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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

09 July 2021

Malcolm Guite discovers another childhood treasure on his dusty bookshelf

I MENTIONED in my last piece that I had found an old childhood favourite on a dusty shelf — the Puffin Story Book edition of the tales of King Arthur — and I went on to tell of how I was taking up the Arthurian tales myself, and quoted a little prelude poem I was writing for my retelling (Poet’s Corner, 2 July).

Well, the Puffin was not the only treasure on that dusty shelf of half-forgotten children’s books; for just beside it was my lovely, well-worn copy of Puck of Pook’s Hill in the handsome Macmillan’s Pocket Kipling series: the very copy that my mother had when she was a child, and from which she read to me when I was the age she had been when she first heard these stories.

This book, and its sequel, Rewards and Fairies, is set in a little valley in Sussex. and tells of how two children, Dan and Una, accidentally summon Puck himself as they play at A Midsummer Night’s Dream in a “fairy ring” one midsummer morn. Suddenly, Puck steps in and takes up the lines that Shakespeare gave him: “What hempen homespuns have we swaggering here, so near the cradle of the fairy queen?”

In return for summoning him, Puck gives the children “seizing” of Old England, and, in his company, they find they can encounter all the characters, natural and supernatural, who have been part of their little valley’s story these past 3000 years; for time, in Kipling’s story, is not like an arrow that flies past you, but more like a series of rich layers, accumulating slowly over the same patch of ground, accruing year by year, like layers in a cake, or the rich layers of loam in the little pieces of turf that Puck cuts out and gives to the children as a token that they have received the gift of England herself.

As Puck says in the song that precedes the story, and which I echoed in my own poem:

She is not any common Earth,

Water or wood or air,
But Merlin’s Isle of Gramarye,
Where you and I will fare.

But, when I reread that story this week, it was not the opening poem, but the closing “Tree Song” that really struck home — the one that begins:

Of all the trees that grow so fair,

Old England to adorn,
Greater are none beneath the Sun,
Than Oak and Ash and Thorn.

There’s a lovely moment in the story when Puck says “I came into England with Oak, Ash, and Thorn, and when Oak, Ash and Thorn are gone, I shall go, too,” and Dan looks round to reassure himself that he can still see all three, and says to Puck, “It’s all right, I’m planting a lot of acorns this autumn, too.” It’s wonderful that here, in this little book, first published more than 100 years ago, there is kindled in the children a care for conservation, for tree-planting, for kindly and reciprocal relations with our environment.

I am happy to say that, notwithstanding ash dieback, I can still pass by Oak and Ash and Thorn on every one of my daily walks round Linton, and sometimes, as I walk, Puck’s lovely Tree Song is sounding its chimes in my mind:

Sing Oak and Ash and Thorn, good Sirs

(All of a Midsummer’s morn)!
England shall bide till Judgement Tide,
By Oak and Ash and Thorn!

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