Nonfiction Friday-The Lost Words: A Spell Book, Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris, 2018

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Once upon a time, words began to vanish from the language of children. They disappeared so quietly that at first almost no one noticed—fading away like water on stone. The words were those that children used to name the natural world around them: acorn, adder, bluebell, bramble, conker—gone! Fern, heather, kingfisher, otter, raven, willow, wren…all of them gone! The words were becoming lost: no longer vivid in children’s voices, no longer alive in their stories.

 

LL2In the latest edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary (OJD) over 40 words from the natural world were removed from the previous edition. New words added were those of technology. In response to this decision by the publishers, Oxford University Press (OUP), the writer Robert Macfarlane and illustrator Jackie Morris created The Lost Words: A Spell Book to conjure the words back into existence. It is a large picture book, with verse/rhyme/poetry that encourages the speaking out of the words and getting lost in the pictures.

Ivy

I am ivy, a real high-flyer.

Via bark and stone I scale tree and spire.

You call me ground-cover; I say sky-wire.

The editors at OUP justified their decision by saying these removals and additions reflect the world children live in now. But this choice begs the question, what are dictionaries for? If only to describe where children live, how do children see a world outside the one they inhabit?

The mental and physical (I would add creative and spiritual) benefits children receive from nature have been well-documented and the lack of this exposure even has a name: nature-deficit disorder. Adding words that have to do with technology, while removing the words that speak to a child’s natural environment was worrisome enough that it caused 28 well-known authors, nature experts and education specialists to sign a letter to OUP stating their concerns. The signatories included, Margaret Atwood, Sara Maitland, Helen Macdonald, Andrew Motion and Ruth Padel. The letter, in part:

“We recognise the need to introduce new words and to make room for them and do not intend to comment in detail on the choice of words added. However it is worrying that in contrast to those taken out, many are associated with the interior, solitary childhoods of today…The research evidence showing the links between natural play and wellbeing; and between disconnection from nature and social ills, is mounting.”

“The Oxford Dictionaries have a rightful authority and a leading place in cultural life. We believe the OJD should address these issues and that it should seek to help shape children’s understanding of the world, not just to mirror its trends.”

Said Andrew Motion, former poet laureate [UK]: “by discarding so many country and landscape-words from their Junior Dictionary, OUP deny children a store of words that is marvellous for its own sake, but also a vital means of connection and understanding.

Lark

Little astronaut, where have you gone, and how is your
song still torrenting on?

Aren’t you short of breath as you climb higher up, up there
in the thin air, with your magical song still tumbling on?

Right now I need you, for my sadness has come again
and my heart grows flatter – so I’m coming to find
you by following your song,

Keeping on into deep space, past dying stars and
exploding suns, to where at last, little astronaut,
you sing your heart out at all dark matter.

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In its defense, the head of the children’s dictionaries said, “When you look back at older versions of dictionaries, there were lots of examples of flowers for instance. That was because many children lived in semi-rural environments and saw the seasons. Nowadays, the environment has changed.”

Macfarlane countered, “We do not care for what we do not know, and on the whole we do not know what we cannot name. Do we want an alphabet for children that begins ‘A is for Acorn, B is for Buttercup, C is for Conker’; or one that begins ‘A is for Attachment, B is for Block-Graph, C is for Chatroom’?”

My Thoughts

I managed to find about 30 of the removed words.

acoLL8rn, adder, ash, beech, bluebell, bramble, buttercup, catkin, cauliflower, chestnut, clover, conker, cowslip, cygnet, dandelion, fern, hazel, herring, heather, heron, ivy, kingfisher, lark, leopard, lobster, magpie, minnow, mistletoe, mussel, nectar, newt, otter, ox, oyster, panther, pasture, raven, starling, weasel, willow, wren

 

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Raven? They removed raven.

I am struck at the literary and cultural symbols here. Willows? The Wind in the Willows.  And raven; magical, terrifying and so much a part of horror and mystery books. Can you read Poe without knowing about such creatures? Then there are the trees of Britain beech, ash, hazel that feature in so much literature and poetry. And isn’t it a rite of passage when you know that a cygnet is a young swan? The significance goes on and what to make of it…?

As children become further estranged from the natural world what will that do for metaphor and simile? If you spend your days indoors and read, “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” and your idea of a summer’s day is talking on your Iphone or playing computer games, how do you understand Shakespeare’s meaning or other literature where the natural world is not personally experienced? Can you appreciate Vaughan Williams, The Lark Ascending if you have never seen or read of the heights to which larks can fly? Then there is newt. Oh, the spells that include “eye of newt!”

How will the nature-deficit disordered child read literature and understand their culture without being able to find definitions of words, or even know the words exist? Or am I going overboard?

 

Newt

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The too-cute newt

Newt, oh newt, you are too cute!”
Emoted the coot to the too-cute newt,

With your frilly back and your shiny suit
and your spotted skin so unhirsute!”

Too cute?!’ roared the newt to the
unastute coot. ‘With all this careless
talk of cute you bring me into
disrepute, for newts aren’t cute:
we’re kings of the pond, lions of the duckweed, dragons of the water;
albeit it’s true,’—he paused—‘minute.’

But that does come back to the reason we have dictionaries. Omitted words omit experiences, concepts, ways of seeing and understanding. Does language change, because our experience of the world changes? Or does our experience of the world change when we have no language for it? For gatekeepers such as editors of our great dictionaries, do they shape our world and those of our children by what words they keep in and those they leave out? Or are they just responding to the “signs of the time,” the priorities and lived experiences of our everyday lives and cut or add accordingly?

You hold in your hands a spellbook for conjuring back these lost words—and it holds not poems but spells of many kinds that might just, by the old, strong magic of being spoken aloud, unfold dreams and songs, and summon lost words back into the mouth and mind’s eye.

 

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Title: The Lost Words: A Spell Book
Author: Robert Macfarlane, Jackie Morris
Publisher: House of Anasi Press Inc.
Device: Harcover
Year: 2018
Pages: N/A

Book Notes #2: The Chronicles of Narnia, Books 3-5

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Prince Caspian

The Pevensie children are called back to Narnia a year after they come back through the wardrobe. This time they are at a train station on their way to boarding school when suddenly they feel a familiar physical pull and find themselves on a deserted island they soon realize is Cair Paravel where they ruled Narnia as kings and queens. They have been summoned to help Prince Caspian regain his rightful place as King of Narnia.

There is a lot of magic in this one and some beautiful passages that describe the reawakening of the talking animals and trees of Old Narnia who were silenced when Prince Caspian’s ancestors, the Telmars, conquered the land.

Another intriguing aspect of this book is that air and breath take on magical properties. The air makes the children appear to be older, says the narrator, “I think I have explained before how Narnia was altering them. Even Lucy was by now…only one third of a little girl going to boarding school the first time, and two-thirds of Queen Lucy of Narnia.” And Aslan breathes into Edmund before he is sent into enemy territory and “a kind of greatness hung about him.” This reminds me of Genesis when God brought Adam to life through His breath.

While I liked many passages in this book and I liked the book overall compared to The Horse and his Boy, the thought occurred to me after I finished it if all the Narnia books have this same basic theme: a threatened Narnia and someone(s) to the rescue? That sounds tedious.

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

But I am pressing on and in the middle of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, which happily has a different theme. Prince Caspian sets out on a sea voyage (add to your ‘sea cruise’ series, Lizzie?!!) to discover the fate and where possible, avenge the seven lords that were banished from Narnia by the Prince’s evil uncle with the help of King Edmund and Queen Lucy and their tiresome cousin Eustace. During a sequence of events though, Eustace becomes a dragon and that section right there completely captured my imagination! But what is that about? Is there an explanation further along? I hope so.

So far, I am finding that these books alternate between the childish and the profound; sometimes I feel like I am reading passages my 10 year-old self would have loved and then come upon a section with images so deep I want to pause and reflect.

The Horse and His Boy

Just a note on The Horse and his Boy. I am not sure this book has aged well. I found much of the writing uncomfortably racist in its portrayal of the Calormen, who are easily seen as Middle Eastern, because Lewis has portrayed them through a very stereotyped lens. I am purposely not reading any reviews or criticism of the Narnia books until after I finish the series, so I don’t know if this reaction is an obvious one for others and whether Lewis has been criticized for it.

Having said that, I feel very strongly, in general, about historical context when it comes to criticizing points of view that are no longer acceptable. While the racism (homophobia, sexism, etc.) should be called out that does not mean the author, the book—or whatever medium—should be banned or thrown out only because during the time it was written people held these points of view; unless, of course, the whole premise or tone of the book is destructive, which is another matter.

At this time in human history, we are sensitive to the way our words heal or destroy and that is a good thing. But it makes our relationship with the past a bit tricky.

Reading Chronologically vs. by Publication Date

As an aside, when I reviewed The Magician and his Nephew, I did not like it very much; I don’t think I quite understood it. I should not have read it first, but in my series of books published by HarperCollins all the books are published chronologically and not by original publishing date. I keep thinking about this book and realize I like it more and more. I think it will make more sense in the context of publication, so I am going to reread when it’s ‘turn’ comes up.

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BookNotes are short reviews of books that have made an impression, but time constraints do not allow a full record of the titles.

The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, C.S. Lewis (1950)

None of the children knew who Aslan was. At [his name] each one of the children felt something jump in its inside. Edmund felt a sensation of mysterious horror. Peter felt suddenly brave and adventurous. Susan felt as if some delicious smell or some delightful strain of music had just floated by her. And Lucy got the feeling you have when you wake up in the morning and realise that it is the beginning of the holidays or the beginning of summer.

lionwitchOne of my commitments this year is to read the complete Narnia series. I started with The Magician’s Nephew (some would argue that is actually the 6th book). But this one gets into the heart of the matter—the struggle between good and evil in the Land of Narnia and the ethics of choosing sides. I love the layers with which you can understand this book; how you can see a Christian allegory or “just” a magical adventure. Like many fantasies Narnia is a land where animals talk, Witches are cruel, quests are taken and bravery against evil is the key to survival.

Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy Pevensies are siblings who have been sent out of London for the duration of the war to the country home of an old professor. During one rainy day Lucy discovers that the back of the big wardrobe in a mostly empty room is actually a gateway to a magical land called Narnia. After her first adventure she returns home to tell her brothers and sister, but they do not believe her, especially after investigating the wardrobe themselves and finding nothing but old coats.

Lucy is distraught that her sanity has been called into question, even after Edmund finds his way into the Land. Finally, in one last effort to quell Lucy’s insistence her siblings try again and successfully find themselves in the cold snowy winter of Narnia. They soon realize they are caught in a battle for rulership of Narnia between the wicked White Witch who wants to subjugate the population and Aslan the Lion who wants all beings to be free. The children learn they are part of the prophecy of Narnia, which they hear from the first friends they meet, Mr. and Mrs. Beaver:

…down at Cair Paravel there are four thrones and it’s a saying in Narnia time out of mind that when two Sons of Adam and two Daughters of Eve sit in those four thrones, then it will be the end not only of the White Witch’s reign but of her life, and that is why we had to be so cautious as we came along, for if she knew about you four, your lives wouldn’t be worth a shake of my whiskers.

The children readily give themselves up to the cause and the tasks Aslan asks them to complete. The ultimate cruelty for the Witch in order to gain Narnia for herself is to kill Aslan, who willingly sacrifices himself for the greater good. His resurrection, though, is not part of her plan.

As an adult, I found some of the writing simplistic compared to the writing in The Magician’s Nephew, which was written years later. Especially at the beginning I felt like my hand was being held throughout the action. Once all of the children get into Narnia, however, the book reads like any adventure story with complex characterizations and the challenge of making moral choices. When Aslan makes his moral choice Lewis is at his writerly best when after the shock of Aslan’s murder by the Witch and her minions, he explains to the children why he cannot really die:

…that though the Witch knew the Deep Magic, there is a magic deeper still which she did not know. Her knowledge goes back only to the dawn of time. But if she could have looked a little further back into the stillness and the darkness before Time dawned, she would have read there a different incantation. She would have known that when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor’s stead, the Table would crack and Death itself would start working backward.

Aslan and the children and the rest of the animals in Aslan’s service go to the Witch’s castle in the last battle for Narnia. Her courtyard is full of statues, her enemies she turned to stone and as Aslan breathes on each one animating them back to life they join his cause. She is killed and Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy sit on their thrones, taking their rightful place as the Kings and Queens of Narnia.

But they are not meant to stay and in the course of trying to capture the White Stag, come upon the lamppost that got them to and from Narnia. Leaving their friends, they scramble back through the wardrobe, where they decide they need to tell the Professor everything. A wise man who had an adventure himself, he assures the children they will return to Narnia but not by the wardrobe. How will they know when it’s time? “Keep your eyes open.”

I am not sure what to expect next if Narnia has been saved and Aslan triumphs. Mr. Beaver tells the children about Aslan, “He’ll be coming and going….One day you’ll see him and another you won’t. He doesn’t like being tied down—and of course he has other countries to attend to. He’ll often drop in. Only you mustn’t press him. He’s wild, you know. Not like a tame lion.” Will I see these “other countries” and Aslan again? Will these children return to Narnia or go elsewhere? Will other children take their place in the stories to come?

I guess I’ll find out! And no spoilers, please 🙂

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My Edition
Title: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
Author: C. S. Lewis
Publisher: HarperCollins
Device: Paperback
Year: 1950
Pages: 206

Challenges: Personal 2019 Challenge, Roof Beam Reader’s TBR

The Magician’s Nephew (The Chronicles of Narnia), C.S. Lewis (1955)

“Narnia, Narnia, Narnia, awake. Love. Think. Speak. Be walking trees. Be talking beasts. Be divine waters.” Aslan

And the longer and more beautiful the Lion sang, the harder Uncle Andrew tried to make himself believe that he could hear nothing but roaring….And when the Lion spoke and said, “Narnia awake,” he didn’t hear any words: he heard only a snarl. And when the Beasts spoke in answer, he heard only barkings, growlings, bayings, and howlings.

magiciansnephewI read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (LWW) a few years ago. I liked it and knew I would read the other books in the series. I didn’t know there is, what we would call a prequel, until I struck up a conversation with a woman in a bookstore who is an avid Narnia fan. Apparently, after Lewis published the LWW a friend asked him about the lamppost that appeared out of nowhere and in order to clear that up he wrote The Magician’s Nephew (MN). So does this mean the MN is really the first book? When I looked this up, I found Lewis scholars from the 1950s with various opinions that plague newer scholars and fans alike to this day. Chronological order (Lewis’s preference) puts the MN first. Published order puts it 6th or before the Last Battle the last released title. Being that the MN shows not only the origin of the lamppost, but the creation of Narnia by Aslan and how evil enters the Kingdom of Narnia, I believe chronological order is best. But I am only two books in; not the best authority.

I have to admit though, half way through I was very disappointed in the story. I found it dull, the magic not particularly, well, magical. Digory and Polly, neighbor children who are thrust into the void by the power of the magic rings invented by Digory’s Uncle Andrew land in a world made up of innumerable ponds and woods. Even the world that unleashes the Witch and the evil brought to Narnia did not hold my interest. Only the desire that I read all the titles forced me to continue. And then suddenly, Aslan appears and the book takes a most promising turn.

This world has a hopefulness the other worlds did not. It is a new world without flora or fauna, but that changes as a magnificent and glorious sound pierces the air and the children realize Creation is being sung into being before their very eyes!

There were no words. There was hardly even a tune….It was so beautiful he [Digory] could hardly bear it…Then two wonders happened at the same moment. One was that the voice was suddenly joined by other voices; more voices than you could possibly count….The second wonder was that the blackness overhead all at once, was blazing with stars….a thousand points of light leaped out—single stars, constellations, and planets, brighter and bigger than any in our world….If you had seen and heard it, you would have felt quite certain that it was the stars themselves which were singing, and that it was the First Voice, the deep one, which had made them appear and made them sing….The Voice rose and rose till all the air was shaking with it; the sun rose. You could imagine that it laughed for joy as it came up….the earth was of many colors; they were fresh, hot and vivid. They made you feel excited until you saw the Singer himself, and then you forgot everything else. It was a Lion and stood facing the risen sun. Its mouth was wide open in song….

These passages and the ones that speak about the creation of the animals and other two-legged beings, are the kinds of magic that moves me. Creation being formed out of Song and love and beauty by a Lion who is at once Creator and Sacrifice (LWW). Because, yes, one cannot but help to see that connection. Aslan is birthing the world through the sound of his Voice, bringing forth the first plants, the new starry heavens, the sun and wind and all the animals, birds and beings that will populate this new world.

Out of the trees wild people stepped forth, gods and goddesses of the wood; with them came Fauns and Satyrs and Dwarfs. Out of the river rose the river god with his Naiad daughters. And all these and all the beasts and birds in their different voices, low or high or thick or clear, replied. “Hail, Aslan. We hear and obey. We are awake. We love. We think. We speak. We know.

Aslan tells the animals and other sacred beings to guard and protect the land because evil has been let loose. The Witch followed Digory and Polly into Narnia, but for now she is headed for lands far away and won’t trouble Narnia for hundreds of years. In the meantime Narnia must be made strong. Aslan sends the children on a journey to find the fruit of a special apple tree that once planted in Narnia will reign over it against all evil. When they return Aslan tells Digory to throw the apple a certain distance and it settles into the soft mud. In the morning the tree is big and filled with fruit. Digory is certain an apple from this tree will help his mother’s cancer and Aslan gives him one to take home.

When Digory and Polly return to London, Digory’s mother eats the apple and is cured. Digory plants the core and a tree grows again overnight. As the years pass and the children grow up so does the tree which has a symbiotic relationship with the one of its origin: it wiggles a bit on days when it is windy in Narnia, even when there is no wind in London. But its shaking has weakened its roots, and one wind-filled day in London the tree topples over. Now middle aged and with unfaded memories of Aslan and Narnia and all he saw there, Digory cannot just chop up the tree for fire wood. So he takes part of the tree and builds a wardrobe which he puts in his house in the country….

The passages of Narnia’s creation, vocalizing it into Being, the animals talking to one another and back and forth with the children tick many of my fantasy-girl and spirituality boxes. I am so glad I stuck with this book. And I further learned I wasn’t so far off the mark when I wanted to set the book aside, because the arguments of Lewis scholars who say the books should be read as released, instead of chronologically with MN to be read first, stems partly from the fact that this IS a dull book up until Aslan’s entrance and children (and adults?) might be turned off by the dull first half and not want to read any further.

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My Edition
Title: The Magician’s Nephew
Author: C.S. Lewis
Publisher: Harper Trophy
Device: Paperback
Year: 1955
Pages: 221
Summary

The ‘Emily’ Novels, L. M. Montgomery

Emily.jpeg
The Flash

It had always seemed to Emily, ever since she could remember, that she was very, very near to a world of wonderful beauty. Between it and herself hung only a thin curtain; she could never draw the curtain aside—but sometimes, just for a moment, a wind fluttered it and then it was as if she caught a glimpse of the enchanting realm beyond—only a glimpse—and heard a note of unearthly music.

The moment came rarely—went swiftly, leaving her breathless with the inexpressible delight of it. She could never recall it—never summon it—never pretend it, but the wonder of it stayed with her for days….

 

I discovered Anne of Green Gables as an adult, somehow missing this whole wonderful world as a young girl. A friend who knows me well bet me I would like the Emily of New Moon series better. I thought, sacrilege!, but she is right. I have become completely enamored with what Montgomery does with fantasy and Nature. And while it blooms in Anne, it is a starburst in Emily.

Anne Shirley personifies trees, forests, flowers and springs. Emily Byrd Starr does the same, but in addition, she also has The Wind Woman and the flash. These latter two are supernatural and fairy-like reminding me of the innocent childhood inventiveness that we are supposed to grow out of, but that many of us Will Not Ever.

Though I live in an urban area, coyotes roam the streets and nap on the greens, all kinds coyote1of raptors fly through the air, I watch water birds gracefully hunt their breakfast at the river and jump when raccoons and possums dart through the bushes. They remind me to whom this land really belongs. I love to imagine all sorts of things about them. I love my crepe myrtle tree in the front yard and consider it my protector and I call an incredibly large, gnarled old tree down the street, Grandfather. I don’t know if any of this is weird, normal or if I need therapy, but I think this is why I am so drawn to the spiritual fey of  L. M. Montgomery.

Just last night I was reading a favorite passage from Emily Climbs. It has all the elements of imagination, connection to nature and creative thought Montgomery does so well. Though Emily is walking home alone in the middle of the night, she is really being escorted along the way by an incredible cast of non-human characters.

As she walked along she dramatized the night. There was about it a wild, lawless charm that appealed to a certain wild, lawless strain hidden deep in Emily’s nature—a strain that wished to walk where it would with no guidance but its own—the strain of the gypsy and the poet, the genius and the fool.

The big fir trees, released from their burden of snow, were tossing their arms freely and wildly and gladly across the moonlit fields. Was ever anything so beautiful as the shadows of those grey, clean-limbed maples on the road at her feet?

And it was easy to think, too, that other things were abroad—things that were not mortal or human. She always lived on the edge of fairyland and now she stepped right over it. The Wind Woman was really whistling eerily in the reeds of the swamp—she was sure she heard the dear, diabolical chuckles of owls in the spruce copses—something frisked across her path—it might be a rabbit or it might be a Little Grey Person: the trees put on half pleasing, half terrifying shapes they never wore by day. The dead thistles of last year were goblin groups along the fences: that shaggy old yellow birch was some satyr of the woodland: the footsteps of the old gods echoed around her: those gnarled stumps on the hill field were surely Pan piping through moonlight and shadow with his troop of laughing fauns. It was delightful to believe they were.

Emily is a young writer and crosses the line between fantasy and reality on an almost daily basis, by which she is jeered at and criticized by her reality-based family. It never daunts her, though, no matter how hot the teasing. She is secure in how she sees the world, which is my lesson. She is my role model.

 

Trail walking with Jess

Trail walking with Jess in a magical gum grove.

 

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Montgomery, L. M. Emily Climbs. New York: Bantam, 1993. First published in 1925 by Frederick A. Stokes Co.

 Montgomery, L.M. Emily of New Moon. New York: Harper and Row, 1993. First published in 1923 by Frederick A. Stokes Co.

 

Happy Spring from ‘The Piper at the Gates of Dawn’-The Wind in the Willows

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This is one of my favorite passages from the Wind in the Willows where Rat and Mole meet the half human half god, Pan, Lord of the Wild Wood and Protector of Animals, while looking for a missing baby otter. For some reason it always reminds me of Spring, which is fitting for today. Happy Spring and Renewal of Life!

Rat and Mole are rowing their boat along a river searching frantically for Portly, the baby otter. They hear a faint piping sound drawing them forward as the forest around them begins to shimmer with a light illuminating everything around them. They moor their boat and climb onto shore.IMG_4514

“This is the place of my song-dream, the place the music played to me,” whispered Rat. “Here in this holy place, here if anywhere, surely we shall find Him.” Mole’s muscles turned to water as he felt the Awe upon him. It was no panic or terror…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.

…[Mole] raised his humble head; … and looked in the very eyes of the Friend and Helper; saw the backward sweep of the curved horns, gleaming in the growing daylight; saw the stern, hooked nose between the kindly eyes that were looking down in them humorously, while the bearded mouth broke into a half-smile at the corners; saw the rippling muscles on the arm that lay across the broad chest, the long supple hand still holding the pan-pipes only just fallen away from the parted lips; saw the splendid curves of the shaggy limbs disposed in the majestic ease on the sward; saw, last of all, nestling between his very hooves, sleeping soundly in entire peace and contentment, the little, round, podgy, childish form of the baby otter.

“Rat, are you afraid?”

“Afraid? Afraid of Him? O, never, never! And yet—and yet—O, Mole, I am afraid!”

Then the two animals, crouching to the earth, bowed their heads and did worship.

Sudden and magnificent, the sun’s broad golden disc showed itself over the horizon facing them; and the first rays, shooting across the level water-meadows, took the animals full in the eyes and dazzled them. When they were able to look once more, the Vision had vanished, and the air was full of the carol of the birds that hailed the dawn.

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Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows. Puffin Books (Penguin Classics), 1983, from the original, 1908. 120-126.