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 very trippy.
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, they can’t remember what it was. It's actually completely beautiful. Rat and Mole have this 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 and they forget it entirely. In fact, it's never mentioned in the story again.
It's just so strange to find such a serious and large moment hidden in the pages of this cute and silly story that it makes me wonder, is it just a little aside or is it the very soul of the book? Was Kenneth Grahame a pagan? C.S. Lewis definitely used fantasy to explore Christian themes. Is it possible that The Wind in the Willows is actually a pagan allegory? (Here's where I started actually reading the book, and disappointingly, it's not a pagan allegory. It's really just a story about a Toad in a motor car and some meddling weasels.) Still, Rat and Mole's encounter with Pan clearly has religious overtones.
"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 capitalized pronoun, the exclamation point, it's like ecstatic poetry. The tone throughout the whole passage is rapturous. For a moment I thought maybe it was Christian allegory, but this is definitely no Christian God they find.
“he looked in 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 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 panpipes 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 very hooves, sleeping soundly in entire peace and contentment, the little, round, podgy, childish form of the baby otter.”
"Rippling muscles", "parted lips", that's not erotic or anything. Grahame is definitely revealing something about himself, I'm just not sure what. It's possible he was a pagan. He definitely loved nature. He wrote a collection of short stories called The Pagan Papers, but it’s not about paganism at all. Though there is a short essay entitled “How I Lost My Christian Faith”. If you were to label Grahame anything, it would be an escapist. It is somehow not surprising that he spent most of his life stuck in an office in the city, working for The Bank of England. Like Joyce, who could only truly see and write about Dublin while living as an expat in Paris, it seems Grahame wrote about the countryside to escape the drudgery of the city. This must be what makes his descriptions of the natural world so rich and lush, and on this occasion otherworldly. He was always in another world — always dreaming of the quiet river banks and fragrant woodlands of the country. It was said of him that he did not quite “fit in” in London – that he resembled a wild creature that had been taken out of his natural habitat, uncomfortably and awkwardly trying to make sense of where he was. It was also said that he was a firm believer of the fairy world and spent time seriously discussing its inhabitants and the “manners and customs of that country.”
The Wind in the Willows, which began as bedtime stories to his son Alastair (possibly the inspiration for Toad), 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.