Kenneth Grahame - The Missing Nature Mystic

15 March 2016

One of the questions I am frequently asked about Nature Mystics, is ‘how did you select which writers to include? Because it was a Pagan Portal, and by their very nature they are supposed to be introductory books, there were a lot of Nature Mystics that had to be left out in the woods. One of the ways I am able to remedy this is by sneaking one or two back in when I am giving talks, or by writing about them here.

I thought I would share an extract from the ‘Twentieth Century Literary Pagans’ talk I gave at Treadwell’s Bookshop in January, and the MEWW conference a month later. Its one of my

favourite bits from the talk, as I get to look at Kenneth Grahame, and the childhood favourite, The Wind in the Willows. At the point where this extract starts, I have been describing how early Twentieth Century literary proto-pagans find the Pagan Gods in the woods. At this juncture, Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Lolly Willoughes has just left a grand witches’ Sabbat in despair, as she seems to be just as socially inept as a witch as she was at Hunt Balls...

Finding a God: The Loving Huntsman and Pan

As Lolly sits on a fallen log, waiting for daylight, out of the trees comes striding a gamekeeper, who talks with Lolly in a kind way, and asks her if she will remain in Great Mop, as it would be a shame for her to leave now. Lolly realises that she has nowhere else to go, and the gentle and loving huntsman tells her that he will always be there to help her. All she need do is seek for him in the woods, and ask for assistance, and he will be by her side:

‘I hope you will stay here, Miss Willowes.’ She spoke a little sadly. In this unaccustomed hour her soul was full of doubts. She wondered if, having flouted the Sabbath, she were still a witch, or whether, her power being taken from her... And being faint for want of food and want of sleep, she foreboded the worst.

Yes, you must stay here. It would be a pity to go now.’

He came nearer and said:

‘Remember, Miss Willowes, that I shall always be very glad to help you. You have only to ask me.’

‘But where shall I find you?’ she asked, too much impressed by the kindness of his words to think him strange.

‘You will always find me in the wood,’ he answered, and touching his cap he walked away. She heard the noise of swishing branches and the scuff of feet among dead leaves growing fainter as he went further into the wood.

(Extract from Sylvia Townsend-Warner, Lolly Willowes and the Loving Huntsman)

Encountering the Pagan gods in the woods is a common theme in early twentieth century literature. What is unusual about Laura Willowes' encounter with the Loving Huntsman, is that she does not display the forgetfulness that often comes with these encounters. Meeting the pagan gods can often leave people (or animals) in a state of confused amnesia. Published for the first time in 1908, Kenneth Grahame began writing stories for his son, Alistair. The stories are brimming with beautiful nature imagery, and from the original first edition cover of The Wind in The Willows, there is a clue to something very pagan inside the cover. You may remember from childhood reading about their adventures, but there is one chapter that is frequently edited out completely, and reading it as a pagan adult, it’s not hard to see why. In ‘The Piper At The Gates of Dawn’, Mole and Ratty go in search of the missing Portly, a young otter who has strayed away from home and got himself lost in the woods.

As Mole and Ratty row along the river, they become ensnared in rapturous music that calls them on to something enchanting, and they are compelled to follow the sound to its source.

"This is the place of my song-dream, the place the music played to me," whispered the Rat, as if in a trance. "Here, in this holy place, here if anywhere, surely we shall find Him!"

Then suddenly the Mole felt a great Awe fall upon him, an awe that turned his muscles to water, bowed his head, and rooted his feet to the ground. It was no panic terror—indeed he felt wonderfully at peace and happy—but it was an awe that smote and held him and, without seeing, he knew it could only mean that some august Presence was very, very near. With difficulty he turned to look for his friend, and saw him at his side, cowed, stricken, and trembling violently.

Perhaps he would never have dared to raise his eyes, but that, though the piping was now hushed, the call and the summons seemed still dominant and imperious. He might not refuse, were Death himself waiting to strike him instantly, once he had looked with mortal eye on things rightly kept hidden. Trembling he obeyed, and raised his humble head; and then, in that utter clearness of the imminent dawn, while Nature, flushed with fullness of incredible colour, seemed to hold her breath for the event, he looked in the very eyes of he Friend and Helper; saw the backward sweep of the curved horns, gleaming in the growing daylight; saw the stern, hooked nose between the kindly eyes that were looking down on them humorously, while the 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 pan-pipes only just fallen away from the parted ips; 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. All this he saw, for one moment breathless and intense, vivid on the morning sky; and still, as he looked, he lived; and still, as he lived, he wondered.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.

(Extract from Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows)

Of course, Grahame is not the only writer to explore the pagan themes in children’s fiction. As children we may not have been consciously aware of what we were reading, but as adults it can be a delight to rediscover a few proto-pagan tropes, slipped in amongst the adventures and the magic.

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