The children were at the Theatre, acting to Three Cows as much as they could remember of ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream.’ Their father had made them a small play out of the big Shakespeare one, and they had rehearsed it…till they could say it by heart…Dan was Puck and Nick Bottom, as well as all three Fairies. He wore a pointy-eared cloth cap for Puck, and a paper donkey’s head out of a Christmas cracker — but it tore if you were not careful — for Bottom. Una was Titania, with a wreath of columbines and a fox-glove wand.
Their play went beautifully…They were both so pleased that they acted it three times over from beginning to end before they sat down in the unthistly center of the Ring to eat eggs and Bath Oliver [biscuits.] This was when they heard a whistle among the alders on the bank, and they jumped.
The bushes parted. In the very spot where Dan had stood as Puck, they saw a small, brown, broad-shouldered, pointy-eared person with a snub nose, slanting blue eyes, and a grin that ran right across his freckled face…
“I’m Puck, the oldest Old Thing in England, very much at your service if — if you care to have anything to do with me. If you don’t, of course, you’ve only to say so and I’ll go.”
When Dan and Una act out their play three times over on Midsummer Eve in the middle of a fairy ring under the brow of Pook’s Hill, they inadvertently “break the Hills,” something that hasn’t happend in a thousand years, bringing forth Puck, the only one of the People of the Hills remaining.
And that’s only the beginning of the magic, for Puck begins telling the children about the most ancient of England’s days, explaining the Hill People’s long lost history and the reasons why all those giants and brownies, pixies and trolls, finally flitted away. He tells them of Weland, smith to the Norse Gods, who fashioned a wondrous sword and awarded it to a young monastery novice named Hugh. And there he stops.
But what happened to Hugh? And his sword? the children want to know.
So evening after evening, Puck summons men from bygone days to tell stories of England’s history, and trace the impact of Weland’s sword — it plays quite an astonishing role! Dan and Una hear from Sir Richard Dalyngridge who sailed with William the Conqueror. They hear tales of Picts and Vikings, Hadrian’s Wall and the Magna Charta, expeditions along the African coast and intrigue in English castles.
Of course, who can match Kipling for storytelling, and these tales sweep us away with their heroics and adventures and fascinating characters. In addition to the ten tales, each is bookended by two related poems written by Kipling. So brilliant, he was.
Kipling writes with a meaty vocabulary, as you know if you have read any of his other “children’s” fiction. He uses numerous dialects in his dialogue, and references pieces of ancient English history which I do not know well. With a publication date of 1906, his style and syntax are not contemporary. I tell you this because this book is not for just anyone. To read it independently will require a strong, motivated reader, perhaps age 10 and older. Adults will enjoy it as much as children, as a historical fantasy.
So, who will like it? Children already exposed to original, classic literature such as Treasure Island, The Jungle Books, or even The Wind in the Willows, who are accustomed to sophisticated language. Children especially who have been exposed to Shakespeare. Children with vivid imaginations who are willing to work at conjuring up these scenes for themselves. Listeners (if this is read aloud) who have listened to long, challenging pieces such as Padraic Colum’s The Children’s Homer, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Tanglewood Tales, and so forth. In other words, children who have built up their vocabularies and their ability to grasp complex sentences and stories already, will enjoy this wonderful Kipling work.
For those children, this is a doozy of an adventure, one which my son loved at about age 12. I thoroughly enjoyed it and am guessing that a second read-through would be even better.