This story was first published in The Delineator, Sept 1909, before being collected in Rewards and Fairies the following year.
It is very early on mid-summer morning, and a year has passed since the children first met Puck. He walks out of the Hill, greets them, and tells them a story about Cold Iron, the mysterious metal which dominates the fortunes of men and is feared and hated by the People of the Hills. Huon, King of the Fairies, and his Lady Esclairmonde, had carried away a foundling child born away from Cold Iron out on the Downs, whose mother had died. They planned to give him a splendid future. He learns to weave beautiful magic, and roams abroad with Puck.
Puck had always known, though, that despite his magical powers, when the boy grew up his fortune would be made by his first contact with iron, and so it proves. The Boy finds a slave ring hidden in the grass, snaps it tight around his neck, and is condemned to a life of servitude in the real world of men.
Sandra Kemp discusses this story in her Kipling’s Hidden Narratives, 102-3:
In `Cold Iron’ Kipling makes an explicit comparison between `the Boy’s’ loss of his magic powers and Christ’s human incarnation: `Iron out of Calvary is master of men all.’ In this story the Boy’s `Magic’ has a power and an unearthly beauty that enthralls the fairy people who adopted him…
But Puck realizes that the ‘shadow-nights and shadow-girls’ are merely a distraction: `I saw him lift his eyes … towards folk in housen all the time … his heart aching to go straightforward among [them].’ The `Cold Iron’ which the Boy must avoid if he is to retain his magical powers represents the sorrow and suffering inseparable from the human condition. `What could you or I have done against the Smith that made it and laid it for him to find?’ Puck asks Sir Huon. And … the Boy sees it as his mission to go among `folk in housen’ and alleviate their sorrow as best he can. The runes on the slave-ring he fastens round his neck as a symbol of his servitude signify the mystery of faith: `Few can see / Further forth’, and his intuitive but uncomprehending acceptance of his fate confirms Puck’s confident assertion at the opening of the story: `Where there’s true faith, there’s no call for magic.
Notes on the Text
[Page 5, line 23] squdged squashed.
[Page 6, line 16] People of the Hills fairies.
[Page 6, line 20] Ridley the keeper Game-keepers were responsible for preserving pheasants and other game on an estate, so that the shooting would be good, by keeping out poachers and keeping down predators like weasels, foxes, and hawks.
[Page 7, line 1] seizin possession
[Page 7, line 4] Billy Trott We have not traced this reference.
[Page 7, line 31] Cold Iron The ancient belief that there is something magical about metals, and – in particular – iron, must have originated in the very earliest days of using metal, instead of stone or pottery, for weapons or utensils. Kipling taps into this belief in “The Knife and the Naked Chalk” later in Rewards and Fairies. Smiths would have been men with a mysterious craft of their own, set apart. The Kipling house, Bateman’s, had been built by an iron-master in the early seventeenth century, and was on the edge of thre Weald forest, where the earliest English iron had been smelted.
[Page 8, line 1] housen dialect form of ‘houses’.
*[Page 8, line 26] nail the horseshoe Traditionally iron was a means of warding off harm from the supernatural, and it was believed that spirits could not cross a threshold that was guarded with a horseshoe. In English country districts people often nail horseshoes on their doors to this day.
[Page 8, line 30] changelings children (usually stupid or ugly) supposed to be left by fairies in exchange for those stolen by them.
[Page 9, line 17] Sir Huon of Bordeaux see the note to “Weland’s Sword” in Puck of Pook’s Hill.
[Page 10, line 11] Woden’s Day i.e. Wednesday, named after Woden/Odin, chief of the Norse gods. cf. Thor’s day (i.e. Thursday) below.
[Page 10, line 11] quoit Quoits is a game in which one throws rings so that they fall onto pegs.
[Page 11, line 23] under a shaw Shaw is an old English word for a grove of trees.
[Page 12, line 31] Thor god of sky and thunder in Norse myth whose name survives in Thursday. The leading combatant against giants and monsters, he has a hammer Mjolnir which returns to his hand when thrown, hence – probably – the crescent sign Puck describes.
[Page 13 , line 20] all round Robin Hood’s barn by a circuitous route.
[Page 14, line 6] rushlights Dim lamps made from bundles of rushes.
[Page 14, line 25] kidney potatoes an oval variety of potatoes.
[Page 15, line 12] Brightling Beacon One of the high points of Sussex, on which ‘Beacons’ – signal fires – would be set up.
[Page 15, line 17] like a Robertsbridge hopper on a Monday morning Until the 1950s families from the poorer areas of London, mainly from the ‘East End’, came down to Kent and Sussex in the summertime to pick the hops by hand. It was their holiday, and they might well have had a lively time in the inn on their day off on Sunday, and felt the worse for wear on a Monday morning. Robertsbridge is a small town in Sussex.
[Page 17, line 10] Asa singular of Aesir, the race of gods to which Thor belongs.
[Page 18, line 27 ] ash-tot a dust or refuse heap.
[Page 18, line 28 ] swop-hook a reaping hook for cutting crops close to the ground.
[Page 19, line 18] wildfire swift swirling flames.
[Page 21, line 19] whittle a large knife, e.g. a carving or builder’s knife.
[Page 21 , line 20] scratting scratching.
[Page 22 , line 13] runes characters in an ancient secret Germanic script, with magical associations.