven Seas].

It seems likely that the inspiration for the story came either from personal interviews or from books. Since Kipling was always interested in fables and folk tales, two titles suggest themselves. A version of some Aborigine myths was published in 1896: K. Langloh Parker, Australian Legendary Tales [London, 1896] with an introduction by Kipling’s friend Andrew Lang. A selection from this by H. Drake-Brockman was published as a children’s book by Angus and Robertson [Sydney 1953].

In the story “Bohra the Kangaroo” [1953, pp. 93-5], a four-legged kangaroo “like a dog” is transformed by joining a tribal dance round the fire while the women sing, ending on his hind legs with his tail sticking out behind him. As a punishment for his intrusion, he is condemned to remain in that posture forever.

In 1899, Baldwin Spencer and F.J. Gillen published The Native Tribes of Central Australia (London, Macmillan). This aroused much interest and was widely discussed, as showing that peoples who only had simple tools could have an advanced intellectual life, so that Kipling could easily have heard about it. On pp. 193-6 there is an account of a totemic myth in which a kangaroo is pursued by a dingo pack across Australia, magically returning to life each time they catch him – his bones and tail becoming features of the landscape. The phrase “old man kangaroo” is used (p. 201). Such stories were apparently chanted by the Kangaroo tribe (p. 205).

What seems to have happened is that Kipling has combined elements of these two myths to make a new and different story. In this, the Kangaroo has a recognisably human character: proud and ambitious, but looking for short cuts to his objective. His exigence increases until he trips himself up by the ambiguity of his final demand. He means that he wants to be a celebrity, but the god takes “run after” literally.

The story is written in a kind of free verse, a “sing-song” with long irregular lines and repetitive endings, to be intoned, as are Church of England psalms. The concluding poem tells the tale again in another, more formal type of verse of one five-line and three eight-line stanzas, rhymed, but with a metre based on three regular stresses, as Anglo-Saxon verse was classically based on four.

I am grateful to Margaret Bain, Rosalind Kennedy and Rosalind Meyer for information about the Australian background to the tale. [Ed.]

Critical opinions

Of the illustrations, Francis Cecil Whitehouse wrote [Kipling Journal 39, Sept. 1936, p. 99]:

Search where one might, it would be difficult to find a more perfect portrayal of motion than Kipling’s illustration of Old Man Kangaroo, bounding joyfully with his beautiful new hind legs, and the Yellow-Dog Dingo galloping in hot pursuit. Regret over the disallowed “paint box” is expressed by the author as to this picture; but colour could lend nothing to that splendid draughtsmanship. Conscious of performance, he must have regretted nothing.

On the story, Rosalind Meyer commented [Kipling Journal 232, Dec. 1984, p. 28]:

One story, the Kangaroo’s, experiments with metre rather than rhythm. The Sing-Song of Old Man Kangaroo is precisely that: in loose form, a ballad, after the manner of the interminable folksongs of the Australian outback. Generally speaking, two or three lines of four stresses each are followed by one of three:

He was grey and he was woolly and his pride was inordinate: he danced on an outcrop in the middle of Australia, and he went to the Little God Nqa.

The intoned stanzas catch the peculiar drily humorous drone and drawl of the speech “back of the black stump”. The characters, too, are indicated only by the stock epithets of ballads – like the “jolly swagman” or the “squatter, mounted on his thoroughbred” of “Waltzing Matilda”. Yet in its spare harshness the Sing-Song is not only Australian but surprisingly Greek. The hubris of inordinate pride swiftly attracts Nemesis – Yellow-Dog Dingo, “always hungry” – at the bidding of the Gods.

In this case, the tale ends relatively happily: but the Kangaroo’s chagrin at his metamorphosis perhaps cuts in two directions. “This is a practical joke” might well have been the reflection of some fleeing nymph suddenly transformed into a flowering shrub in response to her appeals for divine intervention; but may it not also, perhaps, be a sly thrust at the Darwin controversy of some forty years earlier? Many of the tales furnish such a commentary on evolution – which perhaps implies one more connotation of “Just So.”

©Lisa Lewis 2005 All rights reserved