December 01, 2004

Puck of Pook's Hill, by Rudyard Kipling

In this delightful book, Puck (yes, that Puck) introduces a couple of English children to people from the past history of their neighborhood. They meet a Norman knight who came over with William the Conqueror and hear how he received a Saxon barony as his fief--and how he managed to cow and then win the hearts of his Saxon subjects. They meet a Roman soldier who was born near their home and later went on to command the Roman forces on Hadrian's Wall. They meet a Renaissance stonecutter who built the neighborhood church. And through it all they begin to get a sense for the sweep of English history.

There's a problematic segment at the very end, when Puck introduces them to a Spanish Jew named Kadmiel, the son of a banker. Kadmiel tells them how men, bankers and messengers of other bankers, would come to his home when he was a child, and discuss with his father where they should lend their money to best serve their people--in short, to which rulers should they give money, and from which should they withhold it. So immediately we've got the notion of the Jews as behind-the-scenes string pullers, one of your basic anti-Semitic stereotypes.

What troubles me is, I'm not sure that Kipling's depiction isn't a fair one. It's certainly true that at the stated time (the reign of King John of England and Magna Carta) most of the bankers in Europe would have been Jews. Christians were not allowed to lend money at interest, and Jews were allowed to do little else. Kadmiel's father is clearly supposed to be one of the pre-eminent bankers in Europe. And I rather suspect that the more powerful Jewish bankers tried to use whatever influence they had to benefit themselves and their fellow Jews--and quite possibly they thought they had more influence than they really did. And if Kadmiel himself is a rather sour, bitter old stick, who's to say he hasn't earned the right to be?

Certainly Kipling isn't trying to whitewash anti-Semitism--the children remember from their own schooling that when Jewish bankers refused to loan money to King John, he'd have their teeth pulled out. And, by Kipling's story, Kadmiel is rather a hero--he claims to be responsible for ensuring that King John could borrow no more money, and having no money was forced to submit to the barons and sign Magna Carta at Runnymede.

Now, the tale of how Kadmiel does this involves a horde of gold brought to England by the Norman knight after an African adventure, and it's unlikely in the extreme. It's a good tale, but it never would have happened that way. So, even if the portrayal of Kadmiel and his father is a fair one, was Kipling being anti-Semitic by bringing Kadmiel into the book in this context? I think not, after due reflection...but your mileage may vary.

Posted by Will Duquette at December 1, 2004 08:25 PM