[October 16 2006]
First published in the Ladies’ Home Journal, October 1902, illustrated by Frank Verbeck. Collected in Just So Stories (1902), illustrated by the author and followed by the poem “There was never a Queen like Balkis”.
This story, different from the others, is about King Solomon. He was so wise he could understand what all creatures said, as well as rocks, trees, plants and people, and his Head Queen Balkis was nearly as wise as he. He wore a magic ring that gave him power to summon Djinns, Afrits, Fairies and the Archangel Gabriel. But he was not proud, and if he ever showed off he repented it. Once he tried to feed all the world’s animals in a day, but an Animal came out of the sea and gobbled up all the food, commenting that in his family that was barely a snack, a lesson that Solomon remembered.
He had a thousand wives, and they all lived in a palace together. The wives kept quarrelling, all except Balkis. He could have called Djinns and Afrits to punish them, as Balkis urged him to do, but did not wish to show off, so instead went out to find peace in his garden. Balkis, who loved and pitied him, hid to watch him.
Solomon heard two butterflies quarrelling. The male one told his wife he could stamp his foot and the palace and garden would disappear. Solomon, laughing, called him and asked why he told such a fib, and he said it was to silence his quarrelsome wife. He then told her he had promised Solomon not to stamp. Balkis called the butterfly’s wife, who said she knew it was bluff. Balkis told her next time to dare her husband to stamp, so she did. The butterfly appealed to Solomon, who summoned four Djinns and told them to make the palace disappear when the butterfly stamped. This was done and the butterfly’s wife submitted. Solomon laughed harder, and told the butterfly to stamp again to restore the palace.
When it was back, all the queens rushed out in a panic. Balkis told them what had happened and showed them Solomon with the butterflies. The queens were awed and tiptoed away. Balkis told Solomon they had learned their lesson, and he wondered how, so she explained what she had done and why. They went up to the palace and lived happily ever after.
The manuscript of the story is in the volume “Just So Stories” in the British Library. According to Carrington’s notes from Mrs Kipling’s diaries, it was written on 4th March 1902. No evidence of a previous oral version is known to exist.
Principal sources for the story are the Bible and the Koran, Surah 27 (“The Ant”). In the Bible the Queen of Sheba does not marry Solomon but “went to her own country.” Additional details, including the name “Balqis” for the Queen of Sheba and the Animal from the sea that ate up all the food, come from Muhammad bin Khavendshah bin Mahmud Mirkhwand (Mirza Mirkhond of Herat), Rauzat-uz-Safa (The Garden of Purity), trans. Rehatsek (London, Oriental Translation Fund, 1892), of which there is a set in Kipling’s study. It is described as “sacred and profane history according to the Moslem belief.”
None of these sources include the butterfly. According to Mrs Kipling it was originally a firefly. In a letter reprinted in ORG, Carrington suggested that: 'the notion came originally from Robert Browning’s last volume of verse (Solomon and Balkis included).' There is no such poem in Browning’s final collection Asolando (1889), but in the previous Jocoseria (1883) there is a poem called “Solomon and Balkis,” from which Kipling must have got the spelling 'Balkis'. It recounts a conversation between the two monarchs which could have inspired the relationship in Kipling’s story, but does not include the eponymous butterfly (or firefly), or any of the other characters or episodes.
There is evidence in favour of the Biblical view that Solomon’s reign was prosperous and peaceful. The fact that he reigned for forty years goes a long way towards proof of this. His commercial ventures were extensive; imports being on such a scale that he is said to have made silver as common as stones, and cedars as sycamores, in Jerusalem. His ocean-going fleet trading regularly to Mediterranean ports and to Ophir, which is probably Aden in South Arabia, brought back 'gold, silver, ivory, apes and peacocks' [1 Kings 10,22].Critical Opinions
Rosemary Sutcliffe, coupling the story with “The Cat that Walked by Himself,” thought that they were:
more complex, and go deeper than any of the earlier ones, except the two tales of Taffy and her father. The Butterfly is charming and exquisite, a story like a fragment of Eastern filigree work and luminous with a particularly lovely kind of laughter [Rosemary Sutcliffe, "Rudyard Kipling" in Three Bodley Head Monographs London, The Bodley Head 1968, p. 95.]But to Angus Wilson it was:
… too marred by humans … mock-oriental. [p. 229].Rosamund Meyer [Kipling Journal, 232, December 1984, p. 12] argued that in Just So Stories:
Plots turn on the interaction of sufficiently complex personalities, and may even effect changes in character. The mighty Suleiman-bin-Daoud in all his wisdom is confounded by the Animal that came out of the sea, and only then realises that his munificent project has been prompted by a desire to patronise. Only after this can he grasp at what point he shares common ground with a little Butterfly. Says the Butterfly: [quoted, p. 207, lines 7-9] [pp. 13-4].She pointed out that:
In due time, some hearers may appreciate what superb effects can be achieved by simplicity: with nouns, for example, as Suleiman-bin-Daoud [quoted, p. 206, lines 6-9] [p. 22].She noted 'the ironic cast given to Suleiman-bin-Daoud’s instructions to the Djinns by his final adverb' [quoted, p. 210, lines 12-18] [p. 25], while she also noted that:
Visual technique forms an integral part of the narration … Entire justice is done to the retreat of Suleiman’s wives: [quoted, p. 217, lines 1-3]. [p. 27].Again:
The magic in the tales is very strictly contained. … The 'really truly wise' Suleiman-bin-Daoud is … restrained, and his reasons are given. [quoted, p. 205, lines 3-9] [p. 29].
©Lisa Lewis 2006 All rights reserved