An awe that smote and held him

December 21, 2012

Well the world didn't end today, although given the inability of Cardiff Blues to win matches I was rather wishing it would earlier this evening.  Of course some worlds do end; the Edwardian period, which gave us some of the finest literature in the English language since the Jacobean period, is now but a memory to be invoked by said literature.  One of the finest examples of this is Wind in the Willows.   There is a connection here to my post of yesterday in that the author of Winnie the Pooh took the chapters about Toad and converted them into a successful stage play and they share the same illustrator.  Both books also appeal to both adult and child alike in different ways, unlike too many modern books that are age specific, or rather age defined.  Wind in the Willows is more sophisticated in its language and its exploration of meaning.

In fact Wind in the Willows contains two very different types of chapters.  The first, and the most familiar are the various adventures of Toad.  The second, and to mind the best, are those which, though the characters of Mole and Ratty explore fundamental issues of human existence.  The language of Mole's journey through the Wild Wood evokes fear in the way that no Hollywood special effects department could achieve as it uses our imagination.  The final phrase of that passage, which chills me to this day sums it up: listened to the whistlings and the patterings outside, he knew it at last, in all its fullness, that dread thing which other little dwellers in field and hedgerow had encountered here, and known as their darkest moment–that thing which the Rat had vainly tried to shield him from–the Terror of the Wild Wood!  The Door Scraper scene that follows Ratty's rescue and precedes the entry of Badger into the story is one of the great comic moments in literature.

There are other such episodes.  Dulce Domum has some wonderfully evocative phrases that stay with you for ever: the-shades-of-the-short-winter-day-were-closing-in to take but one.  That is one of the three Cynefin chapters in the book, that talk about the need for a home, a place of belonging.  In it, on a winters walk Mole smells his old now abandoned home.  For all the delights of his new found life simply messing about in boats it still calls to him, situating his life.  The way that Ratty takes charge to bring Mole out of a depressing pathos is a delight.

The other two Cynefin chapters are too often omitted from summaries or from films and dramatisations.  This shows ignorance on the part of those responsible for such travesties as they are two of the most important chapters in the whole book.  

The first is The Piper at the Gates of Dawn which starts with Mole and Ratty hunting Portly, the lost child of their friend Otter.  They find him, enchanted at the feet of the God Pan.  Their memories are taken from them at the end of the encounter, but in the awakening there is poetry of great significance.

…Mole stood still a moment, held in thought. As one wakened suddenly from a beautiful dream, who struggles to recall it, and can recapture nothing but a dim sense of the beauty of it, the beauty! Till that, too, fades away in turn, and the dreamer bitterly accepts the hard, cold waking and all its penalties…

Many critics do not like this chapter, they see it as primitive Edwardian Paganism but they miss the point.  The chapter is all about transcendence, about a sense of place that is more than your own history but of something greater.  It is also placed between the attempt to manage Toad and his adventures which lead him to prison, again a transition of some importance given the way in which Grahame uses Toad as a symbol of the dangers of industrialisation.  Contrasts are key to great literature, remove them and you just have a linear story.

The second Cynefin chapter Wayfarers All again stands between Toad's imprisonment and his adventures as a Washerwoman.  In it Rat provides hospitality for a Sea Rat who beguiles him with stories of foreign adventures.  In the end Rat ignores the siren call and opts for his riverside life.   There is a reference to Homer here, resisting the siren call, which in turn invokes the final chapter The Return of Ulysses in which Toad is restored.  That chapter might count as a fourth Cynefin one, but I decided not.  Its fun, especially Rat arming his companions, but its from the other story line.  In this chapter, with a wonderful symmetry, the Mole restores the Rat by bringing him pencil and paper so that he can attempt again to write poetry.

Without the richness of literature our childhood is impoverished; literature than can be read by adults for their own pleasure as they read to their children enriches our species.  



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The Cynefin Company (formerly known as Cognitive Edge) was founded in 2005 by Dave Snowden. We believe in praxis and focus on building methods, tools and capability that apply the wisdom from Complex Adaptive Systems theory and other scientific disciplines in social systems. We are the world leader in developing management approaches (in society, government and industry) that empower organisations to absorb uncertainty, detect weak signals to enable sense-making in complex systems, act on the rich data, create resilience and, ultimately, thrive in a complex world.

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