Tuesday 13 February 2018

The Piper at the Gates of Dawn

"On either side of them, as they glided onwards, the rich meadow-grass seemed that morning of a freshness and a greenness unsurpassable. Never had they noticed the roses so vivid, the willow-herb so riotous, the meadow-sweet so odorous and pervading. Then the murmur of the approaching weir began to hold the air, and they felt a consciousness that they were nearing the end, whatever it might be, that surely awaited their expedition.

A wide half-circle of foam and glinting lights and shining shoulders of green water, the great weir closed the backwater from bank to bank, troubled all the quiet surface with twirling eddies and floating foam-streaks, and deadened all other sounds with its solemn and soothing rumble. In midmost of the stream, embraced in the weir's shimmering arm-spread, a small island lay anchored, fringed close with willow and silver birch and alder. Reserved, shy, but full of significance, it hid whatever it might hold behind a veil, keeping it till the hour should come, and, with the hour, those who were called and chosen.

Slowly, but with no doubt or hesitation whatever, and in something of a solemn expectancy, the two animals passed through the broken, tumultuous water and moored their boat at the flowery margin of the island. In silence they landed, and pushed through the blossom and scented herbage and undergrowth that led up to the level ground, till they stood on a little lawn of a marvellous green, set round with Nature's own orchard-trees—crab-apple, wild cherry, and sloe.

"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 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 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.

"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."

Pan by Arthur Rackham

I'm sure many readers will have recognised that extract from The Wind in the Willows. It's the moment when Rat and Mole encounter the god Pan as they are searching for a lost baby otter. You can read the whole chapter here.

I find this passage one of the best descriptions of a religious experience I have come across, particularly in the way it conjures up awe, reverence and holy mystery. Rat and Mole are two simple souls (these are the ones God likes best, I believe, for their lack of 'side') though Rat is of a more mystical bent while Mole is a little pedestrian and down to earth though, at the same time, a thoroughly decent fellow of complete goodness. They are not looking for God but on a kind of mercy mission, hunting for Otter's lost son, and so they come upon this experience completely out of the blue. Most genuine spiritual experiences are like this. Not consciously sought but given.

You might think this is a purely pagan experience, an encounter with the spirit of Nature by beings who belong only to that world. It is but also it isn't. For Rat and Mole may be animals but they are human too. They talk, have homes with furniture, row boats and, most important, they are moral creatures. They are not just animals though that is their outer form. They are also individual souls like you and me with similar thoughts and desires. So this is not just a bit of nature mysticism, though it is that. But I think it goes deeper to something approaching proper religion, and that is because I see the god Pan whom the animals encounter as not just the Pan of classical mythology but a pre-Christian being who has gone on to a higher state in which he is now the custodian for Christ of the natural world. He holds nature in trust from Christ and so he has, in a manner of speaking, been baptised. 

This is just a personal interpretation but I think it fits the description by Kenneth Grahame. I don't know if he was a believing Christian but, of course, he would have been brought up in that frame of reference and that comes through in this extract in which Pan is transformed from a satyr of dubious morality into a real divine being.

The reason I draw attention to this passage is because I see it as describing something lost by Christianity but which is part of a traditional English spirituality and so may justly be associated with the idea of Albion. That is the idea of Nature being permeated by the divine, the sense that every flower, every leaf, every blade of grass and drop of rain, glistens and sparkles with spiritual light. It is the immanence of creation, the pulsating life of God that is present throughout Nature but which we have become dead to by our focus on our own selves and our idea that Nature is but a machine and matter is just matter. Every atom glows with the presence of God and when we awaken to life as it is we see that.

No doubt we could not live in this world very effectively if we really saw it as it was too often. That is one reason spiritual experiences are brief. It is why in the story Pan erases the animals' memory of this encounter “lest the awful remembrance should remain and grow, and overshadow mirth and pleasure.” But I'm sure it is only their outer conscious memory that is so affected. In their hearts they will have the memory of this numinous encounter for the rest of their lives and it will drive them onwards in their spiritual search. 

So it is with the rest of us. We may have just one experience of a higher state of being but that can be enough to provide a lifetime's worth of food for the soul. It inspires us for the upward journey. After all, we are not here to have spiritual experiences. We are here to learn and to grow, and the powers that be know that too much bliss or joy is not conducive to spiritual growth. Why struggle to become better if we have all we want now? At the same time, we must hold fast to the truth of our most intense moments of being, knowing that these are harbingers of eternal life.


Bruce Charlton said...

@William - I love the book, and I love this passage.

Kenneth Grahame was one of the literary neo-pagans of the late 19th century - even publishing in The Yellow Book with the decadents; and he published a (very enjoyable) book of essays called The Pagan Papers


But as you say, this 'paganism' was (by contrast with nowadays) deeply Christianised by a childhood and school experiences, and the nature of Victorian society - and I think you get it exactly right when you express Pan's implicit nature here.

The Wind in the Willows is a book with a very good heart - excepting, I would say, the shallower chapters, focused on the antiheroic and annoying character of Toad.

But Rat, Mole and Badger are among the most decent, lovable and admirable characters in all of English Literature.

William Wildblood said...

Yes, it's a wonderful book and I agree that Toad is annoying. I also liked the chapter when Rat is almost lured to leave home and go travelling by the tall tales of another wayfaring rat. At least i think I've got that right. It's ages since I read the book.

I had no idea Kenneth Graham was what you say he was. All I knew of him was this book.

John Fitzgerald said...

Superb, William. I enjoyed the book very much as a child and can't wait, please God, to introduce my own children to it. The stand out chapters for me, like yourself, were 'The Piper at the Gates of Dawn' and 'Wayfarer's All'. When our teacher read the book aloud to us at school she missed out those two chapters. When I asked her why she said it was because they weren't relevant to the main story. I remember thinking, 'So what? They're the best chapters in the book.'

You're right in everything you say about the Pan episode. As a kid I found it deeply numinous and religious and I feel absolutely the same way about it now. 'The Piper at the Gates of Dawn' became, of course, the title of Pink Floyd's first album. I saw a play around 2009 in Manchester's Library Theatre (now sadly gone) set in Cambridge in the summer of 67 about a disillusioned Marxist academic. It sounds dire, I know, but it was really rather excellent. It had little cameos in it to do with Syd Barrett and I remember one bit where Pan appeared in a suburban garden while a mysterious pipe music filled the air.

So, one of the chapters my teacher (who was otherwise fantastic) judged superfluous has turned out to have had a significant and ongoing cultural and spiritual impact. 'The stone that the builders rejected,' etc.

John Fitzgerald said...

Actually, I think the play was set in the 90s but with flashbacks to 67. I also agree with what you say about nature being suffused with the Divine. 'The world is charged with the grandeur of God' as Gerald Manly Hopkins wrote. In Orthodox theology, I believe, everything in the world - animate and inanimate - is viewed as an emanation of the Logos. Everything has its own divine spark, it's own mini-Logos (Logoi, I think it's called.) The Greek Orthodox poet, Philip Sherrrard, wrote a lot about this, as did the Catholic, Stratford Caldecott. But you're right, this is an aspect which has indeed been neglected. The trouble is that when and where one does find it in the world of English spirituality it seems to come wrapped up in a mild but noticeable anti-Christian bias, e.g. the work of Philip Carr-Gomm, Chief Druid of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids.

I don't believe Albion will awaken until there's a better understanding between pagans and Christians in this country. CS Lewis was, I think, the greatest bridge-builder of all in this respect, but reading and reflecting on The Wind in the Willows would massively help bridge the gap as well.

William Wildblood said...

I know the idea of God being present within creation certainly exists in Christianity. But it's rather on the edges and among mystics and poets. In mainstream Christianity it tends to be overlooked.

I agree that paganism and Christianity can learn from each other but it's rather like Pan and Christ. The former must be seen in the overall context of the latter. That was probably the case for early Celtic Christianity which has always had a strong sppeal for me, perhaps because of a Scottish grandfather and an Irish grandmother. The other side is Yorkshire which I like to think keeps my feet on the ground!