Tuesday, May 5, 2015

"We don't mean that sort. We hate 'em too'" - some Rudyard Kipling fairy stories

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.


  1. My favorite of Kipling's fairy stories is Marklake Witches, a tale in which we the readers realize something that poor little Una, being a child, cannot. Not to mention these lines, which Kipling wrote for a little girl afraid of the woods and their little people:

    Yet, if you enter the woods
    Of a summer evening late,
    When the night-air cools on the trout-ringed pools
    Where the otter whistles his mate
    (They fear not men in the woods
    Because they see so few),
    You will hear the beat of a horse's feet
    And the swish of a skirt in the dew,
    Steadily cantering through
    The misty solitudes,
    As though they perfectly knew
    The old lost road through the woods...
    But there is no road through the woods!

  2. More interesting and unconventional fairies appear in Sylvia Townsend Warner's Kingdoms of Elfin. I'll read Little, Big too: anything which can make you abandon your 1914 [?] cut-off point should be worth having a look at.

  3. Oops - and pedantic as ever - it's a gold hoard, not a horde. The Mongols didn't make it as far as Kent.

  4. Pedantic in the most useful way - thank you. I think of the cutoff as more like 1917. 11 am, Nov. 11, 1917, maybe. That cutoff is in ever-increasing danger. Thanks for the pointer to Warner's book, too - interesting.

    I obviously need to read Rewards and Fairies, as well. But I had guessed that.

  5. Lovely review! I don't know how I would have responded to this as a child, but I only discovered it last year and was charmed - a lovely and evocative and surprisingly informative book!


  6. I wish I had read this book as a child. If I had been too young, much of the book would have been baffling, but, eh, bafflement is healthy.

    Here is Kaggy's review. We both need to read Rewards and Fairies!

  7. I've enjoyed Arthur Machen's stories, in which fairies are horrible things indeed. On the non-fiction shelf, Margaret Murray's influential but serenely unscholarly "God of the Witches" argues that fairies were a reclusive tribe of dwarfish pagans; Jacques Vallee's "Passport to Magonia" points out the similarities between fairy lore and UFO abductions.

    Oh, and if you haven't read Michael Drayton's "Nymphidia," it's worth a shot. (It's not long.) And there's always Yeats!

  8. My people are Kipling People, so I had this, and Rewards and Fairies, and Kim, and all the rest (as well as 1066 and All That, incidentally.) It *was* baffling, as were a great many other books I read at the time. Also terrific.

  9. Machen is a perfect fit for the E. R. Dodds book I may write about today, if I dare. The extension to UFOs is only logical.

    I have read that Drayton poem! Or some of it. I will have to check my Drayton collection to see if - probably how - the editor chopped it up. Heavy hand with the scissors, that editor. I certainly did not remember it until you mentioned it.

    Kipling People is good people, says me.

  10. See this is the main reason why I read your blog. I'd no idea of this story's existence. It sounds both dreadful and fascinating. It also makes me wonder if writers of the time were really arguing about fairies through their stories. At the time there was much speculation about whether fairies really existed. It could make for an interesting paper if I were still writing papers like that.

    But I'll probably stick with Kim, The Jungle Books and The Man Who Would Be King.

  11. Not dreadful; pretty close to prime Kipling, actually. If you are looking for stories that stand up to "The Man Who Would Be King," Kipling wrote plenty of them.

    If Kipling was arguing about fairies, he was arguing against them. He wasn't totally gullible, like Doyle. But I think it is more accurate to say that he is writing about the impulse that leads people to argue about fairies.

  12. Arguably Kipling's best fairy story is Them, but it's not my favorite because I don't feel like I understand it. Even worse, I haven't read any satisfactory explanation of Them. The premise of Them is simple: in order to see them you must have given birth to and/or lost one of them. So how come the male narrator sees them?

  13. I haven't read "'They'" - aargh, Kipling and his quotation marks in titles. The Kipling Society website (which is screwy, so you have to click around to find this) takes it that the narrator did lose one, his daughter.

    What a sad story.

  14. Those explanations are superficially right, until you dig a little below the surface. The blind lady has not lost or birthed any children either, and she can hear them. What she has (and this is my own crude guess) is psychic powers, and the narrator seems to share her gifts since he understands the details of her extra-sensory perception and because when he finally 'understands' she 'senses' his understanding and he 'senses' her sensing it.

    Also, no parent in the world being granted access to their dead children will stop visiting them once they realize the extraordinary mercy they've been given (as the associated poem tells), and, as is repeated in the story, 'it's not a matter of favor but of right', i.e. salvation not by grace but by works.

    Why does the middle of the story deals with the narrator trying to save a child only to have the child die two days later? And what does this passage mean:

    "I looked on either side of the deep fireplace, and found but a half-charred hedge-stake with which I punched a black log into flame.

    ``It never goes out, day or night,'' she said, as though explaining"

    Why is 'it' wrong only for the narrator and why he must never come back?

    To me, Mrs. Bathurst seems clear as water when compared to 'They'.

  15. So there's some other argument at work, too. Curious. "as though explaining" is the kind of phrase commonly encountered in Little, Big.

  16. AR(T), I look forward to the day you read Traffics and Discoveries because I'd love to read your take on those endlessly meaning-shifting tales, specially Below the Mill Dam, Wireless, Mrs. Bathurst and Them (sic).

    As for Little, Big, thanks to the French edition including the family tree of the main characters at the very start, I enjoyed catching the 'tall drink of water' secret joke (for first time readers).

  17. Me too, I look forward to it, too. The obstacle, perhaps ridiculous, is not having an actual book. But at some point I will just read T&D electronically, in a scanned copy.

    The family tree in Little, Big is worth some study. I had not notices that joke last time, either. Nor, from the page I am on now, "the five hundred milligrams of Pellucidar he had taken" - and I knew as well back then what, or where, Pellucidar was, but I guess I did not really see the word then. Too much else going on in the book.