The Great God Pan

Most people think of Wind in the Willows (1908) as a rather jolly and ever-so English story of meadows, moles and mucking about in boats. However, within it is a haunting, mystical passage, which see the animals hearing mysterious piping and then encountering the god Pan:

“he 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 on 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 majestic ease on the sward”

Interestingly, I’ve come across a number of other depictions of Pan in late 19th and early 20th century English literature. Probably the best known is Arthur Machen’s The Great God Pan (1890), a book which was a great influence on writers such as HP Lovecraft. Its depiction of Pan is a diabolic one and a world away from the awe-inspiring yet ultimately benign Pan in Wind of the Willows. More recently, I’ve come across another appearance of Pan. This is in a short story by EF Benson (of Mapp and Lucia fame) entitled ‘The Man Who Went Too Far’ (written I think in the 1920s). In it, Frank Halton, a young artist retreats to he New Forest and opens his soul to Nature. At first, this results in him regaining a youthful vigour as he begins to hear the ‘strange, unending melody’ of Pan’s pipes. He anticipates ‘a final revelation..a complete and blinding stroke, which will throw open… once and for all, the full knowledge, the full realisation and comprehension that I am one…with life’. Inevitably, no good can come of this, and he is found by a friend with his face fixed in terror and marks on his chest ‘as if caused by the hoofs of some monstrous goat that had leaped and stamped on him’. I am intrigued by the localisation of Pan in particularly English landscapes. Although he comes across differently in each case, there is a strong sense of both attraction and terror inherent in him and his links to untamed nature. Intriguingly, there is also a passing reference in Puck of Pook’s Hill by the Roman soldier Parnesius to a ‘the little altar I built to the Sylvan Pan by the pine-forest beyond the brook?’ – pleasingly, Wind in the Willows also harks back to a Roman past with Badger’s description of an ancient city that preceded the Wild Wood: ‘People come—they stay for a while, they flourish, they build—and they go. It is their way. But we remain.’ – it looks like Pan may have remained too.

Published by David Petts

Assc. Prof Archaeology, Durham University - landscapes - old music/books - folk traditions - early med Britain - community heritage - post-medieval - views own @davidpetts1

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1 Comment

  1. Pan makes a fantastic entrance in Ravel's ballet, Daphnis and Cloe (1912). Wind machines feature at that point. He seems to have been a more alarming god in ancient times. I was surprised to learn that the word 'panic' is derived from his name.


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