Rewards and Fairies was Rudyard Kipling’s follow-up to his extremely successful Puck Of Pook’s Hill, though it’s best-known now for containing Britain’s Best-Loved Poem, aka “If-“. My last encounter with that poem – a fairly typical encounter I would suggest – was reading it in gigantic blown-up form on the wall of a senior executive at work. This executive lived up to the poem admirably – or at least, I like to think that if he’d ever encountered triumph he’d have resigned over that too.

In the context of its parent book, “If-” regains a degree of shine. It’s the postscript to the first half of a story whose hero is a smuggler, born in England with family in France, raised in America by newly-freed colonists, trained there by Iroquois. Kipling tied his end-poems quite closely to the tales they accompanied, and so “If-” was certainly intended to be a kind of moral summary of the story of “Brother Square-Toes”. That being so, its most likely reference point isn’t the boy hero (who does little but observe), but George Washington, who in the story is resolved on an unpopular peace policy with the English during their war with revolutionary France. So there’s an “If-” factoid for you, if you want one: this poem, much-referenced as a paean to Englishness, is in fact a panegyric to the man who masterminded England’s single greatest military catastrophe.

The stoicism of the poem may or may not be typical of England but it’s certainly characteristic of Kipling’s worldview in Rewards And Fairies. The framing device of the book – as of Puck – is a pair of English children listening to voices from the land’s past (more specifically the Sussex past), summoned by the presiding fairy Puck. Puck has three or four historical characters tell multiple stories – Rewards is more fragmentary, with figures from the older book joined by a host of others, with a single tale each, delving as far back as the stone age. What do they have in common? One critical response I found suggests “duty”, the uncomplaining, level-headed, decisive virtue that “If-” celebrates – but this is only part of the story.

Certainly a story like “The Knife And The Naked Chalk” is steeped in the idea of duty – the unnamed flintworker hero trades with another tribe, who have mastered metalworking, for its secrets: part of their price is his right eye. He returns a saviour, with weapons that can quickly kill the wolves who menace his tribe’s sheep. But the price he has paid goes deeper than vision – his own tribe now see him as a God and their worship of him makes him lonely and uncomfortable. The poem (or its more enthusiastic reading) misleads: duty in Kipling reaps its reward often but not always – in several of the stories the fate of heroic characters is left ambiguous. A disguised Queen Elizabeth tells the children of how two brave young men helped her scupper Philip Of Spain’s plans for the New World by – what happened to them, she is asked? She shrugs and says she never heard of them again: they probably died.

Kipling is a tricky writer, devilish hard to pin down – in one story a French prisoner of war invents a primitive stethoscope to help save villagers from the consumption he himself is dying of: here science is a winner. In a mirror-story, though, an itinerant astronomer saves a village from the plague by deducing the right conclusions (it’s the rats) from entirely wrong principles (they are the Moon’s creatures and are driving out the healthy influence of Mars). Doing the right thing, and being willing to try, are of course important, but Kipling rarely makes them the motor of these stories – coincidence plays a huge part. “If-” is essentially a reactive poem – see what happens and do your best with it – and Kipling’s vision of history in Rewards And Fairies is one where tiny choices, actions and simple strokes of luck shape the fate of tribes, towns and nations as much as do the struggles of the great. Both play a part, and the thing is you can never know at any given point which will be the lever.

In this view of history, national destiny – even Imperial destiny – is necessarily fragile, a hairs-breadth or arrows-width away from turning out entirely differently. The last story in the book brings this to life, as a Norman hunt at the turn of the 12th century turns up evidence that Harold survived Hastings, and has wandered for the thirty years since as a guilt-haunted, regretful living ghost. Away from the new national propaganda, the Norman knights’ view is that Hastings had been a close-run thing: they treat the dying old King with respect, not fear, while their brash younger counterparts (who didn’t live through “Senlac fight”) mock and harry the Saxons. History, Kipling suggests, is not written by the winners, but by the winners’ inheritors, who smooth it out to bring themselves legitimacy. But the message of Rewards And Fairies – and indeed of “If-” – is that legitimacy is a quantum away from accident, and that we should treat that quantum with due humility.