full of ‘satiable curtiosity!

December 29, 2012

Kipling, the first English author to win the Nobel Prize for literature, had to appear in this series sooner or later.  The issue which I have wrestled with between various forms of Christmas Cheer, is which of the Just So Stories and Jungle Book to feature.  I ended up realising that I needed to talk about both, starting with the story of their discovery.   One of the many benefits of being deprived of television during my early years was the BBC Home Services Children's Hour.  This service should never be compared with the dumbed down, trivialised and inconsequential banalities of children's television.  It too you seriously, made few compromises to language and critically made you want to go down to the library and read.

The Just So Stories were read by David Davies, the outstanding radio story teller of his and for that matter, any generation.  His voice suited the cadences of Kipling's writing and my sister and I were both swept up with the Cat who walked by himself and all places were alike unto him and the banks of the great grey-green, greasy Limpopo River, all set about with fever-trees to just pick two phrases that I can remember to this day.  When my children were young the Davies recording was still available, no longer alas, so they grew up with the same aural stimulation on car journeys and in their turn read the books.

The Jungle Book on the hand came as compulsory reading when you joined the Wolf Cubs as I dutifully did when I reached the right age.  I dutifully rose to be sixer of the Yellows, Pack Leader and finally lead the County Howl after I got my leaping wolf badge.  having ascending those heights the thought of dropping to tenderfoot level in the Scouts was unacceptable and my mother was never happy with the trappings of empire that still accompanied Baden-Powell's youth movement so I was allowed to withdraw on political grounds.  We had our Akela for whom we always did our best, our Baloo and Bagheera.  We lived the apprenticeship of Mowgli represented by multiple triangular badges sown on our green jumpers and terrorised the neighbourhood during bob-a-job week.

Both books excited curiosity, and (like most of the books in this series) taught you language in context.  The Just so Stories in particular excited one's curtiosities per the following quotation from The Elephant's Child:

But there was one Elephant–a new Elephant–an Elephant's Child–who was full of 'satiable curtiosity, and that means he asked ever so many questions. And he lived in Africa, and he filled all Africa with his 'satiable curtiosities. He asked his tall aunt, the Ostrich, why her tail-feathers grew just so, and his tall aunt the Ostrich spanked him with her hard, hard claw. He asked his tall uncle, the Giraffe, what made his skin spotty, and his tall uncle, the Giraffe, spanked him with his hard, hard hoof. And still he was full of 'satiable curtiosity! He asked his broad aunt, the Hippopotamus, why her eyes were red, and his broad aunt, the Hippopotamus, spanked him with her broad, broad hoof; and he asked his hairy uncle, the Baboon, why melons tasted just so, and his hairy uncle, the Baboon, spanked him with his hairy, hairy paw. And still he was full of 'satiable curtiosity! He asked questions about everything that he saw, or heard, or felt, or smelt, or touched, and all his uncles and his aunts spanked him. And still he was full of 'satiable curtiosity!

Of course, after he asked What does the Crocodile have for dinner they said 'Hush!' in a loud and dretful tone, and they spanked him immediately and directly, without stopping, for a long time.  But he still goes to find out, and after securing the support of the Bi-Coloured-Python-Rock-Snake his nose becomes a trunk and on returning home he spanked all his dear families for a long time, till they were very warm and greatly astonished.  Its a lovely symmetry, but in that story we also get this passage:

'Rash and inexperienced traveller, we will now seriously devote ourselves to a little high tension, because if we do not, it is my impression that yonder self-propelling man-of-war with the armour-plated upper deck' (and by this, O Best Beloved, he meant the Crocodile), 'will permanently vitiate your future career.'

Now I had to learn some new words to even understand that, but critically I wanted to learn them.  Kipling and all writers mentioned so far all do this to any any intelligent child.  My all time favourite, and one our mother read and re-read to us was The Begining of the Armadillos where the Hedgehog and the Tortoise merge to confuse the Painted Jaguar on the banks of the Turbid Amazon.  The irony is that Kipling really favours evolution in all his stories, but Just So Story is now an abusive term in science.  A pity really as there are many ways we have to make sense of the world and poetical imagination has its place.

So great and powerful books, but then of course, and they are rapidly becoming the villain of this whole series, along come Disney and reduce a serious and powerful text into a no-word-more-than two-syllables, sing along, saccharine, pettifogging, paltry and nugatory entertainment.  OK I don't like Disney, or rather I do when they create their own characters.  But when the trample unsympathetically through my childhood, that is unforgivable.

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