by Kenneth Grahame
“The Golden Age” and “Dream Days” are Kenneth Grahame’s affectionate reminiscences of his idyllic childhood in 1860s Berkshire, including the classic story “The Reluctant Dragon”. The stories are both entertaining (as you’d expect from the author of “The Wind in the Willows”) and grimly tolerant of the unthinking adults who have no conception of the importance of catapults, ferrets and mud.
Mr Toad (“Parp, parp!”), Ratty (“There is nothing – absolutely nothing – half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats,”), Mole and Badger – most of us have come across Kenneth Grahame’s 1908 childrens classic The Wind in the Willows. The strands of the book are based on stories Grahame told his young son, Alastair – who was, apparently, the model for Toad. But before Alastair, before Grahame was even married, he wrote these enchanting memoirs of childhood – The Golden Age (1895) and Dream Days (1898).
“What would you do?” asked Charlotte presently, “if you saw two lions in the road, one on each side, and you didn’t know if they was loose or if they was chained up?”
“Do?” shouted Edward, valiantly, “I should—I should—I should—”
His boastful accents died away into a mumble: “Dunno what I should do.”
“Shouldn’t do anything,” I observed after consideration; and really it would be difficult to arrive at a wiser conclusion.
“If it came to DOING,” remarked Harold, reflectively, “the lions would do all the doing there was to do, wouldn’t they?”
“But if they was GOOD lions,” rejoined Charlotte, “they would do as they would be done by.”
“Ah, but how are you to know a good lion from a bad one?” said Edward. “The books don’t tell you at all, and the lions ain’t marked any different.”
“Why, there aren’t any good lions,” said Harold, hastily.
“Oh yes, there are, heaps and heaps,” contradicted Edward. “Nearly all the lions in the story–books are good lions. There was Androcles’ lion, and St. Jerome’s lion, and—and—the Lion and the Unicorn—”
“He beat the Unicorn,” observed Harold, dubiously, “all round the town.”
“That PROVES he was a good lion,” cried Edwards triumphantly. “But the question is, how are you to tell ’em when you see ’em?”
“I should ask Martha,” said Harold of the simple creed.
Edward snorted contemptuously, then turned to Charlotte. “Look here,” he said; “let’s play at lions, anyhow, and I’ll run on to that corner and be a lion,—I’ll be two lions, one on each side of the road,—and you’ll come along, and you won’t know whether I’m chained up or not, and that’ll be the fun!”
“No, thank you,” said Charlotte, firmly; “you’ll be chained up till I’m quite close to you, and then you’ll be loose, and you’ll tear me in pieces, and make my frock all dirty, and p’raps you’ll hurt me as well. I know your lions!”
Grahame, with his brothers and sister, had been sent by his father to live with his grandmother in Cookham Dean (on the Thames, near Maidenhead) when Grahame’s mother died in childbirth. Many of the details of the short stories that make up both books are based on his recollections of his own idyllic rural childhood.
We three younger ones were stretched at length in the orchard. The sun was hot, the season merry June, and never (I thought) had there been such wealth and riot of buttercups throughout the lush grass. Green–and–gold was the dominant key that day. Instead of active “pretence” with its shouts and perspiration, how much better—I held—to lie at ease and pretend to one’s self, in green and golden fancies, slipping the husk and passing, a careless lounger, through a sleepy imaginary world all gold and green!
Superficially, these are books for children – at least, they are certainly about children – specifically five brothers and sisters who live with aunts and uncles in rural Berkshire (just like Grahame). Grahame has an acute ear for the inanities of childhood (witness the lions above), but the books’ real thesis is the unbridgeable gap between childhood and adulthood. Adults have, for the most part, lost completely the sense of imagination and adventure that characterise the children.
It was incessant matter for amazement how these Olympians would talk over our heads—during meals, for instance—of this or the other social or political inanity, under the delusion that these pale phantasms of reality were among the importances of life. We illuminati, eating silently, our heads full of plans and conspiracies, could have told them what real life was. We had just left it outside, and were all on fire to get back to it.
Although there are honourable exceptions.
The curate… was always ready to constitute himself a hostile army or a band of marauding Indians on the shortest possible notice: in brief, a distinctly able man, with talents, so far as we could judge, immensely above the majority. I trust he is a bishop by this time,—he had all the necessary qualifications, as we knew.
Grahame was writing towards the end of the C19th, in the period known as the fin de siècle, when there was a sense that increasing “civilisation” leads ultimately to decadence. The children, with their somewhat archaic notions of honour, their “natural” responses to nature, and unquenchable imaginations are Grahame’s embodiment of Innocence, pursuing a simpler, purer life hidden from “civilised” adults.
I then struck homewards through the fields; not that the way was very much shorter, but rather because on that route one avoided the bridge, and had to splash through the stream and get refreshingly wet. Bridges were made for narrow folk, for people with aims and vocations which compelled abandonment of many of life’s highest pleasures. Truly wise men called on each element alike to minister to their joy, and while the touch of sun-bathed air, the fragrance of garden soil, the ductible qualities of mud, and the spark-whirling rapture of playing with fire, had each their special charm, they did not overlook the bliss of getting their feet wet.
Encapsulating all this is the charming story “The Reluctant Dragon” (in Dream Days); a young boy stands up for his local dragon against the serried ranks of adults, represented by a pompous St George.
“Six to four on the dragon!” murmured St. George sadly, resting his cheek on his hand. “This is an evil world, and sometimes I begin to think that all the wickedness in it is not entirely bottled up inside the dragons.”
The saddest chapter deals with Edward’s departure for boarding school. It’s not just his leaving that is heart-breaking, but the narrator’s recognition that school is going change Edward irrevocably: he will stop being a child. He’ll stop being one of “us” and become one of “them”. The chapter’s called “Lusisti Satis” –taken from a Latin poem by Horace that was used frequently at funerals:
Lusisti satis, edisti satis, atque bibisti; tempus abire tibi est.
You have played long enough, you have eaten and drunk enough. It’s time for you to leave.
If you’re going to read the books, try to get hold of a hardcopy of one of the illustrated versions of both books. The first illustrations in 1900 were by Maxfield Parrish. There’s a romanticism to Parrish’s approach that’s certainly attractive.
Twenty years later, E.H. Shepard (whose drawings are an integral part of “The Wind in the Willows”) provided quite a different take on the stories.
It’s a sparer style, and I think it works better with the purpose of the stories. There’s both an innocence to Shephard’s children, and – because he often uses silhouettes – a universality. Both the right-hand pictures illustrate the same chapter (“Its Walls Were as of Jasper”) in which the narrator is caught up – as its creators intended he should be – in the glory of a medieval manuscript illustrating the Heavenly City. But while Parrish gives us the city, in all its glory, Shephard manages to convey the absorption of the child and his complete absence from the formal drawing room around him.