Kipling must be the most reviled Victorian of them all, regarded as he is as the arch-apostle of imperialism. He wasa child of the Raj, albeit a lowly one (his father was an artist and teacher). His early life in England was unhappy and perhaps even brutalised. Later he went to a brash new public school to which he was neither mentally nor physically suited. Most of the 1880s were spent as a journalist in India. His wife was American and they lived in Vermont for most of the '90s. He was, then, a semi-outsider in England. And yet, in his stories for English children, he was able to evoke for them a vision of their country which would live inside their minds, like a parallel universe, forever.
Puck of Pook's Hill (1906) and Rewards and Fairies (1910) feature the same characters in a series of short stories; Puck himself, of course, and two children, a brother and sister called Dan and Una. Socially they are not ordinary children: their parents own the rivers and fields where they play. They are just old enough to be ashamed of calling their own part of the house the nursery and agree to call it the school room. One June they act out, in a fairy ring on their own land, A Midsummer Night's Dream in a version specially edited for them by their father. Inadvertently they summon up Puck, the self-same sprite as the one who in the play shakes his head over what fools we mortals be. Victorian fairies, however, were now rather twee and insipid beings with diaphanous wings, and Kipling makes this Puck into one of the robust Old Ones. He is also known as Robin Goodfellow, Lob-lie-by-the-fire, and Nick o' Lincoln. More properly, Kipling tells us, he is one of the People of the Hills. He introduces the children to what I suppose we would now call their heritage, including a Roman centurion, a Norman soldier, a Tudor builder and, in the story I'd like to talk about, one of the Flint-People.
In "The Knife and the Naked Chalk" Dan and Una have travelled thirty miles from their home on the Weald to the bare slopes between the hills and the sea. They have made friends with an old shepherd, Mr Dudeney. As the story opens his retired sheepdog guides them over the springy turf to join him as he sits in the drowsy heat of an August afternoon above a deep hollow where his sheep graze. This is sheep country, famous for the Southdown breed. Kipling calls it the Naked Chalk, a narrow country (to us at least) between the sea cliffs and the Wealden forest. "Press your face down and smell to the turf," Mr Dudeney tells the children. "That's Southdown thyme which makes Southdown mutton beyond compare, and, my mother told me, 'twill cure anything except broken necks, or hearts. I forget which."
As they sit waiting for the shadow of the hills to cover and cool them, Puck and a semi-naked man in a cloak appear to Dan and Una, though not Mr Dudeney. The man is one of the Flint-Working People (he is fashioning a stone arrow head as he speaks) and is revered by his tribe as the god who brought them the magic knives which gave them mastery over the wolf. He tells his story. Flint weapons are useless against wolves: thongs binding spear head to shaft soften in mist or rain, hammers break, arrow heads are brittle. But then, briefly, the wolves disappeared, allowing him to graze his flock closer to the trees on the Weald. He never entered the forest; the Children of the Night lived there and he knew them to be magicians who would change his spirit. Then, one day, in the distance, he saw a man of the greenwood effortlessly kill a wolf with a single stroke of a magic knife. The wolves were back, but here was a way to dominate them.
Back in his village he told his mother, a priestess, he intended trading with the Children of the Night. For two nights he slept on the edge of the woods, too afraid to enter. In the forest it was just as the Flint People said. He was, as he knew he would be, driven mad (of a fever, Puck hints) before being cured by the Children of the Night who seem to sweat the madness out of him with steam made by pouring water over hot rocks. When he was better, he watched them melting red stones (like tallow) and turning them into blades. The magic knives, of course, were made of iron (the redness of the stones, presumably, was ferrous oxide). He offered to trade mutton, wool, and milk for them. The priestess consulted the gods. They agreed on condition he prove his sincerity by sacrificing his right eye. He accepted and the priestess gouged it out there and then. (Would a twenty-first-century children's author countenance such a thing?) "The sheep are the people," he tells Puck. "What else could I have done?" Soon all his own people had knives and the wolves were driven away.
But everything for him has changed. His people think he is a god (they call him Tyr) and are afraid even to step on his shadow, let alone touch him. The young woman he was to marry goes off, with his blessing (what else could he do?), with another man. He can eat and sleep where he likes yet all he wants, and what he now can never have, is his own child and wife and hearth. Puck repeats the spell 'by Oak, Ash and Thorn' to make the children forget what they have just seen and heard. They walk back home, stepping in the evening shadows of the grass, with the meadow scabious (a flower once thought to cure scabies) brushing their ankles. Everywhere is the scent of thyme and the sea.
All the stories are about three things — two major and one minor. The big things are, first, a sense of the power of place and, second, a continuity through time. These contained, I have argued elsewhere on the Victorian Web, the essence of Englishness. Stories like these either reinforced, or even introduced, those feelings. It was like having two countries — the physical place where, as a child, you got into trouble and were required to be home in time for supper, and another where time itself was traversable. Of these parallel countries the inner was the more sustaining and life enhancing. A myth, of course, but isn't a myth an oblique truth too deep for direct expression? Thomas Hughes sensed the fragility of these feelings in The Scouring of the White Horse where he pleads with Oxford students to steep themselves in landscape and its history. It is there, too, in Chesterton's "The Ballad of the White Horse" (published in 1910, the same year as Rewards and Fairies). Contrast it with Thomson's The City of Dreadful Night where that parallel universe has been corrupted into something destructive and life-destroying. (Thomson began writing The City in 1870, the year before Kipling first came to England.)
These stories are set in Sussex; perhaps they could be set nowhere else. We once called the county Silly Sussex at a time when we thought 'silly' carried an earlier meaning of 'holy'. Now, it seems, it was nearer to happy or fortunate. Not quite the same, for there was something spiritual about the place, at least in the imagination. (Cornwall had a similar aura, but a Celtic one. The River Tamar was the border between two kinds of spirituality which you could feel in the air.)
That sense of belonging to a greater whole was also reinforced by Kipling's insistence on the importance of the particular and the narrowly local. Old Jim, the sheepdog who is guiding them to Mr Dudeney, stops for a moment in the shade of a flint-walled barn. "It's just like the sea," Una says, looking out across the grassland between the real sea and the hills. "You see where you're going, and — you go there and there's nothing between." But Mr Dudeney's local pride excludes her timbered country on the hills only a few miles away (demonstrating the continuity between his antipathy and the Flint-People's ancient fear of the sorcerers in the forest where even the standing water is black, or red, and stagnant). "There's no profit in trees," says Mr Dudeney. "They draw the lightning, and sheep shelter under 'em, and so, like as not, you'll lose a half score ewes struck dead in one storm."
"Trees aren't messy," Una retorts. "And what about firewood? I don't like coal."
""Eh? You lie a piece more up-hill and you'll lie more natural," said Mr Dudeney, with his provoking deaf smile."
The argument goes on (children, it seems, were not always expected to be seen and never heard). You don't get good Southdown thyme in the Weald, Mr Dudeney continues. "Watercress, maybe?"
"But we've water," Una replies. "Brooks full of it — where you can paddle in hot weather."
"Brooks flood. Then you must shift your sheep -let alone foot-rot afterward. I put more dependence on a dewpond any day."
Dan, naturally, asks how dewponds are made. Kipling skates over the answer, probably so as not to hold up the action. A reference to modern dewponds was needed, on the other hand, to stress the continuity between past and present since they are quite prominent in the long-ago section of the story. Kipling must have known the answer, though. During those long hot Edwardian summers when he was writing Rewards and Fairies a geologist (I think) called Edward Martin was studying dewponds on the high Sussex downland. They have no obvious source of water in such porous geology, yet they are often near the tops of the hills, seven or eight hundred feet above sea level. In Sussex they are usually circular, thirty to a hundred feet or so across, never more than four feet deep, and lined with puddled clay. They keep their water in droughts when ponds in the valleys are dry. Two questions were being asked in those hot summers: were dewponds fed by dew, mist, and sea-fog as folklore said, and did the New Stone Age have them? The consensus, at that time, was: no, they relied more on rain and, yes, Neolithic people probably did. Kipling had, then, the backing of contemporary science in giving them to the Flint-People. He could get his history mixed up, though. Whoever the Neolithic people were, they were not Teutons and Tyr is a Germanic god. Besides, his English name was Tiw (pronounced tee-oo). From the genitive — Tiwes — we get Tuesday. Iron ore, on the other hand, was mined at one time in Sussex: first by the Romans and then again from the Middle Ages to the eighteenth century.
Paradoxically, the third element I've mentioned in Kipling's stories is didacticism. "What else could I have done?" is the common theme of all the Puck stories. It is a message about duty and, in this case at least, the inherent unfairness of life. To function properly society needs dutiful people, but that duty may also include having to accept being shabbily repaid for the good you do. Today we might flinch from putting these ideas in a children's book, in the same way that I suspect we feel uneasy with the sheep slaughtering scenes in the story. But then perhaps we're just trying to buck reality. (What will people in the 22nd century find distasteful about us?)
Judging by these stories, a lot was expected of Victorian and Edwardian children. The prose is clear and concise (Kipling began at sixteen as a journalist before becoming a newspaper editor) but not dumbed down. I was struck by 'flinders', a word never in common use but certainly never needing a footnote as it has in the 2001 edition of the Penguin selected Kipling. Other words I take to have been Sussex dialect: bivvering for hovering (like a hawk) and baffed for brushed, or lightly tapped (like warm summer air on closed eyelids). Kipling makes the point that, although only thirty miles apart, the accents of the Weald and the Chalk were different, as were some dialect words about farming. Even his arch-detractor, Orwell, had to admit that Kipling was a master story-teller. Almost always the structure of the story, and the pace, is just right. (Orwell called him: "an aesthetically disgusting, morally insensitive, coarse, brutal, sadistic, sulky, tawdry, shallow and" — worse? — " vulgar gutter patriot." All this in a single review of Eliot's selection of Kipling's verse, as both men called it, in 1942, in the middle of a war.)
How universal can these stories be? When I first read "The Knife and the Naked Chalk" I was quite a bit closer to seventy than seven, and it still worked. It was like stepping into a Wellsian machine and being whisked back in time. It wasn't nostalgia for childhood — my own was not spent in Sussex or the south but in the very different and harsher north. But what stirs one person may be incomprehensible to another from a different culture or country, or even a different generation. And would Kipling recognise my interpretation, any way? He seems to have divided people into the Children of Martha and those of Mary; doers versus contemplatives. So perhaps he'd be hostile to my way of thinking. In some ways, he was a stranger in the world — not an Indian in India, nor an American in America, nor (or not really) an Englishman in England. But he prided himself on being able to 'think in another man's skin' and if he himself belonged nowhere he certainly passed on a sense of belonging to English children not only in his own day but for forty years afterwards as well.
- "Forgetting Obvious Things": The Legacy of the Victorians
- "Poison Mixed with Gall": James Thomson's The City of Dreadful Night — a Personal View
Kipling, Rudyard. Puck of Pook's Hill. Penguin. London. 1987
Kipling, Rudyard. Rewards and Fairies. Wordsworth Classics. Ware, Hertfordshire. 1999
Kipling, Rudyard.Selected Stories.. Penguin Books. London. 2001
Orwell, George. The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters, Volume 2, 1940-1943 Penguin. London. 1984
Last modified 8 March 2007
Links added 5 June 2020