The longest day was three days ago, so the nights are drawing in, but today is Midsummer's Day. Sadly, my neighbours' combined birthday street party looks set to be rained off! It would be insulting you to talk about Midsummer Night's Dream, which anyway I've always thought a hugely over-rated play, so I thought I'd take a look at two other books with a Midsummer connection.
Kipling wrote Puck of Pook's Hill in 1906 and its sequel Rewards and Fairies in 1910. Two children, Una and Dan, quite accidentally "break the hills" and summon Puck to the present day by performing (a shortened version of) Shakespeare's play on Midsummer's Eve, three times, in a fairy ring, under Pook's Hill. Puck lets them see epsiodes from English history - especially with a local, Sussex, connection - by meeting people from all ages past:
"She is not any common Earth,
Water or wood or air,
But Merlin's Isle of Gramarye,
Where you and I will fare."
The stories are beautifully written, intense and imaginative, and extremely knowledgeable; they are written as for children, and they certainly appeal to children of all ages, but they are fine short stories for any audience - I read the first two stories last night again, wonderful, magical bedtime reading.
Please don't be put off by Kipling's imperialist baggage; that isn't a major feature of these stories at all, and the glory of the language, the pleasure of the history, and the humour and the clarity of perception of human behaviour will win you over immediately.
They are in print, of course, but second hand editions are often available, and make much better presents, especially for children, than the modern ones - mainly because they sometimes have fine illustrations. The originals were illustrated by H R Millar and Charles Brock, and have a simple and charming immediacy. I can find no good images on the web, so here are the covers to my Penguin editions - on the left, Millar's illustration to "Knights of the Joyous Venture" and on the right Brock's to "Gloriana":
The stories are not in chronological order, so you can pick and choose - but you really must start with "Weland's Sword" or you won't know what's going on throughout the rest of the book! But my favourites in Puck are that one, "Old Men at Pevensey", "Hal o' The Draft", and "Dymchurch Flit", a quite wonderful story of turn of the century Sussex and Tudor England all in one. In Rewards and Fairies, the best are probably "Gloriana", "Marklake Witches" (about a beautiful girl dying of tuberculosis and the inability of medicine in the early nineteenth centruy to help - but lightly done, but tearful too), and "A Doctor of Medicine". Wonderful stuff - I'm going to have to read them all again now I've been writing about them.