Rudyard Kipling - The Elephant's Child

If your childhood did not include the tale of The Elephant’s Child on the banks of the great, grey-green, greasy Limpopo river, all set about with fever trees, then it was a deprived one. Kipling’s short story, told to his beloved daughter who always insisted he tell it ‘just so!’ is one of the greatest pieces of short fiction I know.

Come with me on a fabulous reading journey through 2020. Together we will explore a thought-provoking selection of 19th and 20th Century classics. For each novel you will receive an illustrated monograph packed full of intriguing stories about the author behind the book, explaining its themes, tempting you with film versions to watch, and challenging you with discussion questions.

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An utterly magical short story

It is rare to find perfection anywhere in this world. But you do find it in this utterly magical short story, The Elephant’s Child, by Rudyard Kipling. Pitch-perfect, full of evocative and memorable phrases, moving and exciting, and written in language that is ‘just-so’ in every sense, this tale is one of the marvels of literature.

To my regret, I never encountered it as a child – only as an adult. Since then, I have lectured on it many times. It thrills me that whenever I quote from the story during lectures, I see the lips of my audience saying with me that magical phrase about “the great grey-green, greasy Limpopo River, all set about with fever trees”. And there are smiles of sheer pleasure at the wondrousness of Kipling’s words!

“It strikes a child as the kind of yarn his father or uncle might have spun if he had just happened to think of it; and it has, like all good fairy-business, a sound core of philosophy.”
― H. W. Boynton, The Atlantic 1903

I am a huge Kipling fan. Today he’s not the most fashionable of authors and, I think, is unfairly blamed for not being PC enough for the modern world. But he was a master of words and skilled in so many areas of literature – a superb poet, a novelist, a literary critic (he had the good taste to love the writings of Jane Austen) and of course a storyteller. This story is rich with wisdom about humanity – curiosity, facing danger, asking questions, growing up, taking an arduous journey, and more. This is far more than simply a story for children – it is in fact a story for those of any age who love literature at its absolute best.

Don’t wait to find a child or grandchild to read it to – give yourself a treat and read The Elephant’s Child for yourself. I hope this Guide will help you to appreciate its many perfections. I don’t believe in Heaven, but one of the things I would expect to experience there would be sitting at Kipling’s feet while he recited this story to me just so!

My grown-up daughter, now a mother herself, still occasionally asks me to read her The Elephant’s Child and I hope before long I will be reading it to my granddaughters Arabella and Josephine (how Kipling would have approved of little Josephine’s name!). This is a story made for reading aloud – so many varied voices, such rich and hilarious language (I dare you NOT to smile when you read the phrase “promiscuous parts”), such evocative repetition.

But why does it have such magic, and where lies the skill in its construction and characterisation? Let’s journey together to “the great grey-green, greasy Limpopo River, all set about with fever trees” and find out …

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Discuss it with me

Did you read this story when young, or have you just read it for the first time now? Have you ever been to the Limpopo River? Does this story make you want to see it for yourself? I’m interested to hear what you think, so please tell me in a comment.

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Featured image credit- Rudyard Kipling, The Elephant’s Child, from
Body image credit- Front cover of Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories, 1st edition, 1902,
Body image credit- The Elephant’s Child by Joseph M. Gleeson, from Just So Stories, 1912
Body image credit- Rudyard Kipling by John Collier, 1891,

Comments (8)

  1. Linda

    My mom and dad read this to me, starting at about age 2, or even before. As a child, I had it almost memorized.
    I remember my dad reading through clinched teeth, and then winking his eye. Sheer joy.
    I lost my childhood book and had purchased another one several years ago, but it was an edited version.
    I just received a copy from Amazon that, as far as I can tell and remember, is the original text.
    There is no other book like it.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Yes, it is as close to perfect as a story can be. Once read, who can ever forget the ‘great grey-green greasy Limpopo River, all spread about with fever trees’?? And you are quite right not to be satisfied with an edited version – you need every precious word!

  2. Melvyn Dickson

    Thanks so much for your extensive analysis of “The Elephants Child”. It has been a favourite story of mine from the age of three, and before reading your analysis I never saw it in such a light. Very good!. One of your questions was about Kolokolo bird. Kolokolo bird is the only contact the elephants child meets that does not spank him for his curiosity, but who gives him sensible, even scientific advice (though risky). “Go and find out”. So I admire Kolokolo bird and I despise all the others who punish curiosity with spanking. No way to encourage enquiring minds! As for the story, it is almost poetic, and no wonder, told and refined by a poet. Over the decades I have enjoyed reading it to my children and grandchildren. Have you listened to the CD of my reading yet?

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Mel, I am sure I emailed you to thank you for your reading which I really enjoyed. If I didn’t email, that was most remiss of me and I do apologise.
      Isn’t it the most magical story. I totally agree about Kolokolo Bird – he is the only one who knows how to teach children! I am so glad you are taking the story to the next generation with your grandchildren!!! Keep up the good work!

  3. Fiona Morgan

    Hi Susannah, I have just finished “‘The Elephant’s Child’ audiobook narrated by Jack Nicholson with music by Bobby McFerrin and
    found it utterly gorgeous. Had never read or had read to me such a delightful tale!
    Fiona M

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Isn’t it a truly marvellous story. So glad you enjoyed it.

  4. Jenny Falkiner

    I just LOVE the Elephant’s child and Rudyard Kipling, I will have to read it to my six year old grandson, my book of Just So Stories was published in 1959.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      That’s a good age for the story. Every child should know about the ‘great, grey-green, greasy Limpopo river’!

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