To prepare for a big novel about fairies I thought I would read an earlier books about fairies, Rudyard Kipling’s Puck of Pook’s Hill (1906), in which Kipling plays a cruel trick on unsuspecting children by using a fantasy frame to disguise a book about that teaches English history. Why are writers so cruel? Children are so much better off today, now that they are not expected to know any history at all.
A pair of children are performing (for an audience of “Three Cows”) their abridged (“as much as they could remember”) version of Midsummer’s Night Dream – on Midsummer Eve – in a fairy circle – which is, obviously, something of a magic spell, one that summons the actual Puck.
‘We – we didn’t mean to,’ said Una.
‘Of course you didn’t! That’s just why you did it. Unluckily the Hills are empty now, and all the People of the Hills are gone. I’m the only one left. I’m Puck, the oldest Old Thing in England…’ (“Weland’s Sword”)
“People of the Hills,” not “fairies”:
‘And that’s how I feel about saying – that word that I don’t say. Besides, what you call them are made-up things the People of the Hills have never heard of – little buzzflies with butterfly wings and gauze petticoats, and shiny stars in their hair, and a wand like a school-teacher’s cane for punishing bad boys and rewarding good ones. I know ‘em!’
‘We don’t mean that sort,’ said Dan. ‘We hate ‘em too.’
That last bit could be the secret epigraph to Crowley’s Little, Big. Promising enough, but as I said, after Puck and the children share cookies (“Bath Oliver biscuits” – this is Kipling, no vagueness here), the Old Thing begins summoning other Old Things, not fairies but regional historical figures, knights and so on, in order to march the children through 1066 and all that. Roman Britain, Vikings, the Magna Carta. Each chapter ends with Puck casting a forgetting spell on the children, a good running joke for a pedagogical novel, the point of which is to make historical episodes so fictionally vivid that they cannot be forgotten.
The historical episodes are linked in a number of satisfying ways, by a magic sword and a gold hoard and the exodus of the fairies and their degeneration from gods – “’England is a bad country for Gods,’” says Puck – and by Kipling’s style, his intense imagination, the way he sees and hears:
When they reached Otter Pool the Golden Hind grounded comfortably on a shallow, and they lay beneath a roof of close green, watching the water trickle over the flood-gates down the mossy brick chute from the mill-stream to the brook. A big trout – the children knew him well – rolled head and shoulders at some fly that sailed round the bend, while once in just so often the brook rose a fraction of an inch against all the wet pebbles, and they watched the slow draw and shiver of a breath of air through the tree-tops. Then the little voices of the slipping water began again. (“The Knights of the Joyous Venture”)
I last saw that trout in a Richard Jefferies piece, “A London Trout,” which ended with the trout’s fate unknown, so it is nice to see he is thriving; I will next see him in the first chapter of Little, Big.