Last week, I reread The Wind in the Willows, a childhood classic brought back to my attention by Olivia Laing’s mentioning it a few times in her beautiful book To the River (which I wrote about here). It is very much a book about life on ‘River Bank’, a happy idyllic life, full of boating expeditions and picnics.
In honour of the book, some friends and I set out at the weekend to walk around Cookham and Maidenhead, along the stretch of the Thames which is said to have inspired The Wind and the Willows. We even brought a picnic including some of Ratty’s favourite things:
We omitted the coldtongue. And added in cheese. And cake.
The stretch along the Thames was certainly beautiful, even if the river was in its current somewhat depleted state. It was easy to imagine animals larking around here, content in their pretty, secluded spot. We also walked through some beautiful woods, which at this time of year, with the leaves just pushing their way out, felt particularly lovely.
Although these beautiful woods, filled with greenish light and elegant lines of trees, weren’t the inspiration for Grahame’s ‘Wild Wood’. That wood, we passed to our left. It was fenced off, and looked a bit too scary to risk going in. Indeed, in the book, the Wild Wood is terrifying:
He penetrated to where the light was less, and the trees crouched nearer and nearer, and holes made ugly mouths at him on either side. Everything was very still now. The dusk advanced on him steadily, rapidly, gathering in behind and before; and the light seemed to be draining away like flood-water. Then the faces began. It was over his shoulder, and indistinctly, that he first thought he saw a face: a little evil wedge-shaped face, looking out at him from a hole. When he turned and confronted it, the thing has vanished … He passed another hole, and another, and another; and then – yes! – no! – yes! certainly a little narrow face, with hard eyes, had flashed up for an instant from a hole, and was gone … Then suddenly, as if it had been so all the time, every hold, far and near, and there were hundreds of them, seemed to possess its face, coming and going rapidly, all fixing on him glances of malice and hatred: all hard-eyed and evil and sharp.
This is one of the bits that Olivia Laing notices in To the River. She remembers it gave her ‘a creeping sense that the world was not always as pleasant as it seemed’.
The Wild Wood is somewhere one shouldn’t venture, Rat instructs Mole at the beginning, and as for the Wide World, beyond that – that is something never to be referred to again, it ‘doesn’t matter … I’m never going, nor you either, if you’ve got any sense at all.’ The idyll of River Bank, with its sunshine and picnics, is dependent on being separate from these dark, unknowable places, protected from the outside world.
Woods are places where strange things happen. Often things that can only happen in the dark. Think of Hansel and Gretel. Shakespeare used the idea in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, sending the lovers into the woods, where the magical mishaps can take place. Last night I watched Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes, where the nail-biting climax takes place once the train has been decoupled and then sent down a branch line deep into the woods.
Surely the most unnerving thing about the Wild Wood are the little narrow faces with their ‘hard eyes’. Their disembodiment is alien and threatening. Reading this, I was reminded of a deeply unnerving moment in Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Beginning of Spring. There’s a night walk far out into the woods, and then:
Dolly began to see on each side of her, among the thronging stems of the birch trees, what looked like human hands, moving to touch each other across the whiteness and blackness.
There’s the same horror and strangeness from only being able to see bits of things – hands, or faces, or eyes. It is as though the darkness and the woods have completely undone the wholeness of things, undermined the very foundation of reality.
Woods might be terrifying places, but they are also essential. The River Bank wouldn’t be such a paradise if there were no opposite force casting shade against its sunlight. People need a place for which they must summon every ounce of bravery in order to get through. When Rat goes off to rescue Mole, he:
strapped a belt round his waist, shoved a brace of pistols into it, took up a stout cudgel that stood in a corner of the hall and set off for the Wild Wood at a smart pace … Here and there wicked little faces popped out of holes, but vanished immediately at sight of the valorous animal, his pistols and the great ugly cudgel in his grasp.
Rat is called upon to be ‘valorous’, and Mole, although terrified, in some ways needs to go through the Wild Wood in order to prove himself. Later, when the weasels and stoats of the Wild Wood rise up and take over Toad Hall, the other animals bravely band together to throw them out.
In The Lady Vanishes, the two Englishmen Charters and Caldicott, only emerge from their cricket-obsessed bubble when they are in the woods and forced to confront the world outside. And, in The Beginning of Spring, it is only in the woods, in this strange unnerving scene, that we get an inkling of who the mysterious Lisa Ivanovna might be.
Woods force one to confront one’s fears, and be faced with the truth. No wonder they can engender such an ominous, threatening feeling. But yet, people normally get out the other side, and do so stronger and wiser. For us, happily, we got through the woods, sat on a meadow by the river bank and then feasted on our picnic. Until it began to rain.