Tuesday, 3 October 2000

Rudyard Kipling: Puck of Pook's Hill (1906)

Edition: Piccolo, 1975
Review number: 641

Of the classic children's books written by Rudyard Kipling, Puck of Pook's Hill has perhaps dated the most obviously. It remains a charming idea, much copied, but so much about it is a celebration of Victorian country life that in many ways it is not very relevant to the children of today. The idyllic upper class childhood of Dan and Una, full of enchanting places to play, has probably never existed outside fiction, and to be a child in the country today is little like this. (The South Downs are probably a more fun place to be a child than the Lincolnshire Fens, where I grew up, which are more like living in the middle of a gigantic factory.)

By reciting parts of a cut down version of A Midsummer Night's Dream at the appropriate time near an ancient shrine dedicated to Puck, Dan and Una unexpectedly summon up the sprite, who treats the children to a tour of the history of East Sussex (where Kipling himself lived) in which they meet a Norman knight, a Roman legionary and a medieval Jewish moneylender, who each tell the children stories of the past. (The area around Hastings and Pevensey is particularly rich in historical associations.)

The history is old fashioned and contains what are now known to be inaccuracies, but the way in which Kipling makes it exciting and alive is one of the strengths of the book. The other, which is connected, is the ability which is shared by much of his writing to create an alien world and draw the reader in, whatever their age. Faded by comparison, Puck of Pook's Hill is still a worthwhile book to introduce to a child if they have been enchanted by The Jungle Book.

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