By Day 11 Mr True Love has lurched from sweetly metaphorical, or at least agriculturally productive, through the dangerous combination of entertainment and aristocracy into full-blown martial mode. He’s sending eleven pipers to do his wooing business.
Now they could be playing the bagpipes. It’s the time of year for it.
In Scotland pipers are booked up years in advance for both New Year parties and Burns’ Night celebrations on (or about — because they often slip to Saturday night with its attendant recovery period) 25th January.
But eleven bagpipes? Well maybe, if you’re advancing on the field of battle. But as a token of a chap’s respect and affection? Um.
So more likely the pipers would be playing the fife, as in “Oh soldier, soldier, won’t you marry me, with your musket fife and drum”. Especially as we know what he’s sending round tomorrow. A fife is “a kind of small, shrill flute used with the drum in military bands.” True Love might just as well be saying to his inamorata, “Quick march!” Not alluring.
DAY 11 BOOK
This is the only specifically children’s book of our 12 Days of Christmas in Books. And I’ve loved it ever since I first read it. The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame.
It’s the story of small animals of the meadow and river bank, set in the upper reaches of the Thames which Grahame knew and loved as a child. We start with the Mole, who leaves home on an adventure in the first chapter. Then comes the best of good companions, the Water Rat (a vole) and, later, Badger, the voice of wisdom. And, of course, Toad, the vain and boastful lord of the manor. He’s a sort of Nick Bottom the Weaver with money to burn on fast cars and all his pet enthusiasms.
The animals are anthropomorphised to such an extent that they picnic with a handsome wicker basket, stuffed with goodies, and whitewash their homes every spring.
Their enemies are the Wild Wooders – stoats and weasels and such – and their greatest challenge is to reclaim Toad Hall from these vile invaders.
THE DAY 11 PIPER
So where is the Piper in all this? Well, among the gentle river explorations of Ratty and Mole, and the ungovernable sensation-seeking flash, bang, wallop of Toad, there is a little chapter where nothing much happens at all. The Piper at the Gates of Dawn.
Their friend Otter’s baby son has gone missing. The father goes every night to watch the place where he taught young Portly to swim.
Ratty and Mole were silent for a time, both thinking of the same thing— the lonely, heart-sore animal, crouched by the ford, watching and waiting, the long night through— on the chance.
So they row quietly up the river before dawn, to see if they can find the child. And first Ratty, then Mole, hears music. They push on through “blooming and scented herbage” until they come to a little lawn of a marvellous green, set round with Nature’s own orchard-trees— crab-apple, wild cherry, and sloe. And there – though Grahame simply calls him Friend and Helper –the friends see the strength, majesty and humour of the great god, Pan. And a great Awe came upon Mole.
… 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.
Basically, both friends have a transcendental experience, though each experiences it differently. Grahame may, or may not, have intended this to carry a Christian message. He was a classicist by training and it certainly works equally well as a pagan, Christian or classical encounter. Above all, it is kind.
And afterwards they receive the gift of forgetfulness.
Lest the awful remembrance should remain and grow, and overshadow mirth and pleasure, and the great haunting memory should spoil all the after-lives of little animals helped out of difficulties, in order that they should be happy and lighthearted as before.
As, indeed, they are many times in the rest of the book.
WHY READ DAY 11 BOOK?
My own first answer, is dear, dear Ratty, the kindest, most inventive, supportive, generous and good-humoured friend you could wish for. Indeed, the whole book is soaked through with a concept of friendship that I, as a fairly isolated only child, revelled in.
But why specifically the Piper chapter? Well, it makes a fantastic emotional impact. Christopher Milne, whose father was a great friend of Grahame’s and, indeed, turned the Toad chapters into the theatrical favourite Toad of Toad Hall, said that it was his mother’s favourite. Although she couldn’t read it without first hunting for her handkerchief.
As a child I loved it because little Portly was found. I was always painfully anxious about lost children. And I knew that Ratty and Mole were moved, so I was moved too. But I didn’t feel the Awe.
I suppose I still don’t, though I do feel the wonderful sense of place and growing things. And I empathise so much with Ratty and Mole that it doesn’t matter.
For a page or two, I feel what they feel. Transported.
So I suppose my second answer is: raw emotion. Gentle and kindly emotion, but boy, does it pack a punch. If you’re that way inclined, go for it. Grahame certainly did.
Do you know, I’ve never actually read it myself. Seen versions of it on stage and film, and heard lots of extracts. But it didn’t grab my interest. But your little piping excerpt certainly does and I may well end up reading it after all.
Oh, it’s lovely, Liz. So good on the countryside and the river. And the animals are so generous and supportive of each other that it’s an absolute model of friendship.
I think Grahame had rather a sad life. His only child, Mouse, was delicate and had to go off to the seaside to recuperate. I’ve been told that the stories started when Grahame used to write them for Mouse, instead of reading to him. His letter actually begins, “Dear Mouse, The Mole had been working very hard all morning…” No preamble at all, as if he is talking to the boy. I suspect that we see Grahame sublimated in poor Otter Papa.
Oh, YES! I felt exactly the same. I was given my dad’s copy (which I still have) and I adored it. I was a fairly isolated child, too, an only, whose two parents both worked full time, so I identified closely with the concept of friendship – if that makes sense.
Complete sense, Lesley. With you every step of the way.