Rewards and Fairies by Rudyard Kipling (1910)

Take of English earth as much
As either hand may rightly clutch.
In the taking of it breathe
Prayer for all who lie beneath —
Not the great nor well-bespoke,
But the mere uncounted folk
Of whose life and death is none
Report or lamentation.
Lay that earth upon thy heart,
And thy sickness shall depart!

(A Charm)

Introduction

The book This is the sequel to the classic children’s book, Puck of Pook’s Hill (1906). Both consist of short stories in which Shakespeare’s Puck, last of ‘the People of the Hills’, introduces two nice young children, Dan and Una, to figures from English history, personages who tend to gossip and witter on before eventually getting round to telling a, by and large rather hard-to-follow, ‘story’. There are ten such tales in Rewards – which Kipling worked on from 1906 to 1910 – as well as 24 poems which are, frankly, much more accessible and, as a result, much more enjoyable.

The era The Edwardian era (1901-1910) saw a flourishing of children’s literature – Beatrix Potter published the first of her tales, about Peter Rabbit, in 1902; Peter Pan first appeared in a 1904 play; The Wind In the Willows 1908; E. Nesbit’s The Phoenix and the Carpet in 1904, The Railway Children in 1906. After the heady Imperialist rhetoric surrounding the Boer War, the post-war years saw a retreat into fantasy, children’s and rural writing, all trends epitomised in the Puck books.

The title is taken from a poem by Richard Corbet (1582-1635), which laments the passage of the fairy people out of England, scared by the religious strife under Queen Elizabeth I and especially James I (1603 – 1625), namely the rise of the disruptive Puritans.

Witness those rings and roundelays
Of theirs, which yet remain,
Were footed in Queen Mary’s days
On many a grassy plain;
But since of late, Elizabeth,
And later, James came in,
They never danced on any heath
As when the time hath been.

(Kipling had described this flight of the fairies out of England in the penultimate story in Puck of Pook’s Hill, ‘Dymchurch Flit’ – where it was wonderfully illustrated by Arthur Rackham.)

The stories

1. Cold Iron – Dan and Una are older than in the previous book – symbolised by the fact that they are now boots!, boots which have iron nails in them. Puck explains that the fairy folk can’t abide ‘cold iron’ and tells the story of how he stole a human child and gave it to the fairy people – Sir Huon and his wife Lady Esclairmonde – to raise. As he grew, Puck took the growing lad roistering until they got into so much trouble that Sir Huon and his wife forbade him the boy’s company, soon after which the boy picks up a slave’s collar made and left in his path deliberately to snare him by old Thor, the blacksmith. By touching it the boy becomes doomed to becoming a servant to the humans. Eerie and strange. I enjoy Kipling’s evocations of the pagan/Saxon/Norse gods.

2. Gloriana – Dan and Una go up to their secret base in the woods and bump into Gloriana, Queen Elizabeth I, who tells them a story about being hosted at a nearby country house where a fight breaks out between two brothers who she forces to make peace and then offers a mission to Virginia, in America, to forestall what she thinks might be an attack by forces of King Philip of Spain. The boys and their fleet are never heard of again: did she do right? The characterisation of Elizabth is beguiling and strange, an uncertain but decisive woman trapped by her duties.

She took off her cloak slowly, and stood forth in dove-coloured satin, worked over with pearls that trembled like running water in the running shadows of the trees. Still talking — more to herself than to the children — she swam into a majestical dance of the stateliest balancings, the naughtiest wheelings and turnings aside, the most dignified sinkings, the gravest risings, all joined together by the elaboratest interlacing steps and circles. They leaned forward breathlessly to watch the splendid acting.

3. The Wrong Thing – Dan is carving a model boat in the workshop of the village handyman, Mr Springett, when both are surprised by the arrival of Hal o’ the Draft, the draughtsman and artist we met in the story of the same name in the first volume. As in most Kipling stories the two old blokes fall to yarning and shaking their heads about the modern world – in this instance lamenting the rise of ‘unions’ with their damn-fool insistence that a man be a specialist and not a Jack-of-all-trades.

Only after a lot of this yarning do we get to Hal’s story, in which he is apprenticed to a demanding Italian master of Works in Oxford, Torrigiano. He is commissioned by an employee of the king’s to design a relief for the bow of a new ship, all Neptunes and dolphins – a warship which his foreign girlfriend, Catherine of Castile, wants the king to give her as a pleasure boat.

But Hal is not very happy with his design and Torrigiano mocks it to pieces. So when he’s called along to a local tavern to meet a more senior king’s official to discuss it, Hal says it would cost a good £30 to create and gild, and criticises his own design, adding that in any case it won’t stand up to hard wear at sea. The official is persuaded to scrap it, laughs in relief that Hal has saved him some thirty pound in expense, picks up a nearby rusty sword and, to Hal’s amazement, knights him. For it is the king, Henry VII, himself! Who then exits, leaving Hal stunned.

And moprtified that the king knighted him – not for the excellent chapel and carvings and statues he’s building for him – but for saving him £30 and (also) helping him get one over on a woman he obviously doesn’t like. For the wrong thing!

Meanwhile, Hal had an enemy among the other architects and designers, a vengeful man named Benedetto whose work Hal had criticised once or twice and who had taken it very personally. This Benedetto has crept up behind Hal in the king’s chamber, and now seizes him and puts his knife to his throat, insisting that Hal tell his story before he kills him. So Hal tells him the story of the bad Neptune design for the ship and how he talked the official out of using it and how the official turned out to be the king – and Benedetto bursts out laughing and is so overcome with mirth that he puts his knife away, puts his arm round Hal’s shoulders, and the two become best friends ever since.

Back in ‘the present’, in the frame story, Hal and Mr Springett laugh long and hard at this, and then old Mr Springett tells his own story of how he built an elaborate blue-brick stables for a local lord of the manor. When the rich man’s hoity-toity wife – fresh down from ‘Lunnon’ – asked Springett if he could create a ha-ha (i.e. a ditch) across the main lawn Springett said, ‘Aw no, me lady, there be so any springs around here you’d end up flooding the park.’ Which wasn’t true but he didn’t want to go to the bother of digging it. So the wife dropped the idea and, later, the Lord of the Manor came round and paid Springett a tenner in gratitude – he didn’t want a ha-ha and is delighted that Springett put the kibosh on it. But no mention of the beautiful tiled stables which Springett has laboured so long over.

Thus both Hal and old Springett were rewarded for ‘the wrong thing’, not the thing they thought was important – chapel, stables – but what their masters thought was important – saving £30 and abandoning the ha-ha idea. Both, as it happens, also involved helping the lords get one over on their womenfolk…

‘Stories’ like this seem to come from a sense of human nature and shared values that is so alien to our 21st century sensibilities that they are difficult to relate to.

4. Marklake Witches – Una is learning how to milk cows with Mrs Vincey, the farmer’s wife at Little Lindens, when out of nowhere appears an imperious young lady in historical outfit who calls herself Miss Philadelphia and starts prattling on at length about everything and nothing like so many Kipling characters. Eventually her prattle about her mother and her father and her nurse, Old Cissie, settles down into the time Cissie stole three silver spoons and gave them to Jerry Gamm, the Witchmaster on the Green, and Miss Philly went to get them back. Jerry Gamm returned them readily enough, but gave her a stick of maple wood and told her to prop her window open with it and say prayers five times a day to get rid of her spitting cough, which the ‘proper’ doctor, Dr Break, can’t seem to do anything about.

There’s also a French prisoner of war, René staying locally, who is himself training to be a doctor and after curing the Lord of the manor, is given more freedom than most of the prisoners. Miss Philly climbs into an oak tree overlooking Jerry’s garden and is surprised to find Jerry and René chatting away like old friends and trying out a kind of trumpet which René has whittled, putting it against each others’ chests and listening. (It is in fact an early version of the stethoscope.) In the middle of this scene, fat Dr Break and a deputation of drunk villagers arrive, claiming Jerry has been bewitching them, putting the trumpet against their chests and leaving a ‘bewitched’ red mark.

René leaps to his feet and exchanges hard words with Dr Break, who replies in kind, which prompts the hot-blooded Frenchman to challenge him to a duel. The villagers run off in a fright, and just as René is wrestling Dr Break to the ground up ride Philly’s father and Arthur Wellesly, head of the garrison at nearby Hastings (and, we the readers know, the future Duke of Wellington). Startled by their appearance Philly falls out of the tree at the adults’ feet and they all burst into laughter.

The Duke is invited by Philly’s father to dinner that evening at the Hall, along with René and Dr Break, and here Miss Philly sings them a sad song about a man who falls in love with a fading flower although he knows that it will die and leave him pining. To her surprise all four men present are reduced to sobs and tears. What she doesn’t realise, but the alert reader has come to understand from her persistent coughing and from some remarks of René and Jerry which she overheard but didn’t understand – is that all the adults know she is dying of incurable tuberculosis. Hence these four strong men breaking down as she sings such a soulful song about death.

This simple technique – the fallible narrator not realising what the adults are talking about – is a rare touch of ‘literary effect’ among Kipling’s stories.

5. The Knife and the Naked Chalk – Una and Dan go on holiday to a cottage on the South Downs. They get to know an old shepherd, called Mr Dudeney, and his dogs Old Jim and Young Jim. There is a bit of banter with him singing the praises of the Sussex Downland, with the children preferring the woods and streams of the Weald. In his excellent biography of Kipling, Charles Carrington often refers to the pre-Raphaelite brilliance of his framing, i.e. the initial descriptions which set the scene in which his various characters then yarn away. And so it is here, with a lovely description of the Sussex Downs on a hot summer’s day.

The air trembled a little as though it could not make up its mind whether to slide into the Pit or move across the open. But it seemed easiest to go downhill, and the children felt one soft puff after another slip and sidle down the slope in fragrant breaths that baffed on their eyelids. The little whisper of the sea by the cliffs joined with the whisper of the wind over the grass, the hum of insects in the thyme, the ruffle and rustle of the flock below, and a thickish mutter deep in the very chalk beneath them. Mr Dudeney stopped explaining, and went on with his knitting. They were roused by voices. The shadow had crept halfway down the steep side of Norton Pit, and on the edge of it, his back to them, Puck sat beside a half-naked man who seemed busy at some work. The wind had dropped, and in that funnel of ground every least noise and movement reached them like whispers up a water-Pipe.

The half-naked man is carving flints. He is a Stone Age man. He sings his titles to Puck:

‘I am of the People of the Worked Flint. I am the one son of the Priestess who sells the Winds to the Men of the Sea. I am the Buyer of the Knife — the Keeper of the People.’

Then he tells Puck how he lost his eye; how as a man of the sheep people who used sharpened flints as cutting tools, he saw one of the wood people use a ‘knife’ to kill one of the ever-threatening Beasts (the wolves who were widespread and dangerous back in those days). So he went on a pilgrimage into the Forest and there met the Knife People and their Holy Woman, who said the Gods demanded that he must lose an eye to gain a knife. And so he let her put out his eye and was given a ‘knife’, and his people given many knives, and the Beasts knew it and kept away.

And so his people came to think he was a God, the god Tyr, and asked him judgements and a young man asked permission to marry his woman, and so he gave his people everything and freed them from the Beasts, but lost his eye and his woman and his peace of mind.

6. Brother Square-Toes – Puck appears with a local, nicknamed ‘Pharaoh’, who lived during the 1790s. He was a smuggler and Kipling lays on a lot of information and slang about Sussex smuggling families, techniques and so on. One night he’s out on a smuggling run, when his ship is run over by a French ship bound for the States, which he manages to scramble aboard before  his own vessel sinks.

And so he’s taken all the way to Philadelphia where he finds crowds protesting in the streets and follows a Red Indian – Red Jacket – into a house where he falls in with a white trader named Toby (Apothecary Tobias Hirte). All three go up into the hills to meet another Indian, Cornplanter, and Pharaoh spends enough time with them that he becomes adopted as a fellow Red Indian. More facts and info about Native Americans.

The main scene in this convoluted ‘story’ comes when the Indians and Pharaoh go back to Philadelphia to hear George Washington give his decision about the Big Issue of the Day: should or shouldn’t America join the French in war against the British? Washington, or ‘Big Hand’, as he’s known to the Indians, says No.

Washington is depicted as a special friend of the Indians, and shares with the Indians the knowledge that being a leader is tough, when you’re surrounded by ambassadors (the French ambassador in this instance) and other special interests (businessmen, jingo politicians) all trying to jockey you into their point of view.

And it’s in this context – Washington being a firm, clear-sighted leader – that Kipling ends the story with by far his most famous poem, If.

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise;

If you can dream — and not make dreams your master;
If you can think — and not make thoughts your aim,
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools;

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings — nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And — which is more — you’ll be a Man, my son!

7. ‘A Priest in spite of himself’ – Follows on from the previous story. Pharaoh Lee, back in Philadelphia, meets a battered French émigré begging in the street. Pharaoh rescues him from an angry mob and takes him back to Toby’s place where, over a few drinks, the battered man unwinds and gives indications of being more educated, grand and noble than he seems. Pharaoh sees him on subsequent occasions – comes across him gambling with loaded dice – and learns that he is Count Talleyrand, former Ambassador from the French King to Britain, who managed the feat of becoming Ambassador to the new, revolutionary French regime to Britain, until the disgusted Brits chucked him out.

Talleyrand hears that Pharaoh heard what George Washington told the Red Indians in the previous story and is desperate to find out what Washington told the French ambassador, Genêt, about the possibility of the Americans coming in on the French side in the war. This information would be gold dust; if he could take it back to the revolutionary regime it would restore his position. But Pharaoh refuses to disclose what he has heard despite the offer of a massive 500 dollars. As so often, what counts for Kipling is fidelity, loyalty, honour.

After returning from a sojourn with his Indian friends up country, Pharaoh learns that Talleyrand left him the 500 dollars anyway. He invests in horses, then buys a cargo of tobacco and a sailing ship to take it to Britain – starved of baccy by a French blockade. But Pharaoh’s ship is seized by a French ship. It is confiscated in a french harbour and the cargo of baccy shipped to Paris for the authorities to dispose of. Pharaoh, with all his worldly goods invested in the cargo of baccy, follows it to Paris where – by an extraordinary coincidence – he once again encounters Talleyrand, now restored to favour and riding in a carriage with none other than Napoleon Bonaparte!

This allows Kipling to give us a pen portrait of the little Corsican general, as he is invited into their palace, observes the relationship between the little emperor and the canny diplomat, and the story ends with the surprising twist that Talleyrand makes Napoleon give Pharaoh back his ship and double the price of his confiscated cargo.

In case it wasn’t obvious before, by this stage it is clear that there is little or no magic and no fairies whatsoever in this ‘fairy’ book. Instead it is a fairly thorough rummage through Great Figures from History.

8. The Conversion of St Wilfrid The children are in the village church while local craftsmen fix the bells, particularly ‘Old Mr Kidbrooke’ (it’s noticeable how many of the locals are ‘old’ so-and-so, giving a kind of insistent sense of their antiquity and venerableness). An old lady is practicing the organ giving a thread which underpins the ‘frame’. A shadowy figure at the altar stands and reveals himself to be Wilfrid, Saint of Sussex, and Archbishop of York (633-709), chaperoned – as all these historical personages are – by Puck. There is a great deal of detail – as usual – about different hymn tunes, how they sound to the children, about old memorials in the church and so on – before we get anywhere near a ‘story’.

This is: Wilfred, his chaplain Eddi, and a well-educated pagan named Meon, go out in Meon’s boat a-fishing. A storm comes up and wrecks them on a rock off the coast. After surviving a day and a night on the rock, Meon’s tame seal, Padda, finds them, brings them fish to eat, then swims to the mainland and attracts some of Meon’s people out to the rock to rescue them. While they were out on the rock shivering, Meon asked Wilfred whether he should abandon his pagan gods and call on the Christian god for help. Wilfred said, ‘No, cleave to the faith of your ancestors’. And, after they’re rescued, Meon is so impressed by this example of Wilfred’s integrity under duress, that he – Meon – chooses, of his own free will, to convert to Christianity.

I tell you now that a faith which takes care that every man shall keep faith, even though he may save his soul by breaking faith, is the faith for a man to believe in. So I believe in the Christian God, and in Wilfrid His Bishop, and in the Church that Wilfrid rules.

And then – Wilfred is gone in a flash! – like all the personages Puck presents, and the children – having, as usual, been administered the leaves which make them forget the ‘magic’ incident – forget the whole ting, and end the ‘story’ enjoying the thrilling sound of the organ playing a grand tune in the dark and atmospheric church.

Convoluted and overstuffed with detail as most of the stories are, Kipling excels at the gentle introduction and then gentle postlude to each tale. He himself referred to them as the ‘frames’ for the yarns, and they’re often the most accessible and therefore enjoyable bits.

9. A Doctor of Medicine The children are playing hide-and-seek with bicycle lamps after dark when Puck arrives with the Jacobean herbalist and astrologer Nicholas Culpeper (1616 – 1654). Culpeper is portrayed as a comic figure, proud of his ‘exquisite knowledge’ but in reality full of outrageously tendentious twaddle about ailments being caused by elements loyal to Mars and combated by plants loyal to Venus, and so on. As usual the description in the ‘framing’, the setting of the story, is much the best thing.

Their shadows jumped and slid on the fruit-tree walls. They filed out of the garden by the snoring pig-pound and the crooning hen-house, to the shed where Middenboro the old lawn-mower pony lives. His friendly eyes showed green in the light as they set their lamps down on the chickens’ drinking-trough outside, and pushed past to the hay-mow. Mr Culpeper stooped at the door.

We learn that Culpeper was a strong Puritan, very much against the King during the Civil War. There is a lot of confusing detail about who has loaned the King what, which Culpeper discovers, or overhears, when he’s shot and taken prisoner at the King’s stronghold of Oxford. Once healed, Culpeper is released and goes with a friend to his village nearby which they discover to be in the grip of the plague. Here, through a series of preposterous and deluded calculations based on ancient lore about Mars and Venus, Culpeper suggests a policy of killing all the rats (creatures of the Moon) which is, in fact, the key to quelling the plague. Thus through completely bogus medieval superstitious reasoning, he stumbles on the true remedy, the villager kill the rats and cleanse and block up all their hidey-holes, and the plague abates.

10. Simple Simon The children go to watch half-a-dozen men and a team of horses extracting a forty-foot oak log from a muddy hollow. Suddenly Puck is among them and introducing a stranger, Simon Cheyneys, shipbuilder of Rye Port. Through a blizzard of circumstantial detail, local dialect and references back to a story in Puck of Pook’s Hill, a story of sorts emerges.

It transpires that Simon knew young Francis Drake when he was learning sailing in Kent and round the coast to Sussex; that they were both in a boat which came under half-hearted attack from a Spanish ship which they met in the channel, that ‘Frankie’ carried the wounded Simon ashore and to his aunt’s house to be treated for a wound received.

Then their paths diverge and Drake circumnavigates the world and goes on to become a famous man. Then the story jumps twenty years to the year of the Armada (1588) when Simon and his aunt hear that Drake is commanding the English fleet opposing the Spanish. He realises that, by the time the English ships get to the Sussex coast, chances are they’ll be low on ammunition. So Simon and his Aunt load up his ship –

We was ballasted on cannon-shot of all three sizes; and iron rods and straps for his carpenters; and a nice passel of clean three-inch oak planking and hide breech-ropes for his cannon, and gubs of good oakum, and bolts o’ canvas, and all the sound rope in the yard.

… and sail out into the English fleet. Simon and his Aunt ignore – and I think this is the point of the story – they ignore requests and then threats from all the other ships and senior admirals they sail past to give them these supplies, and hold out until they find Drake’s ship and hand over all the goods in person to him. Drake swings down into Simon’s schooner and kisses him in front of all his men.

“Here’s a friend that sticketh closer than a brother!” he says.

These provisions, it is implied, will give the impetus Drake needs to drive the Spanish fleet into harbour in the Low Country and then send in fireships to devastate it. Loyalty is not only a moral virtue in itself – it saves the day. It is Simon’s loyalty to a comrade which saves England and freedom.

11. The Tree of Justice This is quite an intense and moving story, told in Kipling’s usual convoluted manner. The children are introduced again to Sir Richard Dalyngridge who tells a story involving Hugh the Saxon – both familiar from a set of three stories in Puck of Pook’s Hill.

It is the reign of King Henry I (1100 to 1135) and he is in the woods hunting, with local Saxon villagers acting as beaters. One among the beaters is a lot older and, apparently, deranged and calls out threats against the king. The story focuses on the way the King’s jester, Rahere, establishes his ascendancy over the king and then explains to a cowed assembly of nobles that the white-haired, one-eyed old man is none other than Harold Godwinson, the former King Harold, supposed killed at the Battle of Hastings, but who survived and has been wandering his lost kingdom for nigh on forty years, berating himself for all his failures.

In the final pages Rahere is able to show to the old man that the current king and his nobles do not mock him nor blame him.

‘“Hearken,” said Rahere, his arm round Harold’s neck. “The King — his bishops — the knights — all the world’s crazy chessboard neither mock nor judge thee. Take that comfort with thee, Harold of England!”

And Harold is able to die a happy man, supported by the loyal Hugh the Saxon, one of the first historical personages we met back in the first story of Puck, who now rounds the whole series off as an exemplar of the virtue which all these stories promote with growing emphasis – loyalty unto death.


Where are the fairies?

The cover of the Penguin Children’s Classic edition of Puck of Pook’s Hill features a detail from a late Victorian painting of fairies. After all, Rewards and Fairies has the word ‘fairies’ in the title. And yet there are no fairies at all in either book. What there is is lots of people – people from historical times, it’s true, but very flesh-and-blood people whose stories contain barely a shred of magic, focusing instead on all-too-human incidents and concerns.

In fact, the average reader might tend to associate fairies with lightness and deftness, whereas the stories come over as incredibly heavy in at least four respects:

  1. Jargon They are packed to overflowing with Kipling’s delight in the slang, historic speech, technical terms and specialist knowledge of whichever period the character is from.
  2. Gossip The first half of all of them is generally chat and banter and gossip and yarning with Puck about this and that incident from the past – before they get anywhere near an actual ‘story’.
  3. Convoluted The stories themselves are often so convoluted as to be hard to follow – the story of Pharaoh’s smuggling activities, wreck aboard a French warship, arrival in America, adoption by a Red Indian tribe and climactic scene with George Washington, is enough material for a novel and feels very compressed.
  4. Moralising Last and most important – all the stories point a moral. The Puck books are extremely moralising – they preach the virtues of comradeship and loyalty, whether to one’s fellow centurions, to the friends one makes in dangerous times, or to the old gods. Over and again Kipling rams home the message that it is vital, it is the only thing in life, to stay loyal and to stay true.

Related links

A big thank you to the University of Adelaide for making most of Kipling’s works available online in such a stylish design, and to the comprehensive notes on The Kipling Society’s website.

Other Kipling reviews

Puck of Pook’s Hill by Rudyard Kipling (1906)

‘Ah, Sussex! Silly Sussex for everlastin’,’ murmured Hal…

In 1902 Kipling moved to Bateman’s, an impressive Jacobean mansion in the depths of the Sussex countryside. As Charles Carrington’s biography makes clear, the move, and even more so the publication of many of his Boer War stories in Traffics and Discoveries in 1904, marked a kind of ending of his intense involvement with Imperial politics. From the poems Recessional (1897) and The White Man’s Burden (1899) through to the stories and poems he wrote about the Boer War (1899 to 1902), the years at the turn of the century had marked the high tide of jingoistic feeling in Britain, and of Kipling’s involvement with and embodiment of it. The end of the war was followed almost immediately by the death of Kipling’s close friend, Cecil Rhodes – who had lent the Kiplings a guest house in South Africa where they had become used to spending every winter. Rhodes was the most unashamed exponent of the Imperialist vision and his death marked the end of an era.

Although Kipling continued to write patriotic and pro-Imperial poems and stories, the move to Bateman’s marked new beginnings. He threw himself into exploring the geography and history of the area and, by extension, of England itself, reading local histories and the Domesday Book. He delighted in the new technology of the motor car, buying a number of early models, hiring a chauffeur-cum-engineer, and working car travel into a number of his Edwardian stories. He continued his love affair with the Navy, accepting offers to watch manoeuvres and writing poems and stories accordingly.

But it was to English history that he really turned his focus, devoting his phenomenal ability to absorb a wealth of technical and factual information onto English history and specifically local Sussex history, researches which found their outlet in the form of a historical fantasia for children.

The resulting book of short stories starts with two very white, very middle-class children, Dan and Una, rehearsing a child’s version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in a meadow near their parent’s house in rural Sussex, on Midsummer Night’s Eve, and in a fairy ring. The conjunction of these elements unwittingly conjures up Puck, the elfin fairy figure from Shakespeare’s play. He introduces himself to the startled children as the last of ‘the Old Things’ which used to inhabit England, the last of ‘the Hill Peoples’.

In the chapters that follow Puck introduces a procession of typical figures from English history – a Roman centurion, a Saxon monk, a Norman knight, a Viking sea captain, a medieval artist, and so on.

1. Weland’s Sword

Having conjured up Puck the children quite quickly accept him and listen as he explains how ‘the Peoples of the Hills’ came and went over thousands of years of English history; and of one particular god, Weland the Smith, who arrived with the Vikings and vaunted his pride and strength, before slowly (over a thousand years!) dwindling into an old man, a peripatetic blacksmith, who wants to be dismissed from his trade, and from England, but requires a mortal man to give him genuine thanks before he can depart. Puck tells how a mortal monk, Hugh, forced a rude peasant who got his horse shoed by Weland for free and walked away cursing, to come back and thank the smith properly. How these thanks magically freed Weyland who, out of gratitude, made Hugh a marvellously strong sword over which magic runes were chanted. Before Weyland disappeared into the dark woods never to be seen again.

At the end of each story Puck gives Una and Dan a leaf of ash, oak and thorn, and it makes them forget the whole episode – so they don’t reveal things to the grown-ups!

Illustration to Puck of Pook's Hill by Arthur Rackham

Illustration to Puck of Pook’s Hill by Arthur Rackham

2. Young Men at the Manor

The children are fishing in the stream when they are surprised to find Sir Richard Dalyngridge, a knight in armour, on his war horse. He reminds the children of John Everett Millais’s painting, Sir Isumbras at the Ford (1857).

Dalyngridge tells his story. He was young and only newly knighted when he came over with William the Conqueror, fought at Hastings in the retinue of  Engerrard of the Eagle who was killed and replaced by his son, Gilbert. Wandering away from the fight, he was attacked by a Saxon who he should have recognised, because it was no other than Hugh (with Weyland’s sword) – but Dalyngridge knows him because they both lived for a while in a monastery in Normandy. They fight till Hugh’s sword flies out of  his hand but makes a kind of singing, groaning noise that scares both men. Dalyngridge gives Hugh his life. Hugh brings him to the nearby manor house where a) Hugh collapses of his wounds b) Dalyngridge is rudely seized by Saxons who threaten to hang him if Hugh doesn’t recover. Dalyngridge’s master, Gilbert de Aquila, rides up with his men and laughs at Dalyngridge’s predicament. They free him and say he can keep this manor if he manages to survive and master the Saxons and manage it for one calendar month.

Well – he does manage, and the characters are contorted to demonstrate a whistle-stop tour of medieval chivalry. Turns out that Hugh sleeps every night in Dalyngridge’s company, knowing that if any Saxon kills Dalyngridge, he (Hugh) would be immediately killed: in effect, he gives himself as a hostage for Dalyngridge’s wellbeing – without letting the latter know. And Dalyngridge chivalrously refuses to sleep in the main hall to respect the sensitivities of the beautiful Lady Ælueva, the Saxon lady of the manor who is distraught that they have been conquered. Only after months of demonstrating his chivalry and only after he has managed to unite his own Norman followers with the Saxon men of the manor in joint defence against thieves and cattle rustlers, does Dalyngridge prove himself, and does the Lady meekly ask him to come and sleep in ‘his’ hall. Gilbert de Aquila returns, laughing and mocking, reveals the truth about Hugh’s giving himself as a hostage, gives the manor definitively to Dalyngridge, and knights Hugh for his loyalty.

The point of these complex events is to show that conquered and conquerors quickly bond and unite through the gentilesse of chivalry. They also show – as almost all the stories do – the importance of loyalty, of pledging loyalty to a friend, to a comrade in arms – and then sticking to them through thick and thin.

3. The Knights of the Joyous Venture

The children are pretending to be explorers in a little dinghy on the stream when Sir Richard Dalyngridge appears again. He tells them what happened a generation later, after he married Lady Ælueva, had several sons, and grew old. When she died he decided to go on pilgrimage and Hugh came along. They go on board a merchant ship going to collect wine from Boulogne but it loses its way in the mist in the Channel and is attacked by a Viking ship. Hugh and Dalyngridge are taken prisoner and carried off on a long sea voyage south, past Madeira and Spain – where the king is fighting the Moors – and on down the coast of Africa to a place where the Africans have a custom of leaving gold on the shore if the Vikings will do battle with the aggressive gorillas which terrorise them. Both Dalyngridge and Hugh are injured rescuing the gold from the gorillas, but their bravery makes the bandy-legged Viking captain, Witta, love them and honour them.

After loading all the gold aboard they make their way back north, using the magical pointing iron (compass) of the Yellow Man (Chinaman) who Witta had on board, until Witta lets them ashore at Pevensey, kissing them and lading them with gold. They all love each other. The message is that, though conflict, fighting and suffering together, men forge bonds deeper than words.

4. Old Men At Pevensey

Dalyngridge and Hugh go back to their respective manors but find they are now old men and their sons have inherited and taken over in their absence. So they stay with de Aquila in his castle at Pevensey. This is a long complicated story in which the old men realise that de Aquila’s clerk, Gilbert, has been taking down quotes of de Aquila’s, designed to make him seem treacherous. At the time King Henry (who became king in 1100 – hence our heroes are old men) is fighting off a rebellion of  his barons, and also worried about a possible invasion from Normandy by his brother Duke Robert. Pevensey is the gateway to England. They discover de Aquila’s clerk Gilbert has been working for a cowardly knight called Fulke to take down evidence against de Aquila which Fulke can use to poison the king’s mind. But when Fulke arrives with the king’s command that de Aquila report to the fighting in the west, de Aquila refuses to go and, with Hugh and Dalyngridge’s help, they trip and stun Fulke, strip him of his armour, tie him and dangle him down a well which hangs over the sea. As the tide rises they force him to tell the full story of his rotten cowardly life to be taken down by Gilbert who – his treachery revealed – is in terror of his life. When Fulke’s young son runs in Fulke begs and pleads he’ll do anything as long as they let his son live.

So de Aquila eventually decides a) they’ll get copies of Fulke’s treachery made and distribute them widely if any harm comes b) they will kill Fulke’s son if any harm comes; therefore c) Fulke must put things right with the king and redeem de Aquila’s reputation. Fulke agrees, they let him go and never hear anything more. Some time later, King Henry crosses the sea to Normandy and thrashes his brother Robert. And with that Puck throws at Dan and Una leaves of Oak, Ash and Thorn, they forget the encounter, and so we leave the company of Sir Richard Dalyngridge.

5. A Centurion of the Thirtieth*

Introducing Parnesius, an officer of the Seventh Cohort of the Thirtieth Legion — the Ulpia Victrix – in his bronze armour and great bronze helmet with its red horse tail. Here Una is showing him a child’s toy catapult.

Like so many Kipling ‘stories’, this is really a potted biography, going into great detail about his upbringing on Vectis (the Isle of Wight), his father, mother, nurse and brother; the trip they took to Aquae Sulis (Bath), his decision to become a soldier and his father pulling strings to send him to training school at Anderida (Pevensey). A fire breaks out and he gets his cohort up to fight it, and turns out to be witnessed by Maximus, Theodosius’s right hand man in the ‘Pict Wars’. He takes his cohort for its first march from Pevensey to just under Pook’s Hill where – even in Roman times – there was a good forge kept by a one-eyed Greek smith they nicknamed Cyclops (Kipling’s stories are always stuffed with lots and lots of circumstantial detail, in an effort to compensate for the lack of actual story). Here a legionary cheeks him and Parnesius knocks him over and is about to chastise him when Maximus appears again, saying, ‘Kill him’. Parnesius refuses and Maximus says Parnesius will never rise in his army. We now find Maximus creepy – [this same Magnus Maximus (though it isn’t explained in the story) will lead a rebellion against the Emperor Gratian and rule as Western Emperor from 383 to 388].

No, Parnesius’s destiny will be to march his cohort north and spend his career guarding Hadrian’s Wall against the painted people (the Picts).

6. On the Great Wall*

Parnesius takes up his story where he left off, giving a brisk account of marching his cohort north through England, the landscape becoming bleaker and more rugged, until they reach the Wall. This is described wonderfully.

‘Just when you think you are at the world’s end, you see a smoke from East to West as far as the eye can turn, and then, under it, also as far as the eye can stretch, houses and temples, shops and theatres, barracks, and granaries, trickling along like dice behind — always behind — one long, low, rising and falling, and hiding and showing line of towers. And that is the Wall!’
‘Ah!’ said the children, taking breath.
‘You may well,’ said Parnesius. ‘Old men who have followed the Eagles since boyhood say nothing in the Empire is more wonderful than first sight of the Wall!’
‘Is it just a Wall? Like the one round the kitchen-garden?’ said Dan.
‘No, no! It is the Wall. Along the top are towers with guard-houses, small towers, between. Even on the narrowest part of it three men with shields can walk abreast from guard-house to guard-house. A little curtain wall, no higher than a man’s neck, runs along the top of the thick wall, so that from a distance you see the helmets of the sentries sliding back and forth like beads. Thirty feet high is the Wall, and on the Picts’ side, the North, is a ditch, strewn with blades of old swords and spear-heads set in wood, and tyres of wheels joined by chains. The Little People come there to steal iron for their arrow-heads.
‘But the Wall itself is not more wonderful than the town behind it. Long ago there were great ramparts and ditches on the South side, and no one was allowed to build there. Now the ramparts are partly pulled down and built over, from end to end of the Wall; making a thin town eighty miles long. Think of it! One roaring, rioting, cockfighting, wolf-baiting, horse-racing town, from Ituna on the West to Segedunum on the cold eastern beach! On one side heather, woods and ruins where Picts hide, and on the other, a vast town — long like a snake, and wicked like a snake. Yes, a snake basking beside a warm wall!

As usual with Kipling, there is a lot more local colour and circumstantial detail than plot. Parnesius gets friendly with Pertinax, another officer about his age, and they both go hunting north of The Wall, with a one-eyed Pict named Allo.

Allo was painted blue, green, and red from his forehead to his ankles.

The tribesmen decorated their bodies with tattoos. Hence the Roman name for them – Picts, or ‘painted ones’. On one hunting trip they come across a fleet of ships drawn into a bay; they are the Winged Hats, the pagans from the Continent. Retreating, they are astonished to run into the General Maximus. He explains that he needs to extract a lot of soldiers from The Wall for his campaign to conquer Gaul. He offers Parnesius and Pertinax control of The Wall, in return for troops. Our boys say they want permission to conciliate the Picts, not antagonise them e.g. stopping systematically burning their heather (they harvest bees and honey, apparently). Maximus says they can do whatever they like, as long as they give him three years of peace.

7. The Winged Hats*

Parnesius and Pertinax spend two days at the lavish gladiatorial games Maximus throws for his official visit to Segedunum at the East end of The Wall. There they meet bloated Rutilianus, the General of The Wall, who happily gives our lads control if that’s what Maximus wants. Then our boys watch as Maximus strips the Wall of all its best men and equipment and sails away. Parnesius describes his policy of befriending the Picts, even sending them corn. The ships of the Winged Hats are the real worry. Even when Maximus wins Gaul to become the Western Emperor, he still won’t send back the troops Parnesius says he needs. Allo is their emissary into the courts of the Picts but the Picts are themselves harried by the Winged Hats. Then news comes that Maximus is dead, defeated and executed by young Theodosius. No help will come. Knowing this the Winged Hats attack The Wall from both ends and there is an almost science fiction-feeling sequence as Parnesius and Pertinax fight on although the towers along the Wall fall one by one, getting closer and closer. At the last, as they are expecting to die in the final assault and massacre, they are surprised that two Legions from Theodosius have arrived and saved the day. The cavalry have arrived.

The emperor’s secretary, Ambrosius, tells Parnesius and Pertinax that they are welcome to stay on to serve their new ruler – but they both take the offer to retire with honour to their families, having saved the Wall and saved Britain. Duty. Loyalty. Solidarity.

A Soldier’s View

In his biography of Kipling, Charles Harrington, who served in the Great War, emphasises what a powerful effect these three Roman stories had on those, especially the boys, who read them.

In the whole range of Rudyard Kipling’s work, no pieces have been more effective in moulding the thought of a generation than the three stories of the centurions defending Hadrian’s Wall during the decline of the Roman Empire. ‘There is no hope for Rome,’ said the wise old father of the centurion. ‘She has forsaken her Gods, but if the Gods forgive us here, we may save Britain.’ The story of the centurion’s task is told as a panegyric of duty and service, which press their claims all the more urgently when leaders fail to lead and statesmen study only their own careers. It strengthened the nerve of many a young soldier in the dark days of 1915 and 1941…
(Rudyard Kipling: His Life and Work by Charles Carrington, Penguin paperback edition, p.446)

This aspect of Kipling’s work, its embodiment of ideas of duty, service and endurance, which influenced a whole generation at the turn of the century and beyond, is what is so difficult for us to capture and be aware of nowadays; and why Carrington’s biography – and personal testimony – is so valuable.

8. Hal o’ the Draft

Sir Harry Dawe was known as Hal o’ the draft as a boy because he was always drawing. He is a medieval architect, responsible for designing some of the classic churches and colleges in Oxford, as well as Dan and Una’s local church, St Bartholomew’s. Dan and Una come across him and Puck in the Little Mill, and he tells them he was born at Little Lindens farm, which you can see from the Mill. This feels a particularly local story, exploring or evoking the landscape and buildings right next to Dan and Una’s house, the mill, the stream, the willows on the way to Little Linden.

The old farm-house, weather-tiled to the ground, took almost the colour of a blood-ruby in the afternoon light. The pigeons pecked at the mortar in the chimney-stacks; the bees that had lived under the tiles since it was built filled the hot August air with their booming; and the smell of the box-tree by the dairy-window mixed with the smell of earth after rain, bread after baking, and a tickle of wood-smoke. The farmer’s wife came to the door, baby on arm, shaded her brows against the sun, stooped to pluck a sprig of rosemary, and turned down the orchard. The old spaniel in his barrel barked once or twice to show he was in charge of the empty house. Puck clicked back the garden-gate… They perched themselves arow on the old hacked oak bench in Lindens’ garden, looking across the valley of the brook at the fern-covered dimples and hollows of the Forge behind Hobden’s cottage.

Only half way through the text does Hal begin his actual ‘story’. His master at Oxford tells him to return to his home village and repair the church. He comes down full of pride and boasting and finds all the local families reluctant to help, especially John Collins the forge-master. He is joined by a man on the King’s Commission to get cannon and ‘serpentines’ for the Navy, Sebastian Cabot, who also finds the villages incompetent and recalcitrant. Troubles pile up: the boat bringing stone from France is forced to dump it overboard when attacked by a pirate; then all the peasants working on the church swear they were chased out by the devil and refuse to return to work.

Sebastian conceives a plan which is to tell everyone he and Hal are travelling to London, make a big deal of saying farewell to everyone, setting off, then… hiding the horses and doubling back to the village that night. Here the sneak into the church and stumble over 20 good serpentines and two cannon. So: the church was the useful warehouse for John Collins arms smuggling racket; no wonder the whole village tried to sabotage Hal’s efforts to renovate it. Upstairs in the tower they find a crude Devil costume made from a cow’s ski, and are just pondering it all when Collins himself and half the village men arrive to arrange transport of the guns to Rye here they’ll be sold to the Channel pirate, Andrew Barton.

Goaded by their boldness, Sebastian runs down the tower stairs wearing the Devil costume, roaring and scaring all the village men off into the night. Then he and Hal ride to the house of the local squire, Sir John Pelham. When he stops laughing, Pelham points out that he is good friends with the lead smuggler John Collins, and comes to a happy compromise: he will ride with Hal and Sebastian back to the village and help Sebastian claim his lawful guns – but won’t indict half the village for ‘a little gun-running’.

When Hal, Sebastian, Sir John and his men and their wool carts lumber into the village, Hal is astonished at the conspirators’ brazenness: not one bats an eyelid as the guns are loaded and taken away, and John Collins has the cheek to offer the use of his own stronger carts to transport them – for a fee, of course!

‘That was all! That was Sussex — seely Sussex for everlastin’!’

9. ‘Dymchurch Flit’

It is September (the stories follow the progress of the year from Midsummer’s Eve). Una and Dan are with Old Hobden at the oast house, watching him roast potatoes when an old friend, Tom Shoesmith, appears at the door. The two old Sussex men swap memories and anecdotes, establishing local colour and context for half the length of the text before anything like a ‘story’ appears.

During the Reformation, while the humans were burning each other at the stake and smashing images in churches, what Shoesmith calls ‘the Pharisees’ and seems to mean the ‘fairies’, revolted by human behaviour, gather on Romney Marsh wanting to escape Old England. A representative comes to talk to old Widow Whitgift who lives by Dymchurch under the Wall, a Seeker who answered dreams and riddles, with two sons, one blind, one dumb. The Pharisees work magic to persuade her sons to take them over the seas in their old boat, and she gives her permission.

So the Pharisees / fairies / People of the Hills all crowd into the boat and are ferried out of England, with only Robin / Puck to console the old Widow till her blind son and dumb son return three days later. Old Tom says he and Hobden must yarn some more but first he must take the children back to their house and on the way, Una guesses that Tom is Puck in magic form.

10. The Treasure and The Law

The children meet Kadmiel, a giant of a man with a strong voice and big beard. He is a Jew, born in Moorish Spain at the time of King John (died 1216). He depicts the life of Jews at the time, forced to walk the streets in rags and often subject to brutal attacks by ‘the people’ – but at home able to light the ceremonial candles and dream of being Princes and Kings. In fact, they are often money-lenders to kings and Kadmiel sheds light on the origins of Magna Carta. He is invited by one of the many Jewish merchants he meets at his father’s house, Elias, to return to the latter’s home in Bury, in the north of England. Much satire on the complete absence of learning and wisdom among the English, all too quick to anti-Jewish violence. But the weak King John is forced to conciliate the Jews because he needs their money. Elias of Bury tells Kadmiel his secret, that once he was taken prisoner while trading along the Channel and thrown into a safe room at the castle of Pevensey. In it was a well going down into the tidal sea, and the Gentiles laughingly threw him in for a while and it was here that Elias discovered the gold which featured in the earlier story The Knights of the Joyous Venture.

Elias smuggles some of the gold out and makes big promises to King John to lend him all of it – giving John hope that he can buy an army to crush his rebellious nobles – for Elias gets into the habit of going trading to Pevensey once a year, putting up in the well room and sneaking small amounts of gold out. Elias has a wife, Adah, who wants to be one of the women of the court and so is pressuring Elias to make a deal with the king. But Kadmiel is also in contact with one Langton, a cleric, who represents the barons, and Kadmiel gives him a lot of money to change the last, fortieth, clause of the Magna Carta which the barons are putting to John, changing it from the original ‘To no free man will we sell, refuse, or deny right or justice’ to ‘To none will we sell, refuse, or deny right or justice’ i.e. making it a universal declaration of justice for all.

This is the point of the story and the reason it is placed last, and any accusation of anti-Semitism in the passing details of the tale are rebutted by the overall point of it. It was a Jew who ensured the foundation of England’s freedoms. Kadmiel then compounds his achievement by going to Pevensey, dropping magic potions in the wells which give the inhabitants the temporary symptoms of the plague so they all run out screaming and uses the time to empty all the gold from the tidal well into a little rowboat, which he rows out to sea and drops it all over the side. Why? To prevent Elias getting hold of it and loaning it to King John who would use it to raise an army, defeat the nobles and overthrow Magna Carta, the foundation of English freedom.

Now, at the very end, we realise the stories (well, some of the stories) are part of an over-arching narrative: the Norse god Weland made the sword which Hugh used to defeat the gorillas in Africa and get hold of the gold which was transported by Vikings back to Pevensey where a Jew found it and used it to found England’s freedom.

‘Well,’ said Puck, calmly, ‘what did you think of it? Weland gave the Sword. The Sword gave the Treasure, and the Treasure gave the Law. It’s as natural as an oak growing.’

It’s actually – like most of Kipling’s tales – quite a contorted set of events – but one which, unexpectedly, confirms our very modern sense of England being a bastard, mongrel, multicultural and multi-religious society.


Poems

As was his firm practice by now, Kipling prefaced all of the stories with poems specially written for the volume. They are in his usual ballad format, but understandably not so booming or Biblical as during his High Imperial phase. Of the sixteen or so poems in this volume, my favourite is Harp Song of the Dane Women, lamenting that every spring their menfolk are stirred to leave them behind and go a-viking.

What is a woman that you forsake her,
And the hearth-fire and the home-acre,
To go with the old grey Widow-maker?

She has no house to lay a guest in –
But one chill bed for all to rest in,
That the pale suns and the stray bergs nest in.

She has no strong white arms to fold you,
But the ten-times-fingering weed to hold you
Bound on the rocks where the tide has rolled you.

Yet, when the signs of summer thicken,
And the ice breaks, and the birch-buds quicken,
Yearly you turn from our side, and sicken —

Sicken again for the shouts and the slaughters,
You steal away to the lapping waters,
And look at your ship in her winter quarters.

You forget our mirth, and talk at the tables,
The kine in the shed and the horse in the stables —
To pitch her sides and go over her cables!

Then you drive out where the storm-clouds swallow:
And the sound of your oar-blades falling hollow,
Is all we have left through the months to follow!

Ah, what is Woman that you forsake her,
And the hearth-fire and the home-acre,
To go with the old grey Widow-maker?

a) This strikes me as capturing the bleak, hardy spirit of the Viking world very well (see my review of Robert Ferguson’s history of the Vikings and of the Icelandic Sagas).

b) The form – three line stanzas using the same rhyme – is notably different from his four-line stanzas, subtly conveying the sense of an alien, non-Saxon culture.

Nature

Kipling paints the small English landscape well.

They were fishing, a few days later, in the bed of the brook that for centuries had cut deep into the soft valley soil. The trees closing overhead made long tunnels through which the sunshine worked in blobs and patches. Down in the tunnels were bars of sand and gravel, old roots and trunks covered with moss or painted red by the irony water; foxgloves growing lean and pale towards the light; clumps of fern and thirsty shy flowers who could not live away from moisture and shade. In the pools you could see the wave thrown up by the trouts as they charged hither and yon, and the pools were joined to each other — except in flood time, when all was one brown rush — by sheets of thin broken water that poured themselves chuckling round the darkness of the next bend.

The stories deliberately follow the progress of the year from Midsummer Eve to the end of November, allowing Kipling plenty of opportunity to describe sun and shower, tree and leaf, rain and shine.

Parochialism

The word ‘parochial’ comes from the Latin parochia, the word for the smallest administrative unit of the Christian church – in England, translated as ‘parish’. A parochial point of view, taken metaphorically, means a blinkered or limited view of an issue; literally, it means interested only in the parish, and Kipling applies this literally. Though the yarns range from the north of England to the Gold Coast of Africa, the setting, the frame of each story and the book, is extremely parochial – just a few buildings, fields and streams of Sussex. Kipling has his peasant Tom Shoesmith say:

‘I’ve heard say the world’s divided like into Europe, Ashy, Afriky, Ameriky, Australy, an’ Romney Marsh.’

And he makes a point of having several characters (Hal and Hobden) use the expression ‘go into England’, meaning to leave the parish, as if the rest of England is a foreign country.

‘I’ve been into England fur as Wiltsheer once.’

Nobody could accuse Kipling of not taking the broader view: his writings of the previous five years had ranged over America, South Africa, India and the Far East and addressed the fate of global empires. This massive shift of attention to explore his own country, county and parish seem strangely fitting and appropriate.


Related links

A big thank you to the University of Adelaide for making most of Kipling’s works available online in such a stylish design.

Other Kipling reviews

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