"The Knife and the Naked Chalk"
the story
These notes are based on those written by Donald Mackenzie for the OXFORD WORLD'S CLASSICS edition of Puck of Pook's Hill and Rewards and Fairies (1995) with the kind permission of Oxford University Press. Except where stated otherwise, the page numbers below refer to the Macmillan Uniform Edition of Rewards and Fairies (1910, and frequently reprinted since). The notes on "The Run of the Downs" and "Song of the Men's Side" are by Philip Holberton.

[November 28th 2011]


This story was first published in Harper's Magazine in December 1909, and collected in Rewards and Fairies the following year.

The Story

Away from their own valley, up on the South Downs with Mr Dudeney the shepherd, Dan and Una find Puck, and hear a story of the flint men who kept their sheep on these Downs three thousand years ago. In those days the wolves were the great enemy, and clumsy stone weapons were not very effective against them.

The Flint Man who accompanies Puck tells how he had decided to go to the people of the trees, who smelted iron in the Weald forest below the Downs, to ask them for 'magic' iron knives against the wolves. They agree to give him the knives, but first he has to sacrifice one of his eyes: 'The God says that if you have come for the sake of your people you will give him your right eye to be put out.'

His eye is put out, and the knives are given. The flint men drive the wolves away, and the sheep are safe. But now the Man who has given his eye for the magic knives is treated like a priest or a god, and has to live in solitude till the end of his days. Only his mother will stay with him. 'And yet, what else could I have done ?', he asks.

Critical comments

For Kipling's use of Norse myth and Christian imagery in this story see the Introduction. Sandra Kemp discusses it in Kipling's Hidden Narratives, pp. 102-6:

In "The Knife and the Naked Chalk" the sacrifice of the Flint Man is also described in the language and imagery of the Bible: 'It was for the sheep. The sheep are the people ... What else could I have done?' His anguished solitude and fear both before and after the putting out of his right eye resemble Christ's in the garden of Gethsemane. `O poor - poor God', says Puck as the Flint Man describes the effects of his sacrifice...

The story concerns not just the act of self-sacrifice, the dangers and difficulties involved along the way: `the Beast' is more than a physical threat – inside as well as out, it represents the potential wholesale destruction of social meaning and identity.

...The end of the story confirms the Flint Man's initial statement that `one cannot feed some things on names and songs': `Nothing is left except the words and the songs, and the worship of a God. I would sell them all', he says.

Notes on the text

[Page 119, line 2] lived in a flint village Before settling at Bateman's the Kiplings had lived in Rottingdean, a flint village by the sea, which – once at Bateman's – they often re-visited.

[Page 119, line 2] bare windy chalk downs The South Downs are grassy hills running east to west across Sussex, between the sea and the forest of the Weald, sheep country since time immemorial. Kipling's house, Bateman's, lies below the Downs in the Weald. See Michael Smith's article on "The Sussex Landscape".

[Page 119, line 19] the village water-cart Well into the twentieth century, before English roads were tarred, a water-cart would be sent round in the summer-time to spray the streets to keep down the dust.

[Page 120, line 15] howling in a desert cf. Deuteronomy 32, 10: 'He found him in a desert land, and in the waste howling wilderness...'

[Page 120, line 25] bivvering shaking, trembling.

[Page 122, line 18] a dew-pond A man-made pond, often on a hilltop, fed by the rain or the dew, for watering sheep and cattle where there are no streams or springs.

[Page 122, line 27] baffed gave a soft blow.

[Page 123, line 10] The Beast The wolf (canis lupus), a fierce predator which hunts in packs, was common in the wilder parts of the English countryside in ancient times, and a menace to men and their live-stock.

[Page 123, line 16] like a thrush with a snail's shell The thrush, a familiar song-bird in English gardens, catches snails by hammering their shells against a stone till the shell breaks.

[Page 124, line 30 et sequ.] the Children of the Night Because there were deposits of iron ore in the Wealden forest, and ample wood to make charcoal for smelting, the Weald was probably one of the earliest places in Britain in which iron was made to replace flint. This was a technological revolution as momentous in its day as the invention of the computer in the twentieth century, and as new and strange.

In its earliest days the process of making metal from the earth must have seemed a magical secret, to be jealously guarded. Indeed from that time to this, smiths have tended to be men set apart, practising their mysterious craft in secrecy. Kipling is suggesting this separateness in calling the people of the Weald "The Children of the Night".

[Page 124, line 32] between the Trees and the Sea See the note above on page 119 line 2.

[Page 125, line 28] the naked chalk The Downs are chalk hills, with a thin covering of grass, and few trees.

[Page 130, line 6] the change Fever, perhaps malaria.

[Page 132, line 5] give him your right eye See the Introduction.

[Page 133, line 6] Tyr god of battle in Norse mythology. See the Introduction.

[Page 136, line 15] barrows Neolithic burial mounds, common in the uplands of southern England; sacred places.

[Page 136, line 33] made himself my Mouth cf. Exodus 4, 16: 'And he shall be they spokesman unto the people; and he shall be ... to thee instead of a mouth, and thou shalt be to him instead of God.'

"The Run of the Downs"

(notes by Philip Holberton)

In September 1902 the Kipling's had moved into Bateman's in the Weald of Sussex, the area of ancient oak forest below the South Downs. This poem is made by stringing together the names of fifteen of the most prominent heights along the crest of the Downs. For the geography, see Michael Smith's article on "The Sussex Landscape".

In "A Three-Part Song" in Puck of Pook’s Hill (1906) he writes:

I'm just in love with all these three,
The Weald and the Marsh and the Down country.
Nor I don't know which I love the most,
The Weald or the Marsh or the white Chalk coast!
'The Marsh' is Romney Marsh, the low lying area along the coast along the border between Susssex and Kent (see "Dymchurch Flit"); 'the white Chalk coast' is to the West where the Downs end in white cliffs above the English Channel, the highest of which is Beachy Head.
In this poem in “Rewards and Fairies”, published four years later, the collection in which "The Knife and the Naked Chalk" appears, he says:
The Weald is good, the Downs are best.
[Line 3]

Beachy Head The easternmost point where the South Downs end in the sea.

Winddoor Hill the local pronunciation. The modern map calls this Windover, so the proper spelling should strictly be Windo’er.

[Line 7]

Chanctonbury Ring used to be crowned with a grove of beech trees, sadly blown over in the great storm of 1987. In “They” (Traffics and Discoveries p. 304, line 4) Kipling wrotes of 'that great Down whose ringed head is a landmark for fifty miles across the low countries.

[Line 9]

what those two have missed between ‘em Truleigh Hill is half-way between Ditchling Beacon and Chanctonbury Ring. This is the only instance where Kipling departs from his promised run “East to West”.

[Line 16]

Butser just out of Sussex, over into Hampshire

"Song of The Men's Side"

(notes by Philip Holberton)

This poem is closely tied to "The Knife and the Naked Chalk".

[Verse 1]

The Beast The wolf. See the note above on p. 123 line 10.


Room for his shadow on the grass See “The Knife and the Naked Chalk” p. 136 line 9: 'no man stepped on my shadow; and I knew that they thought me to be a God'.

the Buyer of the Blade See “The Knife and the Naked Chalk” p. 125 line 25 et seq.

the great god Tyr In Norse legend, the wolf Fenrir (or Fenris) was the son of the god Loki. The Aesir (the Norse gods) brought him up; Tyr in particular fed and looked after him. Fenrir grew stronger and fiercer every day until the gods became afraid of him and decided he must be chained up before he grew any stronger. Thor with his hammer forged a mighty chain. Fenrir let himself be chained, and easily broke loose. Thor made a second chain, twice as strong: again Fenrir snapped it.

So the gods asked the dwarves for help, and they made a magic chain called Gleipnir. They made it from the noise of cats’ footfalls, the beards of women, the roots of rocks, the sinews of bears, the breath of fishes and the spittle of birds. It was as light as thistledown, and so slender that Fenrir suspected a trick. But in the end, as Annie and Eliza Keary write, he said:

“Lest you should doubt my courage, I will consent that you should bind me, provided one of you put his hand into my mouth as a pledge that no deceit is intended.” At length Tyr stepped forward valiantly, and put his strong right hand into the wolf’s cruel jaws.

At this signal, the other Aesir threw the chain round the monster’s neck, bound him securely with one end, and fastened the other to a great rock. When he was bound, Fenrir rose, and shook himself, as he had done before; but in vain he raised himself up, and bounded forward – the more he struggled the more firmly the slender chain bound him.

At this sight the Aesir set up a loud shout of joy. Only Tyr was silent, for he had lost his hand.
But Fenrir is safely bound till Ragnarok - the final battle of the Twilight of the Gods. See The Heroes of Asgard by Annie and Eliza Keary, first published in 1870, which Kipling clearly had in his library at Bateman's. In Puck of Pook’s Hill (p. 16 line 20) Puck says:

“I think he claimed kin with Thor of the Scandinavians.”
“Heroes of Asgard” Thor?’ said Una. She had been reading the book.
[Verse 2]

(And it is not right) that The Beast should master Man See the srory, p. 127 line 28.

the Children of the Night See the note above on p. 124, line 30.

“The price of the Knife you would buy is an eye!” See the story, p. 132 line 8.


Barrows of the Dead See the note above on p. 136 line 15.

[Verse 2]

Shepherd-of-the-Twilight/ Feet-in-the-Night/Dog-without-a-Master/ Devil-in-the-Dusk Nicknames for the Wolf. The Flint Man is afraid to speak his real name in case that summons him. See the story p. 123 line 27. For Feet-in-the-Night see p. 124 line 2 et seq.

[D. M./ P.H.]

©Donald Mackenzie and Philip Holberton 2011 All rights reserved