The Wind in the Willows, a children’s novel by Kenneth Grahame, was first published in 1908. The magical world of anthropomorphic animals explored in the author’s lush prose has made the book beloved by children and adults alike. This paper addresses the significance of the character of the Piper: a mystic, omnipotent being who appears in chapter VII of the story.
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The chapter opens with a description of a hot summer night. Mole, one of the protagonists, is seen resting on a riverbank and is soon joined by the Water Rat. Having met with the Otter, the Rat discloses that the latter has been searching for his missing son for several days and watching for him at the ford every night. The two friends then travel by boat up the stream, as they feel they must help the Otter in his need.
As the morning seemingly approaches, the Rat is suddenly amazed by a sound of great beauty, a haunting piping. “Such music I never dreamed of, and the call in it is stronger even than the music is sweet!” exclaims he, but the Mole cannot yet hear the sound (Grahame 80). When both of them are finally spellbound by the music, it is light outside, though the brightness is not that of dawn. Frantically following the sound, they find a small island which to the Rat is “the place of my song-dream, the place the music played to me” (Grahame 80). Previously in the story, the Rat has been depicted as a dreamer, a sensitive soul who writes poetry and is closer to nature than other protagonists. That is why he is the first to hear the haunting melody, as they follow the sound to its source, transfixed by the power of art.
It is there, while the music is hushed, that they meet the Piper. The pan-pipes he is holding provide the reader with a clue as to his identity, as does his appearance. Horned, described as majestic and goat-like, this “Friend and Helper” is purported to be the Greek god Pan, though not identified by name (Grahame 82). Pan was known to play his flute, chase nymphs and behave rather unrestrainedly, while his music could charm the living things into obedience.
It is highly unusual to see such a character in a children’s book, but as the author was well-versed in the classical tradition, the times demanding that children study Greek and Latin at school, it is not surprising. This example of supernaturalism is typical of the early XX century Britain, obsessed with faeries and the occult as well. It is worth noting that the Piper’s image also served as an inspiration for the book’s first cover art.
The animals are transfixed by this vision; they fall to the ground in worship. As the figure disappears, they are left filled with misery at its loss, but then the Piper’s magic grants them “instant oblivion” (Grahame 83). Left with but a vague memory of the bliss, they see the Otter’s missing son, Portly, lying asleep on the ground and take him back to his overjoyed father. As the two friends are readying themselves for sleep, the Rat starts reciting poetry about the mystical vision they have seen, the words come to him by themselves, as if carried by the wind but are soon lost. The Mole, as the more down-to-earth type, hears nothing of the sort but listens to the Rat’s poem, one centered on the themes of salvation and forgetfulness. However, they are clueless as to what the words are describing, and soon fall asleep.
The Piper represents nature; this force is always present in the animal’s surroundings, unseen but all-powerful. Nature is shown as majestic, but also dangerous. The Otter’s small son could have easily drowned or been killed by a predator. However, the “helper and healer who finds the strays” and cures the wounds has protected the little one, and by his piping called in the rescue (Grahame, 86). He is an archetypal Savior, appearing in a “holy place” (Grahame 82).
The idea of the Savior is addressed in chapter V as well, as the field mice sing a Christmas carol about Jesus and the Holy family. The Piper shows mercy on the Mole and the Rat by giving them the gift of forgetfulness, a blessing in disguise. In this way, they will not remember the pure happiness they felt, but, on the other hand, will not spend the rest of their lives in wistful longing for that lost paradise.
Since the topic of Mother Nature and her forces is explored in the story in various ways, the Piper reminds the readers that she is both awe-inspiring and awful. The idea of the incredible beauty of nature is present in every chapter of the story, as evidenced by the descriptions of the surroundings. The author views music and art in the same way, as it has tremendous power over the protagonists.
There is an allusion to the Pied Piper of Hameln, a story where children are lost, not saved as Portly was. It is what gives the Piper his name, acting as another warning. Thus, the message of the chapter and the novel as a whole is that humans do not have as much power over nature as they claim, it is quite to the contrary. Therefore, they are to treat her as something divine, dangerous and worthy of worship.
Grahame, Kenneth. The Wind in the Willows. Penguin Books, 2005. Goodreads E-book. Web.