"How the Whale
got his Throat"

Notes edited
by Lisa Lewis

the story

[March 31 2005]

Publication history

First published in St Nicholas Magazine, December 1897, as “How the Whale got his tiny Throat”; illustrated by Oliver Herford. Collected in Just So Stories, 1902, illustrated by the author and followed by the poem “When the cabin port-holes are dark and green.”

The story

Once upon a time the Whale ate fishes of all kinds and sizes. At last there was only one left in the sea, a small astute fish that hid behind the whale’s ear and advised him to eat a shipwrecked mariner, to be found at Latitude 50 North and Longitude 40 West. The Whale swallowed the mariner and the raft he was sitting on.

But once inside, the mariner jumped about so much that the Whale got hiccups and asked him to come out. He answered that he would not, unless he was taken to the shore of his British home, and danced harder than ever. So the Whale took him to the beach and the mariner came out. But in the meantime the clever mariner had made his raft into a grating which he fastened in the Whale’s throat with his suspenders. Forever after, the Whale could only eat the smallest of fishes.


The manuscript of the story, where the mariner is named as “Mr O’Shea,” is in the bound volume Just So Stories at the British Library. It was introduced in St Nicholas by the following uncollected preface:

Some stories are meant to be read quietly and some stories are meant to be told aloud. Some stories are only proper for rainy mornings, and some for long hot afternoons when one is lying in the open, and some stories are bedtime stories.

All the Blue Skalallatoot stories are morning tales (I do not know why, but that is what Effie says). All the stories about Orvin Sylvester Woodsey, the left-over New England fairy who did not think it well-seen to fly, and who used patent labour-saving devices instead of charms, are afternoon stories because they were generally told in the shade of the woods.

You could alter and change these tales as much as you pleased; but in the evening there were stories meant to put Effie to sleep, and you were not allowed to alter those by one single little word. They had to be told just so; or Effie would wake up and put back the missing sentence. So at last they came to be like charms, all three of them, - the whale tale, the camel tale, and the rhinoceros tale. Of course little people are not alike, but I think if you catch some Effie rather tired and rather sleepy at the end of the day, and if you begin in a low voice and tell the tales precisely as I have written them down, you will find that Effie will presently curl up and go to sleep.

Now, this is the first tale, and it tells how the whale got his tiny throat...
All that survives of the Blue Skalallatoot stories is a map and a letter (see Kipling Journal 157, March 1968, pp. 6-8); the Orwin Sylvester Woodsey stories seem to have vanished forever. The other two tales that appeared in the following numbers of St Nicholas were “How the Camel got his Hump” and “How the Rhinoceros got his Skin.”

The Kiplings had settled outside Brattleboro, New England, in 1892, to be near Mrs Kipling’s family. Their first child Josephine (Effie) was born that December. By the time the story was published, they had moved to England, but internal evidence both in the preface and the story itself strongly suggests that it dated from the American years.


The obvious source for the story is the Book of Jonah in the Old Testament, chapters 2-3. Kipling would also have been familiar with the alternative version in vol. 2 of Mirza Mirkhwand bin Khavendshah bin Mahmud of Herat [Mirza Mirkhond], The Garden of Purity, translated by Rehatsek (London, Oriental Translation Fund, 1892): “sacred and profane history according to the Moslem belief.” There is a set of this in his study at Bateman’s. Further details seem to have come from two episodes in The Surprising Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1786). There also seem to be echoes of Homer’s Odyssey. (See Notes on the Text.)

Critical Opinions

Of the Whale illustration, Francis Cecil Whitehouse wrote:

This, a most difficult composition, appears to have presented no obstacles. As an imaginative piece of work it is above criticism.

Everything flows into the rapacious throat: the water, raft, Mariner and jack-knife – not forgetting the suspenders, so delicately traced. The technique is not a whit less excellent: the portrayal of perspective and form by means of shading.
[“Kipling’s other Art,” Kipling Journal 39, September 1936, p. 98].
Of “the Whale looking for the little ’Stute Fish,” Whitehouse said:

[it] is, of course – and, of course, intentionally so – screamingly funny. The attitude of the little ’Stute Fish, and the half-fearful, half-cunning expression in his eye, is exactly what we should expect from a little ’Stute Fish hiding from a Whale. [Ibid., p. 99.]
J.M.S. Tompkins wrote:

The jocular manner and the refrains (‘You must not forget the suspenders, Best Beloved’) amused me, though a young cousin complained: ‘You needn’t say that again’ [p. 55].
Rosalind Meyer commented:

It is, then, essential to the design of the stories that the animals should talk. The denouement of many of the stories turns on this power to communicate, as may be seen in the brief and only exchange between the Whale and Mr. Henry Albert Bivvens, A.B.: [quoted, p. 9, lines 20-8]. Each is providing information useful to the other, and, as a consequence, the story proceeds to its happy ending.

In folk-tale, creatures may talk: but as a rule their discussion is superfluous to the plot. The Wolf, for instance, could easily discover Little Red Riding Hood’s destination in some way other than by questioning her. The Whale may not.
[“But is it Art?” Kipling Journal, 231, December 1984, p. 14].


©Lisa Lewis 2005 All rights reserved