Sunday, August 3, 2014

The Strangeness of The Wind in the Willows

'Beyond the Wild Wood comes the Wide World,' said the Rat. 'And that's something that doesn't matter, either to you or me. I've never been there, and I'm never going, nor you either, if you've got any sense at all. Don't ever refer to it again, please. Now then! Here's our backwater at last, where we're going to lunch.'
I reread The Wind in the Willows recently. This got me thinking about an early review, published in the TLS in 1908.


If you find that hard to read, I've typed it out for you here.

In the past, I've just found the review amusing. Given our culture's broad acceptance of the motoring Mr Toad, the boating Ratty, Mr Mole and the rest, Lucas's bafflement seems stranger than the things themselves. Even setting aside modern familiarity with the book, such a reaction seems extreme. After all, this is a children's fantasy published while Peter Pan was playing in the West End, at a time when Alice in Wonderland was an accepted classic. Oddity was an accepted part of the literary landscape. What, then, would explain the puzzlement?

It does not seem that it is just a case of a reviewer mismatched to the material. The references to Grahame's other work demonstrate familiarity, and Lucas himself wrote books for children. The thing that puzzles me is not that Lucas disliked the book, but rather the way in which he disliked it. Is a book that appears to seem so obvious to us now really as elusive as Lucas insists?

Rereading The Wind in the Willows, I have come to think that Lucas's bafflement did not stem from a lack of perceptiveness, but rather from perceiving a genuine strangeness in the book, which he found himself unable to properly account for. He perceived a puzzle, I think, which he was unable to solve. I think that I am able to offer at least an attempt at a solution, and my thoughts are outlined below.

Perhaps the most obvious peculiarity in the book is the way that the characters seem to change size between scenes. Ratty and Mole are, for example, able to fit comfortably inside a hollow tree together, but also able to operate a clearly human-scale caravan, pulled by a full-size horse. Badger is clearly described as much larger that the Rat and Mole, but all seem able to comfortably share living quarters where necessary. On its own, perhaps this would not be significant. This is not realistic fiction, and ignoring questions of scale is convenient for the narrative. However, it seems to me that this inconsistency runs more deeply, and more significantly, in the text

The relationship between the the animal protagonists and the human world is notably changeable. On some occasions, the animals are clearly part of society. Mr Toad, in particular, is very engaged (although he is not alone, being accompanied in his early cart trip by Rat and Mole). Toad lives in a stately home, regularly buys motorcars and is eventually pursued, imprisoned and then pursued again for stealing one. However, while the majority of Toad's story concerns his adventures in the Wide World, he clearly has the ability to leave it too. After escaping prison, Toad is pursued to the riverbank itself, and then falls into the river. From that moment on, all pursuit ceases, despite Toad's pursuers being in sight of him when he falls. He remains seemingly invisible to the outside world even after resuming his old life at Toad Hall.

At other times, the animals clearly assume the role of wild and timid observers, unseen and unknown. Badger's account of the growth and decline of a human city on the site of the Wild Wood, in chapter 4 ('Mr Badger'), is one example. Similarly, we are told in chapter 5 ('Dulce Domum') that 'the animals did not hold with villages, and their own highways, thickly frequented as they were, took an independent course'. If we contrast this with Toad's 'poop-poop!'s and it seems clear that there is a fairly major inconsistency in the book's handling of this issue.

I'm obviously not the first since Lucas to notice these oddities. A current Kindle 'Super-Short Synopsis' reads: 'Animals live like humans in a world where it's improbably implied humans also live. Anthropomorphism done wrong'. That seems to sum up the apparent problems with the book very well. These elements of the book do not appear to make any conventional sense. Without this sort of internal consistency, what are we meant to make of this book? What is its 'real inner purpose'?

But, more pressingly, why even ask? Why worry about whether a children's fantasy makes sense? Setting aside my desire to defend a book that I enjoy, I think it is, in general, worth taking children's books seriously. These are stories that, for many of us, shape our most fundamental ideas of the world. We may not believe in talking animals, even as children, but we often believe and absorb much of the philosophy that they espouse or represent.

Even without relying on that general contention, I don't think that The Wind in the Willows is the sort of children's book where sense is irrelevant. It is not merely frivolous, parts of it are highly serious in their apparent intent. I think that, without justification, inconsistency would mar the book, undermining both its fun and its seriousness. I think that this is very much the conclusion that Lucas reached, but which I wish to oppose.

I think that two of the less popular sections of the book, chapter 7 ('The Piper at the Gates of Dawn') and chapter 9 ('Wayfarers All'), are fairly explicit illustrations of the role that inconsistency plays in the story. Both of these sections, in my view, deal with a tension between the comfortable, prosaic and homely charms of a sheltered life, on one hand, and the lure and danger of romance, spiritual elevation and adventure on the other.

'The Piper at the Gates of Dawn' is perhaps the better known of the chapters, if only for inspiring the title of the first Pink Floyd album. In this chapter, Mole and Rat encounter the 'demi-god' Pan, and are then lulled back into forgetfulness by a divinely sent breeze. The exposure to Pan is clearly an exposure to the numinous, to the essence of the divine, but it seems also to hint at some sort of brush with the noumenon, the thing-in-itself, a reality loaded with significance and potency, and yet somehow unknowable to the senses. It seems, to me, to invoke a paradox of sensing beyond sense and senses, of experiencing beyond perception and reason.

This paradoxical wonder is both reinforced by and contrasted with Pan's final gift, that of forgetfulness. We are told, by the narrative voice, that this forgetting is the greatest gift of all, because remembrance would destroy pleasure in ordinary life. However, I think that the animals' forgetfulness serves a more significant role: it preserves the position of the profound and the spiritual in the realm of the unknowable, even after exposure. That is to say, I think it acts to maintain the paradox of direct exposure to the thing-in-itself.

Without the atmosphere of ambiguity and inconsistency, the sense that reality, even in its cuddliest form, is not wholly to be trusted, I do not think that the artistic effect of 'The Piper at the Gates of Dawn' would be achieved anywhere near so effectively.

I think that the latter chapter, 'Wayfarers All', makes a related but distinct point, which is similarly reliant upon the atmosphere established by the book's inconsistencies. In this chapter, Ratty encounters a Sea Rat and, seemingly literally enchanted by his tales of adventure, sets off to follow the path of a wanderer. Ratty is soon stopped by his friend, the Mole, who goes so far as manhandle and lock the Rat in their home, in order to prevent him heading off on his quest. There is a passing desolation and sadness in the Rat, at being denied his adventure, but, in a scene in which we observe him writing poetry, it is indicated that he recovers from this in due course.

There seems, to me, an undeniable tension here between the ideas of home and simple happiness on one hand, and a wild and painful joy on the other. This is a tension that seems to be reproduced, in less obviously romantic terms, at other points in the book. The central conflict between Toad and his friends, for example, is a conflict between the wild, joyful and dangerous and the sensible and respectable. Another example is Mole's terror at finding himself alone in the Wild Wood, and the removal of this peril by the arrival of Rat and his discovery of a simple domestic door-scraper.

These conflicts and contrasts, I believe, provide context and justification for the amiguity and ambivalence that pervades the book. The world beyond and surrounding the comfort of the riverbank takes a number of forms: the mystical, the technological, the legal, the adventurous and so on. Each of these is seemingly alien to the cosy lives of the animals eating picnics and messing about in boats, but the passages discussed above suggest to me that these elements form a persistent background, even a potential threat, to this gentle world.

My view is that this atmosphere is sustained by the inconsistencies in the text, which seem to function more as necessary ambiguities than simple errors. As a reader, my conscious perception of the animals' changes in size is limited. Rather I mainly experience a state of barely acknowledged uncertainty about it. This slightly uncanny and wrongfooting experience seems to replicate certain experiences of the characters. For example, although Mole and Rat forget Pan almost in the very instant of sighting him, they are unable to shake their sense of something important continuing to occur. The frightening and destabilising elements persist through their cosy reality, even when they are utterly denied. If we were to clarify and stabilise the book, I feel that it would lose a considerable amount of its impact.

I do not think that Grahame is constructing a broad metaphor here. In particular, I do not think that the riverbank can be said to represent childhood against the cares of adulthood in the Wide World, which might seem like an appealing reading to some. I do not think that the book defends or privileges one of its poles over the other, although it should be noted that its plot does seem to resolve in favour of the prosaic. I think that the effect of the book is to indicate the persistence, the danger and also the value of the adventurous and uncanny in our lives.

Despite exposing us to and heightening our sense of this incompatibility, I feel the book might also make one suggestion about how we are to reconcile, or at least mediate, it. The cure for Rat's wanderlust, and the ensuing depression at being unable to follow it, as prescribed by the doting Mole, is writing poetry. Mole suggests that Rat would feel better for having 'something jotted down—if it's only just the rhymes'. It is once he is engaged in this work that we are assured that Rat's cure has begun. Artistic activity seems to form some sort of practical connection between the impulses towards home and towards adventure, and allow an emotional acceptance of the possibility that one cannot fully and unambiguously exist in either state, without the intrusion of the other.

While I am personally sceptical of the existence of "Art", in its capital-letter sense of an endeavour seperate from other aspects of human life, I think that certain kinds of artistic activity do have this characteristic. Engaging in artistic or creative labour, the process of finding 'just the rhymes', while having one's intention fixed on the creation of something of value, forms a framework that, for a particular moment and particular context, stabilises the relationship between the transcendent and the everyday. There are also, I would suggest, other activities that bring together the practical and the sublime, through this combination of focused activity and focused intent. I think any non-alienated labour might well suffice, but, to me, perhaps the most significant of these activities is the practical labour of love.

Whether the above is an answer to the puzzle that Lucas found in The Wind in the Willows is something that I expect will remain unknown to me. However, it seems to me that Lucas was correct to identify a puzzle in the book, despite apparently finding it of no personal interest or significance. I also think that his reference to affection for Grahame's earlier works strongly suggests these as further reading for me, if I am looking for a better understanding of these questions.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

#251 To Violets - Robert Herrick

Oh good, a flower poem, short and sweet, like its subject. I like flower poems a lot, and they seem to sum up a lot of what I like about poetry. The sort of flower poem I really enjoy is an exercise in enlightened greed. It takes a simple subject and sucks the marrow from its bones. The flower is enjoyed, explored and, perhaps most importantly for me, gloated over. I love the sensation of rubbing my hands in glee at the fact that I have, in the imaginary treasure trove where I keep my joys, another intricate fancy stashed away. I am essentially a very frivolous Smaug.

This poem is not of my very favourite sort. The flower subject is a starting point here, an opportunity to play with flower symbolism, and perhaps the set-up for a slightly bitter joke. I'm not sure about that last one myself, but bear with me.

The author is someone whom we shall eventually get to know quite well, as Q has given us a decent handful of his poems to look at. Robert Herrick (1591-1674) was a clergyman, Royalist and advocate of a life well-lived. Before clicking through to the Wikipedia article, I advise you to brace yourself for the sights you will see there. Herrick seems to have been a sort of 17th Century equivalent to a 1980s footballer, all bubble-perm and luxuriant moustache. A kind of ur-Keegan, if you must.

One key aspect of Herrick's work seems to have been his insistence upon the importance of the good life. He dealt in the romanticised ideals of the Cavalier, those of wine, love, sensuality and song. This poem seems like quite a good introduction to some of this.
To Violets
 WELCOME, maids of honour!
    You do bring
    In the spring,
And wait upon her.
She has virgins many,
    Fresh and fair;
    Yet you are
More sweet than any.
You're the maiden posies,
    And so graced
    To be placed
'Fore damask roses.
Yet, though thus respected,
    Ye do lie,
Poor girls, neglected.
The dual symbolism of the violet, as a flower of virginity and of the funeral, is what is being exploited here. It is neatly done, I think. Several aspects appeal to me greatly. Firstly, the brevity with which the procession from honoured maid to neglected corpse is conducted. We move swiftly from welcome to departure in short, snappy lines. The poem is perhaps easiest for me to understand as two verses, each presenting first the preservation of virginity and then a criticism of it.

The first verse, if that's what it is, starts with salutation and plain description, but then seems to become almost facetious. I can't help but read the poem's tone in this way. The violets are described as sweeter than any of the other virgins, but virgins are suggested to be commonplace. It is the preservation of virginity, perhaps, which lends the special sweetness, but which also seems to be implicated in an uncommon pride. This theme seems to continue into the second verse. The violets are graced to be placed first of all, and yet this does them no good. They end up lying neglected, just 'poor girls'. It is here that the funeral symbolism of the flower is employed. It seems that those who preserve their virtue too well end up with no joy of it in the end.

I think that I read this facetious tone in the way the poem employs its mixture of short and long syllables. The words that find a special weight and slowness in my mouth, among what are largely clipped and tripping phrases, are those that relate directly to the concept of virginity: 'maids', 'virgins', 'sweet', 'maiden', 'respected', 'poor', 'neglected'. It feels like I trip from point to point, coming up against the emphasis thrown upon these words, and almost drawling them. If we imagine that this list forms the argument of the poem, a shift appears from one archetype of virginity to another, from sweetness to spinsterhood, from maiden to maiden-aunt.

As to what I think of this, I'm not sure. Criticisms of virginity can all too easily devolve into criticisms of female sexual agency. There is something very unpleasant in the idea that the value of female sexuality is as a currency to be spent or hoarded, and which must either be debased or neglected. Shades of the Madonna-whore complex fall too easily here for me to feel very friendly toward this poem, despite my respect for its functioning.

I suspend judgement on Herrick and women, however (much to his relief, I am sure). From my brief reading around, it seems that Herrick himself may have been much more chaste than his poetry might imply. The idea that this poem might represent a sort of self-mockery is appealing to me. If the true subject of the poem were not women, but the poet himself, my concerns would essentially evaporate. Reading the poem on the basis of this assumption, the tone seems to deepen and soften for me. If the clipped syllables represent a self-deprecatory glibness (that tone many of us use to dig at ourselves without wishing to be thought self-pitying) then the whole piece seems, to me a least, a little funnier, a little sadder and a lot more likeable.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

#763 The Toys - Coventry Patmore

Oh thank goodness for that. Second chance out and we've got something that looks much like a winner, 'The Toys' by Coventry Patmore (1823-96). For context, the key thing in readings of Patmore seems to be gender politics, in particular the significance of his poem 'The Angel in the House' (1854-62), a study of marriage, which contained a highly influential account of idealised Victorian womanhood. While Patmore's ideas of femininity are not the subject of the poem today, the notion of the ideal woman does seem relevant. It's worth noting, on this point, that 'The Toys' was originally published in a volume, The Victories of Love (1862), that included a section of 'The Angel in the House'

    The Toys
    MY little Son, who look'd from thoughtful eyes
    And moved and spoke in quiet grown-up wise,
    Having my law the seventh time disobey'd,
    I struck him, and dismiss'd
    With hard words and unkiss'd,
    —His Mother, who was patient, being dead.
    Then, fearing lest his grief should hinder sleep,
    I visited his bed,
    But found him slumbering deep,
    With darken'd eyelids, and their lashes yet
    From his late sobbing wet.
    And I, with moan,
    Kissing away his tears, left others of my own;
    For, on a table drawn beside his head,
    He had put, within his reach,
    A box of counters and a red-vein'd stone,
    A piece of glass abraded by the beach,
    And six or seven shells,
    A bottle with bluebells,
    And two French copper coins, ranged there with careful art,
    To comfort his sad heart.
    So when that night I pray'd
    To God, I wept, and said:
    Ah, when at last we lie with tranced breath,
    Not vexing Thee in death,
    And Thou rememberest of what toys
    We made our joys,
    How weakly understood
    Thy great commanded good,
    Then, fatherly not less
    Than I whom Thou hast moulded from the clay,
    Thou'lt leave Thy wrath, and say,
    'I will be sorry for their childishness.'
Two things really strike me here. The obvious things, of course. First, the accuracy and pathos of the description of childish fancy in the face of overmastering distress. Second, the difficulty and pain of governing others and punishing their sins, and the religious significance of this.

To take the second first, the religious aspect to the poem enters early on, with "having my law the seventh time disobey'd". While seven is obviously a proper biblical number for all sorts of reasons, I suspect that, here, a specific allusion is being made to Matthew 18:21-22. This is the bit where Peter asks Jesus how many times he should forgive the sins of his brother, and whether seven times is the charm. Jesus replies that he should forgive not "Until seven times: but, Until seventy times seven". The Matthew author is perhaps making reference to Proverbs 24:16, where it is asserted that a just man may fall seven times and still yet rise again. On this reading the poem seems to suggest that, in punishing his son as he does, the narrator has made a moral mistake.

The feminine motif enters the poem at this point. The reason given for the narrator's conduct is that his son's mother is dead. There is a certain blunt brilliance to the delivery of this news, particularly poignant because of its autobiographical nature. Patmore's first wife, born Emily Andrews, did indeed die, in 1860, when Patmore's youngest son was around two years old. 'The Toys' seems to have been first published in 1862, and is so dealing with a new grief. In the poem, the fact of the absence seems defining. The narrator's conduct is apparently wholly explained by the absence of his wife. One might initially call this mere Victorian misogyny, and I'm sure there's a helping of that in there, but I think there is something more interesting too.

Victorian romantic love was, in significant part, connected to the notion of the union of souls. While such love was in some sense genderless, then, a heteronormative culture will inevitably require that the standard union is between the soul of a man and the soul of a woman. The notion that a complete soul requires both masculine and feminine elements does not seem too great a stretch from this point.

"So what?", you ask? Well, I think this becomes interesting when considered in respect of the God perspective invoked at the end of the poem. One might argue that a shift is represented from the Old Testament hypermasculine God of Proverbs, who allows 7 transgressions (and those only to the just), to the New Testament God of Matthew, who provides at least 490 chances to be forgiven, and whose nature is less emphatically male. Jesus as feminiser is hardly a new concept, but it's interesting to detect an echo of it here. The plea, in the narrator's prayer, for mercy, taken with the implication that a just and good God would feel sorry for the childishness of humanity, reinforces the notion that what is presented is not simply an account of hope about the nature of God, but rather an argument for what that nature might or must be.

Moving on from speculation, I have really only a little to say about the thing that moves me the most in this piece, which is its account of the distractions and treasures arranged near the child's head for comfort. We all reach out for comforts in life. We're OK while we're being distracted. For many of us, it can seem like distraction is all we have. We have disposed of the Father, with his "great commanded good", there is no possibility of ultimate forgiveness for our sins or for our pitiable triviality. It's a comfortingly depressing, anti-materialist and anti-modern reading. But you know what? Screw that.

This poem functions by taking the reality of human forgiveness and love and imposing them on an imagined creator. We should take this seriously; both represented aspects of life are real. Yes, our joys are as trivial as the toys of a child, but our responsibilities are as weighty as those we once placed on the shoulders of a god made in our image. The responsibilities were always ours. Growing up, as a person or as a culture, involves embracing both the triviality and the seriousness of existence, not insisting upon an idolatry that values one at the expense of the other. Only by being both the son and father is there any hope for the human spirit.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

#204 Sweet Content - Thomas Dekker

And so the first number is drawn from the tombola and the task begins. Turning to #204, we find Thomas Dekker's 'Sweet Content'. This is the only Dekker poem included by Q, and at first glance, I wonder whether even so meagre a selection might not have been overgenerous.
Sweet Content
ART thou poor, yet hast thou golden slumbers?
            O sweet content!
Art thou rich, yet is thy mind perplex'd?
            O punishment!
Dost thou laugh to see how fools are vex'd
To add to golden numbers golden numbers?
    O sweet content! O sweet, O sweet content!

Work apace, apace, apace, apace;
Honest labour bears a lovely face;
Then hey nonny nonny—hey nonny nonny!
Canst drink the waters of the crisped spring?
            O sweet content!
Swim'st thou in wealth, yet sink'st in thine own tears?
            O punishment!

Then he that patiently want's burden bears,
No burden bears, but is a king, a king!
    O sweet content! O sweet, O sweet content!
Work apace, apace, apace, apace;
Honest labour bears a lovely face;
Then hey nonny nonny—hey nonny nonny!
Well maybe we have to cut Dekker (c.1572 – 1632) a little slack. He was, after all, a dramatist and pamphleteer, rather than a poet, and this song is drawn from his 1603 play Patient Grissel, written in collaboration with Henry Chettle and William Haughton. It is identified as a song in the text, by the way, and perhaps the fact that it is intended for a musical setting goes some way toward excusing its imperfections. Perhaps.

Certainly the imperfections, taking this as poetry for the page, are apparent. The amount of fruitless repetition starts to grate on me long before I get to the end. I make it eight "nonnies" in total and the same of "apaces". Not to mention a round half-dozen "contents" and sundry "sweets". It rather reminds me of that writer on Lord Gnome's distinguished organ, Mr Phil Space. In the context of melody perhaps this would be acceptable, but it seems very unlikely that it will actually be good. One reason I say this is that Dekker seems to fundamentally misunderstand the nature of a refrain. Instead of summarising the disparate elements of the song with strong repetition, the scattered refrains merely further split an already confusing whole.

The other reason for doubting whether melody can work much magic here is that it has been tried, relatively recently, with distinctly lacklustre effect. Here's the Spotify link: Ruth Golden – Sweet Content. This is a performance of Peter Warlock's 1919 musical setting of the lyric. As you can hear, it's pretty terrible. I know nothing about Warlock, apart from the fact that he possessed an idiotically snazzy beard, but he seems to have been reasonably well-respected by his contemporaries, and I've no particular reason to doubt their estimation. Simply listening to the piece, I can hear the lack of coherence in the lyric infecting the music. We're not going anywhere apart from stir-crazy with this one.

What really puzzles and disappoints me about this piece is the incomprehensible rhyme scheme, although the term 'scheme' dignifies that which does not deserve the honour. The first chunk is actually a relatively interesting and pleasing ABCBCAB. The repeated "golden numbers" in line 6 reinforces the rhyme with line 1 really quite sweetly. After that, though, we're off to the races, and losing badly. The second and third stanzas seem to have no interest whatever in employing rhyme to any purpose, and those rhymes there are seem shoved in pretty much at random.

So no, I don't like it, and I'm not really sure how anyone could. However, the words "golden slumbers" should provide a clue to the fact that Dekker was capable of producing a pretty lyric on occasion, and even that he did so in the piece 'Sweet Content' is drawn from. The more familiar lines, found later in Patient Grissel, are these:
Golden slumbers kiss your eyes,
Smiles awake you when you rise;
Sleep, pretty wantons, do not cry,
And I will sing a lullaby…
A lyric familiar to millions as adapted by Paul McCartney for the Abbey Road medley. Now one might argue that, in 1969, McCartney could've adapted anything and made it sweet. All I have to say to that is that I'd like to have seen him try with this piece of dreck.

A poor start Q, a poor start indeed. But I trust you to lead me on to much better things, old friend.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Travelling Theatre RPG campaign mind-map

So this is a bunch of ideas I had for how to create a fantasy RPG campaign based around the idea of a travelling theatre. The PCs would be members of the company, initially fairly low ranking. The premise makes it simple to move the PCs, while maintaining a continuity of NPCs, background plot and motivation. Also, there are lots of fairly obvious plot starters involved in being part of a travelling theatre.