- An Epic in ArcadiaThe Pastoral World of The Wind in the Willows
Throughout Kenneth Grahame's two collections of short stories, The Golden Age and Dream Days, his narrator writes fondly of the romantic characters that he, his brothers, and his sisters read about during their childhood. The children liked to choose roles and act out the Arthurian romances, and on the particular day described below, Harold, the youngest boy, seized the occasion of his oldest brother's absence to be Sir Lancelot. Charlotte insisted on being Tristram, and the narrator, who was more inclined that day to dream than to act, accepted a subordinate role without protest:
"I don't care," I said: "I'll be anything. I'll be Sir Kay. Come on!"
Then once more in this country's story the mail-clad knights paced through the greenwood shaw, questing adventure, redressing wrong; and bandits, five to one, broke and fled discomfited to their caves. Once again were damsels rescued, dragons disembowelled, and giants, in every corner of the orchard, deprived of their already superfluous number of heads. . . . The varying fortune of the day swung doubtful—now on this side, now on that; till at last Lancelot, grim and great, thrusting through the press, unhorsed Sir Tristram (an easy task), and bestrode her, threatening doom; while the Cornish knight, forgetting hard-won fame of old, cried piteously, "You're hurting me, I tell you! and you're tearing my frock!"1
The nostalgia, mock-heroism, and affection expressed in this passage are typical of Grahame's attitude toward romance. He equates the innocence of the children with its ideal world and, to the extent that both are irretrievable, the equation is valid. But he is also aware that the worlds of Homer and Malory are fallen; heroes need villains in order to demonstrate their valor. And he knows that it is only through the uncritical eyes of childhood that the heroic world can truly seem Utopian. For Grahame, the innocent, green world of Arcadia is by far the more appealing, and from time to time, quite casually, in the short stories, he allows us a glimpse of it as it was perceived by the uncomprehending child. Though the Arcadian vision remains intermittent and basically undeveloped in the stories, we can find in them the elements—both positive [End Page 80] and negative—that would eventually lead Grahame to fashion the sweet epic in Arcadia that exists in The Wind in the Willows.
"The Roman Road," another story in The Golden Age, outlines the Arcadian alternative at its most poignant and melancholy. The narrator opens by relating how on a day "when things were very black within" (p. 156) he took a walk along a road which he felt might truly, as the proverb promised, lead to Rome. He meets an artist who, by some coincidence, claims to spend half his year there, and the little boy begins asking questions about the city. As the conversation develops, it becomes evident that the place they are discussing is a creation of fantasy only, and that its inhabitants are those people who have for some reason had to leave the world of poor, working mortals:
"Well, there's Lancelot," I went on. "The book says he died, but it never seemed to read right, somehow. He just went away, like Arthur. And Crusoe, when he got tired of wearing clothes and being respectable. And all the nice men in the stories who don't marry the Princess, 'cos only one man ever gets married in a book, you know. They'll be there!"
"And the men who never come off," he said, "who try like the rest, but get knocked out, or somehow miss,—or break down or get bowled over in the mêlée, —and get no Princess, nor even a second-class kingdom,—some of them'll be there, I hope?"(pp. 165-66)
The world which they envision is one which simply ignores death, women, and pressure to achieve. Rejecting the idea of his death, the little boy includes Lancelot, but it is clearly with the others, the gentle folk who...