At Salon.com, Gary Kamiya writes an appreciation of Kenneth Grahame’s “The Wind in the Willows” on its 100th anniversary. Kamiya writes about how Grahame, unhappily married and working in a job he hated, found release from his personal problems in the lives of these talking animals.
“In his quiet extremis, by a kind of miraculous fictional alchemy, Grahame was able to take everything that had gone into his half-century of life, painful and pleasurable, comic and tragic, and turn it into gold. There are the four animals, each a part of Grahame: Mole the Everyman, Rat the artist, Toad the rebel, Badger the recluse. There is the indolent rural life Grahame knew never existed, but which he etched in perfect strokes. There are the loud and terrifying motor cars that poop-poop their way through the book and send Toad’s canary-colored cart, a doomed artifact from an earlier age, crashing into a ditch. (The speed limit for motor cars was raised to 20 mph in 1905, three years before “The Wind in the Willows” was published.) There are the villainous stoats and weasels, slithering representatives of the lower orders and social transformation that Grahame feared.”
For modern Paganism, the most famous chapter in Grahame’s book is its seventh, “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn,” a detour from the main narrative in which Rat and Mole encounter the great god Pan. A manifestation, in Kamiya’s view, of his “Edwardian pagan aestheticism”. A chapter of unapologetically mythic poetry that has resonated down generations.
“Perhaps he 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; saw, last of all, nestling between his very hooves, sleeping soundly in entire peace and contentment, the little, round, podgy, childish form of the baby otter. All this he saw, for one moment breathless and intense, vivid on the morning sky; and still, as he looked, he lived; and still, as he lived, he wondered. ‘Rat!’ he found breath to whisper, shaking. ‘Are you afraid?’ ‘Afraid?’ murmured the Rat, his eyes shining with unutterable love. ‘Afraid! Of Him? O, never, never! And yet— and yet— O, Mole, I am afraid!’ Then the two animals, crouching to the earth, bowed their heads and did worship.”
Grahame’s portrayal of Pan was instrumental in the slow establishment of this horned god (and other horned gods to come) in the minds and hearts of his British readers. His Pan, like the Pan of fellow authors Maurice Hewlett, Eden Phillpott, and Lord Dunsany was a sort of “Green Jesus”, a savior of the natural world. A figure who would save humanity from destructive progress, and free them from outdated and restrictive moral codes. As for Grahame himself, scholar Ronald Hutton in his book “Triumph of the Moon” points out that the author did indeed reject Christianity and replaced it with a vague “nature worship” (a collection of his essays was entitled “Pagan Papers”), and that his wife Elspeth took this impulse farther than Grahame felt comfortable with.
“Ironically, it was his wife, born Elspeth Thomas, who was initially the more actively ‘pagan’ of the two and tried to practice the nature-worship that he was preaching. At first she refused a wedding ring, thinking it a hallmark of convention, and it was he who insisted on her acceptance of one. The ceremony took place (in 1899) in the equally conventional setting of the parish church at Fowey, on the south Cornish coast, and Elspeth made on final gesture of rebellion. To demonstrate her communion with nature, she appeared before the altar wearing an old muslin dress which she had soaked in the dew of that morning and a chain of daisies around her neck which she had woven herself.”
Such was the influence of “The Wind in the Willows” that is was included as an essential proto-revival text by Chas Clifton and Graham Harvey in their book “The Paganism Reader”. While many regard Grahame’s work as simply a classic children’s story, it also sent signals of a shift in England’s poetic and mythic thinking, a re-imagining of the countryside (and the powers that resided in it) that slowly led to the flowering of modern Paganism.