“With his ear to the reed stems he caught, at intervals, something of what the wind went whispering so constantly among them.” – Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows.
There are some books which stay with you.
The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame was in a way my introduction to Paganism, not that I knew it at the time. I remember simply enjoying the adventures of Mole and Rat, Toad and Badger and the River which acted as background, supporting character and narrative flow to the whole piece.
I re-read it earlier this month, it’s a short book and didn’t take long. I wanted to treat myself to something simple and escapist, to venture into another world far removed from the tribulations of global affairs, set away from the “Wide World” of which Rat urges Mole “Don’t ever refer to it again, please”.
And I found all that I’d hoped for in those pages – pages which themselves are patinated with age in my old copy (not a first edition I must say, but a 1992 printing). But I found more.
I found Paganism.
Not in the sense of witchcraft or doctrine or religion, of course. But in the true sense, where the word “Pagan” reaffirms its old fealty to “the land”. Grahame was himself what you might call a Nature Mystic, in the same vein as Thoreau or Muir.
Matthew Dennison, in his excellent Country Life article (2018) on Grahame writes that:
“Time would harden his conviction ‘that nature has her moments of sympathy with man’ and he was a young man when he replaced conventional Christian orthodoxies with something closer to animism – a belief in the living soul of all natural things. Grahame was never a churchgoer: his spiritual experiences took place outdoors.”
This sense of life and soul immanent in nature, and the attention to the details of the natural world, pervade The Wind in the Willows. Behind and beyond the wild tales of Toad and his motor-car, there is a profound sense of living nature.
Consider the description of Mole, seeing the River for the first time:
“Never in his life had he seen a river before – this sleek, sinuous, full-bodied animal, chasing and chuckling, gripping things with a gurgle and leaving them with a laugh, to fling itself on fresh playmates that shook themselves free, and were caught and held again…
…By the side of the river he trotted as one trots, when very small, by the side of a man who holds one spellbound by exciting stories; and, when tired at last, he sat on the bank, while the river still chattered on to him, a babbling procession of the best stories in the world, sent from the heart of the earth to be told at last to the insatiable sea”.
The River is not mere landscape scenery, it is part of, to borrow a phrase from animist writer Emma Restall Orr, “The Wakeful World”. It is aware, it has personality, it has for want of a better word, spirit or soul.
The same is true of the “classic seas whose every wave throbs with a deathless memory” in the Sea Rat’s tales of travel. The same is true of the sinister Wild Wood, whose trees “crouched nearer and nearer, and holes made ugly mouths at him [Mole] on either side”. The same is true of the passing of the seasons, “the radiant transformation of earth, air and water”.
These descriptions of nature throughout The Wind in the Willows are evocative in the truest sense: they evoke something of the spirit of nature, the Anima Mundi, the sacred and animate world beyond humanity.
Of course, the most obviously Pagan elements are to be found in the mystical chapter “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn”. In my first reading, long ago, I felt this chapter was odd, out of place, almost like another story or another world had appeared in the middle of the world of Rat and Mole. And, in a way, it is.
The chapter is, for Rat and Mole, a theophany: a Pagan deity, Pan himself, appearing before them, as an “august Presence”, a “Friend and Helper”. Reading it, you can see it as a work of contemplative mysticism, more mythic than simply fictional.
“in that utter clearness of the imminent dawn, while Nature, flushed with fullness of incredible colour, seemed to hold her breath for the event, he looked in the very eyes of the Friend and Helper…
…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.
Far better writers than I have commented on the Paganism within this chapter, and Jason Mankey’s article on Raise The Horns (2014) goes into detail about the literary revival of Pan in the Victorian and Edwardian period, and the inspiration for Grahame’s Piper at the Gates of Dawn. Mankey writes:
“I think it’s safe to write that Grahame saw Pan as his link to the British Countryside. Reading about the life of Grahame it’s clear that all he really wanted to do was fish, boat, travel, and hunt. He was also a bit of a curmudgeon who enjoyed his privacy. He liked being away from civilization and his version of Pan is a clear expression of that. “
Mankey’s article also points to an anonymous essay, known simply as April Essay, by Grahame that later became part of his tellingly-named Pagan Papers, where Grahame wrote:
“But remote in other haunts than these the rural Pan is hiding, and piping the low, sweet strain that reaches only the ears of a chosen few. And now that the year wearily turns and stretches herself before the perfect waking, the god emboldened begins to blow a clearer note.”
While the appearance of the Piper may be the most explicitly “Pagan” element in the book, the whole tale is woven through with a silver thread of animism, a sense of awareness in all of nature.
Of course, the book is not perfect. Written as it was in 1908, it occasionally shows its age. Female characters are conspicuous by their absence from the Edwardian bachelor’s club of the Riverbank and where they do appear, in the human “Wide World” it is in the bit-part form of a gaoler’s daughter, and a “fat” barge-woman.
That said, I fell in love with the Riverbank and its rats, moles, toads, and otters, from an early age, and it must have sparked some inspiration, some distant piping, “beautiful, strange and new” that no doubt led me to a love of nature and later, to a Pagan path.
Dennison, M. (2018). “Kenneth Grahame and the true meaning behind the Wind in the Willows”, Country Life, 26 December, accessed 9 January 2019, https://www.countrylife.co.uk/out-and-about/dogs/kenneth-grahame-true-meaning-behind-wind-willows-190340.
Grahame, K. (1908). The Wind in the Willows. Reprint, London: Wordsworth Classics, 1992.
Mankey, J. (2014). “A (Pagan) Wind in the Willows”, Raise the Horns, 14 July, accessed 9 January 2019, https://www.patheos.com/blogs/panmankey/2014/07/a-pagan-wind-in-the-willows/.
Restall Orr, E. (2012). The Wakeful World: Animism, Mind and the Self in Nature. Alresford: Moon Books.