The Piper at the Gates of Dawn

Kenneth Grahame’s Piper at the Gates of Dawn chapter from The Wind in the Willows is just gorgeous, sheer magic. First published in England in 1908, this classic talking-animal book includes lovable characters like Mole, Rat, Mr. Toad, Mr. Badger, and right there in the middle, seemingly out of place, is the piper at the gates of dawn. While the piper appears as the ancient Greek god Pan, you dear reader have the prerogative to make him what you will. I make him Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

The Piper at the Gates of Dawn opens with Rat and Mole setting off at night down river to search for Little Portly, the misadventurous and now missing young son of Otter. Presently, with dawn approaching, Rat becomes entranced by a distant, clear piping.

sahalie falls area, copyright

O, Mole! the beauty of it! The merry bubble and joy, the thin, clear, happy call of the distant piping! Such music I never dreamed of, and the call in it is stronger even than the music is sweet! Row on Mole, row! For the music and call must be for us.

The call? I bring to the reading of The Piper all that I believe, and while the god Pan is pure pagan myth, I extract the goodness, for every good thing comes from God. And so I hear the call as from Him who created all things, and even His creation calls out to us.

You will go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and hills will burst into song before you, and all the trees of the field will clap their hands. Isaiah 55:12

Rat and Mole continue on until they come to a small island fringed with willow and silver birch and alder, and it is here, whispers Rat, “in this holy place, here if anywhere, surely we shall find Him.” And find Him they do, and what a glorious picture of what it may be like to stand before God in all his holiness.

tiny island on the mckenzie river

Then suddenly the Mole felt a great Awe fall upon him, an awe that turned his muscles to water, bowed his head, and rooted his feet to the ground. It was no panic terror–indeed he felt wonderfully at peace and happy–but it was an awe that smote and held him and, without seeing, he knew it could only mean that some august Presence was very, very near. With difficulty he turned to look for his friend. and saw him at his side cowed, stricken, and trembling violently. And still there was utter silence in the populous bird-haunted branches around them; and still the light grew and grew.

When finally the pair have the courage to raise their heads, they see a creature described clearly as that ancient demigod with the pipes, the legs and horns of a goat, that god of shepherds and flocks, of mountain wilds and music. And they call him Friend and Helper, and there sleeping beneath his watch is the round little otter. Then Mole and Rat, breathless and filled with love, “bowed their heads and did worship.”

Did you see our Friend, Jesus?

Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. John 15:12

Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. John 15:13

Did you see our Helper?

But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said to you. John 14:26

The Vision vanished and then Mole and Rat and even Little Portly forget. The gift of forgetfulness was bestowed upon them, lest they dwell only on that most beautiful moment, the memory of it overshadowing all the rest of life and spoiling it. Even this was familiar to me, and I thought of Jesus transfigured.

the children looking

The account described in the gospels (Matthew 17:1-13, Luke 9:18-36) comes to mind, in which Christ reveals his glory to some of his disciples, and Moses and Elijah appear. Peter reminds me here of Grahame’s Rat in his request that Jesus allow him to put up shelters there on the mountain for them–he clearly never wants this out-of-the-world experience to end! But it must. It’s not an earthly possibility to live as if in Heaven. We must wait, lest our world lose all color and purpose.

There are times for not forgetting, to be sure. Israel is warned again and again to not forget the goodness of the Lord (Deuteronomy 8:11, Psalm 78:11). But the point I draw here in The Piper at the Gates of Dawn is that it’s impossible to look upon the full glory of the Lord and remain there until we ourselves are glorified in that eternal state. (Romans 8:17-19). Paul says that God “dwells in unapproachable light, whom no man has seen or can see.” (I Timothy 6:16.)

Have you ever woken from a beautiful dream only to forget it? Have you grasped a deepest truth only to lose it? The Piper at the Gates of Dawn ends this way. Rat has finally understood it all and is about to share it with the wondering Mole.

Ah! now they return again, and this time full and clear! This time, at last, it is the real, the unmistakable thing, simple–passionate–perfect—-‘

`Well, let’s have it, then,’ said the Mole, after he had waited patiently for a few minutes, half-dozing in the hot sun.

But no answer came. He looked, and understood the silence. With a smile of much happiness on his face, and something of a listening look still lingering there, the weary Rat was fast asleep.

edge of deschutes river

After I read the chapter to the children, I asked them about the piping creature. “He’s like God,” and “He’s like Aslan,” were some responses. Though C.S. Lewis’ Aslan is so much more developed and clearly a Christ-type, Graham’s piper is still so revealing of the character of God, and, to borrow Rat’s words, it was very surprising and splendid and beautiful.

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15 Responses to The Piper at the Gates of Dawn

  1. Jen says:

    I forgot to mention that Van Morrison has a really neat song called Piper at the Gates of Dawn, referencing this fabulous chapter, and in fact, I heard the song years before I read the book, wondering what Van Morrison was talking about.


  2. Gina says:

    What a beautiful picture! That is on our reading list, and now I’m so excited to get to it with the kids. And that picture of your two, it’s wonderful!

  3. Jen says:

    Thank you, Gina. You’ll love the book. I just hope I’m not being a heretic for turning Pan into Jesus. ;-)

  4. What a beautiful blog post. Must re-read the book!

  5. Mandi says:

    Wonderful post! This is on our bookshelf, but we have not got to it yet. ( :

  6. Jen says:

    Dreaming (Anita) and Mandi, thanks, ladies! This book is SO fun to read aloud. Even if I didn’t have kids to read aloud to, I still might.

  7. SoCalLynn says:

    I finished reading this book to my 11 year old daughter last month and we enjoyed it so much. She says it is one of her favorites. I thought that the Pan figure reminded me of Jesus, but I couldn’t put it together in my mind very well. You have done it so beautifully and I can’t wait to show this to my daughter tomorrow! Thanks.

  8. Jen says:

    Hi Lynn! I hope your daughter enjoys a second look at the piper at the gates of dawn. Thanks for stopping by!

  9. Diane says:

    Jen, what a gift of writing you have! Amazing ability to communicate with words. No wonder, L. is such a natural!

  10. Jen says:

    Diane, thank you dear friend; the truth is you are an amazing teacher!

  11. I can’t wait to re-read this book now, and want to read it aloud to my kids. Thanks for this lovely post.

  12. Gretchen catastrophe says:

    Thanks for this, have been trying to find a positive explanation of the the piper but have only found references to Pan and witchcraft. I prefer your translation of it and this is how I felt about the creature but was unable to put into words, so far my favourite character and chapter of the book. Graeme describes the scene and sensation very well!

  13. I read this chapter for the 10th time and got goosebumps repeatedly. It is a masterpiece by anyone’s standards. I agree that this is a Christian allegory. Pan is the Lord of Creation, Jesus. If the author had named Jesus (my intuition) it might have seemed awkward and preachy to some. C. S. Lewis did the same with Aslan and said children always knew who Aslan was. Adults never did. I had to explain Aslan to my mother, who asked what the big deal was. She realized it and said, “Of course.” That is my answer.

  14. Steve Youngs says:

    Yes , a fascinating discovery!
    I intended to find the inspiration behind Syd Barretts title for the first Floyd album..
    I experience many emotional moments in music that transcend everything else at that time.
    Music, one of God s great gifts to us.
    Rest in Peace Syd.


  15. Sanket says:

    Dear Blogger,

    You are in no wrong to compare the Piper at the Gates of Dawn to Jesus. The form must vary, yet the content remains the same. It depends on the reader-response. Such pluralism is to be encouraged, and hence my praise for your post. Keep it up. Good job! It’s a wonderful book, and a source of continued self-revelation. Thanks.

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