23 December 2015

Some Christmas cheer with
‘The Wind in the Willows’

Winter willows by the river bank … the River Dodder at Orwell Road Bridge in Rathgar this week (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Patrick Comerford

Yes, I have had a number of ‘Wind in the Willows’ moments this past week or so.

Standing by the banks of the River Nanny in Laytown on Saturday, crossing over the River Liffey after the Sung Eucharist and after lunch on Sunday, or finding myself by the banks of the River Dodder on Monday and Tuesday, my mind seemed to wander along the riverbanks and to imagine Mole, Rat, Badger and Toad by the river and the willows.

Perhaps The Wind in the Willows came to mind too when I recalled the Revd Edwards Comerford Hawkins, his son Anthony Hope, author of The Prisoner of Zenda, and their cousin, the Irish rugby superstar and war hero Basil Maclear, for Anthony Hope was a first cousin of the author Kenneth Grahame (1859-1932).

Grahame is best known for The Wind in the Willows (1908), one of the all-time classics of children’s literature. He was introduced to the riverside and boating by his uncle, the Revd David Ingles, the curate at Cookham Dean in Berkshire. Cookham was also the home of the artist Stanley Spencer (1891-1959), who often used Cookham and the river as the backdrop to his religious paintings.

Grahame is said to have been inspired by the River Thames at Cookham to write The Wind in the Willows, as he lived at ‘The Mount’ in Cookham Dean as a child, and he returned to the village to write the book. Quarry Wood nearby in Bisham is said to have been the original Wild Wood.

Grahame’s cousin Anthony Hope wrote his epitaph, which reads: “To the beautiful memory of Kenneth Grahame, husband of Elspeth and father of Alastair, who passed the river on the 6th of July, 1932, leaving childhood and literature through him the more blest for all time.”

Recently I came across this adaptation by Michael Hague of a Christmas story inspired by The Wind in the Willows. It is a heart-warming tale of friendship, and homecoming, of generosity and hospitality.

Since living with his good friend Rat, Mole has been away from his home, Mole End, for quite some time. But with the help of Rat’s unwavering determination, he rediscovered Mole End and the empty place is transformed into a haven of warmth and contentment for Mole, Rat, and the cheerful field mice who come to the door carol singing.

They sing the carol Ding Dong Merrily on High, one of the carols that the choir sang at the Service of Nine Lessons and Carols in Christ Church Cathedral on Monday night [21 December 2015]. The lyrics were written by the Anglican priest and English composer, the Revd George Ratcliffe Woodward (1848–1934), and the carol was first published in A Cambridge Carol-Book: Being Fifty-two Songs for Christmas, Easter, And Other Seasons in 1924. Woodward took an interest in church bell ringing, which no inspired his words. He was the author of several carol books, including Songs of Syon and The Cowley Carol Book.

The tune used on Monday night was harmonised by the Irish composer Charles Wood (1866-1926) when it was published with Woodward’s text in The Cambridge Carol Book. Together, Wood and Woodward collaborated in the revival and popularisation of renaissance tunes to new English religious texts. Wood, who was born in Vicars’ Hill beside Saint Patrick’s Cathedral of Armagh, studied under Stanford and Parry, and became Professor of Music at University of Cambridge in 1924. His pupils included Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) at Cambridge and Herbert Howells (1892-1983) at the Royal College of Music.

This carol is particularly noted for its Latin refrain:

Gloria, Hosanna in excelsis!

It moves from the choirs of heaven, to the choirs of the parish church, to inviting all into the church at Christmas to rejoice in the news of the Incarnation.

Rat and Mole, have found no room at the inn, and tredge through the snow-covered fields on the mountainside where shepherds might tend their flocks by night. They invite the carol singers in and share the meagre meal with them. It turns this child-like story into a retelling of the story of the Loaves and Fishes and there is a Eucharistic theme in the shared meal around a common table.

The little mice are a reminder of the meek and lowly, and though Rat and Mole are poor compared to those whose houses they have peered into, they are rich this Christmas because of the child-like presence that has come among them.

And I hope this helps you to share the Christmas spirit with others and with good cheer.

Thinking of Mole, Rat, Badger and Toad by the banks of the River Nanny last weekend (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Ding dong merrily on high,
In heav’n the bells are ringing:
Ding dong! verily the sky
Is riv’n with angel singing.
Gloria, Hosanna in excelsis!

E’en so here below, below,
Let steeple bells be swungen,
And “Io, io, io!”
By priest and people sungen.
Gloria, Hosanna in excelsis!

Pray you, dutifully prime
Your matin chime, ye ringers;
May you beautifully rime
Your evetime song, ye singers.
Gloria, Hosanna in excelsis!

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