Lost in the Movies: The Wind in the Willows - Dulce Domum

The Wind in the Willows - Dulce Domum

Part 8 of a microseries devoted to Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows and its film and television adaptations.
"Home! That was what they meant, those caressing appeals, those soft touches wafted through the air, those invisible little hands pulling and tugging, all one way! Why, it must be quite close by him at that moment, his old home that he had hurriedly forsaken and never sought again, that day when he first found the river! And now it was sending out its scouts and its messengers to capture him and bring him in. Since his escape on that bright morning he had hardly given it a thought, so absorbed had he been in his new life, in all its pleasures, its surprises, its fresh and captivating experiences. Now, with a rush of old memories, how clearly it stood up before him, in the darkness! Shabby indeed, and small and poorly furnished, and yet his, the home he had made for himself, the home he had been so happy to get back to after his day's work. And the home had been happy with him, too, evidently, and was missing him, and wanted him back, and was telling him so, through his nose, sorrowfully, reproachfully, but with no bitterness or anger; only with plaintive reminder that it was there, and wanted him." 
-from Dulce Domum
Mole and Rat are trekking back from a winter excursion. It is late in the evening - "the shades of the short winter day were closing in on them, and they had still some distance to go." For one reason or another, they find their path winding through a village and there they stand on the outside looking in, observing scenes of domesticity idealized all the more for being somewhat hidden. Briefly comforted by these visions of half-dreamt coziness (like the boy given visions of Christmas in Lois Lowry's The Giver) their minds quickly return to their bodies, cold and tired in the snowy dusk. Their own home calls - Ratty's cottage by the river with its fireplace and furniture and view of the icy bank out its windows. Yet in truth, this is not their own home, however welcome Mole has been made to feel within its walls. Rat hurries on but Mole freezes when this revelation hits him, with the force of a physical blow, but one tenderly applied, and all the more aching for it.

"[Mole] stopped dead in his tracks, his nose searching hither and thither in its efforts to recapture the fine filament, the telegraphic current, that had so strongly moved him. A moment, and he had caught it again; and with it this time came recollection in fullest flood." Rat insensitively impels his friend on and when they stop to rest further down the trail, Mole begins to weep; with a little prodding he reveals how homesick he has become, how suddenly and painfully he has been overpowered by the desire for his simple little hole in the ground. A sympathetic Rat tracks down Mole End - in this the animals, returned to their natural instincts, are guided by scent. Together Rat and Mole restore the shabby little apartment to a tidy and appealing state, then invite a group of carolling field mice inside, and lay out a Christmas feast on the table, with singing, and merriment, and camaraderie filling the air. Finally they turn in for the night, and as Mole drifts off to sleep, he pleasantly contemplates the rich fulfillment he can find in his own home:
"He saw clearly how plain and simple--how narrow, even--it all was; but clearly, too, how much it all meant to him, and the special value of some such anchorage in one's existence. He did not at all want to abandon the new life and its splendid spaces, to turn his back on sun and air and all they offered him and creep home and stay there; the upper world was all too strong, it called to him still, even down there, and he knew he must return to the larger stage. But it was good to think he had this to come back to; this place which was all his own, these things which were so glad to see him again and could always be counted upon for the same simple welcome."

Kenneth Grahame's earliest memories of home were clouded to a certain extent by the death and neglect which followed. He was born in Edinburgh in 1859 and his first few years seem happy enough; his father, an attorney, would walk the boy around the docks where they would ogle the ships full of goods, and dream of far-off places. Those dreams became more acute, more desirable, after Kenneth's mother died in childbirth (he was only 4) and his father returned to his latent alcoholism with a vengeance. Driving himself to a life of drink and destitution, the elder Grahame sent his children to live with a grandmother at Cookham Dene in Berkshire. She lived along the Thames and here, certainly, Grahame's connection to the rushing river of life, both literal and metaphorical, were solidified, laying the basis for Wind in the Willows forty years before it was written. Grahame and his siblings were not provided with many toys, and so the outdoors became their playroom - games of the imagination were Kenneth's forte, and he crafted private mythologies and imaginary arcadias to complement the natural wonders surrounding him. This was the world of the River Bank, a world of both adventure and comfort, but like Mole, Kenneth initially came from somewhere else. Unlike Mole, he could never return to his own Mole End, so that final line of "Dulce Domum" echoes with a poignant ring. Grahame did not have a place which was "all his own"; nothing could be "counted upon for the same simple welcome."

Yet a life is more than just its shortcomings or disappointments. Grahame went on to become a successful adult, promoted to Secretary of the Bank of England at a very young age, while also pursuing a side career as an acclaimed author. One could sense a contradiction between Grahame's professional duties and dreamy impulses, yet as a Telegraph piece on the author observes of the Bank, "it was an extremely odd place. Staff worked short - very short - hours and took expansively long lunches. Several of them kept fighting dogs in the basement: there would be regular after-work dog-fights in the lavatories." Freemasonry was also ubiquitous at the Bank, which no doubt fascinated Grahame's mystery-loving, conspiratorial side, manifested in the counter-invasion of Toad Hall at the end of Willows. Meanwhile, Grahame was able to travel a bit, to write a good deal, and to move about in London's more artistic, bohemian circles, even as he held down a solidly bourgeois occupation and lifestyle. He spent his youth as a bachelor, marrying at forty and fathering a boy, Alastair - his only son - in 1900. This was the end of the Victorian era, the British Empire was at its height, and while technology and industry were rapidly changing the landscape (and World War I was on the horizon), there was a certain sense of confidence and security among the middle and upper classes of Britain. The Edwardian era to come would be a bit more unstable, a bit more uncertain, but it would retain at least this veneer of stability.

Perhaps because of his own uncertain, nomadic childhood, Grahame lavished attention on his spoiled little boy Alastair, nicknamed Mouse. Myopic (literally - he was nearly blind), physically disabled, and temperamental, the child was spoiled rotten, with luxuries and perhaps more damagingly, with unqualified flattery. It was for Alastair that Grahame wrote Wind in the Willows and it's been speculated that Toad's flamboyant, egotistical character was modeled on the little boy's. If so, it was not warning enough to prepare Alastair for the brute realities of the real world. Sent to privileged prep schools, the boy was mercilessly teased by his peers and struggled as a student. As the documentary Whispering in the Willows has it, the Grahames (who were not necessarily compatible in all regards, but shared a devotion to their son) "effectively swaddled Alastair up from the outside world, both seemingly incapable of any real parental wisdom, and allowed him to grow up horrendously unprepared for adulthood." A harsh judgement; and who knows what the parents tried to instill in the boy behind closed doors? Nonetheless, a dozen years after Wind in the Willows was published, the twenty-year-old Alastair wandered onto a train track, laid his head on the rail, and was crushed by an onrushing engine. All the evidence pointed to a suicide, although officially the death was presented as an accident. Tragically, Grahame's attempt to create for his son the solid comfort of a permanent home had failed or backfired; whether due to overindulgence or the ailing Alastair's inevitable clash with a relentless outside world, the boy was now gone.

By this point, Grahame was sixty. He had long ago retired from the Bank - in fact, he quit the summer before Willows was released, taking a paltry pension in the wake of a feud with his superior - and had ceased writing very much either; he wrote no more full-length children's books after Willows. Meanwhile, Britain and the world around it had radically changed - Victoria had died, followed by Edward, and then a Great War had slaughtered millions of young men in the years just before Alastair's own death. Now Europe was exhausted, spiritually crushed, materially unstable, awaiting the depression and world war to come while modernization had seized the corpse of nineteenth century stability, and vampirically sucked every last drop of comfortable confidence from its stricken veins. Much has been made, in previous entries, of Grahame's frustrated ambitions and adventures - and while he did spend his late middle and old age traveling, living in the countryside, and being feted for his contributions to literature and the imagination, this sense of tragedy remains. But perhaps more tragic than Grahame's thwarted attempts to explore the wide world and experience the mystic depths of nature is, ironically, his inability to truly establish and maintain the "home," the rooted sense of anchorage Mole End represents in Willows. We can't say that Grahame died an unhappy man (who knows, and much anecdotal evidence suggests otherwise) but his life and work were suffused with a sense of loss and wistful desires, none of which were more acute that the yearning for a "home sweet home" - in Latin, "dulce domum."

The fifth chapter in The Wind in the Willows, "Dulce Domum" takes place at Christmastime and is suffused with the Yuletide spirit of good cheer, nostalgia, and coziness. The chapter follows Mole's adventure in the Wild Wood and stay at Badger's (Badger, an underground animal like Mole, perhaps facilitates our hero's desire to return home) and it precedes the shift in focus from Mole to Toad as the book's protagonist. Some have seen Willows as two books in one - Mole's and Toad's - with the final chapter synthesizing the two narratives (with Toad returned home, and Mole taking a leading role - intellectual and active - in restoring Toad Hall to its rightful owner). If so, "Dulce Domum" is the climax to Mole's narrative; we have seen him restlessly break out of his home in the first chapter, establish himself at the River Bank, venture too far into the Wild Wood, learn his lesson, and make acquaintance with Toad (who represents the "new", a superficial power which puts one in contact with the fluctuating outside world) and Badger (who represents the deepest roots in the animal world, and the most firm and confident position within it). Now he can return home, like Ulysses (or, for that matter, Toad) - but, notably, not permanently. His homecoming, aside from assuaging his temporary homesickness (the book will never mention him going back there again), is done more or less to show he can go back, if he wants to - it maintains a paw in both worlds, the River Bank and Mole End.

Peter Hunt calls Mole's re-establishment of an "anchorage" "the secret narrative of Wind in the Willows, whose origins are uncertain, which speaks to elements in both the adult and the child - the circle of home and experience: of finding new paths and reconciling them with old places." This is perhaps the most important point to make about Willows: not so much its exploration of different settings (and with them, different states of being) but its integration - or, at times, lack of integration - between these representative locales. We learn that the River Bank is the key to everything, with its combination of restless energy and solid roots - it contains multitudes and thus can satisfy an animal's needs; the downside is that it gives one ambitions beyond itself (at its root lies the siren call of the Piper which is too heart-stirring to be experienced and remembered in full; nonetheless that music of the dawn provides the tempo for all the more mundane magic of the river). Meanwhile, the Wild Wood is the forbidden zone; while perhaps necessary in some metaphysical sense - its negative energy balancing out the positive flow of the River - the Wood is to be avoided, since the existential angst it evokes serves to shatter the ego rather than build up character. The Wide World is another forbidden zone, but it serves a necessary purpose in its absence - its dreamy call facilitates the soul's poetic stirrings; it should not be explored, but one should nonetheless dream of exploring it. The Open Road, and with it human society and modernization, is less a necessity than it is an unavoidable reality - still, it should be held at a distance, kept from encroaching on the low-key magic of the natural world as much as possible. Toad Hall may be the buffer in this regard, a locus of privilege which negotiates the River Bank's world with both the Wild Wood and the Open Road; if lost it must be taken back. In some enigmatic fashion, Toad Hall's existence secures that of the Animal Kingdom (which in itself is not a place but a concept - a way for human necessities and animal instincts to keep one another in check). Finally, with all these other elements and places in their proper relation to one another, home - Dulce Domum - provides that essential anchor; not a security wall like Toad Hall, but a foundation upon which everything else can be built. It's a source of renewal, safe, buried in a Freudian sense as well as a literal one (though at its source it is not dark, but light). As a legitimate life lesson, most of this is rather inadequate: in reality, our Wild Woods must be plowed through rather than escaped from, and our Wide Worlds should be explored, not merely dreamed of (while the legitimacy of Toad Halls, public or private, must be questioned). Yet what fails as practical advice succeeds as psychological portrait (because whatever we "know," deep down we are afraid of the Wild Wood, we do suspect that the Wide World will disappoint us, we will long for the comforts of home.) Indeed, at its core The Wind in the Willows is a powerful psychodrama disguised as an imaginary geography.

This brings our exploration of Wind in the Willows to a close; next week will draw together links to the different pieces and conclude this microseries. Before drawing to a complete conclusion, however, a moment to discuss the film adaptations which of course provided the initial genesis for this series. How do they deal with "Dulce Domum," crucial as it is to the book's themes (even as it provides something of a detour in terms of the concrete plot)? Unlike other thematically central but dramatically digressive chapters like "Piper at the Gates of Dawn" and "Wayfarers, All," "Dulce Domum" tends to get its due from the movies. Just as almost all of them open with Mole breaking out of his oppressive home, so they all make room for him to find its charms once again. Nonetheless, they tend to relocate the episode; the stop-motion version places Mole's return home after Toad gets arrested, while the Rankin-Bass version among others has Dulce Domum directly follow the Wild Wood, as opposed to the book where months seem to separate the two episodes. (This makes sense, because by swinging abruptly from the killed-cat curiosity of Mole's foray into the Wood, the return home becomes all the more desirable and necessary; old charms never call more acutely than when we've been frightened by the unfamiliar.) Actually, the Rankin-Bass version, which has long been described as my favorite, has the most interesting and poignant approach to Mole End: we never really "see" it. Even in the beginning, Mole is shown popping out of the ground; we don't witness him spring-cleaning, or pushing his way out. And when he's wandering back from the Wild Wood, suddenly and unexpectedly homesick, it's Rat's house that the sun's rays shine upon; Mole End appears to us only as a vision, an open trapdoor in the tall grass, a glimpse of a den warmed by blazing fire - all these images shimmering within a hazy frame, clouded by memory and imaginary projection. With this view of home, a home which eludes us, which exists more strongly in our mind than reality, the adaptation perhaps strikes upon a truth which Grahame avoided, but which nonetheless lingers melancholically beneath his warm, glowing prose: the truth that you can't go home again.

Read "Kenneth Grahame: Lost in the Wild Wood" by John Preston, published Feb. 10, 2008 in The Daily Telegraph, and referenced above.

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Joel Bocko said...

For 6 months I had "Dulce Domum" written as "Dolce Domum" - oops. Guess I don't know my Latin. Apologies.

Sue from Australia said...

I have just read "The Wind in the Willows - Dulce Domum" and want to thank the writer for helping me understand why I love and need the story and characters in my life. I discovered the stop-motion series in my twenties and was obsessed. Originally I think it was about the beauty of the Riverbank and the friendships between the four characters. Each character was different and made me feel it was okay to be me, even though I often felt different. Then as the years passed (I'm now in my fourties) I am often drawn back in my imagination to that world, and often wondered why? Life has brought changes, opportunities, losses, sadness, joy and hope. Your interpretation of the places in the Wind in the Willows, the desires to dream, the yearning for home, has been inspirational to me. Now I can see my love for the story is reflective of my need to 'go home', that is, to make spaces in my life for comfort and security. I have introduced my two children to Wind in the Willows and hope they, one day, will embrace it as I do. Thank you. (Sue from Australia)

Joel Bocko said...

Thanks Sue! I appreciate the kind words immensely. It's amazing how many layers and levels of experience this great book contains and I'm glad I was able to elucidate some of them effectively. I hope your kids end up loving the book too, and their kids after them, and so forth. And you're right about the characters being so identifiable - they are so distinct that, paradoxically, they remind us of all the different shades our own personality. Wind in the Willows is a seemingly small world that contains galaxies of meanings.

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