Year of Important Books: Winnie-The-Pooh, by A. A. Milne

Winnie-The-Pooh, by the English author A. A. Milne, was published in 1926, and charmingly illustrated by E.H. Shepard. It was Shephard’s illustrations in last month’s Wind in the Willows that helped me decide to read Pooh next, as looking at Mole and Rat I was reminded of Christopher Robin and Pooh, and I happily settled into a lovely re-visit of my friends in the Hundred Acre Wood.


My well-loved copy, a 1950 edition, given to my older siblings in 1951 and discovered by me on the bookshelves sometime in the 1960s….

“Settled” is a good description. Reading this book is like wrapping yourself up in a big cushy blanket while you are sipping tea and sitting by the fire. This book is warm, comforting, gentle, and kind, and I very much enjoyed my time immersed in it once again.

Besides reading the books themselves, one of the things I have enjoyed the most about my series this year is the opportunity to find out more about the authors. In doing a bit of Google-searching on Alan Alexander Milne I found out the following fun facts:

  • One of his teachers in the small public school he attended (which was run by his

    A.A. Milne in 1922. Photo from Wikicommons

    father) was H.G. Wells (The Time Machine, War of the Worlds)

  • He played on an amateur cricket team with J. M. Barrie (a playwright he greatly admired, author of Peter Pan) and Arthur Conan Doyle (author of the Sherlock Holmes stories)
  • Like Lewis Carroll, he also was a mathematician, and graduated with a degree in Mathematics from Cambridge.  My worldview just doesn’t fit with wonderful writers who are also good with numbers….what gives??
  • Christopher Robin Milne was his only child, and of course is a main character in the Pooh books (I knew this, but perhaps you didn’t?)
  • Besides Winnie-The-Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner (published 1928), Milne wrote novels, poetry, short stories, articles, non-fiction books, and a great deal of plays. He became annoyed by the Pooh books, as their success hampered his previous freedom to write widely and be accepted in other literary endeavours. Although he continued to write and publish up until the 1950s nothing gave him the same success as the Pooh books.
  • He wrote the first stage adaptation of The Wind in the Willows, called Toad of Toad Hall, in 1926.

In 1925 Milne bought a country home a mile north of Ashdown forest, in East Sussex, and he and his wife Dorothy and their son Christopher spent many happy hours in this place, getting away from the city on weekends and during the summer. Ashdown Forest is the setting for the Hundred Acre Woods, many of Shepherd’s illustrations are actual views of the landscape, with slight alterations here and there.

Speaking of E. H. Shepherd, like John Tenniel’s work in Alice of Wonderland, these illustrations are a perfect marriage to the author’s words. Shepard was an illustrator at Punch magazine, and he was recommended to Milne by another Punch staffer. Initially Milne was dubious, but once Shepard illustrated Milne’s poetry book, When We Were Very Young, which was published in 1924 and Milne saw their quality, he insisted on Shepard illustrating the Pooh books as well.


Wow. These are Christopher Robin’s actual stuffed toys which E.H. Shepard used as the basis for his illustrations. Except, and importantly, for Pooh. The Pooh bear in the books was modelled after Shepard’s son’s teddy bear, named Growler. The bear pictured here was Christopher Robin’s though, the original Winnie The Pooh.These are on display in the Main Branch of the New York Public Library. Another place to add to my bucket list! Picture from Wikicommon

170px-Harry_Colebourne_and_WinnieThere is a wonderful Canadian connection to the books. Christopher Robin’s teddy bear was named Winnie, after a real bear he saw at the London Zoo. This had been bought for $20 in Ontario and surreptitiously brought into England by Canadian Lieutenant Harry Colebourn while on route to serve in the First World War. He named her “Winnie” after his hometown of Winnipeg, Manitoba, and left her at the zoo while he served in France, eventually donating her to the zoo as her permanent home.


Well, onto the book itself.  Like Wind in the Willows, this is a series of small vignettes about Pooh and his friends and the little adventures they have in the Hundred Acre Wood. These are very little adventures, mind you, as is appropriate for young children.

The book begins by Christopher Robin coming down the stairs dragging Pooh by the leg behind him (bump-bump-bump) and asking for a story about Pooh. Thus follows the tales of the Silly Old Bear, as Christopher calls him, and his friends, namely Piglet, Owl, Rabbit, Eeyore, Kanga, and Roo.

Pooh himself, although described as a Bear of Little Brain, is humble, silly, kind and steadfast. He is inordinately fond of honey (hunny) and always wanting a snack. This gets him in to trouble as he ends up being stuck in Rabbit’s door after eating too much while on a visit, and eating all the honey out of the pot he was taking to Eeyore as a present. But nothing is too disastrous for too long in this book, the various adventures the friends have are resolved without too much scary stuff happening.

As I read the book I was struck by how clever Milne was as a children’s author. He gets the right balance here, I think. He doesn’t necessarily write down to children, he uses fairly big words at times (like “expedition”, which Pooh pronounces “expotition”) and allows his characters to be in some danger here and there (Pooh and Piglet hunt for Heffalumps and Woozles, there is a flood in which Piglet gets stranded, Roo falls into a river). There is just enough suspense to keep children interested but not so much that it is frightening. And when things get too hard or difficult for Pooh or the others they always call on Christopher Robin, who helps them sort things out. Every child sees themselves as Christopher Robin, and so it gives them a way to feel useful and smart and brave as they see Christopher in the book help the characters out.


The “Expotition” to the North Pole

I’m hard-pressed to say which character is my favourite. Probably Pooh, but I have a soft spot for Piglet as well, because in a lot of ways I can remember identifying with him the most as a child. As the youngest in the family, I often, like Piglet, felt uncertain, scared, and in over my  head as I tagged along behind the rest.


Pooh and Piglet hunting Woozles

And then there is Eeyore. The original “Debby Downer”! You can’t help but feel sorry for him, though, when his tail is lost, or when his birthday is forgotten, and it’s so lovely to see the other characters rallying around him when these bad things happen. This comforting sense of friendship and community is an underlying theme of the book, and it is one of the reasons why it appeals so much to children and adults alike.

Unfortunately Tigger doesn’t come along until The House at Pooh Corner, and Pooh and Piglet don’t play Poohsticks until that book as well, so I missed revisiting those two special parts of Milne’s creations this month. Drat.

I closed Winnie-The-Pooh with reluctance, but I am very much eager to start next month’s book. I am going to read a book that was my very own, not one that was a hand-me-down, and it arrived in my life on Easter day in 1975.

It is Watership Down, by Richard Adams, and I can’t wait to read it again!






Stuck In the Middle

I thought it was probably time to do a bit of an update on my trilogy, and how it’s all going.

I would love to report that I have found an agent, and he/she has found me a publisher, and that the publication date is in a couple months. But alas, that particular goal is proving elusive.

So, here is what is going on in my writing life as I pursue publication.

Agent/Publisher search – since October 2014 I have submitted my MS to 6 agents/publishers. I realize that this is not a lot, and one of my goals is to up my submitting rate. I wanted to start slowly, to see if I got some feedback on my query and hopefully tweak things a bit to improve it. However the only feedback I have got was of the “enjoyed the book but it’s not quite right for us” or the polite, “no thanks” form letter. Or, nothing, which translates to a “no”.  I am preparing my query to send out to two more agents this week.

The whole query process is challenging, and I have written about it before.  The problem is that most agents or publishers don’t actually want to see your book unless they are intrigued by your query letter. Sometimes you get to send in your first three chapters but often it’s just the query letter they go by. So it means you have to craft a letter that contains an exciting, short synopsis (really, a couple of paragraphs) that will make an agent want to read the book. It’s quite daunting. You might have the best book ever, but if you suck at writing a query letter, no one will see it.

Finding an agent to query is another difficulty. There are thousands upon thousands of agents out there – well, kinda. I found out last summer that there are only eight literary agents in Canada. Eight. And although one of them actually requested to see my query after my pitch to her at conference last summer, I never heard back, which means “no”.

I can submit to publishers directly. There are lots of small publishers out there, who don’t necessarily need an agent’s recommendation. And often these smaller publishers are willing to take a chance on a book that is perhaps outside the mainstream in terms of content, genre or style. Likely I will have more chance with my book at one of these publishing houses, mainly because historical fantasy is a pretty small market, and because it also deals with religious/Christian/spiritual themes the market becomes smaller still.

So the pool of agents/publishers, while seemingly so vast when you start to look, often becomes much, much smaller once you start to do the research on what agents are actually looking for. Right now it seems like “diversity” is a buzz word, both in terms of authors and subject matter, and fantasy set in non-medieval settings, or fantasy set in international locales, or based on mythology from non-Western civilizations, etc etc etc. None of which you can apply to my book. It gets discouraging, but all you can do is to keep on plugging away at searching out places to submit and throwing your stuff out there.

Revision update – I am in the process of revising my Book 2, the middle book of my trilogy. Book 1 I have called Wilding, Book 2 I am tentatively calling Bound. The revision is going slower than I would like. Mainly because I have decided to tackle one of the problems that I see with the book, and that is the absence of Nona, my main female character.  Because I wrote the whole thing as one book and later divided it into three, this middle section of the book takes place away from Bebbanburg and Lindisfarne for the most part, and the action doesn’t involve her. Which is a bit of a problem for a middle section of a book, but a bigger problem for an entire book! Part of the problem with Nona’s character is that I dearly wanted to write some scenes from her POV in the book, but as I was writing the original draft of the book-that-became-three I realized I already had quite a few different POVs and it was getting long already, so I decided I couldn’t add yet more scenes.

So….I am figuring out a way to get her more involved in Book 2. Which means I have to rewrite a few things from Book 1, which is ok, as those needed fixing anyway. I think I’m done doing the “backwards” fixing now, but the challenge still remains as to how to involve her more in the book going forward. I’m a bit stumped, to be honest, and I need some concentrated time to just brainstorm and fiddle for a bit to get back in the flow. It’s hard to do this – I have to go back and reread large chunks to make sure what I have added now fits properly, and then I have to take those new scenes and make the new information they suggest now work in Book 2. It’s like you have a big jigsaw puzzle that has been all put together and now you have some new pieces that you have to put in and still make it a seamless whole.

I will likely have to change other parts of Book 2 to make this all work, which is ok, nothing is set in stone at this point, although I do have to make sure I still keep the train moving on the right track to get to the destination point I’m aiming for in Book 3.

Middles are hard, whether they are the middle of a book, or the middle book of a trilogy. You have to keep the momentum going, and not start slogging around in side trails. Which I suppose you could apply to your own story of your life, as well!

Full steam ahead – my plan is to keep submitting to agents until around summer time, and then if I haven’t got any luck, start the process of self-publishing, with an aim to having my book up on Amazon sometime around Christmas.

I’m still tentatively on that timeline, although I will admit my submissions to agents has gone a lot slower than I hoped. I want to see if I can submit to at least 20 agents, so I’ve got quite a ways to go.

It’s all very interesting, though, and although I progress only in fits and starts, I enjoy the process. Nothing happens if you don’t keep going, so I’ll continue to walk down this road as far as I can and then decide what to do next if I hit a dead end. As the Albert Einstein quote at the top says, “In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.”

Onward and upward!

Featured image from The Quotepedia





Making Merry in Dark Ages Britain

One of the important things a writer has to learn about a culture or time period is how the people entertained themselves. What occupied people’s time in the dark days of winter, when the harvest was in and the cold winds blew? How did people relax at the end of the day without Netflix? I mean, the mind boggles.

There are some hints as to how people in 7th century did this, some artifacts that have survived and some written and pictorial hints as well. While it is true that in a sense the ordinary person’s work never ended – there was always clothes to be made or mended, wood to be chopped, tools to be fixed or made, food to be prepared, and so on – there were still ways for people to entertain themselves when they had the chance.

One important source of entertainment in the 7th century culture was the scop, or gleeman. Technically these were two different people. The scop was a reciter of poetry, often ones he had composed himself in honour of his lord or king. They were more often in the employ of a single king or nobleman. The gleeman was more of a travelling minstrel type, who along with reciting the scops’ poetry, sang the ballads and spread the news of the kingdom from one holding to another. Gleemen tended not to compose original works, they would spread the ones they heard from the scops and other gleeman in the various holdings they travelled between.

Poetry would be recited in a sing-song fashion, accompanied by a lyre.  In the following video you see someone doing just that. Note how he plays the lyre – he is pressing with his fingers on the strings with one hand and strumming/plucking with the other. You can actually get quite a good tone and range of sounds from it! You will notice he has a strap which holds the lyre to his wrist, I have also seen people playing it by bracing their little fingers and thumbs against the outer edges and using the other fingers to press the strings, which seems like it would be more tiring than using the strap as shown here. I think most depictions of the lyre do not show a strap, but I’m not positive about that!



Here is a reconstruction of the lyre found in the Sutton Hoo burial mound, dating from the 7th century. What survived was the golden finials, the tuning pegs, and some of the wood from the body of the lyre. The strings would have been made of gut. 

The scops and gleemen would sing ballads praising the king’s exploits, his prowess in battle, and his generosity to his men. They would also recite poetry such as Beowulf or other legendary Germanic tales, songs of gods and men. The Anglo-Saxons had a ribald sense of humour, and another thing they loved was the Riddle Game. I am going to post about this separately, but for now suffice to say that their gleemen were great at the art of double-entendre!

Surprisingly enough there are board games that have survived from this period as well. Games that we still play today would include backgammon (at that time called tabula) and nine-men morris, also called merels. There apparently were a whole range of other board games, designated by the word tafl (table) that people would play, including brannantafl, halatafl, hnefatafl, and hnottafl. It is difficult from the surviving literature to determine the rules of these games, although in the case of one game called hnefatafl (‘King’s Table”) which was apparently one of the most common games, the rules have survived and one could play it today. Gaming boards were made out of wood, and game pieces made out of antler, bone, glass, or wood as well.


A modern take on a hnefatafl board. The “king” and his men are in the middle, and they have to defend themselves against the other pieces as the king tries to move to the edge of the board. 

Dice and knucklebones (holding a bunch of small bones or stones in your hand, tossing them up and trying to “catch” them on the back of your hand, and whoever has the most is the winner) also were played in this time period.

Juggling, swimming, wrestling, running competitions, and other forms of physical games and competitions were done by the people (ok, to be accurate, it would be the men), as well as some obscure form of ball game involving a leather or wooden balls and bats, involving the person trying to defend themselves from thrown balls by hitting the ball away with the bat, but the rules are difficult to determine.

I have posted before about how we often assume that the “Dark Ages” were a time of doom and gloom, where people were grim, ill-educated and scrabbling for survival. The truth is not quite so dire as that. People had hard lives, to be sure, but as people do, they found ways to brighten their harsh existence and have some fun here and there as well.

So, anyone up for a game of hnefatafl?

Featured image from



Review: The Last Kingdom

I finally finished watching this 2015 BBC series, which has been available on Netflix for some time now. It is an 8-episode adaptation of the Saxon novels by Bernard Cornwell.

To be clear, I only read the first of the Cornwall novels, also called The Last Kingdom, as I discovered them in the midst of writing my own Dark Ages novel. I read the first book to get a flavour of how another novelist tackled some of the practicalities of writing about this era, like, what do you call the various places? How do you explain the social structure of the times? What do these people eat? etc. Of course I enjoyed the book, but I didn’t want to read any more than one, because I didn’t want my books to take on any “Cornwell” flavour. And besides, Cornwell’s books take place after the Viking invasion, and mine, before, so I didn’t want to mix myself up in the history that I was learning.

Because I have only a little familiarity with the books, therefore, this review will strictly be on the series itself, without any reference to the books and how well the series did or did not capture the essence of the books.

So, caveat aside, it was with great anticipation that I settled down with my husband to watch this series. I mean, if it’s good to read another novel about the era you are interested in, imagine the delight of seeing it come to life?

And I will say the The Last Kingdom did not disappoint. The makers of the series went to a great deal of trouble to get the details right, for the most part, although I did have a couple of small quibbles with it, which I will cover later.

First of all, high marks to the producers for their excellent production values. I loved the costumes, and the way the Danes were portrayed in terms of their dress and hairstyles as opposed to the Saxons.



This is the bloodthirsty Dane, Skorpa, ably played by the Swedish actor Jonas Malmsjö. That’s not blood on his teeth, they are showing how the Danes would file horizontal grooves in their teeth and stain them with red berry juice (probably to look like blood, however!) Looks like a character quite capable of going beserker, no? Photo: BBCAmerica

In fact the producers did a great job all in all of showing the contrast between the Danes and the Saxons. Just as an aside, the Danes themselves were not called Vikings until centuries later, in the 8th century they were called denes by the Anglo-Saxons, from which we get the word “Danes”. In the series we see the fighting, drinking, barbarian, party-animal Danes, and the more pious, educated Christian Saxons. I think there is a sense in which this contrast is played a bit too far, but I understand that for dramatic purposes you need to have clear demarcations between your characters or else it all becomes a muddle.

Speaking of protagonists, our hero of the story is Uhtred son of Uhtred, the heir to an earldoman of Northumbria. Uhtred is a boy when his father is killed fighting the Danes, and Uhtred is taken as a slave. He finds favour with his master and is basically adopted as a son. So his story is an compelling one – among the Danes he is seen as a Saxon, among the Saxons, a Dane. And this makes for some interesting conflicts and dilemmas for Uhtred, and keeps us watching!


Our hero, Uhtred, played by Alexander Dreymon (photo from BBCAmerica). In many ways a stranger in a strange land, no matter where he goes. His quest is to get back his ancestral seat of Bebbanburg, and he will do just about anything to do it, including kill, cheat, and marry a pious Christian wife in order to get her wealth, even though he is a pagan.  But it’s never that easy…..

I get tired of Christians being portrayed as boring, dull, serious, and stupid in modern entertainment,  and although because of the aforementioned contrast with the Danes there is a bit of this happening in this series, on the whole I was happy with the portrayal of the Christian people here. I especially like the character of Mildrith, Uhtred’s Saxon wife, given to him in an arranged marriage by King Alfred. I like the interplay between the two, and the way her faith is portrayed as genuine. She comes across as a real person, not a caricature, and I appreciate that.

Sometimes when we read history, it’s all dry facts and dates. But when you see the events unfolding, even in fictional form, it brings back to us how terrifying these events must have been to the people of the times. While watching the Danes raid, rape and pillage I remarked to my husband, “Gee, it’s like they were the ISIS of the times.” And aside from the religious motivation of ISIS, which the Danes did not share, they were strictly motivated by the prospect of land, wealth, and power, the comparison works. The terror of seeing the Danes descend upon your village must have been overwhelming. As the kingdoms fall one by one and only Wessex is left, you get the sense that this is one of history’s turning points, as indeed it was in many ways.

Speaking of Wessex, one of my favourite characters in the series, besides Uhtred, is Alfred, King of Wessex. Because of my research of the history of the times for my books, I have learned a bit about Alfred, and discovered that he really was one of England’s greatest kings. He comes along after the events in my novels, of course, but because I was intrigued by him I read more than I needed to about him. And I think this show gives us a good portrait of this man. By all accounts he was more of a scholar than a warrior, and an extremely intelligent man. But he is able enough militarily to stop the Danes’ advance (in the show, it was because he had Uhtred’s help, hah) at a time when all the other English kingdoms had fallen.

Alfred leaves us some fantastic legacies – he develops England’s first code of law, commissions several important translations of major Latin works into Old English and likely is responsible for the commissioning of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (mental note – I have to feature this on my blog soon!) and Bede’s  Ecclesiastical History as well. I definitely have a soft spot for this king, and I loved seeing him come to life in this series!

Alfred jewel

The Alfred Jewel, discovered in 1693 in Somerset. There is an inscription around the edge which reads “ALFRED MEC HET GEWYRCAN” which mean “Alfred ordered me made” (you can see the letters on the bottom left of the jewel). It is thought by scholars to be the end of a pointed stick by which people would follow words in a text as they read. This beautifully decorated gold, enamel and crystal object was worthy of a king, and it was likely one of Alfred’s own possessions. (Photo by Bill Tyne, on Flickr)

Final small quibble with the series – Wessex, the “last kingdom” was not really the last kingdom to fall in all of Britain. Our friends the Celts up in the north and west of Britain in some cases were never conquered or managed to align themselves with the Danes against the Anglo-Saxons. And although the Danes and Saxons get a lot of screen time, we don’t see much of the Celts in the series, except for the introduction of Uthred’s relationship with the British sorcerer Iseult near the end. I would have liked to have seen more of the Celts in the show, but I understand that the focus had to be on the other two cultures, and the Celts were very much on the fringe of the cultures of the times, so it’s not wrong that the story didn’t include them much. Hopefully we’ll get to see more of them in Season 2, which happily, has been confirmed. No release date yet, I’m not sure if they have begun production.

All in all, I give this series 5 stars. The acting is excellent, the production values superb, and the story-line compelling. Be warned, though, there is plenty of violence and blood, so if you are squeamish, this might not be the show for you. There is some sexual scenes as well, but I thought they were done tastefully for the most part.

I really enjoyed seeing these people and cultures come to life. If you have watched the show, what did you think?


Featured photo from BBCAmerica.




Year of Important Books: The Wind in the Willows

The Wind in the Willows, by Kenneth Grahame,  was published in 1908, and has been in print ever since. I’m not sure exactly why this book, a collection of loosely-tied together stories about a Water-Rat, a Mole, a Badger, and a Toad, was held with such affection by me, although the popularity of the book tells me I am not alone.  I was very curious to read it again, to see if I could tease out the reason why it was one of those books I read and re-read numerous times.

And I’m not sure I can answer that! I didn’t finish the book with a sense of wonder and enchantment, which is the emotions that are stirred up by the memory of reading it as a child. But I did enjoy it, just the same. And I came away from it with a few thoughts.

File 2016-04-02, 5 26 15 PM

Sadly, I can’t find my beloved “old” copy of Wind in the Willows. This is the 1999 edition I gave to my daughter to read as a child. I’m glad to see it a little worn around the edges. 

First of all, the descriptions in the book, especially in the first chapter, are lovely. I can appreciate them now with a writer’s eye, much more than I did at the time. We are introduced to Mole, diligently cleaning his underground home, the patient and kind Rat, and the landscape, which is described with great beauty and affection. The reader is immediately drawn into this world. I love the picture of Mole getting fed up with cleaning and abandoning it to go to the surface and delight in the spring-time beauty he finds there. Soon he stumbles across the River, and here is Graham’s beautiful picture of what he sees:

Never in his life had he seen a river before – this sleek, sinuous, full-bodied animal, chasing and chuckling, gripping things with a gurgle and leaving them with a laugh, to fling itself on fresh playmates that shook themselves free, and were caught and held again. All was a-shake and a-shiver–glints and gleams and sparkles, rustle and swirl, chatter and bubble. The Mole was bewitched, entranced, fascinated. By the side of the river he trotted as one trots, when very small, by the side of a man who holds one spellbound by exciting stories; and when tired at last, he sat on the bank, while the river still chattered on to him, a babbling procession of the best stories in the world, sent from the heart of the earth to be told at last to the insatiable sea.

Grahame himself loved rivers and the natural world, according to the preface by Susan Cooper in the edition I read, and you can tell. He lived at the turn of the century, when the green England of his boyhood was being caught up in the Industrial Revolution and the introduction of the motor car, and his writing captures some of the nostalgia he felt for the peaceful days of yore. In fact he wrote a collection of stories which were published in 1895 called The Golden Age, and it was this book that made his name as an author.


Kenneth Grahame, 1910, from WikiCommons

When Grahame was nine years old he was sent to a boarding school in Oxford, and was very happy there. His preference would have been to go to University in Oxford and live and work beside the River Thames there. Sadly, his rather severe guardians (his mother had died when he was five and his alcoholic father gave him up to the care of his relatives) sent him to live and work in London instead, away from his beloved peaceful countryside.


The river by Oxford, where Kenneth Grahame found such delight. Public Domain. 

It wasn’t until 30 years later, in 1906, that he was able to move back to the countryside, along with his wife and sickly child, Alastair. The Wind in the Willows first arose as stories told to his fretting son in 1904, and was completed after his move to the country. It was originally published without illustrations, but various illustrators have illustrated it since.


Mole and Rat, illustrated by Ernest Shephard. These illustrations were done for the 1932 edition of the book. Shepherd met Grahame before beginning the work, who told him, “I love these little people, be kind to them!” Sadly Grahame did not live to see the illustrations Shephard did. 

Secondly, In this re-visit of one of my favourite childhood books I discovered that the parts I Ioved and the parts I didn’t enjoy as a child were still the same today.

What didn’t I like then, and now? In a word, Toad. I can remember not liking this character as a child. This boasting, self-centred, pompous, selfish and pleasure-loving animal wasn’t my cup of tea as a child and still isn’t today. Although I think I have a little more sense of humour about him now then I did then, which you would have thought would be the other way around!

Interestingly enough, the “Toad” parts of the book were the ones  Kenneth Grahame wrote first in his initial compilation of the stories he told to his son. The parts about Mole and Rat and Badger came later, after he moved back to the countryside. Thank goodness, I say!

But the my two favourite chapters (well, three, if you include the first one) remained the same, the ones entitled Dulce Domum, and The Piper at the Gates of Dawn.

In Dulce Domun (Latin for “Sweetly at Home”) Mole and Rat are returning to Rat’s riverside home, where Mole has been staying since leaving his own home months before. It is mid-December, and chilly, the night closing in and a storm approaching. They are hurrying across the countryside when Mole is suddenly stopped short by a familiar smell, the scent of his old home.

Now, with a rush of old memories, how clearly it stood up before him, in the darkness! Shabby indeed, and small and poorly furnished, and yet his, the home he had made for himself, the home he had been so happy to get back to after his day’s work. And the home had been happy with him, too, evidently, and was missing him, and wanted him back, and was telling him so, through his nose, sorrowfully, reproachfully, but with no bitterness or anger; only with a plaintive reminder that it was there, and wanted him. 

Anyone who wanders for any length of time can relate to this, this sudden longing for home, which can catch you quite unawares. Mole tries to tell Rat that he wants to stop, to find his home, but Rat doesn’t hear him, and presses ahead, eager to get out of the approaching snow and back to his own riverside home. And dear Mole loyally follows his friend, even though his heart is nearly breaking at leaving his home behind. But his grief is too much, and Rat, noticing Mole’s lagging steps, finally sits him down for a rest, prompting Mole to finally burst out in sobs. Astonished, Rat asks Mole what is the matter.

….it was my own little home – and I was fond of it – and I went away and forgot all about it – and then I smelt it suddenly – on the road, when I called and you wouldn’t listen.  Rat – and everything came back to me with a rush – and I wanted it! – oh dear, o dear! and when you wouldn’t turn back, Ratty – and I had to leave it, though I was smelling it all the time – I thought my heart would break. – We might have gone and had one look at it, Ratty – only one look – it was close by – but you wouldn’t turn back, Ratty, you wouldn’t turn back! 

Poor Rat, faced with this paroxysm of grief, pats Mole on the arm and assures them that they will turn back, and find Mole’s home, even though it is now full dark, and cold. And so they do, and Mole finds the scent again, and at last they arrive at Mole’s underground home, named Mole End. The place is in disarray and dusty after Mole’s long absence, prompting great despair by Mole once more, but Rat bustles around, cleaning the place up and Mole, heartened, joins him. Soon a nice fire is laid on the hearth, and supper –  bits and pieces from Mole’s larder – is put together, and they are just about to settle in when they hear noises from the door. Lo and behold a group of field mice are there, to do their yearly carolling.

Oh, how I love this chapter. It always brought tears to my eyes as a child, and it did again! The longing for home, the loyal Mole following Rat even though he wants nothing more than to turn aside, the equally loyal Rat insisting they turn back to find Mole’s home, and the friendship shown by Rat as he fixes up the place, complimenting Mole all the time on his snug little house, settling Mole’s torn heart. And to top it off, the lovely little field mice, come a-carolling. This is Christmas at it’s finest, beautiful gifts of friendship given and received. I admit that I never have participated in carolling without thinking of this chapter, and the little field-mice singing their hearts out.

 The Piper at the Gates of Dawn begins on an ominous note, with Mole and Rat, looking for their friend Otter’s son Portly, who has gone missing. They begin at night, while it is still dark, both of them wanting to get going on the search as soon as possible. The moon rises, lending her light, then falls, and then dawn approaches Suddenly Rat hears a song, “The merry bubble and joy, the thin, clear, happy call of the distant piping!” Entranced, he directs Mole to follow it, and soon Mole hears it too, and falls equally under its spell.

Grahame’s descriptions of the burgeoning dawn as they follow the song bring the reader right into the enchantment with Mole and Rat. Eventually they come to a small island, and mooring the boat, they go ashore.

Then suddenly the Mole felt a great Awe fall upon him, and awe that turned his muscles to water, bowed his head, and rooted his feet to the ground. It was no panic terror – indeed he felt wonderfully at peace and happy – but it was an awe that smote and held him and, without seeing, he knew it could only mean that some august presence was very, very near. 

That presence is Pan, the god of the animals, and sleeping at his feet is the missing Portly.

This chapter, with its beautiful descriptions and its flawless depiction of the experience of the sacred and numinous, quoted above, was probably the first description I had read of an experience of the holy. Many years later I read C.S. Lewis’ The Weight of Glory, and he summed up exactly the impact this passage had on me:

Apparently, then, our lifelong nostalgia, our longing to be reunited with something in the universe from which we now feel cut off, to be on the inside of some door which we have always seen from the outside, is no mere neurotic fancy, but the truest index of our real situation. And to be at last summoned inside would be both glory and honour beyond all our merits and also the healing of that old ache…At present we are on the outside of the world, the wrong side of the door.

My final discovery  about The Wind in the Willows as I read it again is that I now realize it was an introduction to me to the types of books I turned to again and again in my childhood years – novels about animals, written from their points of view. I couldn’t get enough of these books, and I devoured them: Black Beauty, Charlotte’s Web, White Fang, The Call of the Wild, and many, many more.

My love of these books all trace back to these stories of a Mole and a Rat, their friendship and adventures, and the idyllic countryside that they call home.