Scribble City Central's thirty-second Fantabulous Friday comes from Celia Rees, one of Britain's best writers for teenagers. This is not Celia's first visit to SCC. In February I interviewed her about her latest wonderful (and gritty) novel, This is Not Forgiveness. You can read that interview HERE.
This time round, Celia moves to different territory - the territory of Shakespeare's Dream, the dells and wild places where confused lovers trip over deliberately placed briars, where men are made asses, where the world is girdled in thirty minutes. This untamed forest is (partly) the setting for one of my very favourite of Celia's books, The Fool's Girl, an eerily compelling take on Twelfth Night. I found Celia's depiction of the Forest of Arden one of the most lyrically beautiful pieces of writing I've read for a long time. It is an exquisite woodland place within a timeless bubble, but make no mistake, its beauty is of the brooding sort underneath the dappled sunlight. It has thorns, and dark things hiding behind ancient trees, ready to rip and tear. Celia is therefore the perfect person to plumb the mysteries of Shakespeare's most recognisable fairy - the ever-michievous:
P for Puck
Oldest Old Thing in England
CR: I first met Puck as 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.’ The Puck of Rudyard Kipling’s Puck of Pook’s Hill. My father read the stories to me as a child and my love of myth and of history may well go back to those readings. Puck appears to Dan and Una, upon the eponymous Pook’s Hill and, sustained by Bath Oliver biscuits, he tells them stories about the history of Britain. The stories are not exactly historically accurate but what child cares about that? They are exciting and more than a little uncanny and speak of a continuity of place, a record in the landscape of times gone by. An idea that I found as intriguing now as I did then.
And see you marks that show and fade,Kipling’s Puck describes himself as ‘the oldest Old Thing in England’.
Like shadows on the Downs?
O they are the lines the Flint Men made,
To guard their wondrous towns!
‘The People of the Hills have all left. I saw them come into Old England and I saw them go.’Puck, Puca in Old English, the wild spirit of the woods, is both ancient and enduring and appears in many guises as Puck or Robin Goodfellow in England, as the brownie in Scotland, bucca in Cornwall, pùca in Ireland and pwca in Wales.
What conjures him in Puck of Pook’s Hill is a performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Shakespeare was writing before loss of belief drove the People of the Hills from the land. In Elizabethan England belief in the supernatural was still strong and people would have believed in fairies, elves, supernatural creatures of all kinds and where better for them still to dwell than in the great Forest of Arden that still dominated much of Shakespeare’s native Warwickshire? Shakespeare’s plays are full of references to an active folklore and folk belief. It was there for him to draw upon as part of his lexicon of inspiration. As far as I am concerned, this gives the lie to his plays being written by anyone other than a provincial commoner still close to the soil. Puck serves Oberon, King of the Fairies. Oberon was the name for the King of the Breton Fairies. Interestingly, the Queen of the Fairies has no name, so Shakespeare named her Titania. Puck is playful, a trickster, but is also very powerful. He, like the other fairies, is profoundly ‘Other’, not human at all.
I have always found this idea fascinating and a performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Stratford had a direct influence on the writing of The Fool’s Girl. I took my main inspiration from Twelfth Night but I wanted to allude to other plays too, as if they were all swirling around in Shakespeare’s head, and I had to take him to the Forest of Arden so that my characters could encounter the folk who lived there. The Lord and Lady of the Wood are not quite Oberon and Titania but there is something uncanny about them and their servant, Robin.
‘There was a rustle in the branches above them and a boy dropped down from a tree to land at their feet. At least he appeared at first glance to be a boy … His stare expressed mild interest, mixed with amusement that could easily tip into malice. Despite his slight stature, he was no boy. His brown mossy hair was braided and wound with threads of different colours, hung with beads and shells. He wore necklaces made from beads of bone, tiny skulls, rough dark stones like petrified skulls.’I wanted Shakespeare’s Arden to be place where magic still existed but there is precious little of it left now. Google will take you straight to a golf course. The People of the Hills certainly left long ago, but I like to think that Puck is still there somewhere, lurking in the rough, playing tricks on the golfers, ruining their swing, hiding their golf balls.
SCC: Thank you, Celia. I like to think the People of the Hills are maybe not completely gone, as Puck says, but only sleeping till their time comes again. And sometimes, in certain woods, I hear things which make me think they are not very far away at all.
You can buy the books mentioned in this post HERE
Next week: Mary Hoffman, author of the brilliant Stravaganza series, hunts for Q for Questing Beast. Be prepared for fewmets!