Posts Tagged ‘Kenneth Grahame’

Grahame: The Golden Age

May 4, 2017

The Golden Age
Kenneth Grahame
(Dodd, Mead, & Co, 1922) [1895]
174 p.

As a rule, indeed, grown-up people are fairly correct on matters of fact; it is in the higher gift of imagination that they are so sadly to seek.

On my most recent reading of The Wind in the Willows it occurred to me that the author of such a classic might also have written some other worthy work, and so I made inquiries, and discovered that in the last few years of the nineteenth-century he published two books, The Golden Age and Dream Days, about children. And so here I am, to write a few words about the first of them.

The book is about four children, presumably siblings, living lives of indolence and adventure. To what extent the stories are autobiographical I do not know, but certainly they are autobiographical inasmuch as Grahame himself experienced childhood, and the book is nothing if not an evocation of that experience. What is it like to be a child? We all know, but we also forget. Rare is the book that conjures up the quality and texture of childhood as does The Golden Age. It is a masterful performance. Perhaps Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine comes close, but for me Grahame is better: richer and more artful.

As in The Wind in the Willows, much of the magic is in the writing, which is gorgeous. Consider this passage:

The year was in its yellowing time, and the face of Nature a study in old gold. ‘A field or, semée with garbs of the same:’ it may be false Heraldry — Nature’s generally is — but it correctly blazons the display that Edward and I considered from the rickyard gate. Harold was not on in this scene, being stretched upon the couch of pain: the special disorder stomachic, as usual. The evening before, Edward, in a fit of unwonted amiability, had deigned to carve me out a turnip lantern, an art-and-craft he was peculiarly deft in; and Harold, as the interior of the turnip flew out in scented fragments under the hollowing knife, had eaten largely thereof: regarding all such jetsam as his special perquisite. Now he was dreeing his weird, with such assistance as the chemist could afford. But Edward and I, knowing that this particular field was to be carried to-day, were revelling in the privilege of riding in the empty waggons from the rickyard back to the sheaves, whence we returned toilfully on foot, to career it again over the billowy acres in these great galleys of a stubble sea. It was the nearest approach to sailing that we inland urchins might compass: and hence it ensued, that such stirring scenes as Sir Richard Grenville on the Revenge, the smoke-wreathed Battle of the Nile, and the Death of Nelson, had all been enacted in turn on these dusty quarter-decks, as they swayed and bumped afield.

I note a few things. First, the intricacy of the prose; Grahame belongs firmly in the “more is more” camp when it comes to style. Second, the diction: I’ll admit that “dreeing his weird” defeated me until I consulted the OED; it means, in context, “getting what was coming to him”. Third, the allusions; not even Google knows the source of that first quotation, so perhaps it is Grahame’s invention, but toward the end of the passage we get those references to incidents in naval history which provide the frame for these children’s imaginative world, and indeed this is one of the most striking aspects of their lives: they are imbued with the stories, both imaginative and historical, that they have inherited, of Greek gods and Roman statesmen, of Biblical heroes and military victors, of songs and poetry. In other words, these children had a culture. Part of the pleasure of the book, though it be bittersweet, is to experience what it was like to have a culture in this thick sense, and part of the challenge the book presents is to ponder whether and how it might be possible to give my own children a similar sense of belonging. It may not be, for reading a book like this makes it abundantly clear that between Grahame’s time and ours a chasm has opened, that “some things that should not have been forgotten were lost,” as Galadriel said, that we have been substantially disinherited by our professional amnesiacs. All of which is quite discouraging, but Grahame at least gives a portrait of what we might aim at.

The world of this book is a world of children; there are adults around the periphery — referred to as “the Olympians”, and considered, with frank honesty, as being a different order of creature — but for the most part these children are free to pursue their own inclinations and the promptings of the muses. My own childhood in rural Alberta was much like this, and I’ve always been grateful for it, but such freedoms, it seems, have eroded, whether because of changing times or just changed locale, I can’t be sure. I don’t remember helicopter parents hovering about when I was young. How I would love to allow my children such latitude, to wander, exploring and adventuring, but I dare not. (It’s not that I fear for their safety, but I do, rightly or wrongly, fear meddlesome neighbours and the legal powers of the Children’s Aid Society.)

The pursuits and enthusiasms of childhood, though they be senseless and unimportant in certain respects, have a precious immediacy and vividness that makes them worthy of honour. Indeed, are the preoccupations of adults any less senseless and unimportant?

And perhaps we have reason to be very grateful that, both as children and long afterwards, we are never allowed to guess how the absorbing pursuit of the moment will appear not only to others but to ourselves, a very short time hence. So we pass, with a gusto and a heartiness that to an onlooker would seem almost pathetic, from one droll devotion to another misshapen passion; and who shall dare to play Rhadamanthus, to appraise the record, and to decide how much of it is solid achievement, and how much the merest child’s play?

Children’s books: beasts and beasties

February 3, 2017

farwell-brownThe Book of Saints and Friendly Beasts
Abbie Farwell Brown
(Kalavela, 2010) [1900]
146 p.

Teaching children about the saints is a worthy labour, and I take the view that it is good they learn the fancies as well as the facts, because the fancies, too, tell us something worth knowing about kindness and goodness. In stories about saints we imaginatively explore the happy side of life. In this book, first published over a century ago, Abbie Farwell Brown collects two dozen tales about saints and animals. The most famous of these in Christian tradition are undoubtedly those involving St Francis of Assisi, and the book closes with them, but Brown also treats us to tales about St Rigobert and the goose that followed him everywhere, about the fish who built a breakwater to shelter St Gudwell’s hermit cave, about St Launomar’s cow which was stolen but then led the robbers through the dark right back to his home, about St Kentigern who restored a robin to life, and numerous others. The stories are not especially religious in tone or content, except insofar as they are about saints. Two or three of the stories are told in verse. All are gracefully written, and were a distinct pleasure to read. My children concur; I read the stories aloud to them, and they were always clamouring for more.


nesbit-itFive Children and It
Edith Nesbit
(Puffin Classics, 2008) [1902]
288 p.

I assumed that the nameless “It” was nameless because frightening, and I wanted to read the book before passing it to my children, just to ensure that it was not too frightening. I needn’t have worried. The It is a cute little creature, with a furry, pear-shaped body, antennae-mounted eyes, and gangly limbs. It is easily annoyed, but harmless — at least in Itself.

But the catch is that It has the power of granting wishes — just one each day, and only until sunset — but wishes nonetheless, and for the children who find It that power might not turn out to be entirely benign. If there were ever a book to illustrate the wisdom of the old counsel to “be careful what you wish for”, this is it.

It’s quite a funny book, in its way, as the children make accidental wishes, or wish without thinking things through, and end up in pickles. I enjoyed reading it, and I think most children would enjoy it too. Of the five children, only the baby emerged in my mind as a really distinctive character. The book is well-written, and not too difficult. Nesbit hints on the last page that more adventures are to follow, and I see that she did write a few more books about the same children.

Although I enjoyed the story, and suggested it to our 7-year old, she abandoned it after a few chapters. This was precipitous, in my view — after all, not every book can be as good as the Magic Tree House books! — but the fault is partly mine: probably I gave it to her too soon.


grahame-windThe Wind in the Willows
Kenneth Grahame
Illustrated by Arthur Rackham
(Everyman’s, 1993) [1908]
249 p.

Kenneth Grahame lived what seems a rather ordinary, if perhaps unhappy, life: his mother died when he was young, he was unable to attend university and worked his whole career in a bank, and his only child was sickly and committed suicide as a young man. Yet Grahame gave the world one of the great classics of children’s literature, a book so replete with humour and fresh adventure and beauty that it rejoices the heart of the reader each time it is opened. Would that we all could give such a gift.

The book is widely beloved and hardly needs me to praise it. I will just say that as I read it this time I was as dazzled and charmed as ever. It was wonderful to see Mole and Rat again, and I relished the chance to exclaim again over the foolishness of Mr Toad. Most of all, I was grateful for the chapter “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn”; one doesn’t expect the numinous to come shimmering through the pages of a children’s book about talking animals, but there it is, luminous and alluring.

I am sorry to say that I have not read any other of Grahame’s books. He wrote two memoirs of childhood — The Golden Age and Dream Days — both of which were well-regarded when published (and both of which I own). I’m going to make an effort to read them sometime soon. The man who writes The Wind in the Willows is a man worth getting to know.

Best of the Decade: Books

December 31, 2009

I had planned to crown this series of “Best of the Decade” posts by looking at books, but that plan has fizzled.  The trouble is that I’ve read very few books published this decade — so few, in fact, that the exercise hardly seems worthwhile.  I’ll give a short list, but mainly I’d like to use this post to solicit recommendations for good books published between 2000-2009.

My favourites, culled from a list of a couple of dozen eligible volumes, are these:

  • David Bentley Hart — The Beauty of the Infinite (2003): It took me about six months to work my way through this book, and I understood very little of it — I never grasped the meaning of analogia entis, and this proved a tragic fault — but it was still a great pleasure to read, if only for Hart’s brilliant rhetorical flourishes.  (Try this one.Millinerd agrees that it is a great book, and he says why.
  • David Heald — Architecture of Silence (2000): A book of black and white photographs of Cistercian monasteries.  It is a very beautiful and surprisingly instructive book that quietly conveys something of the spirit of Cistercian devotion.
  • Cormac McCarthy — The Road (2006): Quiet and austere on each page, but devastating in its cumulative effect, this was among the most memorable novels I read this decade. (Book Note)
  • Alex Ross — The Rest is Noise (2007): A fascinating overview of twentieth-century history told through its music.  (Book Note)
  • Tom Wolfe — I Am Charlotte Simmons (2004): An unpretentious and heart-breaking portrait of the moral decline and fall of a bright-eyed young woman on one of America’s elite college campuses.  (Book Note)

As I said above, I would like to hear about your favourite books of the decade.  Feel free to leave a comment.


If, for amusement’s sake, I relax the constraint I have been observing and admit for consideration anything I read this decade, regardless of when it was first published, I arrive at a different set of favourites.  Leaving aside those widely acknowledged as classics (The Brothers Karamazov, War and Peace, Hamlet, Pride and Prejudice, The Confessions, and so on), my list includes:

  • John Gerard, S.J. — Autobiography of an Elizabethan (1609): A fascinating first-hand account of life in the Jesuit underground during the reign of Elizabeth I.  (Book Note)
  • Søren Kierkegaard — The Sickness Unto Death (1849): A rather personal choice, this book found me at the right time, and has had lasting good effects in my life.
  • C. S. Lewis — The Discarded Image (1964): This is perhaps the best book I know about the medieval period in Europe.  Lewis, with great sympathy and insight, describes the worldview of medieval men, helping us to see the world as they saw it.  (Book Note)
  • Thomas Mann — Doctor Faustus (1947): A seriously great story about music, ambition, and the decline of Western culture.  Too big to grasp in one reading, but I grasped enough to recognize its worth.
  • Herman Melville — Moby-Dick (1851): A glorious and heroic eruption of a book.  Reading it was probably the greatest purely literary pleasure I had this decade. (Book Note)
  • Vladimir Nabokov — Pale Fire (1962): By a wide margin the best murder mystery that I have read.  It is an amazing genre-busting tour de force by Nabokov, and a hilarious one too.
  • Josef Pieper — Leisure, the Basis of Culture (1952): A book that brings together many of the central themes of Pieper’s work.  It is a tremendously insightful, wise, and thought-provoking book that ought to be far more widely read.
  • Kenneth Grahame — The Wind in the Willows (1908): Somehow I missed reading this when I was a child, but it is a book for adults too, and I took great delight in it.


Happy New Year!