Three Types of Awe

wind in the willowsA couple of weeks ago audible suckered me in with a big sale, and I found myself purchasing The Wind in the Willows for a bargain price. I had never read this book as either a child or a mother, although I must have seen countless bits of adaptations on the television. It did have undeniable charm, with Ratty, Moley, Badger and Toad all as I had gathered they would be from osmosis of the general culture. The rather delightful mash-up of fantasy and reality gave me that frivolous feeling, and I couldn’t help but ponder foolish questions, like, who was manufacturing and supplying small armaments to water rats, and how could Mr Toad brush his hair? But I did realise that was beside the point. If you want to read a rational book, you don’t pick one that features talking animals.

After a while, I realised that Wind in the Willows is essentially made up of two different books, which is why it made no great name for itself until A. A. Milne filleted out the plotline concerning the exploits of Toad and turned it into a successful play. The other side of the story is harder to summarize, but it essentially concerns Rat and Mole as they experience certain iconic emotional states – the experience of friendship, for instance, and the pull of home, as well as the lure of wanderlust. Because I was listening to this book at night when I’d gone to bed, it was inevitable that I should drift at certain points, and so it was with some sense of disorientation that I came to in the middle of the chapter entitled ‘The Piper at the Gates of Dawn’.

In this episode, Ratty and Mole have been searching all night for the otter’s lost son, Portly. They take to the river in their boat, and finally, in the mystical light of dawn, come upon young Portly, curled up asleep at the feet of the great Pan. The narration goes completely bonkers at this point, evoking what I eventually understood was a state of divine awe. And it occurred to me to wonder whether awe of this nature, the experience of the sublime, is ever present in contemporary children’s books? Awe seems so much more secular these days, if it exists at all. I couldn’t help but feel that if Portly had been discovered thus in a more up to date book, Pan would have found himself under a paedophilia charge.

the magus of hayI found myself thinking about awe again, however, whilst reading a very recently published crime fiction novel. Phil Rickman’s The Magus of Hay features Merrily Watkins, a diocesan exorcist working from Hereford cathedral. This is apparently the twelfth novel in a series concerning Merrily, which has an interest in alternative spirituality, paganism, and generally unexplained potentially superstitious religious occurrences. Merrily herself held a somewhat wishy-washy position, a good Christian woman who comes to offer a few prayers for those who feel troubled by the dark side, uncertain herself whether they will do any good or not. However, Phil Rickman’s interest in all matters of the occult and alternative spirituality was clearly heavily researched, respectful, curious and exploratory. He provided a lot of information, and whilst the tone is essentially skeptical, this was a much more serious novel than your average outing into the paranormal.

I’d picked the book up originally because the main story was set in Hay-on-Wye where a couple are opening a secondhand bookshop which turns out to have a disturbing atmosphere. Meanwhile, not far away, an elderly man is found drowned in the pool of a waterfall. The young police detective who finds him admits to the investigating officer that as a kid, they all used to call him a wizard and dare each other to run up to his house. It’s a long and quite complicated story that eventually draws these events together and I enjoyed it, though I’m not sure I’d rush to get another in the series, mostly because Merrily didn’t win my heart. But it was well done, and I did appreciate the treatment of the supernatural.

I don’t think I’ve ever told you about my Uncle Graham, have I? Well, I do love my crime fiction, but Uncle Gray is a good excuse to read a steady stream of it. He is a retired widower and a voracious reader; he’s also a man of economical ways, which see him, in winter, in bed reading every evening and night with his scarf and hat and gloves on. This tickles me, probably because I aspire to much the same sort of retirement myself, only with central heating. Well, once Uncle Gray had worked his way through my dad’s not inconsiderable library of crime fiction, my parents asked me if I had any books I could lend him. Did I have books! So now I keep the crime I read to one side, supplemented by the review copies I’m sent, and goodness knows what Uncle Gray makes of some of them (The Magus of Hay will be a good case in point), but he’s never been known to complain.

this boy's lifeA last burst of awe, of a brief but powerful nature: Tobias Wolff. I’ve been on a reading kick of his writing lately and He. Is. Amazing. I read This Boy’s Life, then some of his short stories. The writing is genius – pure, clean, completely without pretention, but he says so much. And he’s funny too. Why is it so hard to write about the books that make the most impact on you? I have no words, but much awe.



29 thoughts on “Three Types of Awe

  1. I always forget the Portly side-story! Beyond books like Philip Pullman’s ‘His Dark Materials’ I think awe is probably in short measure in current children’s fiction – although thinking about it the Harry Potter books do have their moments (the ‘Expecto Patronum’ spell working in the third one comes to mind).

    I must read more of Tobias Wolff. I loved his novel ‘Old School’ and think you’d enjoy it too.

    • I haven’t read His Dark Materials, though I know my son has copies. I am intrigued – and in fact, I also bought The Ruby in the Smoke by Phillip Pullman from that same audible sale (though it’s from a very different kind of series, right?). I think he’s a very interesting writer. Now you mention it, I realise I have read Old School – years ago now. But it was wonderful and I did love it – good call!

  2. “If you want to read a rational book, you don’t pick one that features talking animals.” Indeed. 🙂 And yes, I think there is a notable absence of divine revelation in modern-day children’s books, which is too bad.

    Totally with you on the overwhelming miracle that is “This Boy’s Life.” I recommend it again and again to aspiring memoirists as one of the two most perfect examples of creative nonfiction, “In Cold Blood” being the second. But in first-person narrative memoir, “This Boy’s Life” is untouchable.

    • Oh isn’t he just incredible? I’m an admirer of In Cold Blood, too. But Tobias Wolff…. just exceptional. As for the children’s literature, I wonder whether that old-fashioned spirituality was a repository of safety, a way of believing that things would turn out okay that is no longer available to us. I’m not sure whether it’s sensible or a crying shame to be without it.

      • You know, I honestly think a lot of it has to do with the fact that those writers were much closer to the natural world, which gave them a continual sense of divine presence. I could be wrong about that, but…well, let’s be honest: when do I ever actually think I’m wrong about anything?

      • Heh, love that! And as usual, I think you are right. If you read Wind in the Willows, you’d see what a steeped-in-nature book it is – hugely so.

  3. I’d echo Annabel on Old School.

    You paint a delightful picture of your uncle. It reminded me on my aunt, not because of the economical ways but because I passed on a steady supply of review copies, particularly John Grisham to her. She was a huge fan.

    • Aww, isn’t it fun to be able to supply relatives with a steady stream of books? I just love that. I also love choosing books for people as presents or holiday reads or just because they like a certain kind. However, my uncle just gets everything! Do you know, I’ve never read any John Grisham. In honour of your aunt, I should give him a try!

  4. Wind in the Willows is one of my favourites, although possibly the Piper at the Gates of Dawn chapter went a little over my head as a child (my children too didn’t quite know what to make of it, but were concerned about the poor Otter baby’s fate). The story of Rat and Mole’s friendship and the ‘lost in the woods’ chapter, finding Mole’s old house – these are wonderful elements of the story – and give it far more depth. Awe is a good way of describing it.
    And your description of your Uncle Graham and your plans for retirement made me laugh: ‘probably because I aspire to much the same sort of retirement myself, only with central heating’.

    • MarinaS, I loved that ‘lost in the woods’ chapter; I think it was possibly my favourite part of the entire book. It is so…. completely reassuring and enchanting. Yes, and finding Mole’s old house, that was delightful too. It makes me realise how I a) love to read for plot but b) love to recollect those contemplative, calmer, meaningful parts of the book afterwards. They do stay with you. I’m so glad my uncle amused you – he amuses me a lot, too!

  5. Wind in the Willows was one of my childhood favourites. I have such fond memories of it as I recall my grandfather reading it to me as a young girl. It’s lovely to relive it here and to read the comments too, as I’m sure certain elements of the story went straight over my head at the time! It is a captivating book, one of those stories that has the potential to appeal to readers of all ages – there’s something for everyone.

    • Isn’t it interesting how some books-as-experiences stay with you? It’s the Paddington books for me, which my dad used to read out loud. And you remind me what an excellent audience children are – they just take what they want and enjoy it. Yes, I did love that ‘lost in the woods’ part, and all the adventures of Toad. There’s so much that is timeless.

  6. I have a feeling that Grahame may have been a Catholic, which might have had some bearing on his ability to be awed and to articulate awe. I remember loving the Piper at the Gates of Dawn chapter, especially in the 1992 cartoon version (with incomparable voice talent: Alan Bennett as Mole is Platonically perfect casting), where the animation so gorgeously captures the mysticism without ever leaving the reality of nature. And wonderful, silly Toad, and the tenderness of Mole and Rat’s friendship! It’s such a lovely, lovely book.

  7. Hated (well that’s a little strong) WIW as a child, but I picked it up to read to my son when he was about 8 and not only did he like it but so did I (for different reasons). I see it as essentially a fable (possibly fables) with a bit of slapstick (Toad) thrown in; I still don’t like all that fooling around with cars etc. The amazing scene with Pan was so unexpected and actually rather moving and I was very taken with the deep yearnings most of the characters had for some deep meaning in their lives and also some variety from the daily norm.

    Greetings from a scorching hot CERN! P x

    • Isn’t it funny how things change? My childhood reading was wall-to-wall Enid Blyton for a long time, and when I finally read one to my son, I did wonder what I’d seen in them! The classic that surprised us most was The Wizard of Oz, which is extraordinarily entertaining. I completely agree that the yearning on the parts of Mole and Ratty is very poignant. Hope CERN was great! x

  8. I loved The Wind in the Willows, especially the Piper at the Gtes of Dawn chapter.
    I think I liked Phil Rickman better than you did but maybe Merrily has changed. I liked her in the one I’ve read.
    I’m really intrigued by This Boy’s Life.

    • It’s always the problem with coming in to the middle of a series – I might have felt quite differently if I’d followed Merrily from the start. But then again, I rarely like the first couple of books in a series before the author has got his/her eye in. But I did think the book well-written ahd very well researched. I think you’d like This Boy’s Life. The writing is amazing.

  9. Not to mention who made Mr. Toad’s car and where does he stop for gas? That chapter with Pan is indeed bonkers! But then so is the battle for Mr. Toad’s house. I used to love Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride at Disneyland when I was a kid. It’s a roller coaster that careens around and is always about to run into something. Happy and delightful terror!

  10. In all the reading I did with my children when they were young, I don’t believe we ever read Wind In The Willows! Can that possibly be true? I’ll have to ask them if they remember. If I didn’t I’m ashamed of myself. P.S. Your Uncle Gray sounds like a cutie. Give him my phone number!)

    • Grad, I should think you’ve made my uncle’s day! There are always books that slip through the net. We didn’t read much Winnie the Pooh, either, as it didn’t appeal to my son (though I love those stories). We can think of it as leaving something over for the grandchildren!

  11. I was going to recommend Old School also, but I see you’ve already read it! I don’t remember why I picked it up in the first place, as it’s not quite my kind of thing — it made me laugh and laugh, though. I’ll have to try his memoir as well.

    I read Wind in the Willows as a tot, because my mum loved it, and I confess that it never did much for me. There were bits I didn’t hate. The pictures were pretty. :/

    • I’d love to know what you think of This Boy’s Life. It also made me laugh a lot – he has such a witty turn of phrase, and sacrifices nothing of meaning and quality to it.

  12. I never liked The Wind in the Willows as a kid–I remember thinking that it was probably the book “with cunning little talking animals” that the first graders at Scout’s school in To Kill a Mockingbird were so scornful about.
    Now I think it’s an interesting book and have no idea why I was so hostile to it as a kid.

    • Isn’t it intriguing how things change? I love that description of it, though, ‘cunning little talking animals’. I don’t remember that from reading TKAM, so I’m delighted you mentioned it!

  13. I’m another admirer of Tobias Wolff. He wrote a memoir of his time in the military in Viet Nam; it’s called “In Pharaoh’s Army.” And I recommend it. His brother Geoffrey is also a writer and his memoir of his life with their father (“The Duke of Deception,” which hints at his character) after the parents divorced (Tobias having stayed with their mother) is a wonderful companion to “This Boy’s Life”.

    • I had wondered about both those books, so thank you VERY much for encouraging me towards them. I must admit, I’m very curious to read them both. And well, everything he’s written!

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