Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The Piper at the Gates of Dawn

Now ... nestled in between the bit where Badger recruits Ratty and Mole for the recalcitrant Toad's intervention and fails (Toad subsequently getting twenty years for car theft and cheeking the police is an intervention failure by my book), and the bit where Toad chats up the gaoler's daughter (a good hearted and pleasant wench by anyone's book), there lies a chapter in the very centre of The Wind in the Willows called The Piper at the Gates of Dawn. Do you remember Ratty and Mole's midsummer  epiphany - the bit where they encountered God?

It's a funny thing that whenever I mention The Piper at the Gates of Dawn to folk who have read The Wind in the Willows, they frown and then sort of smile and say. "No, I can't recall reading that bit."
It is the point where Kenneth Grahame diverts from his Toad/Ratty/Mole storytelling and goes completely trippy in the most wonderful fashion. Pink Floyd certainly thought so. I do wonder if Grahame had partaken in nefarious substances whilst writing it, then woken up in the morning to read his previous day's work and thought, "No, that is still good, dammit. I'll stash it somewhere in the middle."

I see the Piper at the Gates of Dawn chapter as a fugue state, as experienced by both Ratty and Mole in the story when they encounter Pan - but also by the reader, who often forgets even being there. The fact that so many readers 'disremember' the night passage upriver on a search for the lost baby otter Portly, to the veiled island, to the irresistible song of Pan - just as Ratty and Mole later forget the whole thing is, well, kind of weird and fascinating to me ...

'Clearer and nearer still,' cried the Rat joyously. 'Now you must surely hear it! Ah— at last— I see you do!'
Breathless and transfixed the Mole stopped rowing as the liquid run of that glad piping broke on him like a wave, caught him up, and possessed him utterly. He saw the tears on his comrade's cheeks, and bowed his head and understood.

Oxford's psychiatric definition of a fugue state is when a person 'steps off', they lose their identity and the state is "often coupled with a flight from one's usual environment, associated with certain forms of hysteria and epilepsy." People reemerging from fugue states often have no memory of where they have been or who they were.  

Wouldn't it be lovely though to enter the fugue without those ailments, or to define the fugue as a geographical and spiritual location, a place both temporal and spatial. I read a spec fiction book years ago that had a Pan or Green Man character in it and he could be visited by entering the Fugue through some kind of portal. I'd like to go there, sometime.

'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. And still there was utter silence in the populous bird-haunted branches around them; and still the light grew and grew.

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 fulness of incredible colour, seemed to hold her breath for the event, he looked in the very eyes of the 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 humourously, 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 lips; 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.

The Piper at the Gates of Dawn
frontispiece from 1913 edition of “The Wind in the Willows” by Kenneth Grahame
illustrated by Paul Bransom

The Wind in the Willows, by Kenneth Grahame. Chapter 7.


  1. Awesome. Lovely bit of writing from someone who must have felt the Presence. An encounter with the divine.

    We can can enter the fugue state without 'those ailments'. I have on many very brief occasions (without drugs or alcohol) For me it happens in nature. The best thing is everyone can enter it but the trick is you can't 'try' - it just happens, will happen - spontaneously. Just stay receptive. When it does we sometimes don't believe it. It's like we have ben looking at something forever but not seeing it. But when it does happen, again and again - we can never again doubt there is a 'God'.

    The real paradox also is that it isn't 'over there', some-where or some-thing else.

    I think the reason miss that part of the book is that they aren't ready to see it. You obviously were/are. We tend not to see things until we are ready. I think it's a sort of protection mechanism so we don't lose the plot (or our minds!)

    1. Yes, I've had moments myself.
      And maybe it is not that people are not ready to see this chapter, as much as Grahame doing such an oblique yet drastic curve away from Ratty Toad and Mole's most excellent adventures.

  2. Me too. Used to anyway. Things have changed though. I'm polluted now, by all manner of stuff.

  3. Inspired writing that. Kubla Khanish..

  4. The sad thing is that this spiritual section of this marvelous book as been expunged in several more recent editions.
    This article in the UK Guardian by Rosemary Hill in June 2009 is typical of the nonsense that has been written about it.

    “Those of them who went on searching for the divine often found it enveloped in clouds of pantheism and neo-paganism, spiritualism and theosophy, the faiths of the doubtful. It is this diffuse but potent supernaturalism that appears in The Wind in the Willows in one strange, unsettling chapter, “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn”. It is a section that abridgers of the book have always been quick to drop, though Grahame himself thought it essential” … “Whether it is the latent homo-eroticism of the vision or simply the sudden change of tone that makes the scene so uncomfortable, it is certainly a failure. But while artistically it is the weakest part of the book, it is at the same time the key to it.”

    So a profound spiritual experience (also described by nature writers like Edward Thomas & Richard Jefferies) is deemed weak and goodness homo-erotic. Like the late Roger Scruton I despair about modern critics and their scornful rejection of these ancient notions of beauty and the soul.

  5. It is the most beautiful chapter in the book. I don't buy Rosemary Hill's politicised nonsense about it.

    1. I agree. That is why I wrote this post.

  6. FYI I made use of this article while writing mine on Van Morrison, dropping this weekend. You can catch it at Thank you!