On the Great Wall

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 Puck of Pook’s Hill (1906, and frequently reprinted since).


This story was first published in the Strand Magazine of June 1906, and McClure’s Magazine for the same month. It was collected in Puck of Pook’s Hill in 1906 and in numerous subsequent editions of that collection. It was accompanied by the poem “A Song to Mithras”. It also includes a verse of the song “Rimini”.

The story

Parnesius tells the story of his long march from the civilised south coast of England to Hadrian’s Wall, the northern boundary of Rome’s domain. The Wall is garrisoned by soldiers from many parts of the Empire. It is a punishment posting in a hard land, but on these men rests the security of Roman Britain against attack.

Towards the Picts to the north the Roman commanders are harsh, burning their heather and arming the Wall with sharp-shooting archers. But Parnesius, with his great friend Pertinax, gets to know the Picts and some of their leaders, venturing out into the heather to hunt and roam. One day, far in the west, they see the longships of the ‘Winged Hats’, Saxon invaders who in years to come will sweep away Roman power and conquer England. Maximus, Emperor of Britain, who aims to rule Gaul, and perhaps Rome, must decide how to deal with these threats in the north. Should the Romans try to occupy Valentia, the Pictish province north of the Wall ?

Parnesius and Pertinax meet him in Pict country, down by the sea, and persuade him that this would be folly. It will be better to pacify the Picts, by kindness, deter them from helping the Winged Hats, and hold off the Saxon attacks until Maximus can send them more legions. Maximus agrees, and decides to make Parnesius and Pertinax Captains of the Wall.

Notes on the text

[Page 167, line 1] Lalage’s The name occurs in Horace, Odes, I. xxii and II. v. For Kipling’s cheerfully mocking gloss on the former see Kipling’s Horace, ed. Carrington, 7. Songs from Books and DV print an expanded version of this poem as “Rimini”.

[Page 167, line 2] Rimini town on the eastern coast of Italy.

[Page 167, line 7] Pontic shore south-eastern shore of the Black Sea.

[Page 169, line 27] Eagles the image, gold or silver-gilt, of an eagle was the legionary standard and focus for its esprit de corps.

[Page 170, line 3] out of his own Book cf. Luke 20, 20-5 and parallels.

[Page 170, line 7] Why should I care cf. Acts 18, 12-17 and the poem “Gallio’s Song” in Actions and Reactions, or “The Church that was at Antioch” in Limits and Renewals.

[Page 170, line 22] the North Shore This would probably have been what is now the north-east coast of Northumberland.

[Page 174, line 6] Ituna Bowness, at the Western end of the Wall.

[Page 174, line 6] Segedunum Wallsend, at the Eastern end of the Wall.

[Page 174, line 12] Hunno Modern Halton. a village some 26 miles along the Wall from the Eastern end.

[Page 174, line 14] Valentia the location of the Roman province of Valentia is disputed by historians. Kipling places it north of Hadrian’s Wall.

[Page 177, line 27] a ceremony in our Temple Mithraic temples were built underground. The slaying of a bull by Mithras is a key episode in the Mithraic mythology of creation and is often represented in reliefs or frescoes in Mithraic temples. Modern scholarship does not, however, support the view that the sacrifice of a bull figured in Mithraic ritual.

[Page 178, line 1] Degree of Gryphons Mithraism had no organized hierarchy. Initiates were organized in seven grades, each with its own mark and associated with one of the seven planetary gods. Rising from one grade to another prefigured the ascent of the soul after death. No degree of `Gryphon’ existed: one theory is that the mistake arose when a Greek epithet, kruphios (`the hidden one’), for the second grade was wrongly transliterated into Latin as gryphius.

[Page 178, line 19] horns like Jewish candlesticks candelabra.

[Page 178, line 26] Sylvan Pan god of flocks and herds, half-human, half-goat in form; associated with wild nature (hence `sylvan’).

[Page 178, line 30] Xenophon (431-c. 350 BC); Greek soldier, historian, miscellaneous writer. His works include a treatise On Hunting. In his Anabasis (Bk. v, ch. 3) he records establishing, on his estate near Sparta, a temple to Artemis with an inscription.

[Page 180, line 1] the Picts The people of the region immediately to the north of Hadrian’s Wall. A pre-Celtic people of whom little is known.

[Page 180, line 4] Second Wall the Antonine Wall between the Forth and Clyde.

[Page 181, line 16] Winged Hats the sea-raiders from the east are presented by Kipling as Vikings. Contemporary accounts always refer to them as ‘Saxons’ and neither they nor the Vikings wore winged helmets.

[Page 185, line 16] Cicero (106-43 BC); the greatest of Roman orators.

[Page 188, line 7] Greek fire a combustible composition for setting fire to ships etc.

[Page 189, line 15] Duumvir in Roman provincial administration the duumviri, or duoviri iure dicundo, were the two senior magistrates, charged primarily with the administration of justice in towns granted the privileges of citizenship.

[Page 189, line 15] Divio town in north-eastern France.

[Page 189, line 17] tables Clay tablets for writing on.