May 15, 2007

Puck of Pook's Hill by Rudyard Kipling

I remember the day I bought this book clearly: I found it at a used book fair, in perfect condition, in English, and for only 2 euros. The price, however, was not the only reason why I bought it. It wasn’t only because it was by Kipling either. But this was over three years ago, so I ended up forgetting where I’d heard mentions of this book.

This is how I came to mistakenly place it in my “Fairy Tale” list for the “Once Upon a Time” challenge. All I knew of the story was this: Two children, Dan and Una, perform A Midsummer’s Night Dream three times over a fairy ring on Midsummer’s Eve. As a result, they bring forth Puck, or Robin Goodfellow, the last of the Old Things still living in England.

'No. You talk about "the People of the Hills", but you never say "fairies",' said Una. 'I was wondering at that. Don't you like it?'

'How would you like to be called "mortal" or "human being" all the time?' said Puck; 'or "son of Adam" or "daughter of Eve"?'

'I shouldn't like it at all,' said Dan. 'That's how the Djinns and Afrits talk in the Arabian Nights.'
'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 schoolteacher'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.'

'Exactly,' said Puck. 'Can you wonder that the People of the Hills don't care to be confused with that painty-winged, wand-waving, sugar-and-shake-your-head set of impostors? Butterfly wings, indeed! I've seen Sir Huon and a troop of his people setting off from Tintagel Castle for Hy-Brasil in the teeth of a sou'-westerly gale, with the spray flying all over the Castle, and the Horses of the Hills wild with fright. Out they'd go in a lull, screaming like gulls, and back they'd be driven five good miles inland before they could come head to wind again. Butterfly-wings! It was Magic - Magic as black as Merlin could make it, and the whole sea was green fire and white foam with singing mermaids in it. And the Horses of the Hills picked their way from one wave to another by the lightning flashes! That was how it was in the old days!'

'Splendid,' said Dan, but Una shuddered.

'I'm glad they're gone, then; but what made the People of the Hills go away?' Una asked.

'Different things. I'll tell you one of them some day - the thing that made the biggest flit of any,' said Puck. 'But they didn't all flit at once. They dropped off, one by one, through the centuries. Most of them were foreigners who couldn't stand our climate. They flitted early.'

'How early?' said Dan.

'A couple of thousand years or more. The fact is they began as Gods. The Phoenicians brought some over when they came to buy tin; and the Gauls, and the Jutes, and the Danes, and the Frisians, and the Angles brought more when they landed. They were always landing in those days, or being driven back to their ships, and they always brought their Gods with them. England is a bad country for Gods. Now, I began as I mean to go on. A bowl of porridge, a dish of milk, and a little quiet fun with the country folk in the lanes was enough for me then, as it is now. I belong here, you see, and I have been mixed up with people all my days. But most of the others insisted on being Gods, and having temples, and altars, and priests, and sacrifices of their own.'
This book, however, is not a Fairy Tale, or a tale of Faerie. The most accurate way to describe it is as historical fantasy. And once I put my misconception aside, I quite enjoyed this book. Puck introduces Dan and Una to a series of people from England’s mythic past, and they tell the children their adventures, and the marks their people left on the land. Dan and Una are told tales of Saxons, Vikings, Romans, Picts and Jews.

While reading this book, I found my attention drifting at times, but that’s more my fault than the book’s. I had a tiresome week, so I was in need of something lighter. Matters improved greatly when I decided to alternate this book with other reading material, reading no more than 20-30 pages a day. This is a book that I needed to read slowly. It took me longer than normal to finish, but the experience was more enjoyable this way.

The chapters in this book are almost like individual short stories – this is a novel, but there isn’t a unified plot. Nothing happens to the children outside the stories they are being told. My favourite story was the first, titled “Weland’s Sword”, which tells the story of Wayland Smith, a figure I also came across recently when reading Fables: Animal Farm, and of the forging of the sword Balmung. When reading this I remembered that this sword is mentioned in Neil Gaiman’s Stardust, and I think that perhaps that reference had something to do with me picking up the book some years ago.

I also quite enjoyed the tale of the Roman Centurion, defending a Wall from Picts and Vikings (well, at first, anyway). And of course, the chapter that retells the parting of the faeries – or Pharisees – from England.

In conclusion, with a little patience and knowing what to expect, this is a very enjoyable book. I look forward to reading the sequel, Rewards and Fairies.

Puck of Pook’s Hill is available at Project Gutenberg


  1. I should read this. I enjoy Rudyard Kipling's writing. Sounds good!

  2. I forgot to say that this was my first book by Kipling (I really need to read "The Jungle Book", I know). But from what I know of his writing through short stories, I think I can say that if you like his style you'll like this one too.

  3. Oh, yes, if you get a chance, do read The Jungle Book! I loved reading the stories to my kids. I've heard of Puck of Pook's Hill, but have not read it, so it goes on the list!

  4. jenclair, I definitely plan on reading it soon!


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