Monday, August 30, 2010

REF: Wind in the Willows (Response to Robin)

Robin has once again given me again the material for a blog entry. Robin is a friend who has one year from obtaining her English degree. She is intelligent and insightful and is also a lovely person! I know very little about literature, but I do have an admiration for it, and have watched some of the classics she has read. So we have some good exchanges despite my ignorance.

The background to this reflection is the following: I sent her a couple links of episodes from the highly-acclaimed 1980s British animated (claymation) television series, "The Wind in the Willows", because I thought she might enjoy them. As it turns out, she not only watched it as a child (as did I), but she is taking this novel with her favourite professor this semester! So it turned out well.

The episode she focused on was called "Wayfarers All", which was also Chapter 9 of the book. The other episode I speak of was called "Piper at the Gates of Dawn", which was Chapter 7 of the original book. For those who are not familiar with the book or the series, I really do not know if you will get much out of it.

Robin! You're giving me another great opportunity for another blog entry - but I probably won't this time (have too much else to write - and what I am about to say is "inside information" - only for those who have a familiarity with Wind in the Willows, which isn't too many these days).

How interesting you are taking this in the Fall! (and with your favourite prof!) At that point you can tell ME what it all means.

My understanding of the novel is that it was a subtle social commentary. The TV series, I believe, tried to create episodes in the same spirit (which is quite apparent in the first season as well as the fourth season - which dealt with the problem of the railway threatening the Riverbank and Wild Wood). So when you mention "a universal struggle with the 'modernization' of the 20th century" as well as "a disillusionment with colonialism and capitalism", I can definitely see that. This is where authorial intention is key, and where a knowledge of the historical situations, the attitudes toward various issues and controversies of the day, and the different movements or modes of thought on those issues and controversies. You are in a better position to evaluate these than I am (you are the English Lit expert, after all!)

Now, for Ratty's bewitchment [rubbing my hands together right now!] Chapter 7 (The Piper at the Gates of Dawn) and Chapter 9 (Wayfarers All) were not included in the original movie - they were made into separate episodes in the first season. Readers of the novel have always noticed a sort of disconnect, like these chapters don't really "fit in" with the plot, and were like separate stories that were just thrown into the novel willy-nilly. Most readers think it is just an anomaly and leave it at that. But I disagree.

First, consider that these chapters are sandwiched between the three chapters on Toad and his adventures. I think that is significant - although I do not (yet) know how that is significant (probably because I have not actually read the novel all the way through, or if I did, it has been over 20 years).

Now, just to begin with what you said. You say "in general, adventures in literature are a good thing". You cite as an example the Hobbits. But I am not sure adventures in literature are a good thing. Usually, adventures are almost like a necessary evil - the protagonist needs to go (or get sent) on a "mission" to "set things right". Is it a good thing the Hobbits went on their adventure? Yes and No. Yes, it was a good thing because the ring needed to be destroyed, but No, it is not something they wanted to do aside from the fact that it was necessary in the face of the evil that was threatening their existence. They would have rather remained in the Shire living their simple and obscure lives. The same could be said for Alice in Wonderland, the Chronicles on Narnia, etc. They are not simply pleasant, fun, and enjoyable adventures, but dangerous, difficult, and sometimes deadly missions. They are positive in the sense of a victory over evil concerning the latter and not in the sense of the former.

I do not think Ratty's adventure is seen as negative in the exact same sense, but there is something akin here. I was thinking about these two chapters one day after watching the respective episodes, and I was struck by the similarities. Yet, the thing that confused me was that the Sea-faring Rat was painted in a negative light (an "evil" character), while the Piper at the Gates of Dawn was a hero (a "good" character). It got me to thinking about how the Devil disguises himself as an angel of light, how he is a counterfeiter that seeks to present all things and come across in such a way that appears to be indistinguishable from God and that which is godly. However, a demon cannot hide his horns, so to speak, and thus there are always little indications that something is of Satan or of God.

What struck me with the Piper and the Sea Rat was their common use of music. The Piper allured Ratty and Mole, while the Sea Rat enchanted Ratty through the use of song. Now, remember that music is used both by God and by Satan. Think of Gregorian Chant (and how people have been converted to Christ through it), think of the Book of Revelation, where the music perpetually rings out, think of all those movies in which two people fall in love to the music playing from record players and tape machines. Now on the flip side, think of how Rock and Roll was banned by many stations when it first came out because it was considered "the Devil's Music", how the worshipers of the Golden Calf were reveling in song and dance, how pornographers and strip joints make use of music (but a type of music and sound which contrasts sharply with the music couples fall in love to in the movies).

Notice I said the Piper "allured" while the Sea Rat "enchanted". This, I believe, is a key distinction, and goes to the point I want to make - namely, that I think the Piper is a God-figure or a type of Christ, while the Sea Rat is akin to the Devil.

*NB* The Piper speaks about "binding wounds", seeking and finding "the stray" (the lost sheep), springing the trap (Psalm 124), and refers to himself as a "helper" (ie. "advocate") and "healer" ("divine physician"). Notice that the "statue" that "saved" Portley was that of the Greek god "Pan". Notice that in english, this name is a double-entendre - "pan" as a prefix in the English language means "all-encompassing", or one might say "universal". Here I think of the prayers over the bread and wine at the Offertory at Mass: "Benedictus es, Domine, Deus universi", literally "Blessed are you, Lord, God of the universe" (our current translation is inaccurate). Our God is the God "of the universe", of all, his love and power is "all encompassing". **

*NB* The Sea Rat, on the other hand, speaks about "wine, women, and song". He speaks about the first and third explicitly, and then he mentions how there is a "new ship in every port". Catch that? The old sailors used to speak about having "a girl in every port". Also, notice the Sea Rat's response to Ratty's challenge that the Sea Rat's life is not all that it he makes it out to be - he denies that there are trials and challenges, and instead promises only pleasure, fun, and enjoyment! Now who does that sound like to you? No Cross. That is the Devil. And if you watch "Unlikely Allies", the wicked stranger Weasel, "the one who watched", who Badger said had "sinister powers of persuasion", had that same look in his eyes that the Sea Rat did when attempting to gain power over the other weasels. It is shown at least three times. That weasel, "the one who watched", was vanquished in the end, but Badger prophesied, "he'll be back. Not in the same form and maybe not in our lifetimes, but the same evil, you can be sure. It never goes away". You see, that weasel is a type of Lucifer.**

So your third possibility, namely, "Ratty's desires speak of the desire for the eternal, for the great adventurous relationship with the Divine, which he is pursuing in the wrong place?" is the one I would go with. He is looking for God in all the wrong places. Notice what Mole says at one point: "that's not like Rat". He was not acting like "himself". When you hear someone say, "he is not acting like himself", it is almost always a bad thing (except in the case of conversion when for a period of time the new convert becomes a much better person).

This is where I think another of your possibilities come in, namely: "Ratty's desires ... speak to the colonialism theory ... : England seeks redemption through global power and soon industrialization....In this case to stay in the pastoral setting of rural England Ratty has more of a chance of meeting the Divine: the simplicity of lifestyle and closeness with God's creation will facilitate his spiritual growth...." I will leave that to you to speculate further on - that is more your area of expertise. In a subsequent response I might explore this further, but I am hungry and tired (thanks, Robin! - and I'm being both sarcastic and sincere), so will have to think and possibly write about this later.

As for this possibility: "Ratty's foiled desires speak to the Englishman's inability to think beyond himself in the world. England, especially a provincial one, is the only view he has. Any attempt to think outside the box is foiled, and the Englishman returns to his sleepy, narrow, British ways", that does not fit into my interpretation. However, I think there is some truth to this, but once again, I will have to get back to this later.

Okay, hopefully that prepares you even more for the upcoming semester. When you get a chance, watch "Piper at the Gates of Dawn" and "Unlikely Allies" - that might provide more clarity.

As it turns out, this is going to be another blog entry - it won't fit into the Facebook message box. Thanks again!


  1. If there's one thing Christianity suffers from, it's its unfortunate & uneccessary disconnection from Nature. Kenneth Grahame addressed this in his 'Pagan Papers.' As a devout Christian, C.S. Lewis confessed in his letters how Christianity lacked "the Joy of the Old Religions' towards the natural world, and is in part what spurred him to write the Narnia books. Tolkein, also deeply religious, was an admitted anarchist who delighted in Luddite attacks on Industry.

    So the question is: will Christians step up and save Creation, or seek "dominion" over it, siding with Industry and thus destroy it? I believe the above authors were wrestling with this issue in their own way.

  2. Thanks for "tuning" into my blog, "Toongirl". How did you stumble upon this article? I thought this was the last blog post I would get a comment on.

    Your insight is excellent - thanks for sharing! I am going to pass this along to Robin and see what she says; or maybe I could get her on here to post a response.

    You have produced a short film?

  3. You may well wonder, Sir St.Onge! I came across your blog inadvertantly while trying to find more info on the WiTW 'Unlikely Allies' episode. I'm a newly proud owner of the complete DVD collection of this wonderful series. Such a shame we don't have anything nearly as good for children in the States...but I digress. For an animator, it's a gem of a find. And yes, I'm currently producing a short film in the feverish hope I'll finish before Spring.

    It's a shame that some Christians see Tolkein as an unspiritual fantasy writer while C.S. Lewis is viewed as a more appropriate Christan author. I remember when the movie 'Narnia' was released, the local churches in my area sent out flyers stating, "at last, a fantasy film for _us_!"

    That being said, I personally would love to work on an animated feature based on 'The Book of the Dun Cow' by Walter Wangerin Jr. Did you ever get to read that story?

  4. Well by golly, I just did a google search for "Wind in the Willows Unlikely Allies", and poof! up it popped on the second page. Interesting ...

    You people in the US really missed a lot of great children's programming. We had the best of three worlds - America, Britain, and Canada. And Canada had some real gems (Friendly Giant, Mr. Dressup, etc.)

    All the best on your film! No, I am not familiar with that book you mention.

  5. Robin wanted to post a reply to you, Toontown, but was not able to (a glitch or something). So I told her I would post for her. This is what she had to say:

    "I agree with her though. I just feel that the eco-interpretation of these authors is sometimes over-done today. Interpretation of literature goes through it's own fads and phases, and right now, we're all on the eco kick. It's an importa...nt aspect of Tolkien, Lewis, and Grahame here, but not the only aspect! The LOTR movies reflect this fad, I think: there is an over-emphasis on Tolkien's mourning of the "Shire," his beloved pastoral England. The other themes, of course, are not completely ignored....:

  6. My brother stunbled upon those awkward episodes when watching the wind in the willows. At first glance, it looks like an innocent cartoon that pulls you in gleefully. I didn't know it had so many hidden meanings. But I do not agree that the piper represents God in anyway. The whole cartoon is a Pagan get-up. Nothing christian about it.