Rudyard Kipling writes. ‘Once upon a time, Dan and Una, brother and sister … had the good fortune to meet with Puck, alias Robin Goodfellow alias Nick o’ Lincoln, alias Lob-lie-by-the-Fire, the last survivor in England of those whom mortals call Fairies. Their proper name, of course, is ‘The People of the Hills’. This Puck, by means of the magic of Oak, Ash, and Thorn, gave the children power
To see what they should see and hear what they should hear,
Though it should have happened three thousand year.
A year or so later, the children met Puck once more, and though they were then older and wiser, and wore boots regularly instead of going barefooted when they got the chance, Puck was as kind to them as ever, and introduced them to more people of the old days. ‘
On mid-summer morning, the children meet Puck again, and he tells them a story about Cold Iron, the mysterious metal which dominates the fortunes of men. A foundling boy was brought up by the King and Queen of the Fairies to have a great future. But the first iron he touched was a slave ring, condemning him ro a life of servitude.
Gloriana, Queen Elizabeth I of England. tells a story that shows the painful decisions that a ruler has to take. Philip of Spain, the most powerful King in Europe, is threatening her colonies in America. She sends a fleet to stop him, knowing that it is a dangerous mission, and it never returns. Should she have sent them ?’. ‘I don’t see what else she could have done’ replies Dan.
Harry Dawe, the great master mason of Tudor times, tells of his pride in his work, and the hatred between him and another craftsman, Benedetto. The King knights Harry, with a rusty sword, not for his achievements, but because he had saved the King trouble over a small matter. The two craftsmen laugh together at the irony of it, and the jealousy and hatred between them is gone.
This story is told to Una alone. She meets Philadelphia Bucksteed, the sixteen-year old daughter of the Squire of Marklake, during the Napoleonic wars. She is suffering from consumption – tuberculosis, a common and incurable disease in those times. The village ‘witch-master’ knows that nothing will save her, and gives good advice on breathing fresh air. But everyone in the story, apart from Philadelphia, knows that soon she will die.
A Flint Man of neolithic times, keeping sheep on the Sussex Downs, goes to the ‘people of the trees’, who smelt iron in the Weald forest, to ask them for ‘magic’ iron knives against the wolves. They will give him the knives, but first he has to sacrifice one of his eyes. 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 is treated like a priest or a god, and has to live in solitude.
Pharaoh Lee, from a Sussex smuggling family, finds himself in America during the French wars. He makes friends with the Seneca Indians in Pennsylvania, and runs wild in the woods with the young braves, where his square-toed footprints make him easy to track. He goes with their chiefs to see the President, George Washington, to find out if America will join the French to fight the British. Washington makes it clear that they will not, however unpopular this may make him. They are not ready for war.
Pharaoh Lee, back in Philadelphia, meets a lame, bedraggled French emigré, begging in the street. He helps and befriends him and finds that he is a former priest, and a distinguished man, Count Talleyrand de Perigord, ex-Ambassador from the French King to Britain. After various adventures he gives Pharaoh $500, a small fortune, and sails for France. Pharaoh buys a ship and a cargo of tobacco, and follows. When he is captured by a French warship, Talleyrand takes time off from his plotting with Napoleon to help his friend. He has never forgotten Pharaoh’s help in need.
St. Wilfrid, 7th century Bishop of York, tells how he spent time converting the South Saxons to Christianity. He mades friends with Meon, one of their chieftains, who is a sceptic, but this does not stop them having civilised talks. One day they go fishing together. They are caught in a storm, and washed up on a rock at risk of their lives. As they huddle on a ledge Meon asks Wilfrid if he should convert to Christianity. Wilfrid responds that he should not desert his gods just to seek favour in a crisis. He should keep faith.
Nicholas Culpeper, the 17th century astrologer-herbalist, tells Dan and Una how, during the Civil War, he had come to their village when the plague was raging. Astrology told him, by complicated calculations involving Mars, Saturn, and the Moon, that they must rid the village of rats. They ‘take a bat and kill a rat’ and succeeded in defeating the plague.
Simon Cheyneys is a shipbuilder of Rye in the days of Queen Elizabeth. He tells how as a lad he shipped with Francis Drake across the Narrow Seas to rescue Protestant refugees from Spanish persecution. Simon had been his good friend, a friend ‘that sticketh closer than a brother’.
In 1588 the Spanish Armada sails up Channel, harried by Drake and his small English ships. From Rye Simon brings out all the stores that Frankie will need. The friendship has borne good fruit, but there is sadness at the end of the story.
Forty years after Hastings, there has been a hunt in the forest, and one of the beaters, an old man, had called out against the Normans. The King calls for Hugh the Saxon knight, who had been there too. Hugh comes in with the old man, a mad Saxon pilgrim.
He is King Harold of England, who had escaped from the Battle of Hastings, and wandered half-mad ever since from shrine to shrine. When King Henry is told the truth he speaks courteously to Harold, and gives him a goblet of wine. No-one speaks against him, and Harold dies on Hugh’s shoulder in the presence of the King.
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!
(the line-drawings are by Charles Brock, from the Pocket Edition)