The Wind In The Willows by Kenneth Grahame Analysis

Wind in the Willows cover David Petersen

The Wind In The Willows is an Edwardian (1908) novel by Scottish born British writer Kenneth Grahame. This book is an example of a story from the First Golden Age of Children’s Literature. Idyllic settings were popular at the time. Idylls remained popular up to and including A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh books (written 1924-1928).

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Christmas Carollers In Art and Storytelling

For some children’s books featuring carol singing see:

The Wind In The Willows by Kenneth Grahame

Bertie’s Escapade also by Kenneth Grahame

Helen E. Hokinson (1893-1949) 1933
Helen E. Hokinson (1893-1949) 1933
A Victorian Christmas card published by Hildesheimer & Faulkner prank Christmas carollers
A Victorian Christmas card published by Hildesheimer & Faulkner prank Christmas. Though the prankster is clearly tipping water from a water jug, this is a joke based on a slightly earlier time in which people emptied chamber pots from their windows.
Anton Franciscus Pieck (19 April 1895 – 24 November 1987) carol singing
Anton Franciscus Pieck (19 April 1895 – 24 November 1987) carol singing
Anton Pieck (1895), gnome carollers
Anton Pieck (1895), gnome carollers
Margaret W. Tarrant - Carolers
Margaret W. Tarrant – Carolers
illustrator Gerard Hoffnung (1925-1959) The Carol Singers
illustrator Gerard Hoffnung (1925-1959) The Carol Singers
Old Christmas by Washington Irving, illustrated by Cecil Aldin, 1908, London
Old Christmas by Washington Irving, illustrated by Cecil Aldin, 1908, London
Percy Tarrant (British, 1879-1930), The Cheerleader
Percy Tarrant (British, 1879-1930), The Cheerleader
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Passages, Hallways and Corridors in Art and Storytelling

Herbert Thomas Dicksee - Memories, an Old Man Seated in a Church 1885

When storytellers focus on the hallways and passages of a building, look for metaphor. Take note of the width of the passageway: Narrow passages might represent the will to escape. Broad passages represent freedom and space.

The tunnel is the naturally occurring equivalent of the manmade passage. In houses, the passages, hallways and corridors are the liminal arenas, because they symbolise ‘inbetweenness’.

I love scenes set in hallways myself. In Midnight Feast, the hallway is a transitory space between reality and the freedom of imagination, functioning similarly to a fantasy portal.

the hallway from Midnight Feast by Slap Happy Larry
the hallway from Midnight Feast by Slap Happy Larry
In the next scene, the corridor has turned into a stage.
In the next scene, the corridor has turned into a stage.

CASE STUDY: HOUSE AS CONTROLLING MATRIARCH

The house described by Dawn French in her 2015 novel According To Yes is one of those huge, very old New York apartments that only the wealthy can afford. The main character is a ‘blithe spirit’ archetype similar to Mary Poppins who indeed arrives in New York from Wales as a nanny. She is a fish out of water. The house belongs to a stiff, upper-class, domineering woman and her ‘henpecked’ husband.

This corridor wasn’t intended to be dark, requiring internal lighting at all times. It’s the kind of space that is supposed to have light thrown into it by the leaving open of various doors all the way along. That doesn’t happen in this apartment under the rule of Glenn Wilder-Bingham. No. All doors remain neatly shut, and all the corridors off the main hallway, of which there are four, remain gloomily dark. It’s not that Glenn Wilder-Bingham is a vampire, it’s that she is a consummate control freak. If she could she would control all the light and doors in the world. As it is, she has to satisfy herself with the light and doors in this vast apartment only. Until she takes over the world, this will have to suffice.

Dawn French, According To Yes

In this example, the house functions metaphorically as an architectural version of the matriarch — formidable, dark and unwelcoming. (This same metaphor — house as formidable matriarch — is used and abused in the children’s film Monster House.)

By saying that Glenn Wilder-Bingham is not a vampire, the narrator encourages the reader to think of her of exactly that (the technique of paralepsis). Vampires lead us to bats. The hallway in this house, therefore, functions as an urban cave.

CASE STUDY: WALLS AS PASSAGEWAYS

If you’ve ever had a rodent infestation you’ll know that rats and mice love ceilings and walls. The Rats In The Walls by Lovecraft makes the most of what was surely a familiar night-time sound before the invention of Rough On Rats (and subsequent safer poisons).

Neil Gaiman was perhaps thinking of that famous Lovecraftian short story when he conceived of The Wolves In The Walls, in which a child’s fear manifests in… well… it’s all in the title.

I wonder how common it is to imagine monsters in the walls of one’s house. Is it as common as Monsters Under The Bed? The particular horror of something residing in the walls is that it’s right there but you can’t see it. Once something is in the walls, it might as well be in the house.

The first Addams Family cartoon, 1938
A staircase scene from the film Unhinged. Normally, high angle shots make a character look less powerful, but in the case of villains entering your hallway, this effect becomes inverted.
A staircase scene from the film Unhinged. Normally, high angle shots make a character look less powerful, but in the case of villains entering your hallway, this effect becomes inverted. For a cosy version of this view see the picture book When The Sky Is Like Lace.
Caldecott medalist Barbara Cooney's 1955 dust jacket design for Louisa May Alcott's Little Women, first published 1868-1869
Caldecott medalist Barbara Cooney’s 1955 dust jacket design for Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, first published 1868-1869
Frederick William Elwell (British , 1870 – 1958) My Neighbour’s House, 1929
Frederick William Elwell (British , 1870 – 1958) My Neighbour’s House, 1929
Ordeal by Innocence by Agatha Christie illustration by Tom Adams corridor
Ordeal by Innocence by Agatha Christie illustration by Tom Adams
The Omen by Marie Eyre 1974
HOW COULD JENNIFER DREAM OF MARRYING A MAN WHOSE TOUCH FILLED HER WITH TERROR?

Beautiful young Jennifer Collins believed she was in love with handsome, aristocratic David Bryce. But when she visited David and his family for the first time at their old mansion on an isolated island, she suddenly felt as if David were a threatening stranger, and she were in deadly danger.

Now David’s loving words rang false in her ears as she fled through twisting corridors of hate . . . pursued by a faceless figure of vengeful evil . . . toward an abyss of horror from a past that would not die….
LA JETÉE Jean-César Chiabaut, Chris Marker 1962 corridor
LA JETÉE Jean-César Chiabaut, Chris Marker 1962
Ramon Casas (Spanish, 1866-1932) corridor
Ramon Casas (Spanish, 1866-1932) corridor
Corridor from Tokyo Drifter
Corridor from Tokyo Drifter
a scene from the film Arrival
a scene from the film Arrival

Supernatural crime horror comedy franchise Scooby-Doo is well-known for making heavy use of creepy corridors.

Crucible of Evil The evil floating face had followed her since childhood but now it threatened her very life
The lead up to this castle functions as an interminable terrifying corridor.

CASE STUDY: THE WIND IN THE WILLOWS

Lost in the Wild Wood, Mole and Ratty stumble upon Badger’s house. Badger invites them in warmly.

[Badger] shuffled on in front of them, carrying the light, and they followed him, nudging each other in an anticipating sort of way, down a long, gloomy, and, to tell the truth, decidedly shabby passage, into a sort of a central hall; out of which they could dimly see other long tunnel-like passages branching, passages mysterious and without apparent end. But there were doors in the hall as well — stout oaken comfortable-looking doors. One of these the Badger flung open, and at once they found themselves in all the glow and warmth of a large fire-lit kitchen.

The Wind In The Willows

The home of a badger is called a ‘sett’.

Their setts are usually situated in or near small clearings in woodland or copses. Roughly 80% or so are in woodlands or hedgerows where trees or their roots provide the badger with some form of protection. The sett will be obvious to those who know what to look for, as the ground around the used entrances will probably be free of vegetation, and may be muddy and may show evidence of badger prints. There may also be evidence of latrines (holes in the ground) nearby, into which badgers do their poo.

Badgerland

The Badger of The Wind In The Willows is a Spirit archetype, a guide in the woods who saves Mole and Ratty from certain death. At a metaphorical level, Mole has entered the Wild Wood to get in touch with the most repressed part of himself. When Badger invites him further into it and leads him down all these branching passages, Kenneth Grahame is utilising the symbolic archetype of crossroads. Down here, Mole is going to be making an (off-the-page) moral decision about what comes next.

WHY ARE HALLWAYS CALLED HALLWAYS?

The paintings below of upper class houses go some way towards describing how a ‘hallway’ comes from the ‘hall’, which is a very large room with multiple uses.

In his book Home, Witold Rybczynski describes eighteenth century English bourgeois life, when people spent most of their time at home — a private place where one did not simply call in to the house of another — it was the done thing to leave a calling card and wait for a reply. (I believe we’ve since returned to the era of the ‘calling card’, at least here in Australia, where you don’t simply knock on the door — you send an SMS to say you might pop round.)

An invitation having been received and properly accepted, the first room which greeted a visitor to the house was the hall. Although aristocratic homes were often organized around a medieval-style centrally located hall, the hall of a middle-class house was a room adjacent to the entrance, located so that doors led from it to the main common rooms. Since it contained the main staircase, it was a large room, and, in keeping with its medieval ancestry, one that often contained coats of arms and suits of armor. Although it was no longer the main gathering room, it did serve an important function as a setting for the ceremonial arrival and departure of guests on formal occasions. Here visitors arrived, under the frosty gaze of a family retainer, to gain admittance to the house. This was the room where carolers were invited in to sing at Christmas, and where the servants gathered to be addressed by the master on important occasions.

Witold Rybczynski
Leonard Campbell Taylor (1874 - 1969). The woman in blue looks almost ghostly.
Leonard Campbell Taylor (1874 – 1969). The woman in blue looks almost ghostly.
Adelaide Claxton (British painter) 1835 - ca. 1905
Adelaide Claxton (British painter) 1835 – ca. 1905. The characters in this illustration are more clearly ghosts, also blue, also hanging around stairs and landings.
Frank L. Emanuel Kensington Interior 1912
Kensington Interior 1912 Frank L. Emanuel 1865-1948

Corridors can sometimes feel as if we’re looking into a the mise en abyme effect created by two mirrors. In Anthony Browne’s illustration below, the checked tiles on the floor add an extra element of spatial horror to the sensory overload of a very long corridor with repeating doors, subtly suggesting we are stuck in this space for eternity.

Alice's Adventures In Wonderland By Lewis Carroll, Illustrated By Anthony Browne (First published by Julia MacRae Books in 1988; this edition published by Walker Books Ltd, 2003
Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland By Lewis Carroll, Illustrated By Anthony Browne (First published by Julia MacRae Books in 1988; this edition published by Walker Books Ltd, 2003
Corridor from Shutter Island
Corridor from Shutter Island
From 'Mr. Wigg's Birthday Party. A story from Mary Poppins', a Little Golden Book 1952, illustrated by Gertrude Elliott. Based on Laughing Gas1934
From ‘Mr. Wigg’s Birthday Party. A story from Mary Poppins’, a Little Golden Book 1952, illustrated by Gertrude Elliott. Based on Laughing Gas 1934
by Dick Sargent
Barbara Ninde Byfield (1930 - 1988) The Haunted Spy Doubleday, 1969
Barbara Ninde Byfield (1930 – 1988) The Haunted Spy Doubleday, 1969

Especially where stairs open into hallways and corridors, these spaces are regularly considered a place where secret converations happen. This is no doubt to do with the practical realities of landline telephones of yesteryear, where the most convenient place to anchor a phone to the wall was next to the stairs. The stairs therefore become a natural sitting place to talk for hours. It’s also possible to eavesdrop from above the landing. The hallway with stairs therefore becomes associated with eavesdropping. And because the word ‘eavesdropping’ includes the word ‘eaves’, it’s clear that the stairwell association with overheard conversation replaced an earlier trope of the spy character standing under eaves, from the other side of a wall. The ‘eaves’-dropping trope clearly dates from an era when houses were much smaller.

Patricia Coombs, illustrator and children's book writer
Patricia Coombs, illustrator and children’s book writer
Alice in Wonderland by Gennady Kalinovsky 1974 hallway
Alice in Wonderland by Gennady Kalinovsky 1974 hallway
Swedish painter, Henrik Nordenberg (1857-1928)
Swedish painter, Henrik Nordenberg (1857-1928)
‘The Red Door’ Isabel Quintanilla (1938-2017) Spanish painter Oil on Canvas hallway
‘The Red Door’ Isabel Quintanilla (1938-2017) Spanish painter Oil on Canvas hallway
Mary Dawson Elwell (1874-1952) East Yorkshire hallway
Mary Dawson Elwell (1874-1952) East Yorkshire
Louise Rayner - Interior at Haddon Hall
Louise Rayner – Interior at Haddon Hall
THE FRENCH CONNECTION WILLIAM FRIEDKIN (1971) corridor
THE FRENCH CONNECTION WILLIAM FRIEDKIN (1971) corridor

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Header painting: Herbert Thomas Dicksee – Memories, an Old Man Seated in a Church 1885

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
Bertie's Escapade dream02_700x449

SETTING OF BERTIE’S ESCAPADE

Bertie's Escapade opening

In old-style stories the setting 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

SHORTCOMING

Bertie needs adventure. A large number of children’s stories begin with boredom, and Bertie’s Escapade is a wonderful example of that.

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 the trappings of luxury, just like a human. This sort of draws attention to the fact that he’s an animal.

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

Is anyone else reminded of The Town Musicians of Bremen at this point?

BIG STRUGGLE

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

Notice how the characters run backwards through the book during the big struggle 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.

ANAGNORISIS

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 anagnorises.

NEW SITUATION

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

EXTRAPOLATION

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

Bertie's Escapade last page_700x877
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Shapes of Plots In Children’s Literature

Ernst Haeckel, (German, 1834-Jena, August 8, 1919), Illustration No. 71, Stephoidea from Art forms in Nature, 1904

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 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

Younger writers should be experimenting with form as well as material, like a water-seeker with a divining rod. We are “haunted” by experiences, images, people, acts of our own or of others, which we don’t fully understand and the serious writer approaches such material reverently.

Joyce Carol Oates
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