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.

  4. Rewards and Fairies was the first Kipling I read - I picked it up when I was eleven and opened it to "The Knife and the Naked Chalk," and something about the atmosphere of the story pulled me right in. My father helpfully spoilered me on what was going on in "Marklake Witches," so that I read it knowing from the start that Philadelphia was dying. I wonder if I would have gotten it on my own at that age.

    Incidentally, I don't think Una is supposed to be Josephine, the child who died - I think she's Elsie, who ended up being the only Kipling child who lived to adulthood. Still very sad, though. "Marklake Witches" and "The Way Through the Woods" might be my favorite of Kipling's story/verse pairings.

  5. How wonderful, to read these so young. I had not even heard of them as a child, not until much later.

    That's a good point, that the stories were in a sense written for Elsie. But I guess I do not really think that Una is supposed to be either - she is Una - but shadows of others cross her at times. She can be a stand-in for the lost daughter in some cases and not in others.

  6. Yes, I imprinted on Kipling young. It was a great shock to me when I eventually found out how the rest of the world saw him.

    I remember taking Rewards and Fairies to school in sixth grade, and one of the my classmates seeing "Fairies" in the title and saying scornfully,"Aren't you a little old for that?" I just spluttered with rage, because I was pretty sure I was actually too young for "Marklake Witches," but couldn't explain why. In retrospect, the story I was really too young for was "The Tree of Justice." A mash-up of King Lear and "The Man Who Was" was too much for my eleven-year-old brain to take in, so I ignored that story until years later.

  7. So great. I only started taking Kipling seriously a few years ago, when I experienced a similar shock, but I guess the other way. The rest of the world had not been quite straight with me.

    I can only guess what delights and puzzles I might have found in the Puck books if I had known about them at a young age.