January 23rd, 2012

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The Truepenny Purgatorio

Amazing how many times you can read a much-loved text, and still miss the obvious. I refer of course to the opening paragraphs of The Wind in the Willows:

THE Mole had been working very hard all the morning, spring-cleaning his little home. First with brooms, then with dusters; then on ladders and steps and chairs, with a brush and a pail of whitewash; till he had dust in his throat and eyes, and splashes of whitewash all over his black fur, and an aching back and weary arms. Spring was moving in the air above and in the earth below and around him, penetrating even his dark and lowly little house with its spirit of divine discontent and longing. It was small wonder, then, that he suddenly flung down his brush on the floor, said `Bother!' and `O blow!' and also `Hang spring-cleaning!' and bolted out of the house without even waiting to put on his coat. Something up above was calling him imperiously, and he made for the steep little tunnel which answered in his case to the gravelled carriage-drive owned by animals whose residences are nearer to the sun and air. So he scraped and scratched and scrabbled and scrooged and then he scrooged again and scrabbled and scratched and scraped, working busily with his little paws and muttering to himself, `Up we go! Up we go!' till at last, pop! his snout came out into the sunlight, and he found himself rolling in the warm grass of a great meadow.

`This is fine!' he said to himself. `This is better than whitewashing!' The sunshine struck hot on his fur, soft breezes caressed his heated brow, and after the seclusion of the cellarage he had lived in so long the carol of happy birds fell on his dulled hearing almost like a shout. Jumping off all his four legs at once, in the joy of living and the delight of spring without its cleaning, he pursued his way across the meadow till he reached the hedge on the further side.


It was only when looking at these paragraphs today for quite another purpose that I was struck by the significance of the word "cellarage". It's a relatively unusual lexical choice, but I knew I'd met it recently, and in connection with moles, too. Of course! --

Ghost cries under the stage.
Ghost. Swear.
Ham. Aha boy, say'st thou so? Art thou there, truepenny?
Come on! You hear this fellow in the cellarage.
Consent to swear.
...
Ham. Well said, old mole! Canst work i' th' earth so fast?
A worthy pioner!


The longer I looked, the more the parallels rained down upon me. You will notice, of course, that the Ghost of Old Hamlet commands the soldiers to swear; and the first thing we see Grahame's Mole do is swear: "Bother!", "O blow!" and "Hang spring-cleaning!" Mere coincidence, perhaps? More importantly, spring-cleaning is a powerful metaphor for purgatory. Here, souls with fur as black as their own sins are engaged in Sisyphean torment, forced to whitewash their own sepulchres from the inside in a ghastly parody of their former lives, choking on dust and tortured with what Grahame so rightly calls "divine discontent". Yet their torture has a positive aspect too, for spring cleaning - that is to say, cleansing one's soul in readiness to spring forth at the Resurrection - will fit them ultimately to receive God's grace. Ask not what is the "Something Up Above" that calls to Mole so "imperiously": ask rather, Who.

At this point I feel I have already made an unanswerable case, but for any stiff-necked readers out there, let us note what happens when the ghost of old Hamlet emerges onto the battlements of Elsinore. He is immediately questioned by Horatio:

Hor. What art thou that usurp'st this time of night
Together with that fair and warlike form
In which the majesty of buried Denmark
Did sometimes march? By heaven I charge thee speak!
Mar. It is offended.
Ber. See, it stalks away!
Hor. Stay! Speak, speak! I charge thee speak!
Exit Ghost.
Mar. 'Tis gone and will not answer.


Equally, when Mole emerges from his tunnel, he is at once challenged by a sentry in the form of an elderly rabbit, who demands sixpence for the use of the private road - only to get a very similar brush off:

He was bowled over in an instant by the impatient and contemptuous Mole, who trotted along the side of the hedge chaffing the other rabbits as they peeped hurriedly from their holes to see what the row was about.


Given all this, there can be very little doubt that The Wind in the Willows was one of Shakespeare's major sources for Hamlet, and that Grahame must stand alongside Grammaticus in future Arden editions. The concern of both texts with the theme of usurpation is but one of many profitable avenues of research that I look forward to seeing younger scholars explore.

It is, alas, not to Shakespeare's credit that he made a clumsy attempt to deflect attention from his debt in the opening lines of the play. "Have you had a quiet guard?" Bernardo asks. His fellow sentry Francisco - evidently anxious to forestall the expectation that creatures of the woodland and riverbank will play a major role in the action - replies, "Not a mouse stirring."

That, I believe, is what is known as protesting too much.