There is a striking passage in The Problem of Pain where C.S. Lewis writes about awe and the Numinous. He draws on Malory, Shakespeare, and Wordsworth to exemplify his points but also approvingly quotes a rather unexpected source: Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows.
A modern example may be found (if we are not too proud to seek it there) in The Wind in the Willows where Rat and Mole approach Pan on the island.
“‘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.’”
Lewis may well have had this passage in mind ten years later when he wrote The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. On first hearing about Aslan, Lucy asks Mr Beaver whether he is safe. “’Course he isn’t safe,” the beaver replied. “But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.” This short interchange prepares us for the first meeting between the children and Aslan himself many pages further on in the book. It is a meeting that is strongly reminiscent of Rat and Mole’s encounter with Pan for the children were also afraid and yet they were not, and their eyes shone with unutterable love:
But as for Aslan himself, the Beavers and the children didn’t know what to do or say when they saw him. People who have not been in Narnia sometimes think that a thing cannot be good and terrible at the same time. If the children had ever thought so, they were cured of it now. For when they tried to look at Aslan’s face they just caught a glimpse of the golden mane and the great, royal, solemn, overwhelming eyes; and then they found they couldn’t look at him and went all trembly.
C.S. Lewis was not the only Inkling to have been impressed by The Wind in the Willows. J.R.R. Tolkien also wrote appreciatively about “this excellent book” in his essay on fairy-stories, though he was mildly critical of the Pan episode in early drafts of his essay. The reason for his unease, however, is very revealing of his own attitude towards the Numinous in fiction.
In one draft he wrote that, “I personally think that in Pan we have that addition of an extra colour that spoils the palate: but it only comes in one corner of the delightful picture.” In another draft he added that “Pan has no business here: at least not explicit and revealed.” The second half of that sentence is important. Tolkien was certainly not rejecting awe or the Numinous. What he disliked was the explicit presence of the religious. As he famously wrote to Robert Murray S.J.:
The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision. That is why I have not put in, or have cut out, practically all references to anything like ‘religion’, to cults or practices, in the imaginary world. For the religious element is absorbed into the story and the symbolism.
The problem with The Wind in the Willows, we might suppose, is not that it had a religious element but that it was not fully absorbed into the story.
Kenneth Grahame’s classic story may have been admired by both C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien but it is a fundamentally different book from anything either of them would have written and it is worth exploring further the nature of this difference. The key to it, I think, is Grahame’s attitude towards home.
The Wind in the Willows famously begins with the Mole flinging down his brush and bolting out of his house. However, before long Mole is safely ensconced in another fine home where he resumes his happily settled existence until he is tempted to wander into the Wild Wood. There he is saved from the stoats and weasels when he stumbles across yet another home: Mr Badger’s comfortable sett. And, of course, there are more homes to come, the most important of which is Toad Hall where the food “was excellent, of course, as everything at Toad Hall always was.” In this respect at least, The Wind in the Willows resembles the opening of The Lord of the Rings for Frodo also stumbles from home to homely home before eventually entering regions far from home and its comforts.
In this reading, the most important chapters of The Wind in the Willows are the two that are most often cut in abridged versions: Dulce Domum, in which Mole returns – albeit briefly – to his own home and Wayfarers All, in which Rat is almost lured away from his for good. It is no coincidence that Grahame reserved his purple prose for these chapters and for The Piper at the Gates of Dawn in which Pan appears. They are the emotional and poetic core of the whole book.
The Wind in the Willows is a novel that celebrates home and yet it ends bathetically. Toad returns to Toad Hall but he is now a strangely subdued creature. He has been conquered but not converted. Mole, Rat and Badger prevent him from singing at his homecoming feast but, deep down, he is still the same vainglorious creature he was at the start of the book. And Mole, who left his own home at the beginning of the book, drops out of view as well. He does not return home and his new place of residence is not celebrated at the book’s ending. He is out of place and it seems as if Grahame did not quite know what to do with him.
One way of interpreting all this is to say that The Wind in the Willows implicitly points beyond itself to a home that has not yet been reached. That is how it differs from the Narnia books and The Lord of the Rings which are quite explicit about the fact that our true home lies beyond the confines of this world. Reading the work of Lewis and Tolkien, we can hardly forget that we are “poor banished children of Eve” and that our great hope is to find the rooms that have been prepared for us “after this our exile.” The Wind in the Willows nudges us in the same direction but that is as far as it goes. That may be the reason why it was admired by Lewis and Tolkien; that may also be the reason why they didn’t write more about it.
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