This introduction, by Donald Mackenzie, was written for the OXFORD WORLD'S CLASSICS edition of Puck of Pook's Hill and Rewards and Fairies (1987), and is included within this Guide by the kind permission of Oxford University Press. The references to Something of Myself, Kipling's Autobiography, are from the Macmillan Uniform Edition of 1937.
Connections and discontinuities | Frames and layers of meaning
Familiarity and strangeness | Service and necessity
The Puck books and Kipling's art
'Then, out of the woods that know everything and tell nothing, came two dark and mysterious Primitives. They had heard. They would sink that well, for they had the 'gift'. Their tools were an enormous wooden trug, a portable windlass whose handles were curved, and smooth as ox-horns, and a short-handled hoe. They made a ring of brickwork on the bare ground and, with their hands at first, grubbed out the dirt beneath it. As the ring sank they heightened it, course by course, grubbing out with the hoe, till the shaft, true as a rifle-barrel, was deep enough to call for their Father of Trugs, which one brother down below would fill, and the other haul up on the magic windlass. When we stopped, at twenty-five feet, we had found a Jacobean tobacco-pipe, a worn Cromwellian latten spoon and, at the bottom of all, the bronze cheek of a Roman horse-bit. In cleaning out an old pond which might have been an ancient marl-pit or mine-head, we dredged two intact Elizabethan `sealed quarts' that Christopher Sly affected, all pearly with the patina of centuries. Its deepest mud yielded us a perfectly polished Neolithic axe-head with but one chip on its still venomous edge.' [Something of Myself, page 184]So Kipling elaborates the settling into Bateman's, the Sussex estate which was to be his home for the second half of his life. `These things are detailed', he opens the next paragraph, `that you may understand how, when my cousin, Ambrose Poynter, said to me: "Write a yarn about Roman times here," I was interested.'
What leaf-fringed legend haunts about thy shape- around the `still unravished bride of quietness' to the contemplation of it in the last stanza as artefact and enigma:
Of deities, or mortals, or of both?
Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thoughtSuch an encounter can exercise a gorgon fascination, as it sometimes does in Seamus Heaney's North, where the girl whose severed head has been exhumed from the peat bog is apostrophized as:
As doth eternity'.
["Ode to a Grecian Urn" 14-26]
Murdered, forgotten, nameless, terribleBut it need not be so dramatic; other images group themselves around those central images of the excavated and exhumed: images of sinking a well, of water-divining, of calling up the ghosts of the past and giving them a voice - the last of these reaching back to Homer where Odysseus, on the edge of the underworld, calls up the myriad dead with their alien, inhuman cries, who cannot speak until he gives them sacrificial blood to drink. [Odyssey xi]
Beheaded girl, outstaring axe
And beatification, outstaring
What had begun to feel like reverence.
Do, from within, the same work of reconstruction which the nineteenth-century archaeologists have done from without.Such autobiographies may, in turn, overlap with rewritings of myth or legend, as in Mary Renault's Theseus novels or C. S. Lewis's Till We Have Faces, where myth is refracted into history and history can be inlaid with fable.
There rolls the deep where grew the tree.Juxtapositions of this kind are a recurrent motif in later ninetenth- and early twentieth-century writing. To take a handful of examples more or less at random: J. R. Green's The Making of England (1881) evokes an era when:
O earth, what changes hast thou seen!
There, where the long street roars, hath been
The stillness of the central sea.
The hills are shadows, and they flow
From form to form, and nothing stands;
They melt like mist, the solid lands,
Like clouds they shape themselves and go.
the heights of Highgate and Hampstead were covered with forest masses through which the boar and the wild ox wandered without fear of man down to the days of the Plantagenets;The climax of Richard Jefferies' After London (1885) is the journey to the poisonous swamp under which the one-time metropolis is buried; the presence of the Queen of Babylon causes satirical mayhem in the London of E. Nesbit's Story of the Amulet (1906); Conrad's Marlow aboard a yacht in the Thames at the opening of Heart of Darkness (1899), thinking of the Roman colonizing of Britain, reflects that `this too has been one of the dark places of the earth'. And for the archaeological imagination, as we have seen, such juxtaposition is central.
a veritable three-decker, each curve melting deliciously into the next that the sea might nowhere meet resistance or weakness; the whole suggesting motion even when, her great sails for the moment furled, she lay in some needed haven - a vessel ballasted on ingots of pure research and knowledge, roomy, fitted with delicate cabinet-work below-decks, painted, carved, gilt and wreathed the length of her, from her blazing stern-galleries outlined by bronzy palm-trunks, to her rampant figure-head - an East Indiaman worthy to lie alongside The Cloister and the Hearth. [Something of Myself, page 228]The dream is not only of the lavishly detailed and the massive but of a fluent unity-`each curve melting deliciously into the next'. But Kipling's true art is an art of fragmentation and frames. The Puck books begin, as we have seen, from the fragments of a buried past. Mary Lascelles catches the significance of this starting-point:
Things, as the novelist and essayist must know, are evocative, and none have more of this inherent power than artifacts-objects made, handled, used by man. [The Story-Teller Retrieves the Past (Oxford, 1980), pages 53 and 55.]And in a later passage she expands this, and fastens on a pivotal movement of Kipling's historical imagination, when she says that we shall best understand what he 'is about if we begin by likening him to a man playing with models, of his own devising: things that work'.
the dead of all times were about us - in the vast forgotten Muslim cemeteries round the Station, where one's horse's hoof of a morning might break through to the corpse below; skulls and bones tumbled out of our mud garden walls, and were turned up among the flowers by the Rains; and at every point were tombs of the dead. Our chief picnic rendezvous and some of our public offices had been memorials to desired dead women; and Fort Lahore, where Runjit Singh's wives lay, was a mausoleum of ghosts. [Something of Myself, page 42]His responses to the England in which, at this stage in his life, he finally settles, combine, sometimes hectically, a sense of continuity with a sense of the alien and the strange. [See e.g. the letter to Charles Eliot Norton quoted in Carrington pages 433-4; "A Habitation Enforced" (in Actions and Reactions), which is threatened, if not invaded, by sentimentality; "My Son's Wife" (in A Diversity of Creatures), which is threatened, if not invaded, by stridency. I would claim that "Friendly Brook" (in A Diversity of Creatures) and "The Wish House" (in Debits and Credits) are free from both.]
'Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)is summoned to praise the Creator who fathers it forth, whose own beauty is past change. It is precisely the lack of a Creator or of any ordering principles built into the foundations of his universe that gives Kipling's art of fragmentation its distinctive modernist timbre. [See e.g. Sandra Kemp, Kipling's Hidden Narratives (Oxford, 1988), pages i, 53, and especially 67. See also Bayley's comment on: the nightmare that Kipling found in India, as in all uncovenanted and unorganized human experience, and which his art fights off in any way it can. (The Uses of Division, page 73).]
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim' -
'Weland gave the Sword, The Sword gave the Treasure, and the Treasure gave the Law. It's as natural as an oak growing.'But cutting into and countering this sequence are the Roman stories - a triptych of imperial decay to set against the buoyancy of settlement, adventure, and organic growth in the Norman triptych. That buoyancy, in turn, is chequered by the sense of ageing and loss signalled in their titles as we move from "Young Men at the Manor" to "Old Men at Pevensey" and recurrently pointed up in the latter. `And what did you do afterwards?' Una asks at the end of its tale of manoeuvre and intrigue. To which Sir Richard replies: `We talked together of times past. That is all men can do when they grow old, little maid.'
"In War it is as it is in Love," said Pertinax. "Whether she be good or bad, one gives one's best once, to one only. That given, there remains no second worth giving or taking."And when Ambrosius regrets that they will not serve Theodosius:
"He has Rome to console him," said Pertinax. "I ask you of your kindness to let us go to our homes and get this smell out of our nostrils."The sliding of chronology sets flickering patterns of meaning, cross-connections not generated by historical sequence. At the centre of the book the "Runes on Weland's Sword" faces "Cities and Thrones and Powers", which distils in a pastiche of seventeenth-century lyric Kipling's sense of the mutability that undercuts all human achievement. The Roman stories of imperial ambition and defeat which it prefaces are followed by the idyllic, light-hearted "Hal o' the Draft" with its lesson against pride and its refrain: `seely Sussex for everlastin' '. Both it and "Dymchurch Flit" throw into relief "The Treasure and the Law" where the signing of Magna Charta, that foundation episode in the traditional history of English liberty, is told from the harsh alien perspective of Kadmiel the Jewish moneylender, whose register modulates from the messianic to the mockingly pragmatic:
None the less they gave us a Triumph!
`And you? Did you see the signing of the Law at Runnymede?' said Puck, as Kadmiel laughed noiselessly.
`Nay. Who am I to meddle with things too high for me? I returned to Bury, and lent money on the autumn crops. Why not?'
... if the reader will turn back to these wise fairy-tales he will see that each is really four-fold: a composite tissue made up of a layer of sunlit story (Dan's and Una's plane), on a layer of moonlit magic (plane of Puck), on a layer of history-stuff (René's plane and Gloriana's), on a last foundation of delicately bedimmed but never doubtful allegory. And he will note, too, the exquisite precision of the correspondences, a kind of practical punning, so that the self-same object plays a part in every plane ... Puck kicks a bunch of scarlet toadstools idly. Why? Simply so that the red colour may stain back through all the textures till it matches, in the third, with the name of Rufus. This is not the mere swagger of virtuosity. The result of these impositions is a very beautiful imposture. It gives the tales an opalescence that had hitherto seemed foreign to his work ... These fairy tales for children are far more realistic than the Plain Tales from the Hills. For half of life is moonlit, and the image that would copy it exactly must be vague. ["Rudyard Kipling", in The Bookman (Dec. 1912); reprinted in R. L. Green (ed.), Kipling: The Critical Heritage (London, 1971), 308-17; the passage quoted is on page 316.]The melting subtlety Scott evokes is the art of the Puck stories at their finest. It justifies the central place he claims for Rewards and Fairies in Kipling's oeuvre; and it is the triumph specifically of that second book. But Kipling moves towards it through the multiple uses of framing in both. At the simplest level framing operates as the formulaic ending (`Oak and Ash and Thorn') to each tale, with the modest pleasures of the expected and the deftly varied it brings. It operates in the glancing comments on the stories supplied by the best of the poems and in the interplay of child response or child reading with adult knowledge in the stories themselves. Una's shock when De Aquila in "Old Men at Pevensey" promises to hang Fulke's son if Fulke betrays them brings home to us that we are not, after all, reading a boy's adventure story. In "Marklake Witches" Philadelphia's aggressive adolescent energy and assertion are transmuted by the knowledge she is dying of consumption, which is shared by the reader and by the adults in the story but not by Philadelphia herself or by Una to whom she tells it. Parnesius ends his tale with the laconic pay-off line already quoted: `None the less they gave us a Triumph!'
`It was well earned,' said Puck, throwing some leaves into the still water of the marlpit. The black, oily circles spread dizzily as the children watched them.Familiarity and strangeness
`I want to know, oh, ever so many things,' said Dan.
`What happened to old Allo? Did the Winged Hats ever come back? And what did Amal do?'
... not twenty paces away a magnificent dog-fox sat on his haunches and looked at the children as though he were an old friend of theirs.Such a sense of the strange - of the alien in the domestic, the known become other - is the proper region of the ghostly (as distinct from other forms of the supernatural), with whatever element of frisson or poignancy or bewilderment or horror it brings. Frisson and poignancy are there in that primal episode of Odyssey xi already cited, which gives one pole of the archaeological imagination as the excavation of fragment or artefact gives the other. Kipling's art knows much of ghosts and sometimes with horror. But his account of their presence in the Puck books is benign to the risk of cosiness:
`Oh, Mus Reynolds, Mus Reynolds!' said Hobden, under his breath. 'If I knowed all was inside your head, I'd know something wuth knowin.'
The Old Things of our Valley glided into every aspect of our outdoor works. Earth, Air, Water and People had been - I saw it at last - in full conspiracy to give me ten times as much as I could compass, even if I wrote a complete history of England, as that might have touched or reached our Valley.The twin emphasis there on the local and its (benevolent) shades is significant. It provides the necessary counterbalance to the discontinuities I have stressed earlier. The place of the Puck books in Kipling's work can be partly characterized by Eliot's phrase: `the development of the imperial imagination into the historical imagination'. [A Choice of Kipling's Verse (London, 1941)].
`Some pirates - I think they must have been Peofn's men - were burning a village on the Levels.'Again, Freeman's Reign of William Rufus lists sundry portents allegedly seen on the day of his death. Kipling unerringly picks the most striking of these - the huge black goat seen bearing the dead king's naked body - but transfers it from a setting in Cornwall, where it is seen by a cousin of the king's out hunting, to make it local and anonymous: a Marsh man comes crying it to Richard and Hugh as they set out on their pilgrimage. [The Reign of William Rufus, 2 vols. (Oxford, 1882), ii. 341-3.]
`We went a picnic to Marklake Green once,' said Una. `It's awfully pretty. I like all those funny little roads that don't lead anywhere.'"Dymchurch Flit" in the earlier volume deploys a like blending of the ghostly and familiar more largely to release possibilities latent in fairy-tale: possibilities of imaginative belief and doubt, of moral testing and of a final strangeness in the mundane. Kipling speaks of himself as `unashamedly content' with it; and its handling of speech, effortlessly modulated, time and again, towards effects of ballad or chant is the high point in the book's evocation of the local. Here history melts down into folk-memory. Simultaneously, the reading of the enigmatic lifts into the play and counter-play - half fencing, half ritual - of a narrative agnosticism (`Do ye believe or - do ye?'); and again:
`They lead over our land,' said Philadelphia stiffly, `and the coach road is only four miles away. One can go anywhere from the Green.'
I'm like you. I say nothin'. But I'll tell you a tale, an' you can fit it as how you pleasewith its pivotal stress on `as' and the possibilities that stress lays on reader or hearer.
`She told me a passel o' no-sense stuff when he was born.' Hobden pointed at his son. `There was always to be one of 'em that could see further into a millstone than most.'
`Me! That's me!' said the Bee Boy so suddenly that they all laughed.
`I've got it now!' cried Tom, slapping his knee. `So long as Whitgift blood lasted, Robin promised there would allers be one b' her stock that-that no Trouble 'ud lie on, no Maid 'ud sigh on, no Night could frighten, no Fright could harm, no Harm could make sin, and no Woman could make a fool of.'
`Well, ain't that just me?' said the Bee Boy, where he sat in the silver square of the great September moon that was staring into the oast-house door.
... there he stood, in clear starlight, with a new, heavy, shining slave-ring round his proud neck ...Kipling tells us he embarked on a sequel:
"'Oh, cruel, wicked Thor!" cried the Lady Esclairmonde. "Ah, look, see, all of you! The catch is still open! He hasn't locked it. He can still take it off. He can still come back. Come back!" She went as near as she dared, but she could not lay hands on Cold Iron. The Boy could have taken it off, yes. We waited to see if he would, but he put up his hand, and the snap locked home. "'What else could I have done?" said he.
in two minds. Stories a plenty I had to tell, but how many would be authentic and how many due to `induction'? There was moreover the old Law: 'As soon as you find you can do anything, do something you can't' . . . I worked the material in three or four overlaid tints and textures, which might or might not reveal themselves according to the shifting light of sex, youth, and experience. It was like working lacquer and mother o' pearl, a natural combination, into the same scheme as niello and grisaille, and trying not to let the joins show ... It was glorious fun; and I knew it must be very good or very bad because the series turned itself off just as Kim had done.This gives in miniature three key-elements of his art: the rule of self-challenge; the layered quality (stressed here to the point of preciosity); and, countering both, the deep sense of the given which unites the strenuous craftsman with the daemonic artist who waits on what he does not know but knows will come. (And, enfolded in these, we might note, is the changing, multiple - almost teasing - relation of the texts to their readers.)
They were roused by voices. The shadow had crept half-way down the steep side of Norton's 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.It plays delicately on the past buried in the present (`you must never give a sheep-dog mutton bones') and patterns unobtrusively (where "The Wrong Thing" does it heavy-handedly) modern against ancient on the fringes of the tale.
Wounded I hung on a wind-swept gallowsIn another myth he sacrifices an eye to gain wisdom; and Tyr the war-god sacrifices his right hand to trick the Fenrir-wolf monster into being chained. It is those last two myths that Kipling plaits in this tale. At its climax it resonates beyond both:
For nine long nights,
Pierced by a spear, pledged to Odin,
Offered, myself to myself:
The wisest know not from whence spring
The roots of that ancient rood.
[Norse Poems, tr. W. H. Auden and P. B. Taylor (London, 1981).]
My heart grew little and cold, a wind shouted in my ears; my eye darkened. I said to my Mother, "Can a God die?" I heard her say, "What is it? What is it, my son?" and I fell into darkness full of hammer-noises. I was not.A new dimension is given to the images of pit and well-shaft. The echoes set up reach a long way back into earlier Kipling, as the larger theme of man mastering beast can recall some of the Mowgli stories. But here that mastery is pinned into place between the desire that impels it - `Old One, why is it that men desire so greatly, and can do so little?' - and the cost it exacts; and both are edged with an intensity beyond the earlier tales.
`I said, "This is a heavier sheep than I can lift." She said, "In time it will grow easy. In time perhaps you will not lay it down for any maiden anywhere. Be wise - be very wise, my son, for nothing is left you except the words, and the songs, and the worship of a God."'To which comes the antiphonal sealing:
`Oh, poor God!', said Puck. "But those are not altogether bad things.'
`I know they are not; but I would sell them all-all-all for one small child of my own, smearing himself with the ashes of our own house-fire.'
He wrenched his knife from the turf, thrust it into his belt and stood up.
`And yet what else could I have done?' he said. `The sheep are the people.'
`It is a very old tale,' Puck answered. `I have heard the likes of it not only on the Naked Chalk, but also among the Trees - under Oak, and Ash, and Thorn.'
Connections and discontinuities | Frames and layers of meaning
Familiarity and strangeness | Service and necessity
The Puck books and Kipling's art