Rhapsody in Penguins III — Sixth Movement: The Wind in the Willows

The Wind in the Willows (1908)
by Kenneth Grahame
edited by Gillian Avery

The term annus mirabilis is often used to describe a year where seminal works of a certain medium happened to be published within its twelve months. If we were to pick an annus mirabilis for English literature, we could do worse than to start with 1908. This was the year of The Man Who Was Thursday and A Room with a View, two wonderfully introspective pieces about the nature of God and humanity, respectively. (Less auspiciously for my audience, they are also novels which I will be doing pieces on in Series Four.) And on the other hand of the equation, we have this book, where both elements have fused together to create a commentary on human memory and the healing powers of nature. And all this in a book for children.

Kenneth Grahame was not the sort of person who’d you associate with cuddly children’s books. (Among many disqualifiers: he was Secretary of the Bank of England until the year this book was published, and we all know that good writers cannot also be good capitalists.) And yet his sedate British countryside tales are probably the pinnacle of child lit, blending gentle, homely anthropomorphized creatures with a sense of humour, charm and moral lessons.

Much of this might come from Grahame’s own background. When he was young, Grahame would spend his days in the company of his grandmother in the rustic delights of rural England, and this was undeniably something that stuck with him even as he headed into the overly restrained environments of British society. Perhaps this is why the novel draws so heavily on Grahame’s own childhood experiences of the countryside — they were his only way of getting out of a world where everything was unbearably British.

To the casual observer, though, “The Wind in the Willows” might seem like the epitome of British life. The environment described is a rich British country feel, characters eat British food at what can only be described as very British (read: restrained) parties, and so on. And then there are the animals. They behave like humans, engage in our human activities and speak that humanoid bastard of a language known as “English”. But there’s a huge difference between Grahame’s descriptions of country and city life. The animals are totally at ease in the countryside, safe from the confines of the city — the only city scene we see is of a court and the adjoining jail, both very scary places; whereas in the countryside people do nothing but laze about, the most strenuous activity they can think of being housekeeping. (Sounds like a very good idea of Heaven, if you ask me.)

But if you ask me, “The Wind in the Willows” isn’t just about the difference of country and city: it’s also about nostalgia, a longing for something that can never quite be recaptured. The most famous section of the novel strangely has nothing to do with its most memorable character, but is instead a dreamy tangent called, intriguingly, “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn”. In it the characters of Grahame’s world all go exploring in the early morning and find, among the sunrays and the reeds, the great god Pan himself. They bow and do worship, at which he repays their respect by promptly disappearing. (Classical deity behaviour.) With him Pan takes away the memories of his presence — for very good reasons, as Grahame notes.

For this is the last best gift that the kindly demi-god 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 over-shadow mirth and pleasure, and the great haunting memory should spoil all the after-lives of little animals helped out of difficulties…

Now I don’t know about you but there’s something very strange about having your memories wiped after you’ve experienced something blissful, something truly happy. The apparent logic behind this is that if you’ve experienced something majestic, you will spend your time comparing that experience to others and you’ll never be happy because NOTHING COMPARES TO U PAN. But I think that only applies to people who aren’t content at heart: if you were truly content with everything, you’d treasure such an event as the appearance of a deity for the impact it had on your life, but you’d also be happy for what happened and wouldn’t be that concerned about follow-ups. It seems a bit cynical (that word again!) for Pan to assume that these characters, who’ve time and again demonstrated their willingness to stay in the countryside, to wipe their memories on this simple assumption.

But then again, maybe Kenneth Grahame was onto something. Maybe he was, himself, haunted by all those happy memories that remained of his childhood days, that unattainability of days past. When he had to return to daily life, there was the memory of those good times haunting him. Perhaps every day, as he sat behind his desk in the Bank of England, his mind would drift back to those days he spent in Berkshire, and the dreamy world it represented tortured him because it was so damn far away. The thing that we can most conclude from this is that Kenneth Grahame was indeed a very unhappy man — because he was unable to wring happiness out of his daily life.

But that’s not all that Kenneth Grahame exhibits of the long lost world he could never quite return to again. There’s also recklessness to be spotted in this idyllic utopia. Consider a passage from the chapter before Pan’s appearance, where Mr. Toad, being Mr. Toad, is swiftly lured into the temptation of driving a car.

As the car devoured the street and leapt forth on the high road through the open country, he was only conscious that he was Toad once more, Toad at his best and highest, Toad the terror, the traffic-queller, the Lord of the lone trail, before whom all must give way or be smitten into nothingness and everlasting night.

A classic motorist, then. (Also: you try reading this in the most majestic voice you can muster. It’s more hilarious than you think.)

It’s an endless cycle that Mr. Toad finds himself in, alternating between behaving recklessly and then promising to reform himself when he lands himself in trouble. And the important thing to note is that it’s a CYCLE. There is no endpoint where he manages to stop being naughty. When at the end he “promises” everyone that he is a good toad from now on, that he will work hard and not be (that much of) a nuisance, I don’t buy it one bit. He’s made similar promises before, even grand gestures regarding his “permanent” repentance. Why should I believe that this time, it’s gonna be any different? Every time he does something like this he breaks it like five minutes later. The only difference this time is that he’s better at pretending.

Then again, maybe it’s all part of (human) nature. I used to hate Toady for not getting the comeuppance he deserved. It’s all very well to suggest that these animals are capable of humanoid behaviour, but living in such a world means that you face the consequences, and for Toady to suffer no consequences whatsoever irritated me. How DARE this delinquent, this unrepentant criminal, walk around scot free after he’s stolen cars and broken out of jail, when doing the same thing would’ve gotten me sixteen life sentences? (Or thereabouts — I would like to stress that I have no personal experience of either.) But when I did my research for this thinkpiece, I realized that it was only fair when this is a world all of Kenneth Grahame’s unstoppable imagination. After all, working at the Bank of England cannot be a very relaxing job, all those facts and figures jumping around, working to tight schedules and unending scrutiny from his superiors, and, as happened to him in 1903, finding a gunman at the other side of your desk every once in a while. Anyone who’d been subjected to such repression from all walks of life would have wanted nothing more than to be free of society and all its useless fetters.

Toad’s cycle of breaking the law and then proclaiming that he will be good, therefore, is heinous to us, but should nonetheless be sympathized with. After all, his character was the articulation of thoughts from a sincere but repressed man, a man who had no escape from his dull, dreary life except oblivion. (Or retirement.) And it’s this way of dealing with life that brings me to what I’d really like to suggest. Unfortunately for us, the real world seems to have all of the horrors that Kenneth Grahame imagined but none of the pleasantries. Example: Mr. Toad is jailed FIFTEEN years for being rude to a policeman, but only ONE for stealing a car, which obviously doesn’t sound like any world I know. During these instances, the world is scary enough that it seems like one big monster. I said just two weeks ago that we should take stock of the people around us, acknowledge all the TLC they’ve given us. But they won’t be there forever, and relentlessly screaming “BUT LOOK ON THE BRIGHT SIDE” in your faces, while the outside world rages on, does seem a little clichéd and isolated on reflection.

But when I look at how Grahame portrayed his own world and how closely represented his childhood dreams, I’m struck by how much that, despite everything, they were still so hopeful and innocent. Although he didn’t have a perfect childhood, these memories nonetheless had promise within them: the promise of quiet retirement, the prospect of being free to do as he pleased. Of course, all of these were a far cry from his real life, but it’s only human nature for us to look for betterment from all possible sources — and that includes the good memories.

And so perhaps we all cling to memories not because they represent what we were like in the past. It’s because they represented potential — “I was once this way, and maybe I can get back to it again”, or “I screwed this up last time, and this time I know how to make it right”. That’s why for this thinkpiece, I can do no better than to suggest the simple and straight avenue of gratitude when we face up to these memories, and be grateful for the opportunities they provided. Some of us like to cling on to the sad memories, because they are how you learn; but just as important are the good memories, for they give us a vision of what we once were, and more importantly, what we most certainly can be again.

Next time: You know what, there’s absolutely no way I can connect the two. There is a forest of some sort, I think? Anyhow, the mood whiplash we’re about to enter is far more important than any vague connection, because it’s none other than “The Sorrows of Young Werther”.

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