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Diegetic Adult-Child Conversations: Representing Intergenerational Conversations in Children’s Fiction

Questioning Agency Through Intergenerational Dialogue: The Adult Ghosts and the Forgetting Children in Rudyard Kipling’s Puck of Pook’s Hill

Remettre en question l’agentivité grâce au dialogue intergénérationnel : les fantômes adultes et les enfants amnésiques dans Puck of Pook’s Hill de Rudyard Kipling
Hera Kim


From its initial publication, Rudyard Kipling’s Puck of Pook’s Hill has been regarded as children’s literature and Kipling’s imperialism—how he teaches and justifies British Empire’s imperial ideology—has been the main issue for critics in children’s literature studies. With the same issue in mind, I aim to complicate Kipling’s imperialism in Puck by revealing the ‘overlaid tints and textures’ embedded in the intergenerational dialogue between the adult heroes and the children. Specifically, this essay argues that Kipling does not simply represent the adult voice within the imperial discourse, but rather renders ambiguity in uniting the anxieties of the Empire’s previous generation and the hopes for the Empire’s future generation. In the story, although Kipling’s narrative return to the construction of the old England and evocation of its war heroes seem designed for the Empire’s imperialism, the conversations between the adult heroes and Dan and Una raise the unsettling issue of the past heroes’ being wounded ghosts brought about by the British Empire’s imperialism. To construct the questioning narrative, Kipling employs the children as engaging collaborators, but he also restrains them, through the device of the magical amnesia, from being fully grown agents. Rendering the ambiguous agency of both the adults and the children, Kipling most importantly challenges the questionable agency of the British Empire.

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1In The Victorians: An Age in Retrospect, John Gardiner refers to Rudyard Kipling’s prophetic poem ‘Recessional’ (1897) as an example that reveals Britain’s ‘accentuated worries about the empire’ by striking an ‘oddly minor-key note amidst the triumphant strains of [Queen Victoria’s] jubilee celebrations’ (Gardiner 22). The poem soon proved predictive, as Queen Victoria’s long reign ended four years after the publication of ‘Recessional’, and Kipling’s work thus confronted the new Edwardian era with anxieties about the empire’s fall as well as with emerging aspirations for the new epoch. In the same spirit of mingled anxieties and questions for the past Victorian generation and hope for the future of their Edwardian successors, Kipling went on to write Puck of Pook’s Hill (1906), in which he evokes an intergenerational dialogue between the war heroes of old England and two children, Dan and Una, who meet figures called out of the past by the magic of the fairy Puck.

2Immediately after the publication of Puck, critics overall characterized the book as children’s literature with emerging interests in childhood in the nineteenth century. For instance, in 1906, reviewer Royal Cortissoz finds that Kipling has written the story for both the young and the old, but more specifically with ‘calculat[ion] to enrapture the nursery’ (Cortissoz 927). Cortissoz does not directly refer to the influence of the adult, but his mentioning that any purposeful preaching to children ‘would be monstrous’ makes it clear that he is aware of the age’s interest in the construction of childhood, and of the tension between the perception of the child’s agency (later foregrounded by Marah Gubar) and the influence of ‘the hidden adult’ (to use the title of Perry Nodelman’s 2008 book)—a tension that is still pronounced in today’s scholarship on children’s literature. While some, amongst whom Marah Gubar, challenge the Romantic discourse—‘the Child of Nature paradigm’ that views the child as isolated from civilized culture (Gubar 2009, 5)—and argue for ‘the child’s agency’ (4), others, including Perry Nodelman, hold that child agency is not possible in that adults produce only ‘adult voices speaking to and for young people’ (Nodelman 1992, 267; for his own account of his differences with Gubar, see Nodelman 2016). As Karín Lesnik-Oberstein observes in summarizing the debate, fictional children may be depicted as having agency, but that they are nonetheless the creations of adult writers prompts the question ‘[W]hen a child is seen to speak, how and why is it seen to be speaking its own voice?’ (Lesnik-Oberstein 9, original emphasis).

3Some critics, aware of these two contrasting positions and of others not discussed here, have recently developed the discussions of Kipling as children’s writer. Jan Montefiore in ‘Kipling as a Children’s Writer and the Jungle Books’ examines the vision of imperialism embedded in his children’s works. While Montefiore agrees to a certain extent with the ‘hidden adult’ position, inasmuch as she sees Kipling participating in the adult inclination to ‘sentimentalise about childhood’ (Montefiore 99), she pays more attention to the complexities in Kipling’s ‘subtlety of appeal’ (99). Although Montefiore considers this ‘subtlety’ primarily with regard to The Jungle Books, her close attention to The Jungle Books serves as a model for this article by complicating the issue of Kipling’s exercise of adult authority and narratorial ambiguity in Puck. A similarly complex approach is offered by Sue Walsh in her 2010 book Kipling’s Children’s Literature. Walsh points out what she sees as the circular logic employed by critics such as U. C. Knoepflmacher in arguing for a reading of the ‘Taffy’ tales in Just-So Stories that depends wholly on ‘a narrative that has already been constructed about the life of the author’ (Walsh 84) and that accordingly requires conflating the real and the fictional child in what Walsh considers an overly simplistic, indeed perhaps sentimental move. Turning to the Puck stories, Walsh grasps that the stories constitute a ‘radical challenge to the concept of history itself’ (150), as Kipling ‘implicitly allows that there is no one story, no one truth’ (152). While Walsh’s primary focus is on language and while, like Montefiore, she does not focus on the particular stories in Puck of Pook’s Hill that interest me here, she too offers a valuable model for the present article.

4As Walsh suggests and critiques in her second chapter, the main discussions of Kipling have been revolving around the idea of polarization between the adult and the child: whether Kipling as an adult author colonizes the child’s voice (which Nodelman identifies in his 1992 article ‘The Other: Orientalism, Colonialism, and Children’s Literature’ as the inevitable and deplorable practice of writers for and about children), or whether he gives the child agency (as Gubar contends is possible in her 2009 book Artful Dodgers and her 2013 article ‘Risky Business’). The problem here is that although the frame of separation between the adult and the child might initially seem to properly reflect Kipling’s world and his children’s literature, it fails to capture the author’s ambiguity in navigating between the two sides in Puck, a narrative that both confers agency upon its child characters and removes it from them. To a certain extent, Kipling allows Dan and Una to join and sometimes challenge the adult heroes’ narrations, but through the device of Puck’s magic, he simultaneously requires the children to forget what they are told and what they tell at the end of each tale. If amnesia is imposed upon the children during the spaces of time that take place offstage between the various episodes, can the reader understand that Kipling gives Dan and Una the capacity to engage fully with the narrations? If the children’s voice is silenced in forgetfulness, can the child or adult reader think that the children have agency? Contrastingly, if the children eventually become voiceless, should we assume that their voice and agency have been replaced by adult voice and agency, even though the main adult speakers/actors in Puck are either ghosts or a fairy who has been invisible for centuries?

5Lesnik-Oberstein states that recent interdisciplinary interactions between psychoanalysis and post-structuralism led some scholars in children’s literature studies to underline ‘the disruption of dualities of object and subject, of viewer and viewed . . . [and of] child and adult’ (Lesnik-Oberstein 12). If this disruption is now understood as characterizing the relation between the child and the adult, it evokes a certain ambivalence about the child due to the ‘possibility of a self-contained [child] culture which is not merely . . . in the service of adulthood as the final end-point . . . as well as being “socialized” by it [the adult world]’ (Lesnik-Oberstein 13). In Kipling’s Puck, such an ambiguous position is located not only in the children but also in the adults. Even though Dan’s and Una’s voices seem to engage with the stories of old England, Puck’s magical imposition of amnesia restrains them from fully engaging with the deeper stratum of narrative and prevents them from weaving the multiple episodes into a durable and coherent narrative; their limitation (a product of adult action) potentially affects the child and adult reader’s experience of Kipling’s own production. The ambiguity in the children’s limited voices is further incorporated into Kipling’s representation of the adult voice beyond this set of stories, inasmuch as it may be read in conjunction with the melancholy tone on display in ‘Recessional’: contemplating the inevitable fall of empire, both works unite the anxieties associated with the previous generation and the hopes associated with youth. These ambiguous and contrasting positions, which do not fully authorize either the children’s or the adults’ voices, indicate Kipling’s ambiguous and conflicted sense of the (dis)continuity of the British Empire’s past and future generations.

6In creating the magical world in Puck, then, Kipling challenges the polarization between the adult and the child by suggesting that far from understanding adulthood as a position of power and childhood as a position of powerlessness (Nodelman), we might better see adults and children as sharing a lack of agency where big national matters and even matters of personal experience are concerned, since people of all ages are located in an ever-flowing stream of time that brings with it changing perspectives and alterations to the allocation of authority. Moreover, although Kipling’s narratorial return to the construction of old England and his evocation of war heroes seem designed to further imperial patriotism, the conversations between the adult heroes and Dan and Una raise the unsettling issue of the past heroes being ghosts whose wounds have been inflicted by the demands of imperialism. In sum, through the intergenerational dialogue between the adult ghosts from the past and the children from the present, Kipling constructs the overarching question of the British Empire’s agency as very much a matter for debate and grapples with the anxieties of the dis/continuity of generations of the Empire.

The Dynamic Mobility of Agency Between Adults and Children

7According to A. F. Lewis, the Edwardian period is characterized by the idea that ‘[p]ower and wealth are less important than culture for Edwardian children to inherit, and history is an important part of that culture’ (Lewis 192). In Lewis’s reading, Kipling’s reflection on British imperialism in Puck starts from the examination of history by combining the fantastic tales into a story cycle—later continued in Rewards and Fairies—that narrates episodes from the past of old England. Kipling begins each story within a setting that blends a real place with the fairy realm. The narrative places Dan and Una in the fairy ring, enables them to meet warriors who are at once ‘real’ (in that they are represented as genuine historical figures for the purposes of Kipling’s stories) and fantastic (in that they have travelled through time by some unexplained means), and leads the conversation between them to the history of England.

8Significantly, although the specific locations in which the tales are narrated vary, the fact of the narration has its genesis in the children’s unwitting discovery of a fairy ring, a setting that Kipling elsewhere connects not to adult instruction or to history but to childhood. In writing in Something of Myself about his own youth, especially the six years (1871–1877) of the ‘House of Desolation’ period (Kipling 1990, 11), Kipling remembers how he devised an imaginary fence that ‘kept off any other world’: ‘[E]verything inside the fence was quite real, but mixed with the smell of damp cupboards. If the bit of board fell, I had to begin the magic all over again . . . . The magic, you see, lies in the ring or fence that you take refuge in’ (Kipling 1990, 8). In Kipling’s account, his own ‘ring or fence’ designed to keep out the adult world was constructed out of ‘coconut shell strung on a red cord, a tin trunk, and a piece of packing-case’ (8). Although one might make a distinction between the adult Kipling who recollects and the child Kipling who experiences, given the evidence of the memoir it is nonetheless possible to interpret the motif of the magical ring as Kipling’s rendition of how children may reframe and even reject adult narratives and realities.

9From the initial episode, ‘Weland’s Sword’, which starts the story with magically pastoral scenes, Kipling makes all the main characters—the fairy Puck, the antique figures of the knight and the Roman soldier on whom the two multipart stories focus, and the children—meet. Worlds and times mix in a way that comments on the nature of children’s imaginary worlds and their ability to incorporate (or colonize) adult elements. In ‘Young Men at the Manor’, when Dan and Una are introduced to Sir Richard Dalyngridge, their first meeting happens at ‘the children’s most secret hunting-grounds’ (33). In ‘The Knights of the Joyous Venture’ Sir Richard reappears when the children’s dinghy, the Daisy, becomes ‘the Golden Hind or the Long Serpent’ for the special purpose of ‘expeditions’ (59). Dan and Una have ‘reached Otter Pool [with] the Golden Hind grounded comfortably on a shallow, and they lay beneath a roof of close green, watching the water trickle over the flood-gates down the mossy brick chute from the mill-stream to the brook’ (60). Deeply immersed in the mood and listening to ‘the little voices of the slipping water’, Una says, ‘It’s like the shadow talking, isn’t it?’ to Dan, and at this moment they ‘[hear] feet on the gravel-bar that runs half across the pool and [see] Sir Richard Dalyngridge standing over them’ (60). In each episode both Puck, ‘the oldest Old Thing in England’ (13), and Sir Richard, the old knight from Normandy (and therefore from the past), appear in spaces associated with and dominated by the children’s imagination, and this invoking of the private imaginary world of childhood allows Dan and Una to listen to the history of old England.

10The interaction, though, is not limited to the children listening to Puck and Sir Richard telling the stories. Kipling suggests an underlying tension between the past generation of the adult heroes and the coming generation of the children through their intergenerational dialogue. Initially, Dan and Una do not gladly welcome Puck; they insistently tell the fairy figure that they do not ‘expect any one’ in their field, the ‘large old Fairy Ring of darkened grass’ (9). Puck retorts to Dan and Una’s claim of ownership by asserting a prior claim based on his seniority; he tells them that if their acting of ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream three times over, on Midsummer Eve, in the middle of a Ring’ had ‘happened a few hundred years ago [they’d] have had all the People of the Hills out like bees in June!’ (12). When Puck insists on his ownership of the land based upon his historical knowledge of the territory, Dan ‘draw[s] back’ with the objection, ‘But it’s our own meadow’ (16). By the time Puck introduces the children to Sir Richard, he is referring to “their land” (36, my emphasis) and Dan is assuming the position of host by making the knight heartily welcome—‘We’re very glad you’ve come, sir’ (34)—yet, the tales make it plain that any one-time inhabitant of the land, from Puck onward, retains a claim to it. The tension expressed here regarding land ownership may be associated with the historical discourse of the ongoing reconstruction of Englishness—specifically, the turn-of-the-century tendency to assert a pastoral, comfortable, and peaceful image of England that challenges the past Englishness of perennial wars.

11Exploring Kipling’s representation of Sussex, Alun Howkins and Martin J. Wiener relate his descriptions of the place to the historical reconstruction of Englishness evoked in discussions of the South of England. Wiener traces the ‘strand of the Southern Metaphor’ in literary works (Wiener 42) and argues that this trope has been employed by the British Empire as a symbol to create the new image of the country within the ‘comfortably domesticated rusticality of the South’ (Wiener 50). Similarly, Howkins views Kipling’s project in the Puck stories as an attempt ‘to create an alternative, truly “English” history which validates the rural virtues and constructs the rural and the Southern as the essence of Englishness’ (Howkins 28). Therefore, the initial meeting point—the Fairy Ring field in which Dan, Una, and Puck encounter—in the background of Kipling’s Sussex is an intergenerational moment and space for the two generations. If Dan and Una represent the coming age’s aspirations for the new England to be safe and peaceful, as figured in the pastoral image of the South, Puck, who delivers the tales of war heroes, figuratively represents the belligerent old Englishness. It thus makes sense that the distinction between the old Englishness, founded upon imperial expansion through wars, and the new Englishness evokes tension when the children claim ownership of the field.

Here, then, is located a potential point of conflict, but the tension between Puck and the siblings immediately undergoes a process of dialogic negotiation. As I have noted above, because the land on which Dan and Una stand is their own magical realm, not only do they feel possessive of their imaginary field but they also are inclined to defend their right to it from the unexpected visitor, Puck. Yet, Puck, the oldest character in the book, and, as such, the symbol of the adult world, invites the children into his realm by stage-managing the narration of historical events that have occurred in old England. They nevertheless do not listen passively to the narrators conjured up by his enchantments but participate actively by asking questions and even offering information that their interlocutors do not have. After Puck successfully persuades the children to believe in ‘Puck’s Hill’ (12) as the ancestral land of old England, Dan and Una join in his story. Their contributions change Sir Richard’s understanding of his own experience and, later, provide knowledge that the thirteenth-century Kadmiel and the fifteenth-century Hal lack; in effect, the present colonizes the past.

12Even though the negotiations go both ways, in the sense that the children both educate and are educated by their adult interlocutors, some critics adopt a top-down view of agency here. For instance, Montefiore comments that Puck incorporates Kipling’s ‘old-fashioned teaching’ of ‘the virtues of patriotism and public service’ (Montefiore 100). In this light, Nodelman might interpret Puck’s inviting Dan and Una to his world as the sign of the adult’s imperial authority over the child. Applying Edward Said’s idea of Orientalism as a means of tracing the hidden adults’ intention in children’s literature, Nodelman argues that adults ‘know how to deal with children’ for the purpose of the preservation of the adults’ traditional values (Nodelman 1992, 30). Nodelman specifically points to knowledge as adults’ means of power: ‘To know something is to be separate from it, above it, objective about it, and therefore in a position to perceive . . . the truth about itto be able, in other words, to act as if what one “knows” is in fact true’ (Nodelman 31). That is, adults asserting their position of knowingness pose their knowledge as irrefutable truth rather than doubtful uncertainty. In Puck’s case, his knowledge of England’s ancient historyfor instance, ‘The People of the Hills’seems to be the vehicle for generating his power, as the story readily elicits the children’s interest in what he tells. Hence, if we adopt Nodelman’s perspective, we might see Kipling’s Puck as an example of how children’s literature is used for adults to exert their power when dealing with children.

13But although Nodelman’s theoretical use of Said’s Orientalism seems applicable here to a certain extent, the Gubarian vision of children’s role as collaborators complicates Puck’s role as the controlling adult. When Puck asserts his seniority as a part of the ‘oldest hills in Old England’ (12), the children come to believe in his story as a literal fairy tale. Una observes that ‘meeting a fairy’ makes ‘all different somehow’, and she joins Puck in reciting the poem ‘Farewell Rewards and Fairies’ (13). Because Dan, too, takes part in singing the poem, Puck seems to have conducted a successful negotiation, and the children do not show any resistance aimed at protecting their world any more. However, that Dan and Una see Puck not as a real ‘grown-up’ (15) but as a fairy raises questions of nuance; as long as the children believe in Puck as a fairy, his story belongs to the genre of the fairy tale rather than to the historical narrative that involves the authority of knowledge. For the children, Puck’s being a fairy puts his teachings in the realm of their preferred readinggradually identified as retellings of myths such as Heroes of Asgard (19), narrative poems such as ‘The Discoverer of the North Cape’ (60) and The Lays of Ancient Rome (111), novels such as The Gorilla Hunters (79)rather than in the realm of tiresome history lessons such as what Una dismissively identifies at the start of ‘Hal o’ the Draft’ as ‘Bruce and his silly old spider’ (181). Like the fairy ring described in Something of Myself, the fairy tale may function as a way of keeping off the adult world.

14When Gubar explores the children’s literature of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, she argues that ‘Golden Age children’s authors were far more skeptical about Romantic primitivism’ (Gubar 2009, 4)which views the child as isolated from civilized culture. Emphasizing the ‘strikingly nuanced position’ of authors such as Robert Louis Stevenson, Lewis Carroll, and J. M. Barrie, Gubar challenges the notion of the imperial adult, probes into the children’s position where power is concerned, and argues that these authors were of the opinion that the ‘young people have the capacity to exploit and capitalize on the resources of adult culture (rather than simply being subjugated and oppressed)’ (Gubar 5). Gubar’s approach, indeed, helps us uncover the children’s wily counter-reaction, which can undermine the authority of the historical teller/teacher. Una refers to the picture, ‘Sir Isumbras at the Ford’ (34), in which she hides her investigative desire to understand Sir Richard in the more specific context of John Everett Millais’s 1857 painting A Dream of the Past: Sir Isumbras at the Ford. The picture shows a war-weary old knight helping two children by giving them a ride across a river; the expression on the face of the girl in the painting seems more hesitant than trusting, and Sir Isumbras’s status as a product of imagination may call into question Puck’s claim that Sir Richard is a genuine historical figure. That Dan and Una are literate and Sir Richard is not also establishes that while he has the advantage of age, they may have the greater ‘capacity to exploit and capitalize on the resources of adult culture’ (5) as Gubar puts it.

15Importantly, however, Gubar’s perspective has limitations here as well, because her model of the collaborative child cannot be fully applied to Puck’s case on account of the amnesia repeatedly imposed upon Dan and Una, a condition thatas Dan complains at the beginning of ‘On the Great Wall’they perceive as unfair. Rather than following either Nodelman or Gubar, accordingly, readers may need to shift their attention from the matter of agency per se to the matter of the dynamics of agency, as both Nodelman and Gubar have already shown through their dynamic mode of discussion. In that case, the focus of investigation becomes not so much the outcome as the dynamics of negotiation, in which Puck’s agency and the children’s agency remain mobile. As Walsh points out, Sandra Kemp’s reading of Rewards and Fairies emphasizes ‘the changeability and difference of language as opposed to the assumed stability of that which it supposedly refers to’ (140), and this stress on process rather than on starting point or ending point seems useful in light of the present special issue’s highlighting of dialogue.

16Kipling elsewhere introduces the idea of the negotiable in the form of a federate system in A History of England (1911). The book is described as having been written for ‘all boys and girls who are interested in the story of Great Britain and her Empire’, and Kipling delivers the story of old Saxon England before the Norman Conquest as well as the changes occurring after the Conquest. Enumerating dangers from ‘foreign neighbours’—‘Denmark and Norway’, ‘Scotland, once Pict-land’, ‘Flanders . . . the modern Holland and Belgium; a land already famous both for pirates and traders’, ‘Normandy, the great province on the north coast of France’ (40‒41)—Kipling emphasizes ‘[t]he “Normans” . . . [who] became the cleverest, the fiercest’ (41). That is, in Kipling’s rendition, Saxon England, which was not a united country, was surrounded by dangers from foreign neighbours, of which Normandy was the strongest. Yet, after the Norman Conquest, the Normans helped the English population be educated, civilized, and thereby developed, so that England became much stronger than before; the ‘boys and girls’ identified as the volume’s audience may choose to make parallel inferences about the ultimate utility of reading history assigned by the adult authorities who control their schooling. Although the Normans and Saxons had to endure ‘six years of utterly ruthless’ working out of their differences, their negotiation eventually made the English country ‘as one people’ (44, original emphasis). Such interpretations indicate that Kipling is asking English child readers to understand the Norman Conquest as a form of federative partnership with (once) foreign neighbours rather than as a tragic defeat; that the ‘utterly ruthless’ (44) portion of the aftermath is a mere six years long implicitly excuses the colonialist project in light of the perceived improvements wrought, upon which the ‘one people’ have ultimately agreed.

17If Puck’s first episode, ‘Weland’s Sword’, mirrors the account of how Dan and Una’s initial suspicions of Puck develop into friendship by describing how the conflict between the oppositional generations of older and newer inhabitants of Britain has shifted into negotiation, Kipling more noticeably develops the negotiation into a workable partnership in the next episode, ‘Young Men at the Manor’. In this episode, the Norman Richard and the Saxon Hugh enact the relational change from enemies to partners or friends. At the battle of Santlache, when Richard has spared Hugh’s life, Hugh, too, has saved Richard (37). Saving each other, Richard and Hugh have not only reanimated a friendship begun in their mutual schooldays in a French monastery but also developed it into mature partnership by working alongside one another to figure out the troubles at the Manor, ‘a Saxon hornets’ nest’ (39), which are caused by the problem of territorial fragmentation: ‘From the Upper Ford, Weland’s Ford, to the Lower Ford, by the Belle Allée, west and east it ran half a league. From the Beacon of Brunanburgh behind us here, south and north it ran a full league—and all the woods were full of broken men from Santlache, Saxon thieves, Norman plunderers, robbers, and deer-stealers’ (40). Much as the adult narrators and the children have met in the oppositional tension between the old and the new Englishness in the fairy ring, Richard and Hugh have met in the wars.

18And just as the adults and the children have come to a mutual understanding, Richard and Hugh’s new encounter in the war results in a connection that goes beyond the hierarchical relationship of, say, Robinson Crusoe and Friday. Hugh is presented as Richard’s peer rather than his junior, as his place as a hero of the narrative, someone whose further history the children express eagerness to hear, has already been established in ‘Weland’s Sword’ before Richard is introduced. After their relationship becomes so close that by the end of ‘Young Men at the Manor’ a supposed slight to Hugh causes Richard to ‘[bid] De Aquila, my own overlord, hold his peace, or I would stuff his words down his throat’ (48), Richard marries Hugh’s sister, presumably because a marriage to Hugh himself is not feasible. Voice—the offensive ‘words’ that might be met with violence—gives way to a cooperative way of being, suggesting that one way to read the narrative pattern of stories followed by amnesia is that the negotiation represented by adult/child dialogue ultimately results in the children’s internalization of the values to which the various stories introduce them. While one might understand this as a form of colonization by adults, it is noteworthy that the adults vanish from the equation. Similarly, in arguing that Richard and Hugh’s friendship is an ideological vehicle for ‘the justification of the Empire’ (Bratton 78), J. S. Bratton seems to view Kipling’s presentation of friendship between the two warriors as a way of romanticizing the British Empire’s colonialist ideology. However, as Kipling initially sets up the frame—in which, I agree, he grapples with the issue of imperialism—in the form of dialogue between adult figures and children, he signals his awareness of the (ruthless) effort at mutual negotiation between the two contrasting sides rather than urging a colonization that only works in one direction.

19The pattern established by Richard and Hugh (or, more delicately, the children and Puck), in which the discourse of war shifts to one of partnership or collaboration between colonizer and colonized, is one that Kipling more ambiguously incorporates into the questioning of the narrative of the larger British Empire, especially in terms of the Empire’s colonial federation. In ‘The Knights of the Joyous Venture’, Kipling tinges the adventure story with the shadow of wounding. During their adventure in the South (in this case Africa rather than rustic England), Sir Richard refers to Hugh as his ‘shadow’, who has lost his arm to a bite from the ‘devil’ that the children understand to have been a gorilla (74). Almost from the first moment that Richard lands in England, he and Hugh have reanimated their boyhood friendship, first in governing the Manor and subsequently in their adventure in Africa. If Richard’s Manor has essentially begun the federation system with Hugh’s cooperation, Hugh is his earliest confederate. Given the setting, it seems possible to imagine that Richard and Hugh are designed for incorporating into one another as the bodily joint of the federated body of England.

20But this joining cannot take place without damage. After the long-time adventure in Africa, the children become aware of Richard’s limp and Hugh’s arm after the fight with the gorillas. The wounding of the federated body of old England detracts from the narrative power of the adult figures in the dialogue and symbolically reflects on the historical context of the conundrum of Britain’s imperialism during Kipling’s time. In Philippa Levine’s examination of Britain’s rule of the empire and its identification with the sun that never sets, she emphasizes the Empire’s ruling scale, which by ‘the start of the twentieth century . . . administered 47 territories’—‘“a diverse array of regions” and people’ (Levine 113). To prove scale, Levine provides two advertisements in which Britain ‘boast[s] of the size and success of [its] imperial ventures’ (116). If Britain is proud of its position as the imperial sun, however, it also needs to be reminded that the sun is inseparable from the shadow, both when it is up in the sky and when night falls (as noted on line 14 of ‘Recessional’, ‘On dune and headland sinks the fire’). Richard is ultimately haunted by his past losses of family, friends, and youth: the third tale, ‘Old Men at Pevensey’, starts with the physically crippled conditions of the three founders of post-Conquest England, notes that Richard and Hugh no longer govern the Manor, as the ‘[l]and and governance belong by right to young men’ (87), and has De Aquila characterize them as the ‘ghosts’ of the old days (88). Figuratively, much as Richard emerges from the mysterious darkness of the past to recount these losses to Dan and Una, the Empire may be seen as haunted by the anxiety or fears emanating from colonial shadows. Significantly, Puck begins ‘after tea on Midsummer Eve, when the shadows were growing’ (10‒11), and each episode is specifically identified as taking place in the afternoon or at dusk, with Kipling’s narrator paying frequent attention to patterns of sunlight and shade. If the sun never sets on the British Empire, in these tales it is seemingly always about to set on Dan and Una.

21In that light, Richard and Hugh’s friendship must be understood as more than a conventional representation of a happy imperialism in which the enlightened among the colonized cooperate with their benevolent masters. While one might read their partnership in this way, it is also possible to interpret it as participating in Kipling’s hinted criticism of the Empire’s colonialism, since the founding heroes in the past (and importantly, the term ‘hero’ embraces not just Richard but also Hugh, a model of chivalry who has internalized their abbot/teacher’s instruction in ‘Weland’s Sword’ to ‘Take your sword, and keep your sword, and go with your sword, and be as gentle as you are strong and courteous’) have become wounded ghosts in the present of Empire (26). In a broader perspective, Kipling places the warriors’ tales within the intergenerational dialogue between the adult heroes and the children, so that the children feel interested in, and can engage with, the tales, asking frequent questions and revealing their emotional connection to the characters: ‘“I like Brother Hugh,” said Una, softly’ (43). By incorporating into the intergenerational conversation tales showing the heroes’ gradual transformation into wounded ghosts, Kipling investigates the Empire’s then and now. His critical questioning of the British Empire’s wounded condition shapes and underlies Dan and Una’s response to Richard, whose vulnerabilities are evident to the children from the beginning; the story of Sir Isumbras at the Ford is a tale of age, weariness, and humbling. This eroding of adult male agency underlies the intergenerational dialogue in which the children take part.

The Ghost Heroes, the Forgetting Children, and the Empire’s Problematic Agency

22As I have discussed, from the initial moment when Dan and Una do not simply welcome Puck into their field, the fairy ring, Kipling sets up the children’s engagement in the conversations and the narrations. Not believing that Puck can be a fairy, Dan mentions that he has ‘never believed in ’em—not after [he] was six, anyhow’ (13). That is, from the outset, the siblings have shown caution about, and have raised questions about, what they have heard from Puck, prefiguring their later readiness to set Sir Richard straight on matters such as China, compasses, and gorillas. Perhaps it is the children’s cautious engagement with the stories that has made some critics discuss the issue of child agency in Puck and more broadly in Kipling’s works. Knoepflmacher examines the issue of the child as equal in Kipling’s Just So Stories and starts the examination with Kipling’s biographical episode with his daughter, Effie. According to Knoepflmacher, Kipling gives the authority of the stories to Effie; in his reading Effie is ‘far from being regarded as a passive listener,’ as she ‘must be granted a status that approaches that of a collaborator’ (27). Johanna Brinkley Tomlinson examines Dan and Una’s role and similarly suggests that Kipling offers the collaborator’s privilege to the children. Framing her analysis in Gubar’s theorization of child agency within the historical context of ‘the emergence of the child narrator’, Tomlinson argues for ‘Dan and Una as collaborators who both frame and shape the presentation of history offered’ (Tomlinson 286). As Tomlinson puts it, Kipling is aware of the emergence of the child’s voice in his times, and the conversation between the children and the fictional narrators in Puck implies the changed status of the children’s voice; Sir Richard says to Dan and Una, ‘It is you that must tell me, for I hear the youngest child in our England today is as wise as our wisest clerk’ (35). In this remark, Sir Richard apparently seems to consider the children’s role to be that of teller.

23However, while Kipling is aware of the children’s voice and their position as the emerging teller, he keeps muting their voice as well. Tomlinson understands the children’s ‘knowledge of animals native to the continent of Africa gleaned from The Gorilla Hunters’ as evidence of their collaboration in the story (Tomlinson 286), though it is perhaps significant that this is a collaboration dependent upon mastery of a text authored by an adult. After Dan’s correction that the devils might have been gorillas, Sir Richard seems to accept the idea when he asks, ‘Were our Devils only nest-building apes?’ (80). Yet again in connection with whether the strange beings encountered in Africa should be understood as devils, he says that ‘One must believe one’s father, and not one’s children’, adding that books may not contain accurate information—‘But are the books true? . . . I like not all this reading and writing’ (80). That is, even while he recognizes the possibility of accepting the children’s authority, he simultaneously alludes to the possibility of doubting their knowledge. In other words, if Kipling depicts caution as an element in the children’s engagement with the fictional narrators’ stories, he depicts adults as correspondingly sceptical about what the children have to contribute. Here again, federation/collaboration is a matter for negotiation on both sides; neither adults nor children get to assert their understanding as unquestioned truth.

24Kipling’s guarded approach to Dan and Una’s voice is enhanced at the end of each tale, when he undermines the children’s authority through Puck’s control of their memory and forgetting. Paying attention to the issue of memory and its impact within children’s literature, Anastasia Ulanowicz probes into how the images of ghosts have been used in children’s literature to evoke intergenerational dialogue. From Ulanowicz’s perspective, children’s literature is an ‘intergenerational form’ in which the young as the coming generation are exposed to ‘pre-existing ideological structures’ by meeting previous generations (Ulanowicz 6). Given the implications of the ghost image and the memory contained in it, what Kipling accomplishes through the children’s forgetting is both the evocation and the erasure of the dialogue between old and young. Accordingly, Dan and Una both have and lose their voice: they retain the ability to speak and the youthful vantage point from which they necessarily articulate their words, but only intermittently and at Puck’s (or Kipling’s) pleasure may they engage in a dialogue that includes their elders.

25From another angle, Kipling has presented the medieval hero adults Sir Richard and Hugh as crucial agents in the development of old England. Despite their contributions to establishing the precursor of the British Empire, however, they lose their agency when they turn over the Manor to the next generation. In this regard, Kipling’s presentation of adults as heroes does not seem to guarantee the continuity of their agency. If the hero figures represent the foundation of the Empire, achieved through wars, wounds, and negotiated brotherhood, he delimits this foundational Empire’s bounds as well. Likewise, maintaining ‘Recessional’’s ambiguous tone, Kipling does not fully authorize the child’s agency, inasmuch as he reveals his anxieties about the (dis)continuity of the Empire’s future. And if Dan and Una forget Richard between meetings, neither he nor they can engage in continued intergenerational dialogue. His loss of voice is still greater than theirs, inasmuch as he appears to have no existence between his spectral appearances, while by contrast, the children’s lives go on during their amnesiac episodes. In short, if some parts of the story present a dynamic in which both adults and children seem to mobilize their agency through successful negotiation, Kipling elsewhere suspends the agency of both sides in order to critically reflect on the British Empire’s agency. To do so, Kipling renders a magical amnesia—in which the Empire’s history becomes subject to question—as the vehicle for his reflection on the present reality of the Empire’s vulnerability. Using the double-sided agency in the frame of the dual child-adult readership (Kipling 1990, 111), Kipling evokes a complex sentiment in which anxiety over the fragility of Empire paralyzes the mobilizing dynamics of agency between adult ghosts (as the past agents) and living children (as the emerging agent) in silence or forgetfulness.

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Electronic reference

Hera Kim, Questioning Agency Through Intergenerational Dialogue: The Adult Ghosts and the Forgetting Children in Rudyard Kipling’s Puck of Pook’s HillCahiers victoriens et édouardiens [Online], 92 Automme | 2020, Online since 01 December 2020, connection on 26 July 2021. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Hera Kim

Hera Kim has recently finished her dissertation, ‘Masculinities in Queer Temporalities from George Eliot to Virginia Woolf’, and received her Ph. D. at Texas A&M University. Her research interests are Victorian masculinity studies and late Victorian children’s literature, and time studies.
Hera Kim a récemment terminé sa thèse intitulée « Masculinities in Queer Temporalities from George Eliot to Virginia Woolf » et obtenu le titre de Docteur de l’Université du Texas A&M. Sa recherche porte sur les études de la masculinité à l’époque victorienne, la littérature jeunesse de la fin de l’époque victorienne et les études sur le temps.

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Licence Creative Commons
Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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