Sunday, June 08, 2008

Favorite Books: The Wind in the Willows:'Spirit of Divine Discontent and Longing'

Friend Cooper’s comment a few entries back inspired me to revisit an old friend. I first read The Wind in the Willows when I was ten. My family was spending a year in London, and during the Christmas season we attended a panto entitled Toad of Toad Hall. Loving the production, I was then thrilled to learn there was a book involved, one in fact that was already a great favorite with my mom, dad, and sister. I soon joined their ranks. I think I reread the book sometime in my twenties, but even that was so long ago that this visit felt almost like the first time. I had forgotten so much! How could I have forgotten about the Wild Wood, Badger, the weasels, the Jail-keeper’s Daughter?

This time through, perhaps because it was almost a new book to me, I became aware of a theme I’d never noticed before. Throughout the book Mole, Rat - and countless unnamed birds and fieldmice - find themselves hearing and responding to strong calls, voices of some great, unbodied presence, that command or entice them to action. In describing a specific call, the author paints this general portrait:

We others, who have long lost the more subtle of the physical senses, have not
proper terms to express an animal’s inter-communications with his
surroundings, living or otherwise, and have only the world ‘smell’, for
instance, to include the whole range of delicate thrills which murmur in the
nose of the animal night and day, summoning warning, inciting, repelling.
The book begins with Mole answering one such command. He’s in the midst of cleaning his little home:

Spring was moving in the air above and in the earth below and around him, penetrating even his dark and lowly little house with its spirit of divine discontent and longing. It was small wonder, then, that he suddenly flung down his brush on the floor, said ‘Bother!’ and ‘O blow!’ and also ‘Hang spring-cleaning!’ and bolted out of the house without even waiting to put on his coat. Something up above was calling him imperiously...

Mole soon meets two life-changing friends, the Water Rat, and the River Thames. (For both animals, the river is as much companion as habitat.) In responding to Spring’s command, Mole’s life is expanded, and invigorated. Three seasons later, however, during a mid-December walk with Ratty, he experiences a different call.

It was one of these fairy calls from out the void that suddenly reached Mole in
the darkness, making him tingle through and through with its very familiar
appeal, even while as yet he could not clearly remember what it was. He
stopped dead in his tracks, his nose searching hither and thither in its efforts
to recapture the fine filament, the telegraphic current, that had so strongly
moved him. A moment and he had caught it full again; and with it this time
came recollection in fullest flood. Home!

After a brief misunderstanding, the Rat and the Mole pay his home a visit, settling in for a cozy evening that soon includes local fieldmice carolers. After the party, as the two of them nod off to sleep,

[Mole] let [his eyes] wander round his old room, mellow in the glow of the
firelight that played or rested on familiar and friendly things which had long
been unconsciously a part of him, and now smiling received him back, without
rancour. He was now in just the frame of mind that the tactful Rat had quietly
worked to bring about in him. He saw clearly how plain and simple – how narrow,
even – it all was; but clearly too, how much it all meant to him, and the
special value of some such anchorage in one’s existence. He did not want to
abandon the new life and its splendid spaces, to turn his back on sun and air
and all they offered him and creep home and stay there; the upper world was too
strong, it called to him still, even down there, and he knew he must return to
the larger stage. But it was good to think he had this to come back to, this
place which was all his own, these things which were so glad to see him again
and could always be counted upon for the same simple welcome

The Water Rat experiences two calls as well; the one he and Mole experience together I will get to in a moment, but the one he experiences alone I am still mulling over. Though it is only just past high summer, Rat notices – to his irritation – that many other animals are making preparations for autumn; the field mice are seeking out winter quarters, the birds are making plans for their flight south, if they haven’t left already. A quartet of swallows is particularly eloquent in describing both the call south in autumn, and call north in spring, thus increasing Ratty’s discontent.

Restlessly the Rat...lay looking out towards the great ring of Downs that barred his vision further southwards – his simple horizon hitherto, his Mountains of the Moon, his limit behind which lay nothing he cared to see or know. Today, to him gazing south with a new-born need stirring in his heart, the clear sky over their long low outline seemed to pulsate with promise; today, the unseen was everything, the unknown the only real fact of life.
To brings matters to an even greater boil, Rat is soon joined by a Sea-Water Rat. After six months living on a farm, a life he considered "the best" the Sea Rat is nonetheless "tramping southward, following the old call, back to the old life, the life which is mine and which will not let me go." He captivates Ratty with stories of life on board, the exotic sights and sounds of travel, and in ending says,
And you, you will come too, young brother; for the days pass and never return,
and the South still waits for you. Take the Adventure, heed the call, now
ere the irrevocable moment passes! ‘Tis but a banging of the door behind you, a
blithe some step forward, and you are out of the old life and into the new! Then
some day, some day long hence, jog home here if you will, when the cup has been
drained and the play has been played, and sit down by your quiet river with a
store of goodly memories for company.

Initially Ratty chooses to follow this summons, though his moving like a sleep walker ‘with slow deliberation’ suggests a creature possessed rather than one answering a higher call. As he’s about to leave, Mole runs into him; disturbed by his odd, listless behavior, and the fact that his eyes are ‘'that of another animal’s’' (they are now the "streaked and shifting grey" of the Sea Rat’s, not Ratty’s normal warm brown), he physically prevents him from leaving the burrow. Rat struggles at first, falls into a storm of weeping, finally succumbing to an exhausted slumber. Upon waking he’s unable to explain things; "[e]ven to himself, now the spell was broken and the glamour gone, he found it difficult to account for what had seemed, some hours ago, the inevitable and only thing."

This is the only time in the book that a character chooses not to accept the call, and I’m still unsure what to make of that. The pattern of an Odyssey is used throughout the book; hell, the final chapter is called The Return of Ulysses. The best I can come up with is that while Rat feels generally restless and discontented, he never actually hears the call of the South himself; rather he becomes infected with the experience as it hits other animals. First the birds, then the Sea Rat mesmerize him (perhaps literally, in the case of the latter) with their own longings. For them it is in their natures, but for Ratty, apparently it never is. The gentle expansion Mole experiences is somehow in keeping with his nature; running off to sea simply isn’t for his friend. I’m still not fully satisfied with this answer, but it’s the best I can do for the present. Perhaps it's not a coincidence that this story of a call is the last such one to occur chronologically. Is the author suggesting some wayfaring is a fine thing, but abandoning one's home completely is not? I welcome thoughts from others. I find it touching that Mole talks him back into a state of health first by casually talking in detail about the pleasures of the coming autumn, then suggesting, "It’s quite some time since you did any poetry,’ he remarked. ‘You might have a try at it this evening, instead of – well brooding over things so much. I’ve an idea that you’ll feel a lot better when you’ve got something jotted down – even if it’s only just the rhymes." Perhaps epic travel isn’t for Ratty, but creating (and perhaps the concomitant flights of imagination) clearly is. With these actions, Mole mirrors what Ratty did for him, back in December, in his little home.

One of my, and my mother’s, favorite stories involves a call Mole and Rat experience together, one that is literally divine. Out in the middle of the night in search of a lost otter child, first the Rat, then the Mole become aware of enticing piping that brings them to a small island.
‘This is the place of my song-dream, the place the music played to me,’ whispered the Rat, as if in a trance. ‘Here, in this holy place, here if anywhere, surely we shall find Him!’
Then suddenly the Mole felt a great Awe fall upon him, an awe that turned his muscles to water, bowed his head, and rooted his feet th the ground. It was no panic terror – indeed he felt wonderful at peace and happy – but it was an awe that smote him and held him and, without seeing, he knew it could only mean that some august Presence was very , very near. With difficulty he turned to look for his friend, and saw him at his side cowed, stricken, and trembling violently.... He looked into 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 humorously, 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 hooves, sleeping soundly in entire peace and contentment, the little, round, podgy, childish form of the baby otter...
‘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.
... The sun’s broad golden disc...took the animals full in the eyes and dazzled them. When they were able to look once more, the Vision had vanished, and the air was full of the carol of birds that hailed the dawn.
As they stared blankly, in dumb misery deepening as they slowly realized all they had seen and all they had lost, a capricious little breeze, dancing up from the surface the surface of the water... blew lightly and caressingly in their faces, and with its soft touch came instant oblivion. For this is the last best gift that the kindly demigod is careful to bestow on those to whom he revealed himself in their helping: the gift of forgetfulness. Lest the awful remembrance should remain and grow, and overshadow mirth and pleasure, and... spoil all the after-lives of little animals helped out of difficulties, in order that they should be happy and lighthearted as before.
Does it surprise anyone that it was from this chapter that Dear Sweet Cooper drew his quotation?

Of course you know where this is going, don’t you. I have been feeling the call of some voice lately too. It’s the reason I spent so much time wandering about in parks last month, average walk lasting three hours. If all the voice wanted was for me to experience one of the finest urban MaysI ever have, I would be satisfied. I suspect though that the walks are also intended to help me clear my head, lower the static a bit, so I could better hear the real message. Is it calling me to adventure or home? It’s probably wishful thinking, but right now I think the answer is ‘yes’. Whatever joys this place holds for me, it has never been home, and I’ve always known that. Where home is, however, is by no means clear. If it were, I’d have gone there ages ago. Whether it's a journey of geography or psychology, I have a sense that my next adventure will be the search for home. That said, I've been feeling pretty lighthearted most of the time lately. I may be feeling a ‘divine longing’ but I wouldn't say I'm that discontented. Whatever else the voice may be saying, I think right now it's telling me"wait, be patient, it’s not yet time." I'll keep taking my nature walks; all the photos in this entry are from a walk near my home that I’ve taken several times in the past three weeks. I want to tell you about them, why they’ve surprised and delighted me, but this has already become an epic tome. So I’ll save that for another entry.
Side note: Blogger is acting odd again today, so my quotations, first in block mode, then changed to italics, aren't behaving. Whatever I do in the entry seems to bear little effect on what actually gets published. Just to reassure you, the entire novel is not written in some bizarre blank verse.


Jess said...

For many, the search for "home" is a long, perhaps never-ending, journey. It may not be so much a search for place as for a state of mind and contentment. It may be more of a search for enlightenment and self-realization. You may find more of that "home" in service to others (especially since I know you're a giving person), or you may find that quiet, introspective times give you what you need.

Or maybe it's just a matter of finding a quiet sunroom and a Labrador-type animal to commune with. I understand that sufficient canine cuddling can do wonders for one's contentment. ;)

oscar said...

I think I might even be further from home than you are, Patrick. I don't even know where to begin to look... I know it's definitely not here and I know it's definitely not going to be somewhere by myself.

Somehow I feel like I am losing time staying where I am now. Can that be?

Eric said...

Dear, sweet Patrick. You are a bull goose loony raving mad MYSTIC!! They mystic journey is indeed a search for "home", be it geographical or otherwise. It's at once delightful, invigorating, mindless, and terrifying. But it's also a helluva lot of fun! :-P

Java said...

I should probably read that book.

I know the uncertainty of which you speak, experiencing something similar myself. I wish you clarity and success on your journey of discovery.

Greg said...

I've intended to re-read this since Coop's clearly already had a copy at hand! Now I really need to get my hands on it...

I think I've been feeling some kind of call myself lately, so this post was a right interesting read for me and well-timed. It only helped that it was so thoughtfully written and illustrated with these great photos!!

Thanks, Patrick!!

Father Thames said...

Read through to the end of the page.

Birdie said...

The search isn't out there; it's inside. But going out may help you find what you're looking for. May your walks be fruitful!

somewhere joe said...

I hear two great calls in this story and, I believe, on our lives: one from the stars, and one from the earth. They're both our home. Between the two, and back again, there's room enough for our stories, which we sometimes live to tell. And room enough for our treehouse, or farmhouse, or penthouse, whatever hole feels like home.

When Cooper posted the Wind, I went back and read some. I was touched anew by the characters' tender deference to one another (up to a point, of course), amid their flaws and foibles, their general forebearance. No it doesn't surprise me, Patrick. There's a benevolent, protective spirit at the heart of Nico's Niche too.

"That said, I've been feeling pretty lighthearted most of the time lately. I may be feeling a ‘divine longing’ but I wouldn't say I'm that discontented." That strikes me as a hallmark of a call's authenticity. The peace. I was discussing this with Steph a while ago. Once you know, there's suddenly no crisis. You're halfway home. If not more.

Butch said...

I can see I missed many stories like this one whilst growing up and I have played "catch-up" reading as an adult.

The old expression, "Home is where the heart is," has some truth to it. I have lived in many places and many areas of this country and living in the Northwest has been the longest I have stayed put without the urge to pick up and go where I fancy. I know one makes it a home when one's heart is involved in the process. In the quest for the heart becoming whole, there you will find your true home. My best to you on this journey.

Anonymous said...

I read this wonderful book to our children at least twice - but I would have to choke up over The Piper at the Gates of Dawn.
It is so strange that Graham could express himself in no other way - he was seen to others as a rigid, emotionless individual.
Was Richard Golden still playing Mole when you saw the panto - he was very old.

Gillian said...

This post was sheer lovliness Patrick. Makes me almost weepy.
My mum tells me about seeing pantos as a child in England. She also has read several times your Wind in the Willows and has told me to read it.
I guess I will now.
Oh, and your roommates hat is ten gallons flat.
tee hee!!!