Lost in the Movies: The Wind in the Willows - The Wild Wood

The Wind in the Willows - The Wild Wood

Part 3 of a microseries devoted to Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows and its film and television adaptations.

"And as he lay there panting and trembling, and listening to the whistlings and the patterings outside, he knew it at last, in all its fullness, that dread thing which other little dwellers in field and hedgerow had encountered here, and known as their darkest moment - that thing, which the Rat had vainly tried to shield him from - the Terror of the Wild Wood!"

-from The Wild Wood
As the last entry proved, the River Bank contains multitudes...but it does not contain everything. Outside of its bounds lay the Wild Wood and the Wide World, both introduced briefly in the first chapter of Grahame's book. Mole asks his friend about the Wild Wood a few pages into the story, "waving a paw towards a background of woodland that darkly framed the water meadows on one side of the river." We detect a bit of unease in Rat's curt response: "We don't go there very much, we river-bankers." The conversation quickly turns to the denizens of the wood, and indeed the looming forest has a social significance as well as a geographical and psychological presence, but for now we will be focusing on the latter two. At any rate, Rat's subtle warning suffices for the time being, but as the seasons pass, Mole grows restless, and in the dead of winter, as his friend snoozes by the fireside, Mole gets up, throws on his scarf, and ventures forth to explore the Wild Wood. What he encounters is a dark night of the soul - a journey into the depths of both a physically hostile environment and a deeply rooted terror of the unknown, which will seize his imagination and bring him face to face with "that dread thing."

The Wild Wood is not just a place - it's a state of mind.

Though the Wild Wood is described as lying before Mole "low and threatening, like a black reef in some still southern sea," its ominous air is initially distant, muted, filtered through the excitement of Mole's trespass and the warmth of the home behind him, whose recent memory steels his step and makes it all seem a spooky but harmless game, like a ghost story told round a campfire. The author proceeds accordingly, casually noting, "There was nothing to alarm him at first entry. Twigs cracked under his feet, logs tripped him, fungi on stumps resembled caricatures, and startled him for the moment by their likeness to something familiar and far away; but that was all fun, and exciting." But then "the dusk advanced on him steadily, rapidly, gathering in behind and before; and the light seemed to be draining away like floodwater." The following paragraph is just one, simple, chilling sentence: "Then the faces began."

"Whistling" and "pattering" will follow in time, but somehow that first beginning is the most frightening. How do faces "begin" exactly? The vagueness of this incantation, alongside its paradoxical specificity, fills one with unease. The narration goes on to observe "a little evil wedge-shaped face, looking out at [Mole] from a hole" - "Then suddenly, as if it had been so all the time, every hole, far and near, and there were hundreds of them, seemed to possess its face, coming and going rapidly, all fixing on him glances of malice and hatred, all hard-eyed and evil and sharp." When the proceeding noises engulf the poor, frightened little creature, he begins to run, "aimlessly, he knew not whither." He finally collapses in a little hollow, which is where we found him above, grappling with the nameless terror which the Wild Wood has brought upon him.

From its earliest origins, the Wild Wood was shrouded in ambiguity. The documentary Whispering in the Willows, which covers Grahame's life and the writing of the book, observes that the genesis of the Wild Wood was "more complicated" than the inspirations for Toad Hall or the River Bank. Near Grahame's childhood home a certain Quarry Wood, the narrator notes, "forms the same dark band of the meadows as mentioned by Mole" but it seems that far more was invested in the Wild Wood's imagery and mood than this nostalgic recollection would suggest. Indeed, its origin may not have been in nature at all: "The inside of the Wild Wood - the dark and unseen goings-on that terrify Mole - are highly symbolic of the London that Kenneth had never felt at home in, while the Wild Wood's elaborate system of passwords are almost certainly a reference to the secret worlds of the Masons who would have formed a constant undercurrent of the Bank [of England, where Grahame spent his career]."

The notion of Grahame transposing an overwhelmingly alien and chaotic urban landscape into a dark, mysterious woodland is compelling, and has a ring of truth for anyone who has themselves made a transition to city life from a childhood spent closer to nature. It certainly seems to correspond to the radical split in Grahame's life: from his youth spent restlessly wandering the countryside and dreaming of far-off places to an adulthood entrenched in the civilized enclaves of late Victorian society. A social acquaintance, first encountering the thirtysomething banker/author at a dinner party, observed that Grahame had "a startled air, as a fawn might show who suddenly found himself on Boston Common, quite prepared to go through with the adventure, as a well-bred fawn should do under any circumstances, but unable to escape wholly from the memory of the glades and woods whence he had come."

But the Wild Wood is certainly not Boston Common and if the city is connected to Grahame's version of the wood, it is probably more in the nature of a trigger than a metaphorical correspondence. In other words, the city made Grahame feel a certain way, a feeling which finds its expression in the wood, but that feeling is not limited to cities or civilization. At its root, the Mole's trespass reveals immense anxiety about entry into any unfamiliar environment. True, the book begins while Mole venturing forth and discovering the river for the first time, but this is different. The Wild Wood has a forbidding air from its first observance, and Mole has been told of its dangers. Like a child who's been through anti-drug courses before curiosity leads to experimentation, Mole cannot claim intellectual ignorance - but emotional ignorance is another matter.

As quickly becomes clear, Mole is simply unprepared for what he will face, and until the abstract becomes real, the realization of his limits and the Wood's danger will have no bite. He learns the hard way about the harshness of crossing boundaries and venturing into the unknown without anyone or anything to cling to. When Rat finally rescues Mole, it's with this admonishment: "If we have to come, we come in couples, at least; then we're generally all right. Besides, there are a hundred things one has to know, which we understand all about and you don't, as yet. I mean passwords, and signs, and sayings which have power and effect..." Later, both animals will stumble across the home of Badger in the thick of the woods; the visit will both reinforce the importance of wise awareness (Badger is unthreatened by the Wild Wood around him because he knows it so well; knowledge is power) and begin to take the sting out from the location. Ultimately, the Wild Wood is Mole's Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, only he's able to spit out the poisonous apple core before it's too late.

The journey into the Wild Wood is also a Call to Adventure, something all the animals except for Badger will experience in The Wind in the Willows. Unlike the mythological archetypes Joseph Campbell would later explore, these Hero's Journeys are thwarted right away. In every case Grahame provides, the "hero" always fails - Mole is terrified and must be rescued and brought back to his starting point, Rat is never allowed to embark at all, and Toad - while venturing far and wide - does not come home any wiser and must be put in his place at tale's end. In his study of Willows, A Fragmented Arcadia, Peter Hunt observes that this aborted-mythological structure is common in childrens' literature. He identifies "three classes of story: those that return to where they began, or have normality and security restored to them; those that acknowledge the stable 'center' of home, family, security, and yet move beyond it; and those that break completely away from this on an actual or symbolic level." Willows belongs to the first class, but its conservatism is undercut by a wistful longing for the very adventure it knows is beyond its means; beneath the surface, Mole's inability to thrive in the Wild Wood is seen as a failure, not of judgement, but of nerve.

No matter how many times you steel yourself beforehand, no matter how you psych yourself up, when you touch a hot kettle you will be burned. Some people can withstand the pain, others can't. Within moments of recoiling, you may tell yourself it wasn't all that bad and reach for it again but the reality of the pain will strike again. If you can only do it with a mitten, this isn't victory, but an admittance of weakness. Mole is one of those souls who, if he wants the tea, must wear the mitten. To survive in this world in the future, to be able to stroll through the Wild Wood without fear, as he does by the end of the book, the wood must be tamed, domesticated, familiarized, "civilized." Grahame concludes the story with the characters routing the weasels, those kingpins of the Wild Wood, from Toad Hall; order has been restored. But it's rather unconvincing, and seemingly has little to do with the Wild Wood we experienced in such terrifying detail way back in Chapter 3. That Wild Wood was not about weasels, but about inner fears and anxieties when faced with the unknown. Like colonizers, Mole and Rat "defeat" the Wild Wood by retreating within their own safety zones; they do not meet it on its own terms. And what are those terms?

In the recent horror film The Descent, a group of young women delve into an unexplored underground cavern. For at least a couple of them, the exercise in extreme adventure is an attempt to submerge guilt and grief resulting from a car accident which killed a man and a young girl (the man was one woman's husband and the other's lover). But this psychoterrain has plans of its own: first a collapse which forces them to find a new way out of the cave, then a confrontation with vampirish goblins, quite literal "inner demons" who respond to the sounds of their screams and devour their flesh. The cave is clearly an externalized metaphor for hideous depression, and the heroine's descent is first and foremost into her own darkest corners. I submit that the same is true in Wind in the Willows - if not so much for Mole, then at least for Grahame, whose life was full of disappointments, compromises, and anxieties, and for the reader who presumably has those of his or her own. The Wild Wood is our emotional outer limit, our raw reality, that uncanny tremor of unfamiliarity to which we can only surrender if we are brave and perhaps somewhat foolish. If we're lucky enough to have a River Bank to escape to it may be as much a gilded prison as a refuge.

Grahame, at the end of his days, had his country home and at least one famous book, but he also had a dead son, an unhappy marriage, and a disappointed life in which dreams were sacrificed for security. Wind in the Willows presaged this, but it followed a childhood of loss and loneliness (his mother died young and his father abandoned him), a youth of some disappointment and frustration (family pressures forcing him into banking rather than a total commitment to art or travel), and a middle age of stress and only tenuous security (the early twentieth century was marked by the tremors of coming instability; for his part, Grahame was grazed by a revolutionary's bullet in the Bank corridors). And there were also the limits of temperament, a temperament compelled by a desire for experience, sensation, new horizons, but held back by intense fear of the unknown, borne of getting burned too many times by that kettle when his hands were still young and tender. Much of this will be dealt with next week, in "The Wide World." But it's important to understand this in the context of the Wild Wood: the wood, call it depression, alienation, heightened consciousness, intense discomfort, even insanity - is that realm into which we are pushed against our will and whether we recoil or push on may have more to do with our natures than with any decision on our part. Mole, as it turns out, is not by nature a Wild Wooder. However, he's no longer ignorant of what the Wild Wood actually is - in this sense, normality and security can never be restored, not fully.

Of all the different adaptations, the existential terror of the Wild Wood is most fully realized by the Rankin-Bass production. Most of the films include a visit to the dark zone (the Disney interpretation being the only exception, so focused is it on Toad's lighthearted, parodic story), but most concretely show us the weasels as the dark spirit of the woods; even when we see glowing eyes, they are soon identified as belonging to these stock villains. But the Rankin-Bass version features morphing trees, creepy music, disembodied eyes, and a fleet of ghostly red-eyed rats storming through the trees - all of which sounds a bit over-the-top when read, but is effectively unsettling onscreen. The Wild Wood's terror is not a function of the weasels or anything else so concrete or identifiable. Its very unknowability is what makes it such a potent symbol of those regions where timid souls dare not tread, where dreamers' notions of romantic adventures into the unknown are brutally crushed on the wheel of raw experience, under the hands of a merciless and indifferent nature. From the safety of his window, wiping away the fog, the spooky woods call to Mole, but he doesn't realize the excitement is a function of where he stands. In its midst, the Wild Wood ceases to be exciting, conventionally frightening, or anything at all that can be explained in the context of Mole's everyday existence. No wonder "we don't go there very much" - spend too long in the Wood, and "we" ceases to exist in any meaningful sense at all. Mole goes rushing back to maya breathing a sigh of relief, but the Wild Wood will not cease to exist when he turns away from it; it still stands there today, calling out to anyone foolish or brave enough to lose themselves in its heart of darkness.




tymime said...

Where can I find this documentary "Whispering in the Willows"? I've been trying to find out more about Kenneth Grahame's life.

Joel Bocko said...

Hopefully this series has been helpful for you in that regard! Whispering in the Willows was on Netflix in 2010 when I researched this series - hopefully it still is. There are some good bios on Grahame, though I didn't read any all the way through (this time, anyway - I think I'd read one cover to cover about 6 years ago). Check out the bottom of this link for more resources:


Good luck!

Ayla M Sozundendonmez said...

OMG...the Martin Gates version also had the Wild Wood...sadly,The Disney version had the Wild Wood cut from the short because it was too scary for small children.

Joel Bocko said...

Do you mean it wa never included or that they animated something and then cut it afterwards? That would be some crazy lost footage of the latter.

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