The Wind in the Willows
(A Warning for Our Time?)
Talk precis by Silverspear
Although the Industrial Revolution brought modernity to the world, it also resulted in the destruction of a great deal of England’s green and pleasant land, which in turn inspired the Romantic Movement to look to the past as a reaction to all of that. 190 years have passed since the opening of the world’s first passenger steam railway: The Liverpool to Manchester. On the first day an MP by the name of Huskisson was killed on the line by a passing train. His death did not halt or even delay progress. The railway was a symbol of things to come, and modernity is still causing concern to many, with some firmly convinced that humanity is now on the verge of extinction.
On the other hand, these fears have always been with us. When Kenneth Grahame’s book, “The Wind in the Willows” was first published in 1908, his secure middle-class world seemed to be falling apart by the day. The social and political order at the time was in turmoil and the rural life that symbolized peace and stability was being destroyed by rapid industrialisation, with all the noise and pollution that came with it. All this is very significant from a modern pagan perspective. What often goes unnoticed by many individuals in our fast-changing and disposable culture – is that the past has a powerful appeal to humans. The Welsh have a word for it: Hiraeth. The meaning of “Hiraeth” goes far beyond nostalgia, which relates only to pleasant personal memories. As we grow older, most people often indulge in fond memories when bygone summers always seemed hot and dry, and winters were forever cosy.
It is interesting, however, that there isn’t a synonymous word in the English language to capture the essence of what is meant by Hiraeth. Like the Welsh, traditional tribal cultures the world over also have their own understanding of Hiraeth. Indigenous communities have a tremendous reverence and respect for the past, their land and their ancestors, recognising that the past in some strange way is still with them and a part of everyday reality. The past as well as the present creates much of a tribe’s ongoing identity. When we consider the importance of this, we can more easily understand why, in a fast-changing Victorian England, certain well-to-do types were desperate to retreat to a less frenetic time. One way to do that was to invest in a mode of transport traditionally only associated with gypsies or travelling people; horse-drawn caravans. Having taken to the open road, these wealthy and socially privileged members of society became known as “Gentlemen Gypsies”.
When Kenneth Grahame wrote “The Wind in the Willows” in 1908, he undoubtedly had these Gentlemen Gypsies in mind. One of the main characters in the book was in fact a member of the landed gentry: Mr Toad, of Toad Hall. Unlike the Gentleman Gypsies, however, Mr Toad had little interest in retreating to a pre-industrial Golden Age; Toad was more than eager to welcome modernity and was incurably addicted to embracing the latest craze, which is why, after a brief flirtation with a gypsy-style caravan, he succumbed to the lure of the internal combustion engine.
Toad’s friends, Ratty, Mole and Badger, on the other hand, took a very dim view of him squandering his wealth on such new-fangled and potentially dangerous contraptions, especially in view of the fact that every motor car Toad eventually acquired ended up smashed to pieces in road accidents. Perhaps Ratty, Mole and Badger could see where this new form of modernity was heading. Very soon into the first chapter of the book, warnings in regard to modernity are presented to the reader. The story begins in the spring when the Mole first meets the Water Rat, who eagerly introduces Mole to the joyfulness of life on the River. However, there is a warning about the dangers of going into the Wild Wood and, even worse, the Wide World that lies beyond:
“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.”
Chapter two of the book, entitled “The Open Road” is set during a largely idyllic summer. Chapter three, entitled “The Wild Wood” is set during winter, though a fond memory of summertime is also recalled. However, it is during mid-winter that the Mole becomes a little restless and is now more eager than ever to meet the Badger – even though that involves making his way alone through the dangerous Wild Wood, which turns out to be a far more terrifying experience than he could have imagined when darkness falls and he gets lost in a snowstorm. Fortunately, he is finally rescued by Ratty and they both eventually find Badger’s abode.
The narrative that follows is among the cosiest descriptions of domestic bliss ever written. Nowadays we would describe it as Hygge, which is a Danish and Norwegian word for a mood of cosiness and comfortable conviviality with feelings of wellness and contentment. I recall having read many years ago a suggestion that Badger’s abode is highly symbolic of the womb; a safe haven protected from the outside world and only accessible through a tunnel or passageway, which is a bit Freudian. However, the relevant point to note in the book’s narrative, is Badger’s account of how he came to live in such a delightfully safe bolt-hole slap-bang in the midst of the Wild Wood. He said that many long years ago, humans dwelt where the Wild Wood currently exists. The humans had a civilization that they built to last, but they finally vanished and no trace of them remains anymore, except a few examples of architecture, some of which is still evident in Badger’s abode. Nature quickly took over and the animals moved into the area. The warning we take from this piece of narrative is the fact that nothing is permanent – not even human civilization and the efforts of humans to preserve it.
Some have argued that Kenneth Grahame was a closet pagan at a time when respectable middle-class Englishmen could only be good Christians and Anglicans. It is true that pagan and Nature-revering values, as we would recognise them today, run through The Wind in the Willows like a thread. In chapter seven, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, no attempt is made to conceal the reverence that Ratty and Moley have for the Great God Pan, when they go in search of Portly, Otter’s missing son. Portly is found safe and sound nestled in the bosom of Pan, who then vanishes as mysteriously as he appeared. Nowadays, however, it is largely unfashionable to embrace the simple and rustic values that underpin The Wind in the Willows. On the other hand, The Wind in the Willows may indeed express a highly significant ecological warning for humanity today to avoid the lure of the Wide World at all costs.