I should confess up front here that I’ve never before read anything by Kipling – which is a *big* gap in my reading knowledge, really. However, Hesperus Press have been kind enough to provide me with another one of their lovely Hesperus Minor editions – beautiful reprints of children’s classics – in the form of his “Puck of Pook’s Hill”. As always from Hesperus, it’s an attractive edition with French flaps, and the foreword is by children’s author Marcus Sedgwick.
To briefly introduce Kipling, Wikipedia tells us: “Joseph Rudyard Kipling ( 30 December 1865 – 18 January 1936) was an English short-story writer, poet, and novelist. He is chiefly remembered for his tales and poems of British soldiers in India and his tales for children. He was born in Bombay and was taken by his family to England when he was five years old…his children’s books are enduring classics of children’s literature; and his best works are said to exhibit “a versatile and luminous narrative gift”. Kipling was one of the most popular writers in England, in both prose and verse, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Kipling’s subsequent reputation has changed according to the political and social climate of the age and the resulting contrasting views about him continued for much of the 20th century.Literary critic Douglas Kerr wrote: “He [Kipling] is still an author who can inspire passionate disagreement and his place in literary and cultural history is far from settled. But as the age of the European empires recedes, he is recognised as an incomparable, if controversial, interpreter of how empire was experienced. That, and an increasing recognition of his extraordinary narrative gifts, make him a force to be reckoned with.”
Certainly, I think I might find some of his more colonial works a little difficult to deal with; but this story is set in the heart of old England, Pevensey in Sussex and its environs. The book opens in high summer – it is Midsummer’s Eve and two children, Dan and Una, are performing their own version of Shakespeare’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream”. They like it so much that they go through the play three times; but they haven’t noticed that they’re doing so in the middle of a fairy ring… Up pops the elf Puck, called up by their play; one of the Old Things, who’ve been in England for thousands and thousands of years. He claims to be the oldest of the Old Things, and in fact we wonder whether he might be the last.
Una and Dan are obviously imaginative children, and so receptive to Puck’s narratives of the past. He begins to regale them with stories from deep history, when there were pagan gods on earth and they came to England but somehow became absorbed into the land and turned into ordinary mortals. Puck, however, does not just relate other people’s stories; instead he plucks the protagonists from the past to tell their own tales directly to the children.
As the book progresses, we find out more about the making of England – the comings and goings of various tribes, how people in the past travelled far and wide over the globe, how men fought and empires rose and fell. And each night, when the children return home from their ‘play’, Puck gives them the gift of forgetting “by Oak, Ash and Thorn” – all three Celtic sacred trees. They meet Sir Richard Dalyngridge, who has adventures at home and on the high seas; the Roman centurion Parnesius, defending Hadrian’s Wall from the Picts among uncertain political forces and a failing Roman empire; Sir Harry Dawe; and the Jewish money-lender Kadmiel, who was instrumental in one of England’s most important laws…
I’m not sure quite what I was expecting from “Puck” but I don’t think it was quite such a deep, atmospheric, moving and engrossing book! The writing is quite lovely, and the descriptions of the Sussex landscape – the heat, the stillness, the buzzing of bees – will be familiar to anyone who’s spent a summer day in the English countryside. The stories Puck and his fellows tell us are poignant and inspiring at the same time – full of adventure (pirates and Devils in the southern seas; Viking invaders) but also change and loss (Henry VIII’s destruction of the monasteries and the religious wars; the waning of the Roman empire). It’s a tribute to Kipling’s skill that he can encapsulate all this in a children’s story.
“The houses change from gardened villas to shut forts with watchtowers of grey stone, and great stone-walled sheepfolds, guarded by armed Britons of the North Shore. In the naked hills beyond the naked houses, where the shadows of the clouds play like cavalry charging, you see puffs of black smoke from the mines. The hard road goes on and on – and the wind sings through your helmet plume – past altars to Legions and Generals forgotten, and broken statues of Gods and Heroes, and thousands of graves where the mountain foxes and hares peep at you. Red-hot in summer, freezing in winter, is that big purple heather country of broken stone.”
And it’s a very gripping story – so much so, that I was as lost in the tales of the past as Dan and Una were, coming back to their present (and mine!) with a bit of a shock, as Puck brought forgetfulness to the children. The tales are interspersed with poems and songs, lamenting losses, praising heroes and telling stories in their own right. One of the most moving sections of the book is that which deals with the leaving of the fairy folk from English shores, as the world becomes riven with strife which they cannot deal with. They are spirited away by boat, sailed abroad by two sons of a wise woman; one is blind and one cannot speak so the fate of the little people will never be told among mortals.
“Puck” draws on the myths and legends of England, but tells them with a twist, from the point of view of minor players – making them all the more human. Why this should touch me so deeply is a question I pondered – being an ex-pat Scot I suppose I’m technically a pict, so I shouldn’t relate to the English past. However, I spent most of my young life in Andover, a very old town in Hampshire (which gets a mention in the book!) and I do feel very connected to the southern English landscape. I found myself reflecting that there is no ‘pure’ English stock; we are a polyglot nation, formed from all the many races who’ve come and gone from our shores over the centuries. Nevertheless, I think Kipling is saying that those who stay become one with the land and from that springs the Britain we know today.
“Puck of Pook’s Hill” is a little masterpiece – wonderfully involving, full of expert storytelling, deeply moving. I read it on what felt like the first summer day of the year, with the sun shining, the air still and soundless, and bees buzzing in the back garden – I can’t think of a more appropriate book to read on a day like that, and hats off to Hesperus for their lovely new edition of this amazing book.