The Wind in the Willows – Excision of a Piper?

A very long time ago copy
A very long time ago copy

Somewhere in a corner of my tiny flat, in a bag with other bags piled on top of it, is the copy of Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows that my parents bought me and which I read before I reached the age of 10. Though it is literally decades since I last read it, I keep it, not only for the direct link it gives me to times gone, but because it is a good and great book. I must find it now, and re-acquaint myself with the Mole, the water Rat, Mr Toad and Mr Badger, and the magic that existed on the Riverbank.

What prompts me to this determination is a letter in today’s Observer from one Geoff Fenwick of Southport (shame on a fellow Lancastrian). Apparently, I cannot link you to the letter in question, so must precis the same here.

Mr Fenwick writes in respect of a feature upon children and Speed Reading, published two Sundays previously, and commented upon in the ‘Letters to the Editor’ section a week hence. Mr Fenwick suggests that he is “…uncertain if pupils need to read every word in a book once they become proficient.” His example is The Wind in the Willows, and in particular the “allegorical chapter titled, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, which many boys and girls might well ignore.”

Mr Fenwick does not give a reason why boys and girls, however many they be, and how they shall be distinguished from the remainder who, we must infer, are abandoned to do as they wilt, should avoid this chapter. Instead, he admiringly proffers John Steinbeck for his advice that readers who found his “passages or chapters self-indulgent or too wordy” to miss these out.

Indeed, with evident approval of its application to ‘The Piper at the Gates of Dawn’, Mr Fenwick quotes Steinbeck’s term for such writing, ‘hooptedoodle’.

The term comes from a brief prologue to Steinbeck’s novel, Sweet Thursday, and you can link here to the prologue itself and a thoughtful discussion of its implications that suggests that Mr Fenwick is perhaps being less than apposite in quoting the term so approvingly.

No, I find myself asking exactly why Mr Fenwick is suggesting that younger readers of The Wind in the Willows (or at least ‘many’ such) should transfer directly from Chapter 6 of the book to Chapter 8, omitting what is, by common consent, the most intense, moving and deeply lyrical passage of the book. The answer is, unfortunately, self-evident.

I would hope that for most of you who read this there would be no need to explain ‘The Piper at the Gates of Dawn’ but for those of you who have never read a book that is now over a century old and may be regarded as too old-fashioned, there may be a need. The chapter does not form part of the main narrative strand concerning Toad, and indeed he doesn’t appear in these pages. Simply told, Otter is concerned about his young pup, Portly, who has gone missing. The Water Rat  and the Mole set off in Ratty’s boat to hunt for the missing child: they fall into a mystical experience in which they find Portly safe and secure, sleeping at the feet of the God Pan, whom they regard with awe, love and fear. Lest their minds be troubled afterwards, Pan removes their memories of this encounter.

Everything about this chapter is on a level higher than elsewhere in the book. Though this is Pan’s only incursion into The Wind in the Willows, he was a common figure in other of Grahame’s work, and there is learned discussion as to whether the author worshipped Pan.

If he did not, he was able to understand those who did, and place that worship into the heads and hearts of two small, and in truth vulnerable creatures, and through them communicate that experience to readers, even those under the age of ten. I always found “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn” a strange experience, something where the book went into waters deeper than elsewhere, waters where it was impossible to tread for any length of time. The chapter is essential to the book, but in a way that I recognised even at so young an age, it is not of it.

What Mr Fenwick is advocating, without declaring his colours, is censorship, withholding of a non-Christian, yet very powerful experience from those on whom it may have a powerful, perhaps even formative effect. I disagree with him, utterly. I would have a smidgen of respect for him if he were open in his intentions, instead of furtive.

I grew up not a pagan. I grew up baptized into the Church of England, but I was never confirmed, and over the years I have moved further across the scale until I now pragmatically call myself an atheist. For many years, I had the strongest taste in my literature for Fantasy and SF: in that respect, “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn” may be said to have been the basis of that imaginative interest.

I need to find the book, to re-read it after so many years, to immerse myself in its pages once more, free from censorship.

And on a less emotive note, I simply cannot support suggesting to boys and girls that they leave anything out. If it is there it is there because the author chose for it to be there. You should read more, not less, expose yourself to as many things as possible, not fewer, to prepare yourself properly for deciding on what you believe, and who you are. Don’t let people tell you to leave things out. Especially when they won’t tell you why.

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