Before The Wind in the Willows
On the mysteries of childhood, the company of books, and two early books of wonder by Kenneth Grahame.
Of all mysteries, childhood, to steal the perfect adjective from Herman Broch, is the most opaque. We wake up in adulthood with very little intuition as to where we left the innocence our infant years possessed; but something certainly happened to separate us from it, and from early, easy intimacy with our family, and from the world so sweetly offered to us before we grew unwise enough to worry.
Returning to books we loved in childhood, or to books our children loved, is one way to pull ourselves through the rough brush of experience and reenter the enchanted forest of childhood story. Few books mark that path more surely than Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows. From its first pages, in which the amiable Mole and the resourceful Water Rat inaugurate their friendship with a waterborne picnic, the book transports us to a genial and welcoming world. The story of life on the riverbank is peopled with a cast of players — Rat and Mole, the formidable Badger, the ebullient, alluringly incorrigible Toad — who move right into the family room of one’s imagination and take up residence as old friends. While Toad’s antic escapades with caravan and motorcar provide comedy and excitement, the quirks and qualities of his fellow characters prove to be every bit as charming and memorable.
The Wind in the Willows grew out of bedtime stories that Grahame invented for his son Alastair. But he was always a child at heart. His two earlier books, The Golden Age and Dream Days, written before the author became a father, collect tales and reminiscences that lovingly evoke the imaginative camaraderie of a family of youngsters. They’re well worth the attention of the countless readers who love the book which followed them; herewith are introductions to both.
The Golden Age
My favorite chapter in The Golden Age is the episode entitled “The Roman Road,” which depicts, in beguiling terms, the romance a road proffers a young imagination. The narrator, having slipped the society of his siblings and the imperious gaze of “The Olympians” (those adults who watch over the book’s family of children without seeing very much), sets off for a solitary ramble on the only “road of character” that traverses his local precincts, the avenue he seeks whenever “the sense of injustice or disappointment was heavy on me, and things were very black within, as on this particular day.”
He isn’t exactly running away; he’s walking out of the realm of domestic circumstance in order to leave an old mood behind, and perhaps find a new one on the one road in his purview that offers a “masterful suggestion of a serious purpose, speeding you along with a strange uplifting of the heart.” His imaginative transport is certainly abetted by his intuition that the path he treads is the same one Miss Smedley described during a history lesson, “a strange road that ran right down the middle of England till it reached the coast, and then began again in France, just opposite, and so on undeviating, through city and vineyard, right from the misty Highlands to the Eternal City.” Such an itinerary suggests many marvels, and the boy happily plots his course through fabulous visions as he moseys through the countryside: “Rome! It was fascinating to think that it lay at the other end of this white ribbon that rolled itself off from my feet over the distant downs.”
The dream that animates him is not a destination, but a destiny (however airy and insubstantial it may prove) drawn only for himself. Indeed, “The Roman Road” looms preternaturally large in the landscape of The Golden Age because, unlike the roads that parse the map of an adult traveler and plot with assurance what lies ahead, this one doesn’t define the walker’s vista, but rather lures him toward a world only his imagination can create; it’s a white ribbon that rolls itself off from the feet of childhood into the glittering cities of a private and mythic future, a future longed for by the youthful narrator, and lingering in the mind of the nostalgic adult who supplies his words (and who assumes an affectionate presence in the story in the figure of the Artist, a sometime resident of Rome, who engages in whimsical roadside conversation with the protagonist).
The dual perspective of “The Roman Road” — the keen ingenuity of a child’s attention complemented by the reflective reminiscence of a weathered, wistful intelligence — is characteristic of this book and its companion volume, Dream Days. Both were written in the last years of the nineteenth century, as the author, at the time a bachelor official in the Bank of England, looked back with fondness at his own golden age. (Grahame’s masterpiece, The Wind in the Willows, composed in the glow of his late fatherhood, would follow a decade later.) Poised so artfully between two states of being, Grahame’s vignettes of growing up evoke, simultaneously, both the energies and the evanescence of innocence.
That childhood is indeed a separate state of being — a domain of privileged dimensions in which time and space have yet to assert their regular and unrelenting laws — is the wisdom that imbues all of Grahame’s writing with its distinctive poignance. The dream days he recreates for his readers unfold in an unbounded territory that the years have yet to settle into a more circumscribed abode; the vivid and adventurous terrain of childhood, in which no knowledge exists outside the child’s ken, in which whatever has not been encountered possesses neither sense nor substance, is summoned from memory and recognized as a land called into being by the apprehensions of its inhabitants. Any road that crosses it will be a “Roman” one, an invitation to expectancy and inspiration, an assertion of the powers of providence and a challenge to the resources of the self. Such a road does not determine where we go or what we see, for the landscape it crosses is given shape by our seeing; every step contains a promise of discovery, every horizon the hope of an unknown world. The road may be real enough, but its true reach is only measured by its metaphoric grasp.
The contemporary critic who called this book “every reader’s biography” captured precisely its abiding spirit
Walking the Roman road with Kenneth Grahame is the reader’s route back to a quality of mind that is as supple and subtle, inventive and impetuous, as naive and as generous as the one he or she once, unknowingly, rejoiced in as a child. That the mode of transport is literature — an art, as Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch once observed, which “teaches by apprehension not comprehension” — is entirely appropriate, for the act of reading, almost alone among adult pursuits, affords the willing sojourner the same sort of invitation that the “road of character” offers Grahame’s unnamed narrator.
It is this largesse that accounts for the compelling affection so many of us feel for the company of books, in which our passions and devotions, however grand or unremarkable, are discovered and enhanced, honored and obliged, in which vast tracts of experience can be explored afresh, and our own small escapes cut through the thickets of time that come to entrap us. “The Roman Road,” indeed, all of The Golden Age, leads us toward a city built of reverie and wonder, memory and story. The contemporary critic who called this book “every reader’s biography” captured precisely its abiding spirit; it is a happy excursion to follow one’s fate through its pages.
There is no better evocation of what it means to be lost in a book than that summoned in the chapter of Dream Days called “Its Walls Were as of Jasper,” in which the protagonist, giving voice to the family of children whose imaginations animate this volume and its companion, The Golden Age, describes the inspiration they take from the picture books they pore over with collective enthusiasm and individual intensity. Games and dramas are created from details of dress and demeanor, action and architecture, and characters are allotted: Edward, the oldest, always assumes by right of age the stance of whatever hero is portrayed, while the other boys (the unnamed narrator and little Harold) are relegated to secondary roles; Selina is partial to posing as a begowned woman, leaving Charlotte to happily envision herself as “the child-angel seated at the lady’s feet.” Active minds, alone in reverie, are allowed free passage down the roads that wend their way through the backgrounds of the illustrations, “up a steep, conical hill, crowned with towers, bastioned walls, and belfries,” then down the other side “to water, tranquil, far-reaching, and blue,” where “a very curly ship lay at anchor.” Such at least is the suggestive topography of a favorite picture whose allure especially bewitches the teller of our tale.
Pressed into service one afternoon by his Aunt Eliza, one of “The Olympians” in whose charge the children are being raised, he is lifted from his own leisurely devices and carried off to pay a social call at a “big house,” where “people were apt to sit about dressed up as if they were going on to a party.” Aunt Eliza and her hostess soon have their heads together — “hard at it talking clothes” — and the restless youth slips off through an open door, “half concealed by the folds of a curtain.”
This was altogether a more sensible sort of room that I had got into; for the walls were honestly upholstered with books, though these for the most part glimmered provokingly through the glass doors of their tall cases. . . . In the window, though, on a high sort of desk, there lay, all by itself, a most promising-looking book, gorgeously bound. I raised the leaves by one corner, and like scent from a pot-pourri jar there floated out a brief vision of blues and reds, telling of pictures, and pictures all highly coloured!
If you haven’t already succumbed to the temptation, I invite you to leave me in the lurch and follow the realization of the boy’s discovery that the volume he has happened upon is an album of images elaborating the very world of figure and fancy first glimpsed in that special picture — its hill “crowned with towers, bastioned walls, and belfries” — that has so beguiled him. Losing himself in its riches, until he is found out by the fingers of an angry aunt on the scruff of his neck, his rapture knows no bounds. All the way home, even as he continues the crying provoked by the rude reproaches of the adults (“I maintained a diplomatic blubber long after we had been packed into our pony-carriage and the lodge gate had been clicked behind us, because it served as a sort of armour-plating against heckling and arguing and abuse, and I was thinking hard and wanted to be left alone”), he is transporting himself through the marvelous country the pictures conjure, amassing treasures that he will have and hold for the rest of his days. Indeed, he will keep them close at heart until he finds the words to share them — at which time, of course, readers will come to know the anonymous narrator by the name of Kenneth Grahame.
In his fourth decade, Grahame set out on a literary quest to retrieve from his own past the freshness of response and invention, the charmed and fraught innocence of early youth. Dream Days, like The Golden Age before it, is a testament to the loveliness and strange intimacy of the native resources with which the eager ecstasy of childhood invests our lives. Looking back with nostalgia and affection on what he has lost, Grahame exults in the exhilarations and freedoms he once knew, in the happy unknowingness that allows young minds to both plunder and enrich the scenes — natural, circumstantial, domestic, fanciful — the world has set for them. Such unknowingness is transformed through the years — by education, exertion, economics, ease, exhaustion — into a workaday surety, a confident competence often built on little more profound than the rigors or the cleverness of our routines. We grow farther and farther from the receptivity and pleasure such blessed nescience inspires, and soon forget that innocence is wisdom’s only begetter, for experience always talks too loud to let us listen to life’s best lessons. In their exuberant play (what pageants of passion are concentrated in that word!), children discover and create the motives, mysteries, and meanings that will come to inhabit the most resonant corners of their personalities; The Golden Age and Dream Days offer Grahame’s tribute to the hopeful, poignant way in which his own childhood still haunts his adult self.
The mind is a home to be dwelt in, not a warehouse to be stocked or inventoried
The writings collected in Dream Days, from “Its Walls Were as of Jasper” to the celebrated tale “The Reluctant Dragon,” convey the author’s long intimacy with his theme, providing him — and us — a passage into that passing state of being in which the wonder of the world is still taking shape before, and more importantly, within, the eye of the beholder. The genius of the place Grahame invites us to visit reminds us that creation informs consciousness (with the formative art embedded in the verb’s etymology) for as long as attention is supple enough to absorb its teaching. A journey through these Dream Days, or back in time to The Golden Age, suggests a truth that most adults and, in our age of imperious and ubiquitous information (any formative legacy forgotten), too many children, never realize: the mind is a home to be dwelt in, not a warehouse to be stocked or inventoried. Learning, at its most genuine and valuable, is the furnishing of that dwelling place, and growing up the arrangement of congenial and essential elements that we have assembled from the oddest places: from circus or schoolroom, forest or field, from purposeful pursuits or aimless games, from snippets of conversation or sermons that held whole Sundays hostage. In the process of this homemaking, we shape our souls, which is just what the children are up to as they elude the attention of “The Olympians.”
That we often find ourselves, as we grow older, living far from the home we have so lovingly, if unknowingly, constructed for ourselves in childhood, is no doubt a recognition that inspired the adult who sat down to write the gracious, well-mannered yet whimsical chapters that make up Dream Days. Composing his memories, he honors what his mind, heart, and senses gathered from the great galleries of nature and imagination which defined his boyhood, simultaneously capturing both the active ingenuity of youth and the reflective tenderness of reminiscence. Dream Days, then, is Kenneth Grahame’s homecoming, and perhaps the reader’s as well, for how better find a way into the enduring corners of one’s private dwelling than to lose oneself in the pages of a book?