“Just So Science” on BBC Radio 4 has taken some of Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories and biologized them—interviewing experts on animal behavior to provide a gloss on Kipling’s descriptions. The latest BBC segment, which you can hear here, deconstructs “The Cat that Walked by Himself”. It’s a 15-minute program including a dramatic reading interspersed with intriguing facts about the biology of Felis catus.
The BBC site gives notes:
Vivienne Parry presents the science behind some of Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories, with wondrous tales of how things really came to be.
In Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories, we’re told how the leopard got his spots, the camel his hump, the whale his throat and so forth. But what does science make of these lyrical tales? For the most part, just-so stories are to be dismissed as the antithesis of scientific reasoning. They’re ad hoc fallacies, designed to explain-away a biological or behavioural trait, more akin to folklore than the laws of science. But on closer inspection, might Kipling’s fantasies contain a grain of truth? And might the “truth” as science understands it, be even more fantastic than fiction?
In Just So Science, Vivienne Parry meets researchers whose work on some of Kipling’s ‘best beloved’ creatures is helping us to answer a rather inconvenient question: how do traits evolve? Why are some animals the way they are? Excerpts from five of the Just So Stories are read by Samuel West 5. The Cat That Walked by Himself. Do we keep cats, or do they keep us? [JAC: Do we really need to ask that question?] The myths and the mysteries of felis catus [sic] explored by Patrick Bateson and John Bradshaw. Producer: Rami Tzabar.
I’ll put the original story below (it’s short and really cool), and you can go here to read about its background and the reactions of critics and other authors.
The Cat that Walked by Himself
by Rudyard Kipling
Originally all the tame animals were wild, but especially the Cat: he walked by himself and all places were alike to him. The Man was wild too until he met the Woman, who chose a Cave for them to live in, lit a fire in it and hung a horsehide over the opening. She cooked a meal of wild ingredients.
Then, while the Man slept, she took the bladebone of a shoulder of mutton and made a Singing Magic. This attracted the Dog, and on the next two nights she similarly lured the Horse and the Cow to visit the cave. They agreed to provide services to the couple, the Dog in exchange for roast meat and the other two for hay that she had dried by the fire. Each time the Cat followed and eavesdropped, called them fools, and went off to tell no one.
On the fourth night the Cat went to the cave and smelt the warm milk from the Cow. The Woman laughed at him and told him to go back to the woods. The Cat flattered her and asked if he might never come in the Cave, sit by the fire or taste the milk. She answered that if she praised him once, twice and three times, his three wishes would be granted, but swore she never would. The Cat left, but the Bat reported to him what was happening.
When he heard the Woman had a Baby, the Cat knew his time had come. He went and found that the Baby crying outside the Cave. He rubbed himself against it till it laughed. The Bat told the Woman, who blessed whatever creature was responsible, whereupon the horsehide fell down and the Cat was admitted to the Cave. The Woman was annoyed. She began to spin, but the Baby cried again, and the Cat told her to tie her spinning-whorl to a thread to pull about the floor for him to chase. This made the Baby laugh, then it clutched the Cat, who purred it to sleep. The Woman thanked him, then the fire smoked and the Cat was found warming himself. She was furious, and made a Still Magic to prevent herself from granting the third wish. In the quiet, a mouse came out and she screamed. When the Cat killed the mouse, she thanked him, and the Milk-pot cracked open, allowing him to drink.
But he had made no bargain with the Man or the Dog. The man said the Cat must always catch mice or have boots and other objects thrown at him. The Cat agreed, but defiantly, so was told that three things would still be thrown. The Dog threatened to bite the Cat if he were ever unkind to the Baby, and receiving a defiant consent, promised always to chase him up a tree. Man and Dog carried out their threats; most men and all dogs will do the same, though the Cat keeps his bargain. But on moonlit nights he roams the woods or the roofs, walking by his wild lone.
I can’t resist an old joke:
Man: Madam, do you like Kipling?
Woman: Sir, I can’t say: I’ve never kippled.