The Tabu Tale

These notes draw on those written by Lisa Lewis for the OXFORD WORLD’S CLASSICS edition of Just So Stories (1995) with the kind permission of Oxford University Press, together with material from the Kipling Society’s ORG. The page numbers below refer to the Macmillan Uniform Edition of Just So Stories.



First published in Colliers Weekly. August 29, 1903, illustrated by C.L. Brill; and in Windsor Magazine, September 1903, illustrated by L. Raven-Hill. Collected in the Outward Bound edition of Kipling’s works, Vol. XX (Just So Stories) New York, 1903 and in the Sussex Edition, vol. XVI (Land and Sea Tales); also the Burwash Edition, vol. XIV (Stalky & Co. and Land and Sea Tales): all three illustrated by the author.


The manuscript of the story, with the two illustrations and their captions, are in the bound volume “Just So Stories” in the British Library. According to Carrington’s notes from Mrs Kipling’s diaries, Kipling wrote a story “modelled on the totem tales” on 11 Oct. 1898.

As in “How the First Letter was Written” and “How the Alphabet was made”, the character of Taffy is based on Kipling’s older daughter Josephine, who would die of pneumonia five months after the totem story was written. Her portrait here combines with some contemporary evidence to suggest a highly-strung, overactive child.

Kipling had a copy of J.G. Frazer’s The Golden Bough (1890). Vol. I, ch. 2 of this gives an account of tabus in different communities of the world, but none of it appears to be a source for the story. In Something of Myself (p. 123), Kipling mentions a visit to the Native American collections in the Smithsonian, Washington, D.C., which may have given him some ideas.

Kipling evidently decided not to include this story in the various Just So editions published in his lifetime after 1903. Uli Knoepflmacher in KJ 366 for December 2016, commends this decision:

Kipling was correct to leave out “The Tabu Tale” from all standard editions of the Just So Stories. Closer to an adult ghost story such as “They”, this tale hints at an impassable gulf between child and grown-up. The joyous traffic of the other tales no longer seems possible in a narrative that makes the sharing of “meanings and signs” difficult for both kinds of readers.

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

Notes on the Text

Taffimai Metallumai See “How the First Letter was Written” and “How the Alphabet was Made

Big Tribal Tabu-pole In Windsor Magazine, this continued: “painted red, twelve foot long and a foot thick …”.

Taffy and Tegumai made up the Alphabet See “How the Alphabet was Made


©Lisa Lewis 2006 All rights reserved