The Knife and the Naked Chalk

On the theme of the perils of acquiring divine status while yet a mortal, I most like Rudyard Kipling’s story ‘The Knife and the Naked Chalk’. It forms a chapter in Rewards and Fairies, the sequel to Puck of Pook’s Hill. These two books are allegedly children’s literature, but I found them hard to read as a child, which only proves that two child protagonists do not a children’s book make. The stories are fascinating and occasionally even magical, but there is no way to get around the premise: that Puck, the last of the People of the Hills (fairies) in England, likes to spend his summers teaching the minutiae of English history to young Dan and Una. Granted, his method of instruction is unique. The people themselves speak their tales, from a masked and incognito Queen Elizabeth I to the clearly fictional Buyer of the Knife. However, it was dry going for me to read about people and places that were no longer on the West Indian secondary school history curriculum. I only appreciated the stories when I grew older and had learned more of the context.

The story of the Buyer of the Knife was poignant and easily accessible. Set in prehistoric times, it tells of a man whose people raise sheep on the Naked Chalk (the Downs) and defend their flocks from wolves armed only with flint for their hammers, spears and arrowheads.  In the forests of the Weald, there are a people who have learned to make iron knives, and he decides to go to them to discuss trade:

‘Their Priestess said, “For whose sake have you come?” I answered, “The sheep are the people. If The Beast kills our sheep, our people die. So I come for a Magic Knife to kill The Beast.”‘

Of course there is a price over and above the wool, milk and meat they are willing to trade, as the Priestess tells him:

‘She said, “The God says that if you have come for the sake of your people you will give him your right eye to be put out; but if you have come for any other reason you will not give it. This proof is between you and the God. We ourselves are sorry.”‘

In spite of preferring death, he allows her to put out his eye with her own knife and thus wins for himself the first of the Magic Knives and the right to open trade between their peoples. With their sharp, new blades, the sheepherders easily drive off the wolves. Ignoring the Priestess’s obvious interest in him, the Buyer of the Knife then looks to settle down peacefully at home and start a family. Not so.

‘Even then I did not understand, till I saw that – that no man stepped on my shadow; and I knew that they thought me to be a God, like the God Tyr, who gave his right hand to conquer a Great Beast.’

Everyone treats him differently, distantly, with awe and fear, including his Maiden, who eventually asks leave to marry another man. Desolate and lonely, his only comfort is his mother, who told him before he went to the Weald and tells him again, ‘Whether you live or die, or are made different, I am your Mother.’:

‘I said at last, ‘What is to be done to the people who say that I am Tyr?”

‘She said. “He who has done a God-like thing must bear himself like a God. I see no way out of it…. In time it will grow easy. In time perhaps you will not lay it down for any maiden anywhere. Be wise – be very wise, my son, for nothing is left you except the words, and the songs, and the worship of a God.”‘

‘Oh poor God!’ said Puck. ‘But these are not altogether bad things.’

‘I know they are not; but I would sell them all – all – all for one small child of my own, smearing himself with the ashes of our own house-fire.’

It is the story of a hero’s journey, but instead of the expected ending where he marries the maiden and they live happily ever after, he discovers that he has sacrificed more than his eye; he has sacrificed his human life and gained an unanticipated, unwanted and bittersweet immortality.