“Fear death by water.”
(TS Eliot, The Wasteland, 1922, Section I: “The Burial of the Dead”)
As always, dear readers, welcome.
In 1908, Kenneth Grahame (1859-1932)
already known for The Golden Age (1895)
and Dream Days (1898),
published the book for which he is best remembered, The Wind in the Willows.
If you don’t know it, it’s the story of a group of animal friends, centered around Toad,
an eccentric, who causes no end of trouble to those friends. The original 1908 edition wasn’t illustrated, but, in time, gained two who are still known for their work, Ernest H. Shepard (1879-1976), who brought Toad and his harassed friends to life in 1931,
and Arthur Rackham (1867-1939), whose work was published in 1940, not long after his death.
Two of Toad’s friends are Rat and Mole
and the title of this posting comes from their first adventure together, as Rat invites Mole to go boating:
“This has been a wonderful day!” said he, as the Rat shoved off and took to the sculls again. “Do you know, I’ve never been in a boat before in all my life.”
“What?” cried the Rat, open-mouthed: “Never been in a—you never—well I—what have you been doing, then?”
“Is it so nice as all that?” asked the Mole shyly, though he was quite prepared to believe it as he leant back in his seat and surveyed the cushions, the oars, the rowlocks, and all the fascinating fittings, and felt the boat sway lightly under him.
“Nice? It’s the only thing,” said the Water Rat solemnly, as he leant forward for his stroke. “Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing—absolute nothing—half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats. Simply messing,” he went on dreamily: “messing—about—in—boats; messing——”
“Look ahead, Rat!” cried the Mole suddenly.
It was too late. The boat struck the bank full tilt. The dreamer, the joyous oarsman, lay on his back at the bottom of the boat, his heels in the air.
“—about in boats—or with boats,” the Rat went on composedly, picking himself up with a pleasant laugh. “In or out of ’em, it doesn’t matter. Nothing seems really to matter, that’s the charm of it. Whether you get away, or whether you don’t; whether you arrive at your destination or whether you reach somewhere else, or whether you never get anywhere at all, you’re always busy, and you never do anything in particular; and when you’ve done it there’s always something else to do, and you can do it if you like, but you’d much better not. Look here! If you’ve really nothing else on hand this morning, supposing we drop down the river together, and have a long day of it?”
(Grahame, The Wind in the Willows, 1908, Chapter 1,”The River Bank”)
This, for all that Rat absentmindedly rams them into the riverbank, is a happy time, but it reminded me of another, less happy, event, as described at 2nd—or 3rd—or 4th-hand in a pub in the Shire—
“ ‘A decent respectable hobbit was Mr. Drogo Baggins; there was never much to tell of him, till he was drownded.’
‘Drownded?’ said several voices. They had heard this and other darker rumours before, of course; but hobbits have a passion for family history, and they were ready to hear it again.
‘Well, so they say,’ said the Gaffer. ‘You see: Mr. Drogo, he married poor Miss Primula Brandybuck…And Mr. Drogo was staying at Brandy Hall with his father-in-law, old Master Gorbadoc, as he often did after his marriage…and he went out boating on the Brandywine River; and he and his wife were drownded, and poor Mr. Frodo only a child and all.’
‘I’ve heard they went on the river after dinner in the moonlight,’ said Old Noakes; ‘and it was Drogo’s weight as sunk the boat.’
‘And I heard she pushed him in, and he pulled her in after him,’ said Sandyman, the Hobbiton miller.”
(The Fellowship of the Ring, Book One, Chapter 1, “A Long-expected Party”)
If Rat and Mole’s adventure in the river reminded me of the gossip about Frodo’s parents, the gossip about Frodo’s parents reminded me of a very famous early attempted boat murder—or at least Roman gossip about one.
In 54AD, the emperor Claudius (10BC-54AD)
died (gossip had it that he was poisoned by his fourth wife, Agrippina the Younger, 23-59AD), leaving Agrippina’s son, Nero (37-68AD), adopted by Claudius,
to succeed him. For the first couple of years, mother and son seemed to rule jointly, even appearing on coins together,
but then things went wrong and, soon, Nero was trying to think how he might remove his mother—permanently. Our sources for this—Tacitus, Suetonius, and Cassius Dio—provide rather different pictures of his methods, including Nero attempting to poison her on three separate occasions, Agrippina being saved by the fact that she had regularly dosed herself with them to make herself immune, but my favorite is the story of the collapsible boat.
In this version, Nero offers his mother the use of a pleasure boat
perhaps a little less grand than this, but with a terrible secret: it had been constructed in such a way that, when the time was right, it would come apart and drown Agrippina.
Like his earlier plans, however, this failed, as Agrippina swam safely to shore—only to be later murdered by Nero’s assassins—but she would have been wise, before she accepted the offer of that boat, to listen to the words of the Gaffer in reply to Ted Sandyman:
“ ‘You shouldn’t listen to all you hear, Sandyman,’ said the Gaffer… ‘There isn’t no call to go talking of pushing and pulling. Boats are quite tricky enough for those that sit still without looking for the cause of trouble.’ “
Thanks, as ever, for reading.
Point out the approaching bank early to Ratty,
And know that, as always, there’s
If you don’t have your own copy of The Wind in the Willows, here’s the 1913 Scribner edition: https://archive.org/details/windinwillows00grah