Lost in the Movies: The Wind in the Willows: "The Piper at the Gates of Dawn" and "Wayfarers, All"

The Wind in the Willows: "The Piper at the Gates of Dawn" and "Wayfarers, All"

[This post was accidentally deleted, and then quickly restored. In the interim I stumbled across some marvellous writing on similar themes, celebrating the language of Wind in the Willows and the way it reflects its author's life and vision. You can find the links here, but especially explore The Wind in the Willows at 100 which more fully and richly elaborates on the themes I tentatively explored in my own piece. - 3/9]

The following was written several years ago, and has been slightly modified.

Some time around 1987, we taped a television program and eighteen years later (!) [now twenty-two years later (!!) - ed.] it's still there, collecting dust on a shelf. The program was an animated adaptation of The Wind in the Willows, by Kenneth Grahame. We also had an illustrated copy of the book on our shelves, and it was one of my favorite stories as a child. Almost everyone knows the epic comic journey of Mr. Toad, a chronic automobile thief who escapes prison disguised as a washerwoman and eventually wins back Toad Hall from the weasels who have taken it over in his absence. Toad is one of the great characters of children's literature, and his story has been adapted numerous times.

However, other aspects of this classic have been forgotten with time. Two chapters in particular, "The Piper at the Gates of Dawn" and "Wayfarers, All" have been left out of some editions of the book, and excluded from most adaptations. The animated special from the eighties was an exception to the rule, and both episodes were included, accompanied by a wistful song which added a whole new element to the story. These passages focus not on the cranky, arrogant, and irascible Toad, but on the quieter, more laid-back duo of Mole and Rat, the animals who live by the river bank in a life of leisure and comfort while their friend Toad goes cavorting around the countryside, wreaking havoc and wrecking cars.

"The Piper at the Gates of Dawn" finds the two friends in pursuit of Portly, the son of their buddy Otter who is, you guessed it, an otter. The boy has been missing for days and so the duo set out on the river by the moonlight seeking him along the shore. And then a strange thing happens on their journey: a beautiful melody overcomes them, leading them forward to a small island where they find the small otter laying at the feet of Pan (unnamed in these pages), playing his pipes in the morning light. Before they see him, they hear the music and feel an undesirable sensation, described by Grahame:

Then suddenly Mole felt a great Awe fall upon him, an awe that turned his muscles to water, bowed his head, and rooted his feet to the ground. It was no panic terror - indeed he felt wonderfully at peace and happy - but it was an awe that smote and held him and, without seeing, he knew it could only mean that some august Presence was very, very near. (Grahame 134-135)
Then the sensation vanishes as the sun rises, and the memory of it is all but erased from the animals' minds. Still, they retain a shred of emotional recall:
...Mole stood still a moment, held in thought. As one wakened suddenly from a beautiful dream, who struggles to recall it, and can recapture nothing but a dim sense of the beauty of it, the beauty! Till that, too, fades away in turn, and the dreamer bitterly accepts the hard, cold waking and all its penalties... (Grahame 138)
Many of us have had that dream and experienced that sense of loss when we woke up, the sensation that we'd been visiting another world in our sleep, something just as real (or perhaps more real) than waking life, and that now it had vanished. Elsewhere [in the collection of essays for which this piece was written] I've written about religion and the search for God. Here, on the pages of what is ostensibly a book for children, is one of the more potent evocations of religious experience. However, most literary critics don't seem to share my enthusiasm for Grahame's "pallid Edwardian paganism" as literary critic Neil Philip describes it; going on to say it was Grahame's "unique achievement to reduce the savage god to a sort of woodland nanny" (Hunt 101). In A Fragmented Arcadia, Grahame's prose is described as at best, unfashionable, and at worst, "an error of judgement on a grand scale" (Hunt 64). In a book full of effective restraint and breezy literary aplomb, this chapter is seen as dated and overheated in its mystical enthusiasm. What can I say, other than that I disagree most emphatically?

I quote this book, and specifically this chapter, because it's an excellent example of what excites me in art, the invoking of some sort of transcendence, a breaking-through into another realm of existence which cannot be described in words, only suggested. Passages of this chapter in Wind in the Willows, describing the transformative freshness of the landscape ("Never had they noticed the roses so vivid, the willow-herb so riotous, the meadow-sweet so odorous and pervading") bear a striking resemblance to Aldous Huxley's descriptions of a chemically altered reality in his groundbreaking work The Doors of Perception, published a half-century later. And the psychedelic connection would continue later when Pink Floyd entitled their first album The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, to evoke the spirit of Grahame's transformative scene. Here, on these pages, it is not drugs that alter the mind, but the music of Pan, symbol of nature, wafting in the winds at daybreak.

The other chapter in the book I wish to discuss is "Wayfarers, All." Grahame opens the chapter with a description of the English countryside on the cusp of autumn as the character of Rat roams the riverbank. A homebody through and through, he is upset by the other animals' preparation for winter travel, particularly the birds who sing their song of the South. Eventually, he feels the stirring in himself as well. This desire to suddenly leave his home behind and explore the world is stoked by the appearance of a Sea Rat, who is traveling down the road and stops to share his travels of exotic seaports and adventures in Venice, Constantinople, and numerous Grecian islands. He has a hypnotic effect on the simple Water Rat who enters a trance and prepares to leave on an epic journey before Mole arrives to calm him down and keep him at home. Melancholy after coming down from this high of wanderlust, Rat ponders his life by the river and eventually returns to an appreciation of its comforts and security.

In Kenneth Grahame, Lois R. Kuznets describes "Wayfarers, All" as "perhaps the most ambiguous chapter of the whole book in terms of maintaining the delicate balance between security and adventure that Grahame fosters" (109). At the end of the chapter, Kuznets notes, security wins, and she makes an analogy to Homer's Odyssey, in which Ulysses ties his sailors to the mast of the boat so that they will not follow the Siren's call. But the end of the chapter is melancholy at best, and the call of the wild is treated far more ambiguously than a mere test of the will. It is clear that Grahame feels this call, and even if he thinks it should be denied for the greater good, it incurs no great joy in him to deny it. The chapter ends with Mole convincing Rat to unleash his feelings in poetry and the implication is that an artist cultivates much of his creativity by remaining attuned to the draw of adventure, the abandonment of sensibility for sensation, and the resistance of these urges.

The Wind in the Willows is such a fascinating tale in large part because it tempers the author's instinctual conservatism with his yearning for change and adventure. In the seminal analysis The Wind in the Willows: A Fragmented Arcadia, Peter Hunt explores the geography of the story, as explained early in the book by Rat: there is the River Bank, full of contentment and simple pleasures, the Wild Wood which is dangerous and threatening, and beyond it the Wide World which Rat feigns indifference towards, saying the River Bank has all he needs. But throughout the book, the characters are drawn to danger and adventure like moths to the flame, and if all ends well and Grahame errs on the side of security and comfort, he nonetheless cannot entirely extinguish that burning desire for something more.

The Wind in the Willows has many subtexts. It can be read on a political level, and Peter Hunt notes how it is essentially about the stabilization of society, with the River Bank symbolizing the middle class and the story documenting the incorporation of the lower middle class (Mole), the taming of the nouveau-riche (Toad), while the militant working-class is returned to its proper place (the weasels and the Wild Wood). [Lately I've been reading a book about the decline of the British aristocracy and it bears out this reading to a remarkable extent - particularly as it documents newly irresponsible aristocrats living a life of desperate pleasure, losing their ancestral homes, and being uncomfortably integrated into a rising bourgeoisie. In this interpretation, of course, Toad is old money, not new, which - given the status of Toad Hall - makes sense.] A clever bit of literary subversion was performed in the eighties by Jan Needle, who rewrote the story as The Wild Wood, telling it from the perspective of the weasels and stoats, who were transformed into a full-fledged working class.

It can also be read as a parable for children relating the challenges of the larger world beyond childhood, or as a nostalgic longing for a past that never existed, or even as an anthropomorphic experiment (it is never quite clear how the animals co-exist with the human beings in the society, and sometimes the lines get quite blurry). But the most potent reading is the personalized one, both from the author's perspective and the reader's. Kenneth Grahame was a critically acclaimed writer as well as a successful banker (an unusual combination) but his life does not seem to have been a happy one. In his childhood he was sent from relative to relative once his mother died and his father abandoned him. Later, he settled into an unhappy marriage and a job that - despite the prestige and money - he did not enjoy. Worst of all, his physically disabled son, for whom he wrote Wind in the Willows, committed suicide as a young man.

For Grahame, the book was a sort of wish fulfillment, in which challenges were faced and overcome, and adventures could be had but friends could still return to the comfort of the River Bank at journey's end, safe and sound as the story resolved itself. Like all great works with happy endings, it remains tinged with melancholy, and this is the element, along with the sophisticated language, clever storytelling, and mature themes, that make the book such an invigorating read for adults as well as children, and which encourages some critics to challenge its status as children's literature. Grahame's biography helps us to understand the desire and themes portrayed in the book. Yet it is our personal experiences and feelings that illuminate the text and make his words ring so true.


Grahame, Kenneth. The Wind in the Willows. Charles Scribner's Sons, 1953.

Kuznets, Lois R. Kenneth Grahame. Boston, Twayne Publishers, 1987.

Hunt, Peter. The Wind in the Willows: A Fragmented Arcadia. New York, Twayne Publishers, 1994.


Anonymous said...

As a boy must have read "Wind and the Willows" 50 times, but was never able to understand what happened in the chapter "The Piper at the Gates of Dawn." Now I do.

Thanks very much, Chris

Joel Bocko said...

Thanks, Chris, and I'm glad you enjoyed my take on the piece.

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