Lost in the Movies: The Wind in the Willows - The Wide World

The Wind in the Willows - The Wide World

Part 4 of a microseries devoted to Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows and its film and television adaptations.
"And you, you will come too, young brother; for the days pass, and never return, and the South still waits for you. Take the Adventure, heed the call, now ere the irrevocable moment passes! 'Tis but a banging of the door behind you, a blithesome step forward, and you are out of the old life and into the new!"

-the Sea Rat in Wayfarers, All
Of the three central thematic locations in The Wind in the Willows - the River Bank, the Wild Wood, and the Wide World - the last is the only one we never see. Oh, I suppose you could say that Toad's adventures occur in the "wide world," amongst humans and in towns and prisons and woods populated by gypsies, but those amphibious mishaps will be considered, alongside the advent of the automobile and the modernization of England, in "The Open Road," our next chapter. Toad's world is not one of a "blithesome step forward" but a restless drive into the ever-receding distance - very modern and instinctive rather than ancient and existential. The Wide World as laid out above is almost wholly Rat's concern and its siren song is otherworldly, though unlike the Piper's music it does not belong to an underlying level beneath our everyday existence but rather a restless desire to go "out there," to escape boundaries and explore. We "see" this in the sense that the Sea Rat's descriptions are vivid and juicy, but this sight remains a glimpse, a suggestion, not a concrete vision. Ultimately, Rat is prevented from experiencing the Wide World firsthand, and it's never entirely made clear why this must be.

In a way, it seems, the Wide World can only exist as an imaginary realm, fruit for Rat's poetry but not a place that can actually be visited - like Mole's visit to the Wild Wood, Rat's flirtation with the Wide World only serves to remind him of home's value, its tempting quality something to be resisted. But Mole at least gets to find out the hard way why the Wild Wood must not be trespassed upon; Rat never gains that privilege. And so at the end of "Wayfarers, All," the chapter in which Grahame teases us with the call of the southern seas, only to withdraw and finally put the last traces of Willows' dreaminess to rest (the remainder of the story will be brusque and comical) we are left with a tantalizing, elusive, frustrating feeling. We are not scared straight as after our encounter with the Wild Wood, nor vaguely forgetful as after the experience with the Piper; the song of the South has not been silenced and the Sea Rat's presence lingers, haunting the rest of the book, an unshakable reminder of the River Bank's limitations.

Now, what exactly is this song of the South; what does it consist of and where does it lead? Furthermore, how is it related to the Wide World as introduced by Ratty in the book's early passages, a vague place beyond the trees that "doesn't matter"? Are there two Wide Worlds - the blank one without the charm of the river and the adventurous one promising far more than the familiar terrain can offer? Are these two interpretations perhaps secretly related, that very secret explaining the real reason Rat is prevented from becoming a "wayfarer"?

The Wide World, in either incarnation, is mentioned far less frequently than the River Bank or the Wild Wood in Wind in the Willows. We first hear of the Wide World when Mole inquires about it, and Rat dismisses it out of hand - at most a few sentences are devoted to this outer realm in Chapter 1. Indeed, compared to the then-fresh charms of the River Bank, any Wide World seems distant and irrelevant. But by Chapter 9, it takes on a fresh blush. Two chapters previous, Rat and Mole encountered the Piper at the Gates of Dawn and had their "minds blown" to use the parlance of a later time. Perhaps because of this, perhaps simply because of the change of seasons, Rat finds himself unexpectedly restless: "he could not help noticing what was in the air, and feeling some of its influence in his bones." At this point, Grahame explicitly connects Rat's wanderlust to an inverted sense of the Wide World as introduced early on:

"Restlessly the Rat wandered off once more, climbed the slope that rose gently from the north bank of the river, and lay looking out towards the great ring of Downs that barred his vision further southwards - his simple horizon hitherto, his Mountains of the Moon, his limit behind which lay nothing he had cared to see or to know. Today, to him gazing south with a newborn need stirring in his heart, the clear sky over their long low outline seemed to pulsate with promise; today, the unseen was everything, the unknown the only real fact of life. On this side of the hills was now the real blank, on the other lay the crowded and coloured panorama that his inner eye was seeing so clearly."
The birds are heading south, the mice are storing up for winter; in whatever manifestation, change is in the air, and Rat wants a part of it. Then a figure arrives - whether real or simply a phantom personification of Rat's newfound yearning, it hardly matters: he perfectly suits the moment. He is a roughhewn Sea Rat and he's full of rich stories and suggestive images, a combination of Viking heartiness and Mediterranean shimmer:

"Those eyes were of the changing foam-streaked grey green of leaping Northern seas; in the [wine] glass shone a hot ruby that seemed the very heart of the South, beating for him who had courage to respond to its pulsation. The twin lights, the shifting grey and the steadfast red, mastered the Water Rat and held him bound, fascinated, powerless. The quiet world outside their rays receded far away and ceased to be. And the talk, the wonderful talk flowed on - or was it speech entirely, or did it pass at times into song - chanty of the sailors weighing the dripping anchor, sonorous hum of the shrouds in a tearing Northeaster, ballad of the fisherman hauling his nets at sundown against an apricot sky, chords of guitar and mandoline from gondola or caique? Did it change into the cry of the wind, plaintive at first, angrily shrill as it freshened, rising to a tearing whistle, sinking to a musical trickle of air from the leech of the bellying sail? All these sounds the spellbound listener seemed to hear, and with them the hungry complaint of the gulls and the sea-mews, the soft thunder of breaking wave, the cry of the protesting shingle."

Little wonder that Rat finds himself hypnotized, that even the food he selects for a picnic with his visitor seems transformed, epic, pregnant with operatic intensity. Grahame incomparably evokes the majesty of this feast: "...he took care to include a yard of long French bread, a sausage out of which the garlic sang, some cheese which lay down and cried, and a long-necked straw-covered flask containing bottled sunshine shed and garnered on far southern slopes." At meal's end the Sea Rat readies himself to continue along his way, but invites his little friend to join: "And you, you will come too, young brother; for the days pass, and never return, and the South still waits for you."

Rat attempts to "take the Adventure" but when he returns to his home, bumbling around in a daze, packing his things, a suspicious Mole realizes something is wrong and restrains Rat from following his impulses. There is a struggle but eventually Rat goes lax, the energy dissipates and he weeps. Then he tries to explain himself to Mole but it's no use - "...how could he put into cold words what had mostly been suggestion? How recall, for another's benefit, the haunting sea voices that had sung to him, how reproduce at secondhand the magic of the Seafarer's hundred reminiscences." Rat is even forced to concede that with "spell" "broken" and "glamour gone," it's "difficult to account for what had seemed, some hours ago, the inevitable and only thing."

Mole comforts Rat by talking of the fall harvest and, as described in my exploration of "The River Bank," Rat calms down and even begins to write poetry - but that's it for Grahame's nature reveries and sincere yearnings; the rest of his tale is devoted to the more down-to-earth (at least in a spiritual sense) misadventures of Toad, the one-two punch of "Piper" and "Wayfarers" having exhausted the narrative's potential for soul-searching (an exhaustian greeted with a sigh of relief by many critics). Traditionally, "Wayfarers, All" has been seen as Kenneth Grahame's mea culpa, an admission that in his own life he could not follow the Southern call which so enticed him from boyhood. He was able to travel once he was settled in his banking career, and in retirement especially he would take frequent trips to Italy or Greece; yet for the bourgeois tourist the once-glimpsed allure of exotic lands faded, no doubt during the charming but thoroughly safe voyages of an imperial citizen. Like Rat, Grahame was forced to transmute those earlier dreams into words on a page, a gift to his readers if hardly what he himself had dreamed of.

Grahame's biographer Lois Kuznets calls "Wayfarers, All" "perhaps the most ambiguous chapter of the whole book in terms of maintaining the delicate balance between security and adventure that Grahame fosters." In a wonderful Salon tribute, Gary Kamiya writes, "The Sea Rat embodies Grahame's fantasy self, the one who pursued the Golden City; the Water Rat is his actual self. By giving the Sea Rat the stage, then letting him depart, while the Rat stays and rebuilds his life, Grahame succeeds in having it both ways, in vicariously drinking the cup of life to the lees while remaining safe and sound at home." And in A Fragmented Arcadia, Peter Hunt quotes and adds to Lesley Williws: "'Sadness there certainly is after Ratty's encounter with the Seafarer - the sense of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity missed - but such wisdom as accrues to Ratty derives not from the Seafarer but from Mole,' for Mole has been close to death (in the Wild Wood) and has learned the lesson of conservatism."

I myself saw the chapter in this light years ago, writing "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." I still think this the most plausible reading, yet there's another possibility which intrigues me, and it relates to the Wide World as first seen, and warned against, in the book.

"And beyond the Wild Wood again," Mole asks in the first chapter of Willows, "Where it's all blue and dim, and one sees what may be hills or perhaps they mayn't, and something like the smoke of towns, or is it only cloud drift?" Rat describes this as "the Wide World" and adds, "that's something that doesn't matter, either to you or me. I've never been there, and I'm never going, nor you either, if you've got any sense at all. Don't ever refer to it again, please." Is this the same Wide World the Water Rat later is drawn to, hypnotized by his guest the Sea Rat's seafaring tales and the early autumn air of migration? Or does it hold a different meaning - that of civilization and bustle and above all the "adult," qualities Grahame finds distasteful and wants to warn his reader about? In other words, is this a Wide World of towns and (British) people, or a Wide World of sparkling seas and adventure? Like all symbols in The Wind in the Willows, the Wide World is deeply ambiguous - but these two interpretations are not necessarily contradictory.

Indeed, one could assume that Rat's initial warning (as well as his later restraint, at the hands of protégé Mole, from following the Sea Rat) recognizes the truth behind the traveller's tales of exotica: that the Wide World beckons us forth with tales of adventures but rewards us with disappointment, compromise, and above all, the mundane puncturing of our dreams - not only those of travel, but those of home. In other words, just as the Wild Wood represents the fearful side of the adult world, the unknown and unknowable existential angst that confronts a soul stripped of the comforting illusions of childhood, so perhaps the Wide World represents another side of adulthood - its boring side, disguised to childlike eyes as something alluring and exotic but revealed to the initiated as thoroughly mundane and not at all worth losing the pleasant illusions of innocence. Perhaps Kenneth Grahame felt the siren song of mature independence led not towards too much emotion, but towards the dissipation of emotion - that mundane disappointment was the true danger of going out into the world; therefore one must cling to the comforts of a fresh, naive outlook.

The majority of Willows adaptations leave out the "Wayfarers" chapter, much as they do "Piper." Most likely, the adult themes and approaches of these passages are considered too mature for the target audiences; also, they are narrative distractions from the main thrust of the storytelling. Still, at least a few versions have made room for Rat's adventurous ennui, all of them interpreting it in different ways. None follow Grahame's chapter to the letter. One animated film leaves out the Sea Rat altogether, letting Vanessa Redgrave narrate Ratty's inner stirrings. The Rankin-Bass edition includes the Sea Rat but not Moley's "rescue" - instead the episode unfolds back-to-back with the Piper encounter, so that Rat disappears with his new companion and then re-emerges at Portly's side, under the protection of Pan at sunrise. Probably the most extensive treatment is offered by the stop-motion animators of the 1983 interpretation - having axed the sequence from the original movie, they devoted an entire episode of the ensuing TV series to "Wayfarers, All."

In this episode, the Sea Rat seems almost satanic; one is almost afraid he'll eat Ratty once luring him aboard the ship. His evil charisma suffices in place of elaborate Mediterranean reconstructions, in which the other two adaptations indulge. Here we see the Seafarer's effect on the Water Rat and are left to imagine these far-off locales ourselves, an effective strategy even if there's something to be said for the other films' glowing tributes to those southern lands. Presumably, glimpses of Venice or Constantinople would have been costly in the context of a stop-motion TV show, and the exclusion can also be justified with recourse to imagination (after all, Grahame paints a rich picture using only words). Still, the absence of Ratty's idealistic imagery, coupled with the sinister presence of the Sea Rat, makes the opposition to his adventure seem rather unambiguous. In this version, Rat makes it all the way to the dock and almost boards a ship before Mole (and Toad) restrain him. Even here, when we know the Sea Rat's up to no good, there's something frustrating about Rat coming so close and then not getting away.

In the other adaptations it's even more ambiguous. The Rankin-Bass Sea Rat, played by veteran voice actor Paul Frees (he was George Harrison on the 60s Saturday morning cartoon of "The Beatles"), has a warmth and we can easily see the wistful pull of his tales - in this case, Ratty's decision to follow him doesn't so much seem a mistake as a sad decision that will separate him from his friends and his home; its possibility is poignant rather than dangerous. In the Redgrave cartoon, with no Sea Rat in sight, Rat's wanderlust just seems slightly insane - a bad idea because he's obviously out of his mind and would only get lost or into trouble. Still, the Mediterranean escapades are so lushly animated we can't blame him for going a little stir-crazy. Both the Rankin-Bass and Redgrave films offer us specific locales and incidents - vague enough to stir generalized yearnings yet concrete enough to put them in a European, even early 20th-century context (though the tourists glimpsed in the '87 cartoon look pretty modern).

In this the images match Grahame's descriptions - his invocations of "a small trading vessel bound from Constantinople, by classic seas whose every wave throbs with a deathless memory, to the Grecian Islands and the Levant" or incantations of "O, Venice is a fine city, wherein a rat can wander at his ease and take his pleasure." These remind us that Rat's yearnings were also his author's - and those of the society Grahame himself belonged to.

That society will be explored next week, as we shift from the enclosed, symbolic universe of Mole and Rat to the expansive, at times satirical world inhabited by Toad of Toad Hall.

See the end of Introductions for references used here.




Anonymous said...

Ratty has always been one of my favorite characters-and he's complex one too. When he rescues Mole from the Wild Wood he's not afraid at all-it's the opposite the sight of his pistols and stick make the Wild Wooders afraid of him. Then there's the famous "door scrapper episode". And yet has you have pointed out in the "Toad Hall" Section: ". Rat, with his poetic, romantic approach (he gathers all the unnecessary swords and cutlasses for the motley crew) is not really much of a factor - it's for him to enjoy the fruits of Mole and Badger's hard work, and perhaps to provide manpower in the event of a fight, but he does not do much to provide any solid foundation for his own privilege ("I'd send Rat, if he wasn't a poet," Badger remarks frankly at one point)." Rat drifts from the pratical, and the romantic which maked him one of my favorite characters in the book.

Joel Bocko said...

It's funny; though Mole and Toad are the two protagonists of the book, Rat may in some ways be the most compelling. It's interesting too that Wayfarers, All is the only chapter to take him as the central figure yet it may be the most crucial passage in the book in terms of understanding and appreciating its themes, values, and emotional undercurrents.

Interestingly, another element of his character is that sometimes he seems kind of like a dick - snobby and aloof and severe; and in some film interpretations he comes off better than in others, my favorite being Roddy MacDowell's evocative voicing in the Rankin-Bass movie.

Anonymous said...

My top two favorites are Roddy MacDowall & Richard Briers. My least favorite has to be the Disney voice actor, and Mark Gatiss from the Masterpiece Version (He seemed almost bored through the entire thing). I still can't get over the fact that in the Cosgrove TV Show-that they got the voice of Wallace from Wallace & Gromit to be Rat.

Joel Bocko said...

I didn't know that about the stop-motion - that's surprising. The Masterpiece Theatre version was a misfire on all casting fronts, except for Bob Hoskins as Badger.

Chris Sobieniak said...

I just noticed the name Peter Sallis came up and thought of Wallace too! At least he had a role to play (wonder why they couldn't get Ian Carmichael from the movie to come back?).

I thought Richard Briers was good too (though the animation in the Martin Gates films isn't quite up to par, spotted plenty of little registration errors personally).

Joel Bocko said...

I can't recall Briers' voice at this point. Agreed that the animation of that version is on & off, though it has nice colors and some nice images along the way; I was able to use a screen-cap from it atop the River Bank post, as it was one of the most perfect images to lead off with.

Search This Blog