Monday, December 24, 2012

Christmas with Rat and Mole

The Christmas scene that I love the most might be the one from The Wind in the Willows, the chapter called "Dulce Domum" ("Sweet Home"). I love its contrast between the cold winter night and the warm, bright home full of feasting and friends. To me, that's the essence of Christmas, and Kenneth Grahame does it so well.

Nothing makes me feel colder than reading about Mole and Rat as they travel their cold road through the village, watching all the cozy scenes of domestic life through the windows of the houses. They are especially affected by the sight of a sleepy canary in his cage, which makes perfect sense, because he is their exact opposite. Mole and Rat are independent animals with their own cares and worries, but the canary is a pet who is cared for completely. He never has to go outside in the winter. In fact, his cage is like a little house, making him the ultimate inside animal: he's so domestic that he has a house inside a house. Meanwhile Mole and Rat are freezing outside: "Then a gust of bitter wind took them in the back of the neck, a small sting of frozen sleet on the skin woke them as in a dream, and they knew their toes to be cold and their legs tired, and their own home distant a weary way."

(Arthur Rackham's illustration of Mole and Rat in the snow.)

But then nothing makes me feel warmer than reading about Mole's house, once the field-mice show up to sing a Christmas carol. At this point the Rat has warmed up the house by lighting a fire. Mole hasn't been in his house since the spring, and the only food he has is an old sausage, a box of hardtack, and a tin of sardines, but the Rat finds four bottles of beer left in Mole's cellar. (The Wind in the Willows contains much more alcohol than one would ever find in a contemporary children's book; it's like the Mad Men of children's literature.) And then the young field-mice arrive to sing a carol at Mole's door, and the Rat invites them in for mulled ale and a feast (which one of them will have to go out and buy). This is where Mole and Rat finally get the domestic warmth that they longed for earlier in the story. "It did not take long to prepare the brew and thrust the tin heater well into the red heart of the fire, and soon every field-mouse was sipping and coughing and choking (for a little mulled ale goes a long way) and wiping his eyes and laughing and forgetting he had ever been cold in his life."

(Illustration by E.H. Shephard.)

There is so much to think about in this chapter: how the animals never mention Christmas, except vaguely in the carol (maybe because, as we see in "Piper at the Gates of Dawn," they worship Pan); how the class differences between Mole and Rat show themselves (Mole's house, with its skittle-alley and yard art, is decidedly middle-class, while the Rat and his other friends are more aristocratic). But what I really like about "Dulce Domum" is how well it describes the experience of going home for the holidays. It covers all aspects, beginning with "the last long stretch, the home stretch, the stretch that we know is bound to end, some time, in the rattle of the door-latch, the sudden fire-light, and the sight of familiar things greeting us as long-absent travellers from far over-sea." Then there is Mole's unsettling feeling that things are different than he remembered them -- in his case, his house is smaller and shabbier than the places of his new life -- and finally, there is his joy at homecoming and his realization that his old home will be part of him forever. He sees "the value of some such anchorage in one's existence." He doesn't want to leave his new life, "but it was good to think he had this to come back to; this place which was all his own, these things which were so glad to see him again and could always be counted upon for the same simple welcome."

This is the season when I'm glad I have my own anchorage, and I wish you all an anchorage in your existences, of one sort or another. Merry Christmas!

(Another illustration by Arthur Rackham, this one of Rat and Mole about to enjoy some Christmas beer.)


  1. Merry Christmas to you too! I've so enjoyed your Christmas posts, which keep sending me straight to my shelves. I also spent an afternoon looking for the Christmas scenes in the Little House books.

    1. Thanks, Lisa May! I just spent an afternoon looking up the Christmas scenes myself. I love Laura's idea that Christmases get better and better as you grow up.

  2. I hope you've had a good Christmas! I used to love The Wind in the Willows when I was a child but it's been so long since I read it I've completely forgotten all the little details of the story - maybe it's time for a re-read!

    1. Thanks, Helen! I hope you had a good holiday too. I was surprised at how different The Wind in the Willows was when I read it as an adult from the way I remembered it. But I loved it both times.