On Piper at the Gates of Dawn

I have always been a fan of Pink Floyd’s earliest albums — Piper at the Gates of Dawn being one of the best — but it wasn’t until a few years ago that I discovered the title was taken from a chapter of The Wind in the Willows. I should be embarrassed for not knowing this. I played Toad in my high school's production, and the book has been sitting on my shelf for over 20 years. But I don't think I'm alone. It's a well known book, but my guess is few have actually read it.

So, I pulled it off the shelf one day and was looking at the pictures. I have the edition illustrated by Michael Hague (above). I discovered the Piper chapter and started reading it, and suffice it to say, I can see why Pink Floyd made it their album title. It's really trippy and weird and completely out of nowhere. 

The chapter finds Rat and Mole on a tiny boat under the willows, lazily drifting through the peaceful waterways, when Rat hears this distant music calling to him. 

So beautiful and strange and new! Since it was to end so soon, I almost wish I had never heard it. For it has roused a longing in me that is pain, and nothing seems worth while but just to hear that sound once more and go on listening to it forever. No! There it is again!” he cried, alert once more. Entranced, he was silent for a long space, spellbound." 

As it turns out, the music is coming from the god Pan who is playing his pan pipes. From out of nowhere, in this whimsical tale of the adventures of a Toad and his merry animal friends, the god Pan appears. He is seen just for a moment in the first rays of dawn, and then he disappears, and though Rat and Mole know they have seen something life-changing — a mystical vision of something magical at the heart of nature, something so sublime and beyond their comprehension that their little brains can not contain it — they can’t remember what it was. In fact, it's never mentioned in the story again.   

The Wind in the Willows, which began as bedtime stories to his son Alastair, was rejected by every publisher except one. Reviews said “grown up readers would find it elusive” and “children will hope, in vain, for more fun”. I would say the review still holds true for readers today. Were it not for the discovery of the beautiful little chapter tucked away in the middle, I don’t think I would have given it a second chance. But I’m glad that I did. It’s slow and overwritten, but it succeeds in conjuring up the feeling of a warm, lazy summer day in the country, cozy in the shade of the willows, whimsically day dreaming on the soft slope of the river bank. And this is something that desperately needs conjuring, as some days it feels like summer will never come.