Sunday, September 4, 2011

Puck of Pook's Hill and Rewards and Fairies by Rudyard Kipling

One midsummer evening, Dan and Una are down by the river acting out scenes from A Midsummer Night's Dream when they meet "a small, brown, broad-shouldered, pointy-eared person" who introduces himself as Puck of Pook's Hill, the last of the People of the Hills--or elves.

The children get on well with Puck, and he starts telling them stories--or bringing people, strange people in old clothes with queer modes of speech, to tell them other stories. There's the one about Weland the Smith, who used to be a god before he was dethroned, and then had to go on making an honest living anyhow, and forged a mighty sword in thanks to the young novice that freed him. There are the ones about Hugh's adventures when England was conquered by the Normans, and later when he sailed to Africa and found treasure. There are the stories of Parnesius, the young Roman centurian manning the Wall of Hadrian against Pict attack, and the emperor Magnus Maximus. And of course there's the story of the moneylender whose secret mission takes him searching for the lost treasure of Pevensey.
That's Puck of Pook's Hill--a loose collection of short historical stories with an occasional fantasy tinge, tied together by the story of the Magna Carta. It was followed a few years later by a sequel, Rewards and Fairies, in much the same vein--short stories told by historical people from the autocratic lady known only as "Gloriana" to the dying girl who witnesses the invention of the stethoscope. Both volumes also contain copious amounts of poetry, including the famous If-- and one of my favourite Kipling poems, Cold Iron.

There's a peculiar charm to these books. To begin with, Rudyard Kipling was a talented writer, a wielder of words that could crash and glitter.
'Can you wonder that the People of the Hills don't care to be confused with that painty-winged, wand-waving, sugar-and-shake-your-head set of impostors? Butterfly wings, indeed! I've seen Sir Huon and a troop of his people setting off from Tintagel Castle for Hy-Brasil in the teeth of a sou'-westerly gale, with the spray flying all over the Castle, and the Horses of the Hills wild with fright. Out they'd go in a lull, screaming like gulls, and back they'd be driven five good miles inland before they could come head to wind again.'
The fantasy elements are used in just the right way, too: not to provide a getaway from reality, but to remind us that this green earth is "a mighty matter of legend," as Tolkien said. The stories are not in chronological order, especially in the second volume; they are more like a treasure-chest where everything is jumbled up and you hardly know what will come out next. The characters are so vividly drawn, too, with such broad, energetic strokes, that you really do feel as if you are meeting different people from different parts of history. Gloriana particularly is hilarious.
'Hm! Hm! Hm! Philip writes as ever most lovingly. He says his Gloriana is cold, for which reason he burns for her through a fair written page.' She turned it with a snap. 'What's here? Philip complains that certain of her gentlemen have fought against his generals in the Low Countries. He prays her to hang 'em when they re-enter her realms. (Hm, that's as may be.) Here's a list of burnt shipping slipped between two vows of burning adoration.'
When I think of these two books, I imagine a series of brilliant miniatures, almost like windows onto past times. Don't get me wrong: they are not brilliant, they are not vivid, because they are accurate. They are vivid because they are memorable--well-told, gripping. Now I don't believe historical accuracy is opposed to memorableness--I merely mean that probably Philip never sent Elizabeth I such a letter at all; but Kipling uses it to draw out a true picture of who she was and what difficulties she faced.

We live in a time when people have managed to kid themselves into thinking that religion isn't important. This can result in such silly things as books and movies set during the Reformation, or earlier in the medieval period, in which religion doesn't influence the characters' actions at all. Kipling thoroughly avoids this pitfall. However even as a child I found his theology a little worrying. For example--
They were a stiff-necked, extravagant set of idols, the Old Things. But what was the result? Men don't like being sacrificed at the best of times; they don't even like sacrificing their farm-horses. After a while, men simply left the Old Things alone, and the roofs of their temples fell in, and the Old Things had to scuttle out and pick up a living as they could. Some of them took to hanging about trees, and hiding in graves and groaning o' nights. If they groaned loud enough and long enough they might frighten a poor countryman into sacrificing a hen, or leaving a pound of butter for them. I remember one Goddess called Belisama. She became a common wet water-spirit somewhere in Lancashire. And there were hundreds of other friends of mine. First they were Gods. Then they were People of the Hills, and then they flitted to other places because they couldn't get on with the English for one reason or another.
I tend to think Kipling was a bit of a heathen himself. For example, in one story in Rewards and Fairies--"The Conversion of St Wilfrid," it's called, a pagan Saxon named Meon is converted and later addresses his people as follows:
"Listen, men! Two days ago I asked our Bishop whether it was fair for a man to desert his fathers' Gods in a time of danger. Our Bishop said it was not fair. You needn't shout like that, because you are all Christians now. My red war-boat's crew will remember how near we all were to death when Padda fetched them over to the Bishop's islet. You can tell your mates that even in that place, at that time, hanging on the wet, weedy edge of death, our Bishop, a Christian, counselled me, a heathen, to stand by my fathers' Gods. 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. You have been baptized once by the King's orders. I shall not have you baptized again; but if I find any more old women being sent to Wotan, or any girls dancing on the sly before Balder, or any men talking about Thun or Lok or the rest, I will teach you with my own hands how to keep faith with the Christian God."
This is all very well and good, happy ending, important lesson about keeping faith...and no more. For Kipling, religion isn't about salvation, defeating evil, or cosmological warfare. It's more a code of ethics; it's more about manly conduct. And Kipling approves of Christianity, I feel, because of its good track record of manly conduct--not necessarily because it's truth and salvation.

Those concerns noted, I highly recommend these books.

Puck of Pook's Hill Gutenberg etext and Librivox recording
Rewards and Fairies Gutenberg etext and Librivox recording


Anonymous said...

Have you read Kipling's The Church That Was at Antioch? It's an excellent vivid portrait of Roman city life in a welter of religions and politics, and it has the same central problem this review highlights. Kipling, I think, believed religion was good because it could lead to good things or good qualities in a person - as you say about codes of ethics - but I doubt he thought any one religion was much better than the rest - all "paths to the truth" or whatever.

On the other hand, I'm not sure Kim would have been as great if Kipling hadn't been something of a religious relativist.


Suzannah said...

Hello, Maggie! No, I wasn't aware Kipling had written any such book. Sounds fascinating!

I haven't got around to reading KIM either, I'm afraid, but I do hear it's good. You can often pick up some fascinating insights, though, reading books by people who don't share the same sacred cows you do.

Anonymous said...

Kipling's Antioch is actually just a short story - I'm sure the text is online somewhere and it's a quick and worthwhile read.

I hope you get around to reading Kim at some point (though I'm sure your list is long) - it's absolutely wonderful. Having mentioned it to you, I may have to pick it up again tomorrow.


Suzannah said...

OK, that sounds very interesting! I might have to look at it sometime soon--I've been messing around in Antiochene history lately ;).


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