By Matthew Claridge–
I finally got around to reading The Wind in the Willows for the first time a couple summers ago. Needless to say, I was absolutely enchanted. And I mean that in the fullest sense of the word. The book is atmospheric, almost haunting. Rarely can it be said that my cynicism and technocratic autonomy as a modern reader—enmeshed as I am in my own very modern concerns with paychecks, bottom-lines, and the results of the next election—is able to be neutralized by the intoxicating prose and symbolism of a literary work. Oh, how we need these antidotes. It is refreshing to be reminded that we live in a mysterious world, engulfed in a reality that can be felt but never fully explained. Wind in the Willows is a prime example of coaxing us to look along the beam rather stand aloof gazing at it (Lewis’ “Meditations in a Toolshed”).
Although the whole book is infused with the numinous, clearly the first and especially the seventh and ninth chapters (entitled, “Piper at the Gates of Dawn,” and “Wayfarers All”) are its epicenters. One comes away from those chapters, or at least should come away, with a profound sense of the sublime or what Lewis called “joy”—that fleeting sense of profound longing, a longing for the transcendent that no tidy bit of molecular chemistry or DOW Jones averages can quite erase. In this post I want to linger a bit on the significance of the seventh chapter, “Piper at the Gates of the Dawn.”
I’m really flying blind here, I can only comment on my impressions. I would really love to get a hold of more information about Kenneth Grahame and his theological/ philosophical background. Yet based on what little I know of English literary history, Pan was often used as a type of Christ. Pan’s divine presence, I believe, both in person and channeled through the “Wind,” is meant to be the structural ground that holds the whole book together.
Curiously, but not unsurprisingly, in abridgements of the book that I have encountered (by no means exhaustive) the chapter in which Pan appears is excised. Indeed, according to Wikipedia, Pan’s appearance in the book is an “anomaly.” To a certain extent, this is understandable. The story doesn’t entirely conform to what we would call a modern novel. Yes, there is a plot that runs through the story—the introduction of the main characters and the misadventures of Mr. Toad—but peppered throughout are these seemingly non-plot related chapters, especially the ones involving Pan and the “wayfarer” river rat from Byzantium. As such, the impulse to set aside this odd and anomalous chapter for the excitement and frivolity of Mr. Toad is typically Modern. These chapters are not fast-paced enough and, indeed, not shallow enough. The modern reader, like Mr. Toad, is not willing to slow down and drink deeply from the enchanted river. He would much rather, again like the Mr. Toad, climb aboard a fast moving vehicle, casting bystanders and caution to the wind (lowercase).
According to a quote by Christopher Milne found on the Wiki, the story contains two disparate portions; and his father (of Winnie the Pooh fame) actually wrote a play to fill out the story of Mr. Toad and leave the other, “haunting” portion aside. If anything, what I find in the book is not two disparate stories but one in which Grahame uses Mr. Toad’s adventures as a foil for his critique of modernism. What Milne thought were the best parts worthy of a story in its own right is actually Grahame’s extended critique of everything that is wrong with modern sensibilities.
The real substance of the story occurs in the slowest chapters, particularly the chapter in which Pan appears. As Mole and Rat conduct their night-time search for the lost son of Otter, they become aware of a haunting melody carried on the Wind. They are irresistibly drawn by the tune to a patch of earth over which a sense of dread, wonder, and majesty hangs. Here, in this sacred grove, they encounter a beautific vision of Pan. Transfixed, enraptured, and unutterably at peace, they bow in worship. And just as quickly, the vision disappears and their memory with it.
Pan’s gift to Mole and Rat is both a fleeting glimpse of Himself and a veil of forgetfulness so that they would not linger on that experience to the neglect of everything else. Having experienced the undiluted beauty and glory of God, how could they easily go back to “messing about in boats”? So Greene reminds us:
“For this is the last best gift that the kindly demi-god is careful to bestow on those to whom he has revealed himself in their helping: the gift of forgetfulness. Lest the awful remembrance should remain and grow, and overshadow mirth and pleasure, and the great haunting memory should spoil all the after-lives of little animals helped out of difficulties, in order that they should be happy and light-hearted as before.”
The whole episode fills one with that ancient, now long obsolescent feeling of “dread.” It’s a terrible and wonderful sensation.
There is a great deal here that a biblical Christian should appreciate and even accept—Christ is indeed the Lord of the Jubilee, the “Friend and Helper” of little creatures such as sparrows, flowers and frail men, the Lion of Judah and Lamb that was slain. There is definite truth in the fact that when we finally behold Christ, his blinding beauty, glory, and irresistible power will instantly transform and beautify our souls, purging it of all lesser loves (Rom. 8.1; 1Jn. 3.1ff). Indeed, like Pan’s song which is carried along the Wind, a song that creates and upholds the world, so we live in a world infused with the Spirit of Christ performing the same unconscious, untraceable functions (Jn. 3.8; 16.7ff.).
But Christ’s one, greatest gift is not the “gift of forgetfulness.” Perhaps we can say He grants us the gift of sins forgotten, but not the gift of forgetting Himself. Christ does not first reveal something truly and effectively to us, only to take it away again. For the Christian, our grasp of Christ in faith should not produce despair nor a sluggish indifference to the present world in which we are placed. It should not produce an unquenchable, debilitating longing because we know that Christ—through his incarnation, atonement, resurrection, and ascension—does not transcend our earthly joys of “mirth and pleasure” but rather embraces them, redeems them, and will one day perfect them. Here below, we do ache with longing to embrace the tangible Christ, but we do so with memories aflame with praise and hope. All lesser loves become complete loves, and our lives in the world become full and free, instead of frantic and discontented (like Mr. Toad’s).
Matthew Claridge (M.Div. Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Th.M. Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is an editor with Credo Magazine and the senior pastor of Mt. Idaho Baptist church in Grangeville, Idaho. He is married to Cassandra and has two children.