The history of any place is a balance between fact and storytelling — myth, you might say, or even nostalgia — and in any given rendition, one side is weighed down and sometimes the other. In Puck of Pook’s Hill, Kipling’s charming historical fantasy, we have story and fact and myth and nostalgia all mixed together, creating a green and pleasant England for children to be proud of and for them to love and support all their days.
The beginning of the book is perhaps the strangest part of it. Dan and Una, two children, encounter Puck (yes, Puck! Of A Midsummer Night’s Dream) on land they consider theirs. But it was his long before it was ever theirs, and he invites them into the magic of Old Things, to see the history of their patch of land. (This land, by the way, is at Burwash in East Sussex, near Pevensey Bay. It appears that the Pevensies in the Narnia books were named after Pevensey and Pevensey Bay: it’s called “England’s Gate” and has a lot of very interesting history.) What follows is a series of encounters with men who tell them the stories of their times: Sir Richard Dalyngridge, a Norman knight who took part in the Conquest; Parnesius, a Roman centurion stationed at Hadrian’s Wall; Hal o’ the Draft, telling about his deception of the pirate Andrew Barton; the Jew Kadmiel, who schemed to change the wording of the Magna Carta so that his people could be free.
Kipling goes to great lengths to ensure that this book is light and harmless. It begins with a story told by Puck himself, about the pagan origins of England, and how John Wayland Smith, an ancient pagan god, gave a sword to the Saxons that will figure largely in later stories. But Puck insists that he himself is as Christian as Dan and Una, and no one to be afraid of; he doesn’t flinch at cold iron or running water, and although he is the Oldest of the Oldest Things, he has been living with men so long that he is much like them now.
The histories, too, are told with humor and adventure, but not with any of the weariness, gore, or fear that Kipling certainly knows how to put into battle scenes. This is a book for children, and it’s done with a delightfully light touch. That’s not to say that we don’t care for the principal characters — just that there’s not much depth to any of it; it’s a gentle, rolling book about the marvels English history has to offer, yearning back to a lovelier and more exciting past than the past really perhaps was.
My dear, beloved grandmother adored Kipling, and this, I believe, was one of her favorite books. I prefer Kim, but I’m so glad I read this one; going through English history with Kipling is a wonderful afternoon treat.