The Archaeological Imagination
‘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.’
As autobiography Something of Myself is systematically fragmented and oblique. It seems at first to focus only on the writings which Kipling, with his fierce sense of privacy, considers the proper meeting-ground with his readers. In fact, as Richard Holmes has argued, it brings to bear on the life the art of the later stories: an art of ellipsis, implication, the resonance of the unsaid. In this passage the settling into England and English life is the genesis of the Puck stories; and the loaded account of that settling carries a metaphor of the shaping imagination at work in them. For the two books present – as finely as anything in English – that distinctive evoking of the past we may call the archaeological imagination. I
The archaeological imagination
Men have always imagined their past: in myth, in tribal legend, in the multiple re-creations we name history. Among these the archaeological imagination can seem a latecomer: the first full instances of it I know in fiction are Flaubert’s Salammbô (1862) and Trois Contes (1877). But in the century since it has proved remarkably, and variously, fruitful. Kipling in the passage quoted gives us some of its key elements: a context of the primitive and the mysterious (here touched with the jokey); a matching context of the practical, of work but work touched with the magic of art; a focusing on artefacts; the past as buried, to be reached by digging; the past as at once remote, indeed alien, and immediate (the `deepest mud yielded us a perfectly polished Neolithic axe-head with but one chip on its still venomous edge’).
This is a past not heard but seen; a past fragmented, tactile, mute, on whose excavated fragments a re-creating imagination must play. Focal for that play is the encounter of the remote and the alien with the immediate. At its most intense the archaeological imagination can fuse, as no written or oral history does, a sense of the past as unbridgeably other with a sense of the past, in its silent immediacy, challenging or teasing us into the re-creating response that is, in a complex of senses, reading.
John Keats prefigures the polarity involved in such reading in the “Ode to a Grecian Urn”, which moves from the wreathing of imagination in the first stanza:
What leaf-fringed legend haunts about thy shape
Of deities, or mortals, or of both?
– around the `still unravished bride of quietness’ to the contemplation of it in the last stanza as artefact and enigma:
Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought
As doth eternity’.
[“Ode to a Grecian Urn” 14-26]
Such 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:
Murdered, forgotten, nameless, terrible
Beheaded girl, outstaring axe
And beatification, outstaring
What had begun to feel like reverence.
But 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]
[For the other images, see Seamus Heaney’s poems “Digging”, “The Diviner”, and “Personal Helicon”, in Death of a Naturalist (London, 1966); “Bogland” in Door into the Dark (London, 1969); and his essay “Feeling into Words”, in Preoccupations (London, 1980), 41-60. Kipling speaks of water-divining just before the passage quoted above.]
The encounter of the present with the alien and fragmented past can groove and extend itself in a systematic intercutting of the two. In Geoffrey Hill’s Mercian Hymns such intercutting fashions the past into cameo and myth. In Heaney’s North it generates a powerful X-ray analysis of contemporary history and crisis. In George Mackay Brown’s Magnus it draws up ancient and modern violence into a sustaining web of ritual. Beyond such intercuttings the archaeological imagination can fan, in one direction, towards the re-creation of small primal societies as in Naomi Mitchison’s Early in Orcadia. In another it fans towards the fictive autobiography of classical figures of which Robert Graves’s Claudius novels are the most famous, and Marguerite Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian [trans. G. Frick, 2nd edn. (London, 1966), page 238] the most distinguished, examples. In her reflections on the writing of the latter Yourcenar cites a note to herself:
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.
An archaeological imagination of the past can be found as far back as Virgil, who creates in Aeneid vi-viii a dense palimpsest of the remote Italian past with his own imperial present which belongs for Aeneas in the poem to a glimpsed and visionary future. But it is in the later nineteenth century that it comes into its own. Various factors in the culture of the period foster its rise. Among these the first, obviously, is the development of archaeology itself. As well as bringing a remoter past to light, this feeds into the florescence of local history and recording expressed in Victoria County Histories, county archaeological societies, and the like. [See for example Glyn Daniel, A Hundred Years of Archaeology (London, 1950), and Stuart Piggott, Ruins in a Landscape (Edinburgh, 1976), chs. 6-9.]
It is bracketed by developments in architectural history and in geology. The apprehension of the past through buildings and landscape – the latter no longer seen only as setting for events – enters the work of historians like E. A. Freeman and J. R. Green. [See e.g. Freeman’s essays on “French and English Towns” or “Perigueux and Cahors”, in Historical Essays, Fourth Series, 2nd edn. (London, 1892), 25-52 and 131-58; Green’s on “The Early History of Oxford”, in Stray Studies (London, 1876), 331-57; and the discussion of the work of both in J. W. Burrow, A Liberal Descent (Cambridge, 1981), 158-61 and 177-205.]
The controversies roused by the impact of the new geology on some articles of traditional Christian belief are familiar. What bites deeper into imagination and thought is the vastly extended time-scale that geology brings. [See e.g. Stephen Toulmin and June Goodfield, The Discovery of Time (London, 1965), 141-246.] This can generate a dwarfing sense of human history as infinitesimal on the scales of geological and cosmic time. It can equally generate a sense of flux as ultimate or juxtapose the present with the primeval. Tennyson telescopes both in a single passage of In Memoriam:
There rolls the deep where grew the tree.
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.
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:
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.
To these factors we might add the lapse of the kind of imagining of the past pioneered – sometimes classically achieved – by Scott in the Waverley novels. That achievement issued from a confluence of factors not readily repeated: antiquarian interests; traditions of oral history; and, matching these, a luminous, analytic, eighteenth-century intelligence and an acute sensitivity to the texture of historical change and historical loss. Scott’s river-delta genius fertilizes much of the later nineteenth century. But there are few successors who can absorb or extend his imagining of history and society: in English only George Eliot; for others we must look to Europe, to Manzoni in Italy, to Mickiewicz in Poland, to Pushkin in Russia. What develops from Scott in much nineteenth-century English historical fiction is only a costume drama or melodrama of the past. This would hold even for a work as insistently documented as Charles Reade’s The Cloister and the Hearth.
Kipling cherished for the latter an admiration one may find excessive. In a flamboyant passage of Something of Myself he unfurls his frustrated dream to write:
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‘.
This suggests one affinity between Kipling’s sensibility and an archaeological imagination of the past. And from other angles there is much in his experience and art which might mesh with such an imagination. He recalls how in the India of his youth:
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.]
The calling up of figures from the past to speak their story might come readily to a sensibility so responsive to Browning. [For Kipling and Browning, see e.g. John Bayley, The Uses of Division (London, 1976), page 56; Donald Davie, Dissentient Voice (London, 1982), pages 55-64; Carrington, 134. Thomas Pinney, in his edition of Something of Myself (Cambridge, 1990), pp. xix-xxxii, notes Kipling’s ‘identification of himself with Browning’s Fra Lippo Lippi, an association that runs like a leitmotif through the earlier part’ of the autobiography.]
Finally, for an art so much an art of implication as Kipling’s is becoming in this phase of his career, the emphasis we have seen the archaeological imagination can throw on reading and deciphering might prove fruitful; as might also the possibilities of juxtaposition it offers.
The Puck stories are veined with such juxtapositions, notably “Weland’s Sword” which initiates the series. In “A Doctor of Medicine” the plague-stone out of the heroic past story survives as the chickens’ drinking-trough where the children have set their bicycle-lamps. In “The Treasure and the Law” Kadmiel cannot believe that a Jew could accidentally hurt a Christian and go untortured. Drawing on a fashionable motif of reincarnation, Kipling had put such juxtapositions to powerful use long before in “The Finest Story in the World” (Many Inventions 1893). Its stress, however, falls not on the past as alien or even remote but on communication – which is filtered, fragmented, teasing, finally sealed off; and on the reflexive ironies of fiction. It gives a kaleidoscope shake to that art of fragmentation which is at the heart of Kipling’s work from the first. The early “Story of Muhammad Din” in Plain Tales from the Hills etches an image of the artist as child, building out of fragments and rubbish an encircling area of play which is at once magical and fragile. In “Dayspring Mishandled”, which stands at the head of the last collection, Limits and Renewals, such an art of fragmentation merges with the strategies of art as hoax and obsession and revenge. And it is the base for the use of ellipsis and framing that reaches back into his early tales but becomes central from Traffics and Discoveries (1904) on.
This art of fragmentation is doubtless bedded in his early experiences of India and deracination, and sharpened by his journalist’s response to detail. It is fed by his zest for, in Gerard Manley Hopkins’s phrase: all trades, their gear and tackle and trim. But to cite Hopkins is to register a fundamental difference. In “Pied Beauty” the multiplicity celebrated:
‘Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim’ –
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).]
From another viewpoint his is the world of a late-pagan sensibility; late-pagan in its cosmopolitan sympathy, its respect for local creeds as local, its agnosticism that can deepen like a coastal shelf into anarchy or panic or despair. In such a world no final wholeness can be held to in belief or glimpsed in vision. What can be pursued is the rounding of the fragment, the defence of the encircled space; and the art which pursues such goals will itself be intimate with frailty and ambivalence, as “Muhammad Din” or “Dayspring Mishandled” show. Beyond that, the sense of the fragmented world, `uncovenanted’ in Bayley’s suggestive epithet, can haunt the fiction with the image of the pits which lie beneath the surface of mundane experience or into which the encircled world, whether of play or the pack or routine, can, appallingly, turn: the literal pit in “Bubbling Well Road”; the waterlogged grave that receives the adulterous Tertium Quid in “At the Pit’s Mouth”; the isolated stations of `A Wayside Comedy” or “At the End of the Passage”; the village of the dead in “The Strange Ride of Morrowbie Jukes”.
The Puck books seem remote from such intensities. If they are often pushed towards the edge of Kipling’s oeuvre, I take it one reason is the belief that they fashion a waxwork idyll or nostalgic myth of an unchanging Englishness. And the idyll of an enduring Sussex countryside – Sussex, not English, enduring, not unchanging – is strong in them, or at least in Puck of Pook’s Hill, along with the telescoping and eliding such idyll demands. [See, briefly, Alun Hawkins, “Kipling, Englishness and History”, in Kipling 86, ed. Angus Ross (Sussex, 1987), pages 25-9.] (Rewards and Fairies is too ranging, too brooding to be read in this way.) But even in Puck of Pook’s Hill the Roman stories unfold a sense of their society as doomed, together with the stoic loyalties of Pamesius and his friend Pertinax who continue to hold the Wall in their knowledge of that doom. (In the pivotal second story, “On the Great Wall”, Kipling’s revisions to the Strand Magazine text quietly point up the twin emphasis on doom and on the need to work in the face of it.) And across the span of both books the archaeological imagination at work in them and the fragmented past it calls up fence out any facile celebration of continuity. The stories, polished to completeness in themselves, sharpen our sense of the gaps between them.
Connections and discontinuities
In Puck of Pook’s Hill Kipling opens up this sense of gaps and discontinuity by the movements backwards and forwards through history that are crucial to our reading of it. The sequence from “Weland’s Sword” through the Norman stories to “The Treasure and the Law” can be taken as a spinal column for the book. It celebrates English history as a story of growth and coming together that climaxes in the signing of Magna Charta. Puck sums up its continuity in terms half-magical, half-organic:
‘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 the Roman stories the cycle of maturity and ageing is speeded up. Tompkins (pages 72-3) and Rutherford (Ed.) (`Officers and Gentlemen’, pages 184-96) have traced their movement from the domestic ambience of the first to the elevation, the heroism without hope (and the sleep-walking exhaustion) of the last. [A revised version of the essay “Officers and Gentlemen” (“The Subaltern as Hero: Kipling and Frontier War”) appears in Rutherford’s The Literature of War, 2nd edn. (London, 1989), pages 11-37.] The troops who at last relieve Parnesius and Pertinax find not the boyish officers they expected but greyhaired men. The final exchanges telescope what the stories have revealed about service, about maturing and its cost, and the level irony with which they view success:
“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.”
None the less they gave us a Triumph!
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:
`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?’
The complexities of continuity and discontinuity that underlie the smooth-seeming surface of Puck of Pook’s Hill illustrate how the archaeological imagination of the past creates a new field for Kipling’s art of fragmentation. It does the same for the use of framing which is integral to that art. In a world without ultimate pattern, framing can grip or seal a local pattern while acknowledging that it is local, even arbitrary, or suggesting another perspective upon it. Kipling’s use of it ranges from the offhand formulas of Plain Tales from the Hills through a piece like “On Greenhow Hill” (Life’s Handicap) where frame and story can place and displace each other, up to “The Bridge Builders” and “The Brushwood Boy” which open and close The Day’s Work. In both a daytime world of imperial work and its discipline is encircled by a violent, anarchic nightworld of myth or dream; only – the pivoting between the two worlds at the core of the tale makes it in the end impossible to say which world encircles which. And in some of the later tales, from “Mrs Bathurst” (Traffics and Discoveries) on, framing can pass over into a virtuosity of filtering.
The Puck books are less ambitious. Yet how far framing can go in Rewards and Fairies was suggestively caught by Dixon Scott in a 1912 review of Kipling’s oeuvre:
… 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.
`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?’
That burst of a child’s questions at the end of a story told reminds us that the story itself is a fragment. But what has come just before and what comes after glazes fragmentation with a tranquil sense of the strange:
… 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.
`Oh, Mus Reynolds, Mus Reynolds!’ said Hobden, under his breath. ‘If I knowed all was inside your head, I’d know something wuth knowin.’
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:
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)].
This is also the development of an imagination of the pack, the functioning unit or team, into an imagination of the locality and the tribe. Two examples of Kipling’s use of source material will illustrate how deftly he can create from it a sense of history as the story, remembered from within, of this (local) place. Among his sources for the Puck books were the Sussex Archaeological Collections. An article on Pevensey Castle in one of these suggests in passing that its Anglo-Saxon name of Peofneasa derives `probably from some early proprietor called Peofn’. This becomes Puck’s offhand memory in `Weland’s Sword’:
`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.]
In “Marklake Witches” and its companion poem “The Way Through the Woods” the meeting of the local and the ghostly can generate a frisson of sadness and indefinite suggestion:
`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.’
`They lead over our land,’ said Philadelphia stiffly, `and the coach road is only four miles away. One can go anywhere from the Green.’
“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:
I’m like you. I say nothin’. But I’ll tell you a tale, an’ you can fit it as how you please
with its pivotal stress on `as’ and the possibilities that stress lays on reader or hearer.
In the shifting patterns of the book, “Dymchurch Flit” links with the Norman stories in its muted undertow of ageing. It links, in its fashioning of an idyllic image of Sussex, with “Hal o’ the Draft”. But it is shadowed as the latter is not, and with a human poignancy playing through and out of its shadows. Most clearly it matches “Weland’s Sword”, both sophisticated essays in the folklore imagination, both narrated by Puck himself – but this time Puck as Hobden’s (dead) friend Tom Shoesmith returned. His presence tinges with otherness the security of autumn routine so beautifully caught in the opening paragraphs; and what I have called the narrative agnosticism keeps in solution that blend of the known and the other. It enfolds the shimmering strangeness of the fairy night-piece. It finally yields, at the heart of the tale, the deep rightness of the need for the widow to make a free act of generosity in letting her sons – one blind and one dumb – go to man the boat which will take the fairies out of England; and the answering rightness of their return, unharmed but unhealed. That has its fairy-tale coda in the promise recalled in chorus by Hobden and Puck and, in a final turn, we are lifted out of fairy-tale into the epiphany, strange but radiantly solid, of the Wordsworthian idiot-figure of the Bee-Boy:
`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.
Rewards and Fairies, which came out four years after Puck of Pook’s Hill, is a subtly, in the end a systematically, different book. It ranges more widely in space and time; its imaginative world is distinctly northern (and Atlantic). It centres historical figures: Queen Elizabeth, Washington, Talleyrand, Napoleon, Drake, and, in final searching counterpoint, a Harold who has survived Hastings by forty years as a wandering beggar with his mind gone. Through them it articulates questions of leadership, service, heroism, their ambivalence and cost. Its core is the question-Kipling describes it in Something of Myself as both giving him his underwood and as `the plinth of all structures’ `What else could I have done?’. The stories inflect it through a range of responses: laconic heroism in the shrill-voiced astrologer Culpeper; despair in Harold; a histrionic desperation in Elizabeth. The opening story, “Cold Iron”, reaches perhaps deepest in its atonal fusion of choice, even chance, and necessity. At its climax the Boy lays hands, in the dark, on the iron that Thor has forged:
… there he stood, in clear starlight, with a new, heavy, shining slave-ring round his proud neck …
“‘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.
Kipling tells us he embarked on a sequel:
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.)
Even more than Puck of Pook’s Hill, Rewards and Fairies points backwards and forwards in Kipling’s oeuvre. Its focus on healing, often through the release of a manic and cathartic laughter (orchestrated in “The Wrong Thing”, abrupt in “A Doctor of Medicine”, mesmerizing in “The Tree of Justice”), anticipates things which become central for the Kipling of the post-war stories of breakdown. Breakdown and healing are already edging towards the centre in the collection that immediately precedes it, Actions and Reactions. But in this area Rewards and Fairies looks back further, to The Children of the Zodiac, the closing fable in Many Inventions (1893).
The latter with its title and teasing epigraph from Ecclesiastes is an interestingly diverse collection, opening in various directions, some of which Kipling will follow through much later. “The Children of the Zodiac” is his first essay on the motif of the gods in exile which goes back to Heine. In English it had been handled by Walter Pater in those rather sinister stories of medieval violence “Denys L’Auxerrois” and “Apollo in Picardy”. It had received a lightly Lucianic treatment in Richard Garnett’s Twilight of the Gods. In Kipling’s fable the benign gods – the Children of the Zodiac – renounce their divinity to alleviate human toil. Leo and the Girl bring alleviation through their art – itself often toil – and in finally, painfully accepting bereavement and death they achieve, as the epigraph from Emerson suggests, a true divinity.
The motif of the gods in exile naturally appeals to a late-pagan sensibility. In Rewards and Fairies “The Knife and the Naked Chalk” gives it a bleak ironic reversal. The Flint Man who has sacrificed himself for his people finds himself worshipped as a god and so cut off from humanity. Of all the Puck stories this is the most archaic and, with that, the most archetypal. As such it embodies most fully what I have called the archaeological imagination of the past. Its evoking of the bare landsape of the Downs dips into an image of the communication of present with past:
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.
It moves towards fable, but a fable that taps, as “The Children of the Zodiac” does not, the resources of myth. The mythology it refashions is Norse and the choice is significant; for Norse myth, as opposed to Greek, is deeply scored by the sufferings of the gods, who live in age-long battle or wary engagement with the powers of the encircling dark, the giants and monsters, under the shadowing doom of Ragnarok in which they and their enemies will, in a final cosmic battle, be engulfed. The gods of Norse myth can be threatened with senility, as in the story of Idun’s apples. They can also sacrifice themselves. This flashes out, enigmatic and potent, in the lines of Odin from “The Words of the High One”
Wounded I hung on a wind-swept gallows
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).]
In 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:
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.
The Puck books and Kipling’s art
The Puck books are the last of Kipling’s stories for children, and perhaps the ripest. A final reason their achievement has scarcely had its due may be a prejudice – lingering more than a hundred years after Anderson and Kingsley and Carroll – that writing for children is of its nature marginal, lightweight. In Kipling such writing allows his bent for didactic fable to root itself in deeper levels of the imagination. If it seals off the powers that drive his art at its greatest, the art of “Mary Postgate” or “The Wish House”, it delivers him from the garish brilliance, the insistent knowing, that are among his besetting dangers as a short-story writer; delivers him also from sentimentality. And it can release a notable swift, even prose. In the finest of the Puck stories, the obliquity and distillation of writing to adults through children enable him to articulate some of his abiding themes with a level of intensity he does not surpass elsewhere.
In “The Knife and the Naked Chalk” that intensity is opened out but not lightened as its complex burden of art, apotheosis, maiming, and loss is marshalled, in a single lucid sweep, into threnody:
`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.”‘
`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.’
To which comes the antiphonal sealing:
`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.’
©Donald Mackenzie 1993 All rights reserved