Bertie’s Escapade by Kenneth Grahame (1949)

Bertie’s Escapade is a carnivalesque, adorable book which would be a great pre-reader if you’re wondering whether your child is ready for a Wind In The Willows read aloud. You’ll recognise the illustrator as the very same who depicted Winnie-the-Pooh.

That said, I can’t resist digging a little deeper into this story, because there is a character named Mr Grahame in here, and chances are that this refers to the author himself. The book was published posthumously, and I get the feeling it was a light story written for a couple of children in particular. My theory is bolstered by the fact that the children are referred to only by initials: Miss S and A.G.

It seems likely that A.G. refers to Grahame’s only son Alistair Grahame.

This light-hearted story becomes even more sobering once you learn that Alistair was found dead on some train tracks at the age of 20 in May of 1920, probably an act of suicide. In other words, this book was published not only after the author’s death, but also several decades after a real life human character had died.

Bertie's Escapade cover

The story becomes more disturbing when I realise Kenneth Grahame probably would have suffered from what we now call PTSD, due to a very strange incident in which he was held up at gunpoint in a bank robbery:

At around 11 o’clock on the morning of 24 November, 1903, a man called George Robinson, who in newspaper accounts of what followed would be referred to simply as ‘a Socialist Lunatic’, arrived at the Bank of England. There, Robinson asked to speak to the governor, Sir Augustus Prevost. Since Prevost had retired several years earlier, he was asked if he would like to see the bank secretary, Kenneth Grahame, instead.

When Grahame appeared, Robinson walked towards him, holding out a rolled up manuscript. It was tied at one end with a white ribbon and at the other, with a black one. He asked Grahame to choose which end to take. After some understandable hesitation, Grahame chose the end with the black ribbon, whereupon Robinson pulled out a gun and shot at him. He fired three shots; all of them missed.

Several bank employees managed to wrestle Robinson to the ground, aided by the Fire Brigade who turned a hose on him. Strapped into a straitjacket, he was bundled away and subsequently committed to Broadmoor.

The Telegraph

This affects my reading of the dream sequence, in which Mr Grahame (of the story) wakes up after a bad dream in which he is asked to speak in front of a large crowd but can’t think of a single thing to say. While these kinds of dreams are familiar to almost everybody, only the sufferer of PTSD knows the true magnitude of terror that can come of dream sequences.

Bertie's Escapade bad dream

 

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STORY WORLD

Bertie's Escapade opening

In old-style stories the storyworld is set up before we know much about the main character. This is a northern hemisphere Christmas story. The snowy landscape is a comforting blanket and Bertie is inexplicably drawn to it.

STORY STRUCTURE OF BERTIE’S ESCAPADE

WEAKNESS/NEED

Bertie needs adventure.

The whole house was sunk in slumber. “This is very slow,” yawned Bertie. “Why shouldn’t I do something?”

Bertie was a pig of action. “Deeds, not grunts,” was his motto.

DESIRE

We soon find out that Bertie wants to have the trappings of luxury, just like a human.

OPPONENT

The humans, who don’t want the farm animals to eat all their food. After all, the farm animals are the food. (This inconvenient fact is skipped over.)

PLAN

Bertie collects two friends (threatening to bite one of them who has no intention of ‘fagging up a hill’). If you’re anything like me, you’ll be a little perplexed at this use of ‘fag’:

fag definition

Bertie takes them to Spring Lane via a magical underground elevator where they find themselves standing outside Mr Stone’s house. Bertie explains his plan to the friends, and to us at the same time:

“Now, we’ll go up to the house, and sing our bewitching carols under the drawing-room windows. And presently Mr Stone will come out, and praise us, and pat our heads, and say we’re dern clever animals, and ask us in. And that will mean supper in the dining-room, and champagne with it, and grand times!”

Obviously this doesn’t work, since the readers know animals can’t hold a tune!

Bertie's Escapade lift singing_700x422

BATTLE

The farmer sets the dogs onto them, at the wife’s suggestion.

Notice how the characters run backwards through the book during the battle scene. (In English language picture books characters generally move to the right, except when they come up against a hazard or road block… such as dogs.)

Bertie's Escapade dogs_700x440

MODIFIED PLAN

Bernie's Escapade smoking_700x441

If this were of picture book length the story wouldn’t include this next sequence, but a chapter book is a bit more complicated.

The second sequence of the story involves a sit down, a smoke and a change of plans. Now they will go to back to his sty and he will ransack Mr Grahame’s house for the choicest food.

“I know where Mr Grahame keeps his keys — very careless man, Mr Grahame. Put your trust in me, and you shall have cold chicken, tongue, pressed beef, jellies, trifle, and champagne — at least; perhaps more, but that’s the least you’ll have!”

Bertie's Escapade feast_700x450

PSYCHOLOGICAL NEED: Here we learn that Bertie doesn’t want to be shown up in front of his friends. He initially promised a feast and he’ll go to great lengths to pull it off.

SELF-REVELATION

It’s not Bertie who has the revelation. It is Mr Grahame, via the disturbing dream. Bertie is a comical character, and comical characters don’t often have self-revelations.

NEW EQUILIBRIUM

The lack of self-revelation is depicted on the final page. He is a ‘pig in muck’.

After this adventure, Bertie is content, we assume, for at least a while. (Until the next adventure.)

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Shapes of Plots In Children’s Literature

The success of a novel is only five percent about the structure and ninety-five percent about the quality of the writing.

— Elizabeth Lyons, Manuscript Makeover

(While this post started off with a focus on children’s literature, it is absolutely a post about all kinds of narrative, for any human audience.)

THE LINEAR STORY

The linear story tracks a single main character from beginning to end.

It implies a historical or biological explanation for what happens.

— John Truby, Anatomy of Story

linear_600x600

The linear story is a traditionally Western story.

Linear Plots In Adult Film

Most Hollywood films are linear. They focus on a single hero who pursues a particular desire with great intensity. The audience witnesses the history of how the hero goes after his desire and is changed as a result.

Linear Plots In Children’s Stories

As in film, the majority of children’s stories are basically linear. However, the plot doesn’t necessarily begin where the story begins. Home-away-home adventure stories are generally linear.

Dennis Butts, among others, has pointed out that in their use of formulaic elements and stereotyped characters, adventure stories owe a good deal to the structure of traditional folk- and fairy tales in which similar patterns tend to repeat themselves. [Also to myth.] Butts refers to the ideas of both [Vladamir] Propp and [Joseph] Campbell as possible instruments to examine the structure of adventure stories, and to those of [Bruno] Bettelheim* to show the appeal of these stories. He also discusses Treasure Island in terms of folktale.

— Maria Nikolajeva, From Mythic to Linear

*Bettelheim was an asshole who set psychology back a couple of decades. Look up his theories on the causes of autism. (tl;dr: Refrigerator Mothers)
  • The Epic Of Gilgamesh (the oldest known adventure story — 3rd millennium BC)
  • Tom Sawyer (‘master text’ for adventure story as the Narnia Chronicles are for fantasy), but is itself an off-shoot of The Odyssey
  • The legend of Saint George and the dragon
  • The Greek tale of Perseus
  • Robinson Crusoe (compared to Odyssean stories, the Robinsonnade keeps the characters in one place in order to focus on character development.)
  • King Solomon’s Mines (1885)
  • Jack and the Beanstalk
  • Treasure Island
  • Kim, Rudyard Kipling (1901)
  • Peter Pan
  • Sherlock Holmes
  • The Hobbit, Lord of the Rings
  • Doctor Who
  • Star Wars (a parody of the hero adventure story)
  • James Bond
  • Where The Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak
  • Cinderella, and any story using the ‘Cinderella Structure’ in which the hero can never go home again

For more on children’s adventure stories and their evolution, see The Centrality of the Adventure Story.

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