Wednesday, March 28, 2018


"Mr. Toad" from "Wind in the Willows"

At about the tenth year, families that haven’t really “gelled” successfully begin to take a second breath, maybe a new job and maybe a new place.  Classically (that means just after WWII) industrialization introduced many better-paid but more arduous work for agricultural people and pulled them into cities.  Their children got dragged along with them, faced with the necessity of making all new friends.  Luckily, for boys at least, this is the age when “classically” — meaning always and everywhere — boys get pulled into groups of same-age/same-sex kids.  

In “Wind in the Willows” this phenomenon is both celebrated and legitimated by making the boys into true animals, though anthromorphized.  Written in the early years of the nineteen hundreds, a time when England was barely leaving the old ways, the author, Kenneth Grahame, had taken early retirement to write this book which replaced any normal relationship to his damaged son.  One writer says the book, “alternately slow moving and fast-paced, . . . is notable for its mixture of mysticism, adventure, morality and camaraderie.”

Grahame’s father was alcoholic and reasonably gave his four children over to their grandmother who raised them, one imagines, on benign neglect.  Grahame himself married late to a barely fertile woman, a 36-year-old hypochondriac, with the result of one handicapped, half-blind, uncontrollable child.  Rather than nurturing and guiding Alastair, he sent his son off to school with only tales of Toad, Mole, Ratty and Badger to comfort him.  It wasn’t enough.  Finally, after wild behavior, including attacks on other boys, Alistair committed suicide by lying down in front of a train.

The father, who had taken early retirement, went on unchanged, puttering, and living a vicarious life through his inventions.  One writer suggests that only one emotion is allowed: nostalgia.  No doubt yearning for life as a carefree boy.  Being English, the theme of escape is important. “Mole desires to escape from the boredom of maintaining his home and his everyday existence; Badger’s escape is from society.  Although he does not succumb, Rat is strongly intrigued the stories of the Wild World told by Sea Rat, and Toad desires to elude every trace of responsibility to the rest of the world.”  Critics want to assign Toad to the grandfather, the father or the son, but it seems clear that he is about all three.  Along with a good deal of class consciousness and contempt.

Another critic identifies three “life paths,”  each associated with a different place.  The River is a centered life rooted in the permanent things; the Open Road which is “an aimless life with no sense of permanence or stability”, and the Wild Wood, “a lonely life filled with cold, impersonal beings.”  They are not cheerful alternatives, as presented, but each of the three could be quite satisfactory if conditions were good.

If one were to pretend these characters were human boys, their ages would seem to be between 9 and 12, the years of fitting one’s self into a cohort.  The three alternatives don’t sound so bad, in fact a necessary preparation for the community network.  In many places they would actually begin working along side men.  But now appears a new version, one that can potentially lead to “Lord of the Flies.”

This is a far darker story, published in 1954, a very dark time after WWII when it was beginning to be clear that there’s no such thing as a “war to end wars.”

“The point of departure for Lord of the Flies is a nineteenth century boys’ novel titled The Coral Island (1858), by R. M. Ballantyne. In Ballantyne’s story, a group of shipwrecked British schoolboys (two of whom share their names with Golding’s main characters) manage to create on their deserted island a fair replica of British civilization. Golding’s view of human nature is less sanguine. His is a view that accepts the doctrine of original sin but without the accompanying doctrine of redemption. People in a state of nature quickly revert to evil, but even in a so-called civilized state, people simply mask their evil beneath a veneer of order. After all, while the boys on the island are sinking into a state of anarchy and blood lust, their civilized parents and teachers are waging nuclear war in the skies overhead.”

Instead of casting innocent animals in a country atmosphere, this novel takes the original parable into “boys for men,” that is, lost boys who have no real education, no culture, no doctrine of salvation.  There is no way to be “saved.”  The realistic life of the time was deeply challenged and some would argue that it never was anything but a pig scramble.  At this moment (2018), the idea is pretty persuasive.

The boys in this second book are avid for sex and violence, though they are inchoate forces just beginning to form.  The story is deliberately not inclusive of females, as was true of English upper class schools at the time, but neither does it include elements of idealism that would have been taught.  The purpose is to discredit the German/ French notions about romantic children who are only corrupted by civilization: this story turns it inside out.  The abiding corruption of Manichaeism, originally from Iran, still forces everything into dualities that even now feed war in the Middle East.

Off the top of my head, I can’t think of any popular stories with this much appeal that are NOT either/or.  So long as our tales are based on human conflict, there’s not much choice.  Perhaps the real alternative is individual rather than group.  Something like Joe Campbell’s hero’s journey has room for good, bad, neither, and open questions.  This structure is based on exploration, growing knowledge.

Huck Finn/Tom Sawyer stories are about a “pair,” neither single nor group.  We are very interested in the real-world stories of animals.  But our tales of their survival is now a little frightening.  Not just the slack-jawed idiot sons of presidents waving newly severed elephant tails, but also the pipelines, the drainage, the excavating, the constant overrunning and overreplication that has contaminated the very air — today these are what make a boy wonder about survival.  Mr. Toad seems to be us.


Whisky Prajer said...

Morning, Mary. I recently picked up a discarded copy of Laurens van der Post's The Night Of The New Moon, one of his accounts of life as a Japanese POW. He describes a "university" system they established, to keep from going mad. I gather LvdP was quite the fabulist (and roué), but this sort of prisoner project seems to be an innate collective response to conditions. Steven Pressfield describes a similar project amongst POWs in one of his Grecian Wars novels (Tides Of War). This is, of course, a qualitatively different environment from being marooned, a la Ballantyne and Golding -- a group consciousness that is shaped by human antagonism, not Nature's seeming indifference.


Whisky Prajer said...

Hm. You've got me thinking, Mary. Madeleine L'Engle (abandoned at 11) is also coming to mind.

Mary Strachan Scriver said...

"Empire of the Sun" was the film (and book) that grabbed me. This line of thought intrigues me a lot. I'm working on a post about the unisex aspect of cowboys right now. -- as an explicit version of gay man culture. Not so much "Brokeback Mountain" which is socioeconomic as much as about desire, but the Montgomery Clift sort of aspect where he is quite male, but tends to pick up a kind of nurturing. That twisting tender mouth and semi-poetic aspect.

Prairie Mary

Whisky Prajer said...

Which the Johns (Ford and Wayne) cannot abide, yet do not quite know what to do with.

"Knick 'im!"