Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Kipling's Rewards and Fairies - music, history, dying children and another heroic seal - the broad gentle flood of the main tune

Some easier Kipling, Rewards and Fairies (1910).  It’s a book for children, so I hope it’s easier.

What children, though.  In each story a pair of perfect children, from the Kipling point of view, I mean – “Dan had gone in for building model boats” – encounters a figure from history who tells about his encounter with a more important figure from history.  A local shipbuilder tells about Francis Drake, before he was a Sir.  A young smuggler meets President Washington in one story and General Bonaparte in the next.  The children are already sufficiently educated to follow the stories.  So am I, now, somewhat older.

Although a sequel to Puck of Pook’s Hill (1906) and similar on general principles, the fairy aspect is muted.  Just a little touch of “then they woke up” to wave away pointless questions of actuality.

“The Conversion of St Wilfrid” is about a super-intelligent pet seal.  What kind of seal, I don’t know.  His heroism converts the saint.  This is Kipling’s second story about a heroic seal, the other being “The White Seal” from The Jungle Book.  The other that I know of, I mean.  Maybe there are more.  How many writers have written even one.  The frame of this story is extraordinary, with the medieval saint, the Shakespeare fairy and the Kipling children listening to an old church organ played by a professional organist.

The music had turned soft – full of little sounds that chased each other on wings across the broad gentle flood of the main tune.  

As in the story, the combination of beauty and belief is hard to untangle.

“Marklake Witches” also ends with music.  It is almost too sad to read, with a story-teller who is a vivacious teenager who does not know that she is mortally ill, and an auditor, little Una, who does not know that she is a stand-in for Kipling’s daughter who died of pneumonia.  Everyone else in the story knows that the narrator is doomed; only she and Una never figure it out.  She sings a song about a dying flower and thinks that everyone is so deeply affected by the beauty of her performance.

‘And what did Dr Break do?’

‘He got up and pretended to look out of the window, but I saw his little fat shoulders jerk as if he had the hiccoughs.  That was a triumph.  I never suspected him of sensibility.’

‘Oh, I wish I’d seen!  I wish I’d been you,’ said Una, clasping her hands.

And this is where Puck ends the story, presumably on the verge of tears himself.  Irony is so sad.

The poems Kipling attaches to his so-called adult stories are often oblique, even cryptic, in their connection to the proses text.  The poems in Rewards and Fairies are clear, direct, and often beautiful –  the old lost road in “The Way through the Woods,” or Father Eddi’s Christmas sermon to an ox and an ass in “Eddi’s Service:”

And when the Saxons mocked him,
    Said Eddi of Manhood End,
‘I dare not shut His chapel
    On such as care to attend.’

Kipling is unafraid of sublime effects, but the generosity of Rewards and Fairies tempers the fear.  It’s a children’s book, sort of.


  1. To answer a question from another thread, even from the years you have not covered yet, there is just so much great Kipling still left to be read. The short stories from A Diversity of Creatures (The Dog Hervey, Friendly Brook, As Easy as A.B.C., The Vortex); Debits and Credits (The Gardener, The Janeites, The Wish House, A Madonna of the Trenches); Limits and Renewals (Dayspring Mishandled, The Church that was at Antioch, The Woman in his Life, The Manner of Men, Unprofessional). The poems from The Years Between, where he drops his poses and writes as directly as a genius as complex as him could write. The speeches of A Book of Words.

    In A Book of Words, Kipling chose to display a persona of a very likable guy, humble, brilliant, erudite and conservative but humane. Compare Kipling's persona with the public speaker personas of Borges (funny, brilliant, ironic, erudite), Beckett (human, compassionate, down-to-earth, intelligent, wise) or Nabokov (brilliant, cranky, boorish, erudite).

  2. That very moving trick of a young girl not knowing about her death and misreading the reactions of others was also used by Masakazu Ishiguro on his And Yet the Town Moves. It was just as moving in the manga.

  3. I haven't read Action and Reactions yet, either. Unlike the later books, none of the story titles look familiar.