The Wind in the Willows

“When I woke up, it seemed to me that some snatch of a tune I had known for a long time, I had heard somewhere before but had forgotten, a melody of great sweetness, was coming back to me now. It seemed to me that it had been trying to emerge from my soul all my life.”

Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky

Dostoevsky is talking, whether or not he was aware of it, about the healing and rejuvenating melodies of the Piper at the Gates of Dawn, which birth every new day. This is a real phenonomen known very well to those who willingly give up the warmth of their beds to give offerings and thanks at sunrise. These types love to bask in the harmonies of the new tune, the new song, the new dawn chorus that the birds join in with, and even the choirs of the flowers — if only our ears were tuned to hear them — that all goes towards building the template for each new day.

Readers of The Wind in the Willows will know that Kenneth Grahame wrote about how Mole and Rat stumbled upon the Piper at the Gates of Dawn as night came to an end, while searching for the lost young otter, Portly. In fact, one who often is lucky enough to revel in the Pied Piper’s song can sense that Grahame knew a lot about this magical law… but that he could only hint at it.

I only realised all this when I revisited the book again last November, when I was flat on my back with Covid. I downloaded it from Audible, and so I got to enjoy the wonderful Michael Hordern orating these words, that extolled the supernatural senses of mammals, into my mammalian brain, and bringing me back to health again. I would lay under the open window, so that I could hear the wind rustling in the leaves of the eucalyptus trees outside, and I would breathe in their glorious aromas as they wafted into my bedroom. It occurred to me then that if you removed the adventures of Mr Toad, the rest of the book is devoted to the song of love that inspired the hymn: ‘Morning has broken, like the first morning…”

The book was originally titled Willows Whistle, because it is not just about the wind per se, but about the piping sound the wind makes as it rustles the willows and reeds of the river bank as part of that song. I suppose the publisher changed the title to make it more appealing…but it doing so, it bypasses the underlying mystical teaching of the tale.

This is how, in Chapter 7, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, Grahame describes the sacred awe that Rat and Mole experience when finding him on a  “…little lawn of a marvellous green, set round with Nature’s own orchard trees, crab-apple, wild cherry, and sloe.”

This is the place of my song-dream, the place the music played to
me,’ whispered the Rat, as if in a trance. ‘Here, in this holy place,
here if anywhere, surely we shall find Him!’

Then suddenly the Mole felt a great Awe fall upon him, an 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. With difficulty he turned to look for his
friend and saw him at his side cowed, stricken, and trembling
violently. And still there was utter silence in the populous
bird-haunted branches around them; and still the light grew and grew.

Perhaps he would never have dared to raise his eyes, but that, though
the piping was now hushed, the call and the summons seemed still
dominant and imperious. He might not refuse, were Death himself
waiting to strike him instantly, once he had looked with mortal eye on
things rightly kept hidden.

Trembling he obeyed, and raised his humble head; and then, in that utter clearness of the imminent dawn, while Nature, flushed with fullness of incredible colour, seemed to hold her breath for the event, he looked in the very eyes of the Friend and Helper; saw the backward sweep of the curved horns, gleaming in the growing daylight; saw the stern, hooked nose between the kindly eyes that were looking down on them humourously, while the bearded mouth broke into a half-smile at the corners; saw the rippling muscles on the arm that lay across the broad chest, the long supple hand still holding the pan-pipes only just fallen away from the parted lips; saw the splendid curves of the shaggy limbs disposed in majestic ease on the sward; saw, last of all, nestling between his very hooves, sleeping soundly in entire peace and contentment, the little, round, podgy, childish form of the baby otter. All this he saw, for one moment breathless and intense, vivid on the morning sky; and still, as he looked, he lived; and still, as he lived, he wondered.

‘Rat!’ he found breath to whisper, shaking. ‘Are you afraid?’

‘Afraid?’ murmured the Rat, his eyes shining with unutterable love.
‘Afraid! Of HIM? O, never, never! And yet–and yet–O, Mole, I am

Then the two animals, crouching to the earth, bowed their heads and
did worship.

Sudden and magnificent, the sun’s broad golden disc showed itself over
the horizon facing them; and the first rays, shooting across the level
water-meadows, took the animals full in the eyes and dazzled them.
When they were able to look once more, the Vision had vanished, and
the air was full of the carol of birds that hailed the dawn.

As they stared blankly in dumb misery deepening as they slowly
realised all they had seen and all they had lost, a capricious little
breeze, dancing up from the surface of the water, tossed the aspens,
shook the dewy roses and blew lightly and caressingly in their faces;
and with its soft touch came instant oblivion. For this is the last
best gift that the kindly demi-god is careful to bestow on those to
whom he has revealed himself in their helping: the gift of
forgetfulness. Lest the awful remembrance should remain and grow, and
overshadow mirth and pleasure, and the great haunting memory should
spoil all the after-lives of little animals helped out of difficulties, in order that they should be happy and lighthearted as before.

At another point in the story, Grahame has Mole rediscover his old home, in the dark, through it singing to him. He just had to follow the trail of the homecoming song to find it again.

Grahame also uses the device of the novel, in Chapter 8, Wayfarer’s All, to describe how animals are attuned to a song that seduces them, and guides their annual migrations. At one point, even the sensible, down-to-earth Ratty is swept up in it:

The Water Rat was restless, and he did not exactly know why. To all
appearance the summer’s pomp was still at fullest height and although
in the tilled acres, green had given way to gold, the rowans were
reddening, and the woods were dashed here and there with a tawny
fierceness, yet light and warmth and colour were still present in
undiminished measure, clean of any chilly premonitions of the passing

But the constant chorus of the orchards and hedges had shrunk
to a casual evensong from a few yet unwearied performers; the robin
was beginning to assert himself once more; and there was a feeling in
the air of change and departure. The cuckoo, of course, had long been
silent; but many another feathered friend, for months a part of the
familiar landscape and its small society, was missing too and it
seemed that the ranks thinned steadily day by day. Rat, ever
observant of all winged movement, saw that it was taking daily a
southing tendency; and even as he lay in bed at night, he thought he
could make out, passing in the darkness overhead, the beat and quiver
of impatient pinions, obedient to the peremptory call…

…In the osiers which fringed the bank he spied a swallow sitting.
Presently it was joined by another, and then by a third; and the
birds, fidgeting restlessly on their bough, talked together earnestly
and low.

‘What, ALREADY,’ said the Rat, strolling up to them. ‘What’s the
hurry? I call it simply ridiculous.’

‘O, we’re not off yet, if that’s what you mean,’ replied the first
swallow. ‘We’re only making plans and arranging things. Talking it
over, you know–what route we’re taking this year, and where we’ll
stop, and so on. That’s half the fun!’

‘Fun?’ said the Rat; ‘now that’s just what I don’t understand. If
you’ve GOT to leave this pleasant place, and your friends who will
miss you, and your snug homes that you’ve just settled into, why, when
the hour strikes I’ve no doubt you’ll go bravely, and face all the
trouble and discomfort and change and newness, and make believe that
you’re not very unhappy. But to want to talk about it, or even think
about it, till you really need—-‘

‘No, you don’t understand, naturally,’ said the second swallow.
‘First, we feel it stirring within us, a sweet unrest; then back come
the recollections one by one, like homing pigeons. They flutter
through our dreams at night, they fly with us in our wheelings and
circlings by day. We hunger to inquire of each other, to compare
notes and assure ourselves that it was all really true, as one by one
the scents and sounds and names of long-forgotten places come
gradually back and beckon to us.’

…’Ah, yes, the call of the South, of the South!’ twittered the other
two dreamily. ‘Its songs its hues, its radiant air! O, do you
remember—-‘ and, forgetting the Rat, they slid into passionate
reminiscence, while he listened fascinated, and his heart burned
within him…

This call or sound frequency that builds the whole creation is found in the inner meaning of the first verse of St John in the New Testament: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”

Those last three words are crucial to understanding the phenomenon. The coding or notes of the music that produces the creation is the creator itself, and it’s a new song for every single day. No two days are ever the same because God is never the same. It is as if God is continually inventing and reinventing itself, over and over again, ad infinitum.

If you’d like to know more, I’ve written an article here about how an ornithologist discovered that the dawn chorus builds ‘cathedrals of light’, and there’s an article here about how the flowers sing at dawn. That’s for the theory, anyway. But the best way to learn about it is to join in this wonderful rejuvenatory song yourself and experience how it always gives you, no matter what obstacles you have to navigate, such a great day!