I’ve been thinking about chapter 7 of Kenneth Grahame’s book today. The Piper at the Gates of Dawn.
You’ve got this book about middle class animals. There’s a lot of anxiety about the rise of the motor vehicle, and a vague sense of foreboding about the weasels in the wild wood and how they want our stuff. Then a baby otter goes missing, and Ratty and Moley go looking for him and search all night.
As the dawn breaks they hear ethereal piping on the wind and something really odd happens in the context of this book. These two animals – they have a transcendental moment. They connect with the power of nature full force. They have this huge spiritual experience in the presence of Pan. It feels like an overlooked central part of this tale. It was written in 1908, as the Industrial Revolution was accelerating into the wars and we were forgetting everything of the old ways. Kenneth Grahame suddenly shows us these two creatures utterly cowed by a realisation of the sheer size of nature.
Pan returns the lost baby otter to our heroes. He is just there for a moment, the child at his feet, vast, magnetic and benevolent. The animals are drawn to him – they are in awe of him. And his final gift is for them to forget, just leaving them with a sense that something wonderful has happened.
“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.”
“The irrelevant bit about Pan,” somebody said. It’s the heart of the book. No. It’s not to be forgotten. Raises it from just a kids book about animals and suspicion of technology into something about the shift in the world away from nature. We could not live the life we live if we had honestly encountered the truth of the nature spirit – the Pan energy. We would be destroyed by the mirror. We are monstrous without intending to be monstrous. Pan’s forgetting is a mercy.
Pan stands for nature – a demi God, a faun, the myceliac extrusion of Gaea in recognisable form. I’m bringing mushrooms into it as I’m fucking with the fact that, with a world of choice, Grahame chose one of the only male nature Gods. That’s why I’m basically characterising him as mother Gaea’s detachable cock. I think he’d be happy with that.
Pan. Nature God. Much maligned. Precursor to some images of Satan, lightning eyed and cloven hoofed. He was declared dead on the island of Paxi in the reign of Emperor Tiberius – his death was howled on the wind to Thamus the helmsman and recorded by a surprised Plutarch, not used to recording such mysteries. He plays on the wind. He shows up when you’re not looking, and never when you are. He’s charismatic, terrifying, inexorable, gorgeous. You can never fully kill a God. He only died in so much as somebody cut a vine that day the helmsman heard a cry of mourning. The ascendance of Pan died with the ascent in Rome of a nature-averse monotheistic doctrine repurposed for conflict. A new age followed, but snatches of Pan blow through that world still. Maybe he’s piping the dawn again somewhere.
A part of the splintered Pan energy stuck to Kenneth Grahame for him to tell it in this little tale that has somehow beaten the years. I am connecting with it in a similar fashion, through his words, and through the fact that I’m working outdoors at this time of year on this text but in the rushes. If Grahame had never written this, it would be some other text. But his love of nature – his touch of Pan … it facilitates our love.
Bring it on.