Puck of Pook's Hill by Rudyard Kipling
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
A very strange book.
We've had a copy on our shelves for years, and I've sometimes tried to read it, but never got beyond the first chapter because it was a hardback copy in poor condition, with the binding coming apart, and I didn't want to damage it further. Then last week I found a cheap paperback copy in a second-hand bookshop and read that.
On one level it is a kind of Edwardian history lesson. Two children, Dan and Una, perform the play within a play from A Midsummer Nights Dream, and Puck himself appears to them and promises to show them things more real than any dream. They are then introduced to characters from various periods of English history who bring that history to life by giving a personal view of it. Perhaps school history in those days must have seemed to many children just a boring catalogue of dates and battles and kings. The stories show that they involved real people, with sometimes real conflicts of loyalties.
The stories seem to have a common theme too, and perhaps one that is worth noting in these days of the UK Independence Party and Brexit, and the preaching of a new version of British exceptionalism. Kipling seems concerned to show that the British are not a unique "pure" race. They are a mixture of Saxons and Normans, Romans and Picts, and many of the stories show people crossing these barriers of ethnicity and race.
Even religion is varied. The book begins with the story of a pagan god Weland, and ends with a Jew. And in between comes the story of the fairies fleeing as refugees to France because they didn't like the conflict between Catholics and Protestants, and the last straw was the iconoclasm of the Puritans.
But for all its good points, the story wasn't very well told. The children are made to forget each incident and story after they have heard it, by the invocation of "oak, ash and thorn", and so one wonders what the point was. A few years ago I read Kipling's Kim for the fifth time (my review here: Kim revisited: imperialism, Russophobia & asceticism | Notes from underground), but I don't think I'll really want to read this one again. It's a fantasy story, but the fantasy doesn't seem to blend very well with the history, and the Puck of the title does little more than introduce the other characters, like a master of ceremonies at a wedding or a funeral.
It does seem, though, that some of the devices and tropes of this book were taken up and used by later writers of children's fantasy. There are faint echoes of it in writers like C.S. Lewis and Alan Garner.
I can't remember whether Lewis actually cited Kipling as his inspiration, but he did cite George MacDonald, and I read MacDonald's books in the hope of finding more of the kind that I liked, but was disappointed. The fantasy writers of the mid-20th century may have been inspired by earlier writers, but they always seemed to improve on them. And most of the works that followed them seem dull and derivative.
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