Wednesday, January 01, 2014

The Mystical Chapter 7

illus. by W. Graham Robertson (1908)
      As the 19th century rapidly became more industrialized, a renewed cultural interest in the nature-god Pan became more evident in western art and literature. By the time the 20th century rolled around it seemed as if the goat-like creature of legend was here to stay. Pan found his way into the works of Saki, Aleister Crowley, William Burroughs and many other notable authors. Perhaps his strangest and most celebrated appearance came in the seventh chapter of Scottish writer Kenneth Grahame's children's classic The Wind in the Willows first published in 1908. A story about the gentle friendship and adventures of several animals (most notably the irrepressible Mr. Toad), Grahame's novel takes several episodic detours into uncharted and fantastical waters.

If you open any unabridged copy, smack dab in the middle, you'll find the short chapter entitled The Piper at the Gates of Dawn. In this sometimes excised section, the protagonists Mole and Ratty go searching for Portly, the young son of their friend Otter. Led upstream in their rowboat by the sound of magical piping, they soon discover Portly safe and asleep in the dense woods of an island beneath a mystical visage that is almost too spellbinding for their souls to bear. They have come face to face with the unknown, the great forest god himself.

illus. by Paul Bransom (1913)
Although he isn't called by name in the book, Pan uses his powers to wipe their memories clean of his overpowering and awe-inspiring presence. Perhaps he does this so that they can get on with things as usual, to return to the simplicity and beauty of their predetermined lives and not have to live forever haunted by his image the rest of their days. Grahame was quite clear, and insistent about the importance of this chapter, that the animals were never afraid of Pan. Like anyone who has ever seen a ghost, or experienced their own encounter with the supernatural, life can sometimes take on new meanings or directions.

As human creatures, we are often challenged by what we don't know or can't understand. It is this simple philosophy that the gods are indeed among us, always pulling us in the right directions that makes this world an infinitely more beguiling place. Pan's place in the book reminds us of our own forsaken connection to the divinity of nature and the instinctual world in exchange for a false dependency on logic and rationality (or as Joseph Campbell once said: "You see this thing up here [points at head], this consciousness thinks it's running the shop. It's a secondary organ. It's a secondary organ of a total human being and it must not put itself in control.") Grahame's enchanting chapter has also inspired many musicians as well, from Pink Floyd to Van Morrison. The god himself was reinvented for a new audience in the 21st century, by fantasy filmmaker Guillermo del Toro in Pan's Labyrinth (2006). Del Toro was even working with Disney on a new film adaptation of The Wind in the Willows but walked out over creative differences (they wanted Mr. Toad to have a skateboard and say "radical dude" things; del Toro famously replied "It's been a pleasure").

director Guillermo del Toro's vision of Pan from sketchbook to screen
Whatever you make of it, however he influences you, the piper lives on.

illus. by Justin Todd (1988)

Happy New Year!

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