'Beyond the Wild Wood comes the Wide World,' said the Rat. 'And 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. Now then! Here's our backwater at last, where we're going to lunch.'I reread The Wind in the Willows recently. This got me thinking about an early review, published in the TLS in 1908.
If you find that hard to read, I've typed it out for you here.
In the past, I've just found the review amusing. Given our culture's broad acceptance of the motoring Mr Toad, the boating Ratty, Mr Mole and the rest, Lucas's bafflement seems stranger than the things themselves. Even setting aside modern familiarity with the book, such a reaction seems extreme. After all, this is a children's fantasy published while Peter Pan was playing in the West End, at a time when Alice in Wonderland was an accepted classic. Oddity was an accepted part of the literary landscape. What, then, would explain the puzzlement?
It does not seem that it is just a case of a reviewer mismatched to the material. The references to Grahame's other work demonstrate familiarity, and Lucas himself wrote books for children. The thing that puzzles me is not that Lucas disliked the book, but rather the way in which he disliked it. Is a book that appears to seem so obvious to us now really as elusive as Lucas insists?
Rereading The Wind in the Willows, I have come to think that Lucas's bafflement did not stem from a lack of perceptiveness, but rather from perceiving a genuine strangeness in the book, which he found himself unable to properly account for. He perceived a puzzle, I think, which he was unable to solve. I think that I am able to offer at least an attempt at a solution, and my thoughts are outlined below.
Perhaps the most obvious peculiarity in the book is the way that the characters seem to change size between scenes. Ratty and Mole are, for example, able to fit comfortably inside a hollow tree together, but also able to operate a clearly human-scale caravan, pulled by a full-size horse. Badger is clearly described as much larger that the Rat and Mole, but all seem able to comfortably share living quarters where necessary. On its own, perhaps this would not be significant. This is not realistic fiction, and ignoring questions of scale is convenient for the narrative. However, it seems to me that this inconsistency runs more deeply, and more significantly, in the text
The relationship between the the animal protagonists and the human world is notably changeable. On some occasions, the animals are clearly part of society. Mr Toad, in particular, is very engaged (although he is not alone, being accompanied in his early cart trip by Rat and Mole). Toad lives in a stately home, regularly buys motorcars and is eventually pursued, imprisoned and then pursued again for stealing one. However, while the majority of Toad's story concerns his adventures in the Wide World, he clearly has the ability to leave it too. After escaping prison, Toad is pursued to the riverbank itself, and then falls into the river. From that moment on, all pursuit ceases, despite Toad's pursuers being in sight of him when he falls. He remains seemingly invisible to the outside world even after resuming his old life at Toad Hall.
At other times, the animals clearly assume the role of wild and timid observers, unseen and unknown. Badger's account of the growth and decline of a human city on the site of the Wild Wood, in chapter 4 ('Mr Badger'), is one example. Similarly, we are told in chapter 5 ('Dulce Domum') that 'the animals did not hold with villages, and their own highways, thickly frequented as they were, took an independent course'. If we contrast this with Toad's 'poop-poop!'s and it seems clear that there is a fairly major inconsistency in the book's handling of this issue.
I'm obviously not the first since Lucas to notice these oddities. A current Kindle 'Super-Short Synopsis' reads: 'Animals live like humans in a world where it's improbably implied humans also live. Anthropomorphism done wrong'. That seems to sum up the apparent problems with the book very well. These elements of the book do not appear to make any conventional sense. Without this sort of internal consistency, what are we meant to make of this book? What is its 'real inner purpose'?
But, more pressingly, why even ask? Why worry about whether a children's fantasy makes sense? Setting aside my desire to defend a book that I enjoy, I think it is, in general, worth taking children's books seriously. These are stories that, for many of us, shape our most fundamental ideas of the world. We may not believe in talking animals, even as children, but we often believe and absorb much of the philosophy that they espouse or represent.
Even without relying on that general contention, I don't think that The Wind in the Willows is the sort of children's book where sense is irrelevant. It is not merely frivolous, parts of it are highly serious in their apparent intent. I think that, without justification, inconsistency would mar the book, undermining both its fun and its seriousness. I think that this is very much the conclusion that Lucas reached, but which I wish to oppose.
I think that two of the less popular sections of the book, chapter 7 ('The Piper at the Gates of Dawn') and chapter 9 ('Wayfarers All'), are fairly explicit illustrations of the role that inconsistency plays in the story. Both of these sections, in my view, deal with a tension between the comfortable, prosaic and homely charms of a sheltered life, on one hand, and the lure and danger of romance, spiritual elevation and adventure on the other.
'The Piper at the Gates of Dawn' is perhaps the better known of the chapters, if only for inspiring the title of the first Pink Floyd album. In this chapter, Mole and Rat encounter the 'demi-god' Pan, and are then lulled back into forgetfulness by a divinely sent breeze. The exposure to Pan is clearly an exposure to the numinous, to the essence of the divine, but it seems also to hint at some sort of brush with the noumenon, the thing-in-itself, a reality loaded with significance and potency, and yet somehow unknowable to the senses. It seems, to me, to invoke a paradox of sensing beyond sense and senses, of experiencing beyond perception and reason.
This paradoxical wonder is both reinforced by and contrasted with Pan's final gift, that of forgetfulness. We are told, by the narrative voice, that this forgetting is the greatest gift of all, because remembrance would destroy pleasure in ordinary life. However, I think that the animals' forgetfulness serves a more significant role: it preserves the position of the profound and the spiritual in the realm of the unknowable, even after exposure. That is to say, I think it acts to maintain the paradox of direct exposure to the thing-in-itself.
Without the atmosphere of ambiguity and inconsistency, the sense that reality, even in its cuddliest form, is not wholly to be trusted, I do not think that the artistic effect of 'The Piper at the Gates of Dawn' would be achieved anywhere near so effectively.
I think that the latter chapter, 'Wayfarers All', makes a related but distinct point, which is similarly reliant upon the atmosphere established by the book's inconsistencies. In this chapter, Ratty encounters a Sea Rat and, seemingly literally enchanted by his tales of adventure, sets off to follow the path of a wanderer. Ratty is soon stopped by his friend, the Mole, who goes so far as manhandle and lock the Rat in their home, in order to prevent him heading off on his quest. There is a passing desolation and sadness in the Rat, at being denied his adventure, but, in a scene in which we observe him writing poetry, it is indicated that he recovers from this in due course.
There seems, to me, an undeniable tension here between the ideas of home and simple happiness on one hand, and a wild and painful joy on the other. This is a tension that seems to be reproduced, in less obviously romantic terms, at other points in the book. The central conflict between Toad and his friends, for example, is a conflict between the wild, joyful and dangerous and the sensible and respectable. Another example is Mole's terror at finding himself alone in the Wild Wood, and the removal of this peril by the arrival of Rat and his discovery of a simple domestic door-scraper.
These conflicts and contrasts, I believe, provide context and justification for the amiguity and ambivalence that pervades the book. The world beyond and surrounding the comfort of the riverbank takes a number of forms: the mystical, the technological, the legal, the adventurous and so on. Each of these is seemingly alien to the cosy lives of the animals eating picnics and messing about in boats, but the passages discussed above suggest to me that these elements form a persistent background, even a potential threat, to this gentle world.
My view is that this atmosphere is sustained by the inconsistencies in the text, which seem to function more as necessary ambiguities than simple errors. As a reader, my conscious perception of the animals' changes in size is limited. Rather I mainly experience a state of barely acknowledged uncertainty about it. This slightly uncanny and wrongfooting experience seems to replicate certain experiences of the characters. For example, although Mole and Rat forget Pan almost in the very instant of sighting him, they are unable to shake their sense of something important continuing to occur. The frightening and destabilising elements persist through their cosy reality, even when they are utterly denied. If we were to clarify and stabilise the book, I feel that it would lose a considerable amount of its impact.
I do not think that Grahame is constructing a broad metaphor here. In particular, I do not think that the riverbank can be said to represent childhood against the cares of adulthood in the Wide World, which might seem like an appealing reading to some. I do not think that the book defends or privileges one of its poles over the other, although it should be noted that its plot does seem to resolve in favour of the prosaic. I think that the effect of the book is to indicate the persistence, the danger and also the value of the adventurous and uncanny in our lives.
Despite exposing us to and heightening our sense of this incompatibility, I feel the book might also make one suggestion about how we are to reconcile, or at least mediate, it. The cure for Rat's wanderlust, and the ensuing depression at being unable to follow it, as prescribed by the doting Mole, is writing poetry. Mole suggests that Rat would feel better for having 'something jotted down—if it's only just the rhymes'. It is once he is engaged in this work that we are assured that Rat's cure has begun. Artistic activity seems to form some sort of practical connection between the impulses towards home and towards adventure, and allow an emotional acceptance of the possibility that one cannot fully and unambiguously exist in either state, without the intrusion of the other.
While I am personally sceptical of the existence of "Art", in its capital-letter sense of an endeavour seperate from other aspects of human life, I think that certain kinds of artistic activity do have this characteristic. Engaging in artistic or creative labour, the process of finding 'just the rhymes', while having one's intention fixed on the creation of something of value, forms a framework that, for a particular moment and particular context, stabilises the relationship between the transcendent and the everyday. There are also, I would suggest, other activities that bring together the practical and the sublime, through this combination of focused activity and focused intent. I think any non-alienated labour might well suffice, but, to me, perhaps the most significant of these activities is the practical labour of love.
Whether the above is an answer to the puzzle that Lucas found in The Wind in the Willows is something that I expect will remain unknown to me. However, it seems to me that Lucas was correct to identify a puzzle in the book, despite apparently finding it of no personal interest or significance. I also think that his reference to affection for Grahame's earlier works strongly suggests these as further reading for me, if I am looking for a better understanding of these questions.