What is the Wind in “The Wind in the Willows?”

Growing up, one of the first bands I really got into was Pink Floyd. I  remember borrowing a copy of the Floyd’s first album, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, from a friend (a cassette version). He handed it over with the warning that I may not like it: “It’s not like anything else.” Piper truly is sui generis. The work of original Floyd frontman Syd Barrett, it is the sound of someone about to crack up. Barrett went mad shortly after Piper was released, leaving other band members to dramatically alter the band’s sound going forward. His one complete album with the Floyd would stand apart, ill-fitting but beautiful, like a purple glass pane. What a wonderful surprise, then, to find that Piper was inspired in part by an equally strange and divergent chapter in one of the most famous children’s books of the 20th century, Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows

For those, like me, who only knew The Wind in the Willows from a cartoon car ride at Disney theme parks, this is a bit of a shock. The kaleidoscopic Pink Floyd doesn’t easily gel with “Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride.” But then again, neither does–at first glance–the title that Grahame gave his novel. The story of Rat, Mole, and Toad galavanting about the countryside has nothing to do with wind blowing through willow trees. It was only when I came to chapter seven, “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn,” that I learned that the novel’s title alludes, not to some generic pastoral theme, but to the mythological demigod, Pan. You won’t find Pan in “Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride,” but he is in fact the blower of the novel’s eponymous wind. Reading this chapter, I began to understand how it had sown psychedelic seeds in a young Syd Barrett’s mind. 

Cover of the first edition

It turns out that The Wind in the Willows tries to pull double-duty, both as a linear novel and a collection of short stories. The main narrative deals with  the incorrigible rascal Toad, and his obsession with motor cars. Toad crashes cars, steals cars, is arrested and escapes, and ultimately returns in glory to his ancestral home, Toad Hall. This standard adventure tale is regularly, and I would argue clumsily, interrupted by a series of contemplative short stories about faith, beauty, and purpose. “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn” is easily the most bizarre.

The chapter is completely self-contained. Though our anti-hero Toad has just been jailed for grand theft auto one page prior, his best friends, Ratty and Mole, make no reference to him throughout. Clearly it was composed as a distinct short story and shoehorned into the novel. It begins with a literary throat-clearing:

The Willow-Wren was twittering his thin little song, hidden himself in the dark selvedge of the river bank. Though it was past ten o’clock at night, the sky still clung to and retained some lingering skirts of light from the departed day; and the sullen heats of the torrid afternoon broke up and rolled away at the dispersing touch of the cool fingers of the short midsummer night.

The plot, for what it is, concerns a search and rescue mission. A baby otter has gone missing and so Rat and Mole go in search of the little bugger, rowing into unknown waters. It is there that Mole first hears a mysterious song on the air that calls him forward, the sound of a wind in the willows:

  Fastening their boat to a willow, the friends landed in this silent, silver kingdom, and patiently explored the hedges, the hollow trees, the runnels and their little culverts, the ditches and dry water-ways… A light breeze sprang up and set the reeds and bulrushes rustling. Rat… sat up suddenly and listened with a passionate intentness.

Rat and Mole follow the song until they find “the place of [Rat’s] song-dream,” a “holy place.” They come upon a glade where they discover the god of the wilderness, Pan. In the most evocative piece of writing in the entire novel, reaching with all its might to the heights of Homer and the euphoria of Keats, Grahame describes the encounter:

Perhaps [Mole] would never have dared to raise his eyes, but that, though the piping was now hushed, the call and the summons seemed still dominant and imperious. He might not refuse, were Death himself waiting to strike him instantly, once he had looked with mortal eye on things rightly kept hidden. Trembling he obeyed, and raised his humble head; and then, in that utter clearness of the imminent dawn, while Nature, flushed with fulness of incredible colour, seemed to hold her breath for the event, he looked in the very eyes of the Friend and Helper; saw the backward sweep of the curved horns, gleaming in the growing daylight; saw the stern, hooked nose between the kindly eyes that were looking down on them humourously, while the bearded mouth broke into a half-smile at the corners; saw the rippling muscles on the arm that lay across the broad chest, the long supple hand still holding the pan-pipes only just fallen away from the parted lips; saw the splendid curves of the shaggy limbs disposed in majestic ease on the sward.

All this, though very divergent from the rest of The Wind in the Willows would be merely a curio if not for what happens next.

The two animals, crouching to the earth, bowed their heads and did worship.

Sudden and magnificent, the sun’s broad golden disc showed itself over the horizon facing them; and the first rays, shooting across the level water-meadows, took the animals full in the eyes and dazzled them. When they were able to look once more, the Vision had vanished, and the air was full of the carol of birds that hailed the dawn.

This last makes the chapter extraordinary. These animals worship a god, and not a human god but a god all their own. Why is this significant? Because Kenneth Grahame is breaking new ground here by considering his animal characters in a way never done before.

Stories with anthropomorphic animals are nothing new. The earliest examples may be Aesop’s fables and the talking serpent of Genesis. What is different here is in how the characters relate to the author. Historically, animals  served as allegories of human behavior, guiding a child to prefer one animal over others. “Don’t be greedy like a pig, silly like a monkey, or arrogant like a tiger,” we say. However, prior to The Wind in the Willows I cannot find any example of an author conceiving of his animal characters so fully that they have different values from human beings.

Consider the first time we get a hint of this in the The Wind in the Willows. In Chapter 1, Grahame introduces us to “animal-etiquette.” The character Rat has just mentioned some troublesome creatures inhabiting the dark woods near his river, but goes no further.

The Mole knew well that it is quite against animal-etiquette to dwell on possible trouble ahead, or even to allude to it; so he dropped the subject.

Moments later, Mole and Rat meet with Otter who chats for a minute before diving after a luncheon snack.

The Rat hummed a tune, and the Mole recollected that animal-etiquette forbade any sort of comment on the sudden disappearance of one’s friends at any moment, for any reason or no reason whatever.

This isn’t conduct echoed by Emily Post. It is unique to the animal kingdom. However, animal-etiquette is not comparable to the more thorny subject of one’s form of worship. There are a few standard taboos of children’s literature regarding animals. You don’t follow the animals into the bathroom, nor into the bedroom, and you don’t dwell upon how they spend the Sabbath. Of course, all these artificial barriers have since been smashed. Case in point is 1971’s Watership Down, where the rabbits of the warren have an entire creation mythology of the world. But at the time of The Wind in the Willows’s publication in 1908, suggesting that animals worshiped a pagan deity, or that they worshiped anything at all, was highly irregular.

All this begs the question, why does Kenneth Grahame have such a stirring moment happen?

My hunch is that “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn” was the most important chapter for Grahame. The title of the novel is embedded within it, and the first edition even has a picture of Pan on the cover. To understand its importance for Grahame, we have to know a little about him. If he were to be any of the characters in his novel, he most likely would have related to the Water Rat, boatmaster of the Thames. Grahame had a “lifelong love for the river and boating,” an attitude summed up by the Water Rat as he sculls across the water.

“Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing—absolute nothing—half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats. Simply messing,” he went on dreamily: “messing—about—in—boats; messing—”

The euphoria Grahame got from his lazy boating days had to be communicated somehow. It was not enough to write purple prose about dappled light and languid afternoons. Grahame felt compelled to literally thrust his characters in front of Nature Himself, the creature Pan, and express their utter devotion to his dominion. The natural world was not a casual playground for Sunday jaunts. It likely gave Grahame a religious high not unlike what Rat expresses in “Piper.”

Rapt, transported, trembling, he was possessed in all his senses by this new divine thing that caught up his helpless soul and swung and dandled it, a powerless but happy infant in a strong sustaining grasp.

Grahame found in nature an expression of the almighty at work. Perhaps he knew his animal characters–who lived within this world while Grahame and others could only visit–would have even more respect and awe for its power.

2 Responses to “What is the Wind in “The Wind in the Willows?””
  1. Lovely post about one of my favorite books! Our British literature professor had us read it, in college.

Check out what others are saying...
  1. […] enjoyed the reviews on Goodreads. Quite varied. Letters Republic had more of a study written up. I thought Pink Floyd was an interesting twist in this classic saga! […]

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