Lost in the Movies: The Wind in the Willows - The River Bank

The Wind in the Willows - The River Bank

Part 2 of a microseries devoted to Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows and its film and television adaptations.

"'And you really live by the river? What a jolly life!'

"'By it and with it and on it and in it,' said the Rat. 'It's brother and sister to me, and aunts, and company, and food and drink, and (naturally) washing. It's my world, and I don't want any other. What it hasn't got is not worth having, and what it doesn't know is not worth knowing. Lord! the times we've had together! Whether in winter or summer, spring or autumn, it's always got its fun and its excitements.'"
-from The River Bank

The river is the central symbol of The Wind in the Willows, the story's anchor and motor (at least until Toad's automania commandeers the narrative). As that dual metaphor suggests, the river is deeply ambiguous. Early in the book, in that same speech just sampled, Rat introduces Mole to the world through his own eyes. Ratty's globe is divided into three spheres: the River Bank, the Wild Wood, and the Wide World. If the Wild Wood represents certain danger and threatening instability, while the Wide World connotes an unknowable, intimidatingly vast outside universe (which Rat dismisses with a wave of his hand and a curt "that's something that doesn't matter, either to you or to me"), then the River Bank must stand for stability, familiarity, and comfort, right? But this is not how we are introduced to it.

The book begins not at the shores of the bubbling river, not even in the fresh meadows of springtime, but underground in a den perhaps once cozy, but now merely oppressive. Mole is fussing about his subterranean home, attempting a spring-cleaning but increasingly distracted by a vernal tremor from above which penetrates "even his dark and lowly little house with its spirit of discontent and longing." Accordingly, Mole throws down his paint bucket, gathers his coat, and burrows up through the dirt. "So he scraped and scratched and scrabbled and scrooged, and then he scrooged again and scrabbled and scratched and scraped, working busily with his little paws and muttering to himself, 'Up we go! Up we go!' till at last, pop! his snout came out into the sunlight and he found himself rolling in the warm grass of a great meadow."

Mole strolls through the countryside, enjoying the fresh air and the verdant scenery, but it is not until he reaches the unseen - and unforeseen - river that his spirit truly stirs for the first time: "Never in his life had he seen a river before - this sleek, sinuous, full-bodied animal, chasing and chuckling, gripping things with a gurgle and leaving them with a laugh, to fling itself on fresh playmates that shook themselves free, and were caught and held again. All was a-shake and a-shiver - glints and gleams and sparkles, rustle and swirl, chatter and bubble." It is this river, whose qualities as a subtle storyteller are shortly celebrated, which stands for the drama of this tale, helps Mole grow into a mature and skilled animal, and leads our furry friends to their auroral encounter with the Piper at the Gates of Dawn.

The River Bank - consisting of rushing river and the sturdy bank surrounding it - is both home and the call of adventure, new experience and old comfort, lazy pleasure and soul-shattering mysticism. Ultimately, the very life-force that draws Mole to the river in the first place may provide its own undoing, forcing a choice and then shrivelling itself into a little brook, babbling with pleasing familiarity but speaking of fleeting sensations that disappeared as quickly as a breeze in the willow leaves.

The animal closest to the River Bank in character is of course Rat; it is he who serves as its ambassador and poet laureate, he who proves most attuned to its own lyrics whispered through the reeds. Finally, it will be he who proves the river's undoing, at least as far as the narrative is concerned. Initially, however, only celebration seems in store. Rat meets Mole at the river and immediately teaches him that the river is not merely to be observed, but experienced; the solid little rodent takes his new friend boating, picknicking, and even swimming, unintentionally (Rat must rescue Mole after an ignominious spill). He introduces him to the neighboring animals and even provides a hint of the River Bank's ambiguous situation between natural habitat and settled civilization. One moment he's waxing poetic about the February floods and the post-winter "patches of mud," the next he's goodnaturedly griping about how "the bank is so crowded nowadays...it isn't what it used to be."

The author more often sounds the former note than the latter, raving about "purple loosestrife...shaking luxuriant tangled locks," "the languorous siesta of hot midday, deep in green undergrowth," "green turf sloped down to either edge," or "still keen mornings, an hour before sunrise, when the white mist, as yet undispersed, clung closely along the surface of the water." The first chapter of Wind in the Willows, entitled simply "The River Bank" is devoted to exploring and celebrating the wonders and charms of this exquisite panorama. Already the river has multiple meanings, since within pages of Mole's rapturous introduction we are made familiar with Rat's more pipe-and-slippers perception of the same location. Yet both are made to seem compatible, with Mole setting forth each day on a new adventure, relying on Rat as his trustworthy guide and returning to a cozy cottage, exhausted but triumphant, at the end of each day.

Already there is an uncertain distinction between the countryside - more familiar to Mole - and the river. How far does "the River Bank" extend? Many of those natural descriptions could apply easily to the meadows and light woods through which Mole strolled before the unwitting rendezvous with Ratty. Yet whenever the constraining, sheltering aspects of Mole's and Rat's home is highlighted, it's usually the static, sedentary meadows and fields which are referenced. When Mole escapes the Wild Wood, it is observed that he "saw clearly that he was an animal of tilled field and hedgerow, linked to the ploughed furrow, the frequented pasture, the lane of evening lingerings, the cultivated garden plot. For others the asperities, the stubborn endurance, or the clash of actual conflict, that went with Nature in the rough; he must be wise, must keep to the pleasant places in which his lines were laid and which held adventure enough, in their way, to last for a lifetime."

Although this sets up, in light of the following chapter, Mole's return to his own long-abandoned home, it is not the "ploughed furrow" or "frequented pasture" Mole and Rat are returning to in this moment, it's the river. Yet the river is not what Grahame describes. Later, as Mole impresses upon Rat the desirability of home, trying to keep him from flinging aside all roots and responsibilities for the siren call of the South, the worried little creature falls to descriptions of that same rural homeland, and again with the stress on civilizing, domesticating gestures: "the harvest that was being gathered in, the growing ricks, and the large moon rising over bare acres dotted with sheaves..." How peculiar that when his characters are impelled to hold fast to their river, Grahame avoids the river altogether. It is a tacit recognition that their very home contains the seeds of their rootlessness and discontent, fostering in them an excitement and wanderlust which it cannot then satisfy.

At one point the river itself is essentially dismissed; this is the first moment in the book when the limitations of home and hearth are broached. Toad, chomping at the bit to take his friends on a camping trip, snorts, "You surely don't mean to stick to your dull fusty old river all your life, and just live in a hole in a bank, and boat?" Later, accused of talking about his home, Rat responds indignantly, "I don't talk about my river." But then he "pathetically" concedes, "I think about it - all the time!" It's a distressing form of homesickness, bordering on the diseased. This is in stark contrast to Mole's yearning for his underground cavern, a dormant desire year-round until, unexpectedly, the homesickness hits him with the force of a winter gale. He and Rat will tuck themselves in for a Christmas dinner but later return to Rat's home without mentioning Mole's cavern for the remainder of the book. Yet Rat cannot leave his beloved river for a day or two without growing morose and distressed.

That distress has a root - beneath the pleasantries of the bubbling brook and the buzzing dragonfly lies a deeper, more penetrating power, glimpsed when Mole and Rat go searching for a friend's son and are led to a hidden island by the pipes of Pan. Having exposed the earth-shattering spirituality beneath the river's enigmatic charisma, the book can no longer sustain an easeful tone trotting along those familiar banks. The narrative next finds us with Rat on a late summer day, with animal friends preparing their winter hibernation or flights to warmer climes - it's as if, having drunk the river's headiest brew to its dregs, Rat's tolerance has been raised and he needs new thrills to move him the way the river once did. The Piper Pan having disintegrated in the morning mists, a Pied Piper emerges on the winding road - a Wayfarer who woos Rat with songs of the South, and almost hypnotizes him into hopping a ship, before Mole intervenes.

That chapter - "Wayfarers, All" - ends on an optimistic note, with Rat scribbling poetry, having calmed down and resigned himself to the quiet life he has always known. Yet we can't help but feel perhaps Mole has made a mistake. Well-intentioned, he confused his friend for himself - and if Mole must "keep to the pleasant places" there are indications that Rat needs something more to be satisfied. The irony remains unspoken, possibly unintended (though ambivalence is certain) - but Rat's decision has its consequences. Never again, following this chapter, will Wind in the Willows reach the rapturous heights of its early chapters. Toad, who has already been seizing whole chapters to himself, soon commands the entire force of the storytelling; Grahame's language becomes less descriptive and more straightforward; and the river only makes one more appearance as an active character, appropriately enough when it throttles and nearly drowns Toad during his escape, finally coughing him up on Rat's doorstep before hurtling on resentfully.

The second half of Wind in the Willows is, of course, great fun; Toad's tale is the more famous component, and among many readers, the preferred plot ("Wayfarers, All" and "The Piper at the Gates of Dawn" have not only been neglected in most film adaptations, they've even been axed from some editions of the book!). Furthermore, however seemingly organic the transition between the book's pastoral origins and its rollicking conclusions, "Wayfarers" and "Piper" were indeed the last chapters Grahame wrote, so the overall shape of the book does not represent Grahame's process in composing it (quite the reverse). Still, it is startlingly just that the book unfolds as it does, both in terms of its character arcs - the narrative being a parable of adjustment, conciliation, and civilization - and the biography of its author. After all, Grahame would never publish another work of fiction, and though he returned to his rural roots in old age he had already tragically lost his son and sacrificed his own dreams of adventure, so the river seems to have dried up in him as well.

Anyway, however Toad-centric the various films, almost all of them make room for Mole's introduction to the River Bank. The Disney version is the only exception; it opens with Mole arriving in a rowboat, late for tea with Rat: their relationships clearly precedes the opening of the movie and the filmmakers are only concerned with them and their river inasmuch as it provides backdrop for J. Thaddeus Toad (whose crisis will intervene momentarily). The Rankin-Bass version is a partial exception - though it will later capture the River Bank, the Piper, and the Wayfarer in all their glory, it introduces us to all the other characters before we meet Mole. The Monty Python version has a weasel-operated bulldozer driving Mole aboveground, but every other film opens exactly as Grahame's book does - with Moley whitewashing, losing patience, shooting up out of the dirt, and bumbling along through the meadows and woods until he stumbles across the river, and Rat.

The different versions all hew pretty closely to a certain conception of the river, but their variations provide hints as to their individual characters. The Rankin-Bass river is dense and verdant, with an exotic tinge and a lush, mysterious feel. Its revelation is accompanied by a swooning Judy Collins title number and a moody montage; right away, this seems a River Bank we could get lost in. The live-action Masterpiece Theatre edition gives us an equally lush river, though in this case the exaggerated effects and digital pallor heighten the effect of unreality - ironically, this River Bank seems less "real" than the cartoon ones. The stop-motion and Monty Python adaptations both, in some hard-to-identify way, highlight the "Englishness" of the River Bank; I think it's because the former strikes a balance between the pastoral and the orderly, while the second highlights the Edwardian eccentricities of the props, sets, and costumes decorating the natural landscape. The Vanessa Redgrave-introduced film, from the mid-90s, casts the River Bank in a shimmering, impressionistic glow - cultivating an aura, it is less interested in creating a world. Most of the cartoon adaptations give us a simple river and a wide-open landscapes on either side, the occasional tree not doing much to shield the River Bank from the Wild Wood or the Wide World.

Of course, by denying or avoiding the mystical underpinning of the river - the Piper who both keeps the animals safe and reminds them, terrifyingly, of the cosmic contained within their comfortable horizons - most of these films can't really hope to capture the full pregnancy of the River Bank. There are only four exceptions, two of them partial. The Masterpiece Theatre program, as originally presented on the BBC, included a full representation of the Piper chapter, but unfortunately this version of the show was not aired on PBS, and a Piper-free DVD was issued stateside. The other partial exception is the beloved stop-motion interpretation - not the 1983 film, but the TV series spin-off. On that show, at least two episodes made up for exclusions from the original movie, and one of these featured the Piper. Finally, there are one only two movies which fully retained this crucial component of Grahame's vision - the Vanessa Redgrave-introduced version from 1995, and the Rankin-Bass adaptation from 1987.


Toad has just gone to prison. Already we, the humble readers of Wind in the Willows, have widened our scope, watching Mole grow in responsibility and knowledge, allowing the blush of first love to slip away from the river as it assumes a more reliable air, meeting Toad and Badger, and - through Toad - distinctively entering the heights of animal civilization (Toad Hall), the 20th century (the motorcar mania), and finally human society (victims, judge, jury, police - all homo sapiens with whom Toad interacts seamlessly). Chapter 6, humbly entitled "Mr Toad," concludes with mock-solemnity, "The jailer nodded grimly, laying his withered hand on the shoulder of the miserable Toad. The rusty key creaked in the lock, the great door clanged behind them; and Toad was a helpless prisoner in the remotest dungeon of the best-guarded keep of the stoutest castle in all the length and breadth of Merry England."

It seems a curious time to re-enter the quiet, pastoral, thoroughly animal confines of the River Bank, but turn the page and there we are: "Chapter 7 - The Piper at the Gates of Dawn." How peculiar - what's more, the events of this chapter turn on a rather secondary character, or rather that secondary character's heretofore unseen son - Otter's boy, Portly. Portly, it seems, has gone astray and his father has begun to worry. Rat and Mole, naturally being good citizens of the River Bank, hop a boat and stay up all night, rowing in search of the little critter. The evening passes dreamily with the chirping of crickets and bubbling of the water, and then as light cracks across the horizon, a strange sensation seizes both beasts. First only Rat can hear "the music" but then Mole stumbles across the elusive melody himself. He's shaken to his core:

"Breathless and transfixed the Mole stopped rowing as the liquid run of that glad piping broke on him like a wave, caught him up, and possessed him utterly. He saw the tears on his comrade's cheeks, and bowed his head and understood. For a space they hung there, brushed by the purple loosestrife that fringed the bank; then the clear imperious summons that marched hand in hand with the intoxicating melody imposed its will on Mole, and mechanically he bent to his oars again. And the light grew steadily stronger, but no birds sang as they were wont to do at the approach of dawn; and but for the heavenly music all was marvellously still."

The music leads them to a sequestered spot in the middle of the river, where the god Pan - never named, but clearly identified - hovers over little Portly, protecting him from the terrors of the night with a splendor equally terrible. Then, just as quickly as his siren song flooded the senses of the meek creatures afoot, the Piper is gone, followed quickly by the very memory of his appearance. Both Mole and Rat grasp at straws, "in dumb misery deepening as they slowly realized all they had seen and all they had lost," until a "capricious little breeze, dancing up from the surface of the water" brings "with its soft touch...instant oblivion."

"For," we are told, "this is the last best gift that the kindly demigod is careful to bestow on those to whom he has revealed himself in their helping: the gift of forgetfulness. Lest the awful remembrance should remain and grow, and overshadow mirth and pleasure, and the great haunting memory should spoil all the afterlives of little animals helped out of difficulties, in order that they should be happy and light-hearted as before." Of course there's no going back, not really, and perhaps herein lie the origins of the River Bank's fall from grace, so that by book's end the river has been reduced from enticing, mysterious stream of life to inconsequential backdrop for the character's civilized adventures. This leap echoes that from childhood to adulthood, when objects, places and people who glowed with magic now become mundane, enlivened only inasmuch as exciting or memorable incidents unfold around them. Here the Piper's appearance can stand in for any transcendent event, be it first love, spiritual awakening, or personal trauma, after which the innocent curiosity of the infant and the workaday reality of the grown-up seem equally unsatisfactory.

The inclusion of Pan has always been a controversial element of Willows; literary critics have scorned it as "pallid Edwardian paganism" and even "an error of judgement on a grand scale." Yet for more open readers, it is one of the treasures of the book - one that many creative individuals have admired and related to (Pink Floyd's first album, before Syd Barrett crashed and burned on LSD, was tagged The Piper at the Gates of Dawn). Ostensibly, the figure has its origins in, indeed, the "pallid Edwardian paganism" of the time, in which London artistic societies retreated from the rapidly modernizing world around them by celebrating Greek myths, particularly that of the satyr Pan, a horny little humanoid galloping after Grecian babes in ancient epochs.

Grahame once boasted to a publisher that his book was "clear of the clash of sex," so of course Pan is not seen in his usual, hedonistic element (leading critic Neil Phillip to grumble about the author's "unique achievement to reduce the savage god to a sort of woodland nanny"). Even if the zeitgeist facilitated Grahame's choice of symbol, it's clear he had something other than classical mythologizing in mind. Far before the incarnated spirit makes his physical appearance, the music and its odd sensation - and especially the fleeting disappearance of its acute presence - are recognizable to anyone who's woken up from a stirring, otherworldly, more-real-than-reality dream or vision. No doubt Grahame himself experienced such a sensation either in his sleep or, more likely, at the height of his childhood, in the thick of nature, before the real world stole his river away and he found himself, much like Ratty, unable to venture forth and find a new home.

There is something both beautiful and terrifying about this passage, and the two Willows adaptations zero in on the beauty and terror in turn. The Rankin-Bass version, with a small, glowing Pan flitting through the treetops against a skyline more night than dawn, emphasizes the ethereal, poignant nature of the encounter. It also, perhaps more wisely than the book, does not confront the Piper directly - we see him only in silhouette, so it becomes easy to empathize with the characters' forgetfulness afterwards; we're not quite sure what we saw either. (On a side note, this film turns Portly into Badger's nephew, complete with a little suit and vest to match his uncle's.)

The Vanessa Redgrave version sounds a mellower note, though one still melancholy. Its Pan is a bearded, benevolent diety, presiding over his woodland kingdom with an ancient grandeur. Unlike the impish Rankin-Bass Piper, or the vaguely menacing stop-motion figure, this interpretation of the Greek god is both imposing and non-threatening. The stop-motion episode, which develops the Portly plot extensively (including some interesting social commentary involving the weasels), focuses on the more fearsome aspects of the scenario. Its Piper is large, freakish, emanating a blinding light (one commentator on the YouTube clip initially thought the creature was an alien).

In the book, the chapter ends on a note both humorous and poignant - a gesture which may indicate Grahame's own self-doubt, so that even the most deeply-rooted passage in Willows is not beyond question. Rat tells Mole he can still hear the tune in the wind and as Mole presses his friend to share more... "But no answer came. He looked, and understood the silence. With a smile of much happiness on his face, and something of a listening look still lingering there, the weary Rat was fast asleep."

And as Mole rows his friends along the early-morning river, the remnants of a rapture still buzzing around and slipping through the doorjambs of his perception, it is certain where he is headed. Home - the River Bank - where all journeys begin and where, for better or worse, so many seem to end.




Sam Juliano said...

Wow, this is really something! This is one of your finest posts, inspired by your deep childhood passion for this material. Your use of the two versions and your simultaneous discussion of Graham's children's classic (only E.B. White's CHARLOTTE'S WEB rivals it) make this a beautifully referenced post, with a keen eye for character and detail, and an amazing grasp of the material as it unfolds chronologically. Obviously, the work's deep morality and mysterious context have made it a longtime favorite with adults as well.

But above all, this post has brought back some fond memories, of where I read it, who's class, and what I can recollect after all these years.

Joel Bocko said...

Thanks, Sam - hope you enjoy the rest of the series too. Wild Wood's up next!

Joel Bocko said...

(Though, of course, feel free to return & read at your own pace - the inordinate length of these pieces does not make them the easiest to peruse, lol...)

Anonymous said...

I read the Wind in the Willows as a child and loved the chapter The Piper at the Gates of Dawn the most. When I was about 25, I thought I heard piped music at dawn but couldn't seem to grasp hold of it. Bizzarely it seemed to be coming from the street outside my flat in the centre of town. Others thought I imagined it. Later still, at 36, I spent a day with someone by a riverbank. It has haunted me ever since, I cannot forget it and the memory is unmerciful. I can't explain the quality of that day, but Grahames attempt to convey the mystical is a comfort that some understand. It is like being outside of time. With the same person I also walked (completely by accident) Kenneth Grahames route which inspired him to write the Wind in the Willows. I still live near this place but I cannot go back without becoming virtually incapacitated by grief. The person I went with no longer will speak to me. You probably think I am quite mad but I just wanted to tell someone. You write very movingly. Personally I have come to the conclusion it isn't possible to recover from this experience. I feel like someone from those tales of fairy, who, on coming back to the human world, cannot cope and forever search for it again. God be with you always. Love, Siv x

Joel Bocko said...

Thanks, Siv - the power of Grahame's work is that it is at once universal, personal to him, and personal to us. I'm very pleased to hear you found this piece effective in evoking the intangible mood that The Piper represents - as Mole and Rat well know, and the rest of us find out sooner or later, the euphoric experiences (whether experienced in sleep, waking life, or somewhere in between) always fade. But some imprint remains, and occasionally finds its expression in works like Wind in the Willows.

Julie Arsenault said...

I love Rankin/Bass' take on the chapter The Piper at the Gates of Dawn for their version of Wind in the Willows. Lil' Portly's so cute as a little badger - squeaks almost like a kitten.

Joel Bocko said...

R/B definitely captures the magic of it the best, and I love that they were inclined to include it (and the Wayfarer) in the first place. Agreed that the Portly-as-Badger's-nephew bit works surprisingly well (and keeps the characters & storytelling somewhat streamlined).

Anonymous said...

What makes the Rankin/Bass so great is that they foreshadow the Piper in the film when Badger comforts Mole's fear of the Wild Wood by saying that "Some say there is a being, kindly, benevolent, whose heartbeat is all nature, and whose embrace protects small animals everywhere. Piper, Pan, call him what you will."

Joel Bocko said...

I liked that too. They also further tied Badger in to the Piper by making Portly his nephew - for some reason movie's usually need that stricter through-line (the episodic nature of the Piper and Wayfarer segments are probably what get them axed from most adaptations).

That Badger-Piper scene is also a nice moment with the silhouettes and the music.

Anonymous said...

Have just read your blog on Kenneth Grahame and " Wind in the Willows " . Fantastic.
I have a community radio program "Take It Easy" here in the Blue Mountains, Australia and for the last 7 weeks a collegue has been reading "Wind in the Willows" . Today along with reading Chapter Seven we played Pink Floyds album "The Piper at the Gates of Dawn" opening further the listeners minds to what ever possibilities their imaginations can conjure up. Its all great fun.
Pamela Croci

Joel Bocko said...

Thanks, Pamela - if at some point the programs go online, please return to provide a link. I'd love to hear them someday.

Eric said...

I know the unfortunate axing you refer to all too well. I once went to a library specifically to read "The Piper at the Gates of Dawn" but found that it was missing from their only edition! (Happily, my favorite chapter, "Dulce Domum," had made the cut, so the trip was not in vain.) One of the strengths of the book is its blend of adventure and idyll.

Joel Bocko said...

Agreed completely - axing it from a film adaptation is understandable if unfortunate, axing it from a book edition is inexcusable! There's a great article on this process that was printed in Salon about 10 years ago:


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