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Volume 14, Issue 1: Tohu

The Mole, the Myth, and the Metaphor

Jared Miller

Every boy of spirit, upon reading Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows, has felt. He is not sure what he feels, and it does not occur to him to find out. He is simply taken into the story. With Mole he breaks free from the earth into the springtime; he meets the River and longs to simply "mess about in boats"; he is both troubled and amused by the inexhaustibly conceited Toad; he looks with indescribable longing upon the revelation of Pan at the Gates of Dawn; he exults finally at the triumphant cleansing of Toad Hall. A.A. Milne is dogmatic: "One does not argue about The Wind in the Willows."1

In its pure, raw power, the tale achieves myth. It is myth written for children, to be sure—a fairy story—but those are often the greatest sort of all. It was clearly intended to rise above simple beast fable. Its twelve chapters recall the epic tradition, and the final one explicitly alludes to the Odyssey. Furthermore, if we take the first chapter to be introductory, the others form a chiasmus centered on the numinous appearance of the god Pan in chapter seven, which is the strangest and strongest mythic portion of the book.2 Is this too much analysis for a mere children's story? I think not. There is no such thing as a "mere" children's story; every story a child hears is of the greatest moment. Stories may be good or bad, but they are never "mere."
Like all good fairy tales (I use the term interchangeably with "myth"), Grahame's story strikes a blade's balance between the ordinary and the enchanted. The Faery requires the ordinary; if everything is enchanted then nothing is. This juxtaposition, and the seamless progress from the everyday world to the mythic, is indeed one of the defining characteristics of fairy-myth, if not its central trait.
In the first chapter, Mole is engaged in his awfully mundane spring cleaning, when suddenly he feels the call of spring which commands all life to break out and fool about in the sunshine. With a "Hang spring cleaning!" he obeys, and instantly we are catapulted into the sunshine and led down to the River where Mole and Rat meet and begin their adventures. The River remains the central and most profound symbol throughout, "a babbling procession of the best stories in the world," and its nature as a home, a wanderer, and a story allows it to unify the major themes of the book.
Grahame (consciously or not) arranged the themes to flank the central Revelation, placing opposing ideas and characters concentrically around it. The contrasts portray Home and Wandering, domestic comfort and the bewitching call of the Great World. Mr. Badger is the quintessential domestic gentleman; Toad is the restless, reckless, and dissipated aristocrat who is continually either bored or obsessed. He embodies that sort of friendly fool who is both harmless and dangerous, and though one must take him very seriously, it is impossible not to make light of him. Mole and Rat strike the golden mean, often having adventures but always returning home, companions of Toad on the open road but comfortable at home with Badger. When the Seafarer tempts Rat toward permanent wandering, Mole must intervene and save him from a romantic (but rootless) life.
More basic than Home and Road, however, is the call, the desire, which pulls creatures like gravity to both. It explains both themes and ties them together at the point of Pan's apocalypse. Lewis called it "sehnsucht,"3 the indescribable and wistful pang of longing for something always glimpsed and never possessed, and in it lies the power of myth. For myth is the fundamental metaphor that stands with one foot in our ordinary everyday world, and the other in that Other which we see as the truly Real.4 By exalting the ordinary and joining it with that strange and enchanted realm, it arouses in us the sehnsucht to seek that place where we feel our true home to be: to wander, as it were, towards home. As Chesterton wrote in Manalive, the only proper road home is the "round road"; that is, "going right round the world is the shortest way to where you are already." Myth like Grahame's leads us to appreciate the ordinary where we are.
Christians confess that the reality we long for is a Person, the One who is writing the ultimate myth, and has managed to make Faery become Fact in the joining of story and history. Every story should remind us of this, for every story is a miniature incarnation, a way to really meet with the real. It gives us a taste so that we desire more.
It is difficult to explain all of this to those who have not felt it, and perhaps I've made a rough go of it. After all, we had better laugh at a joke than vivisect it. Writing stories is better than writing about them. But what we can't afford to do is to write them off. Every child requires high doses of Badger and Toad and Rat and Mole, and all their fairy kin. Fairy stories are not optional. I confess freely that they are escapist; but when we escape our every-day through them, it is only so that we may go right round the world and escape back into it again. And there is nothing any sensible person would rather have than the ability to escape "into" the ordinary—for that is precisely what the good life is.

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