Kenneth Grahame, The golden Age / Dream Days
Published by Manesse, Bibliothek der Weltliteratur, 1998
What does the man standing in the bank and handing us our money over the counter dream of? What does he think of when adding numbers and calculating interest? As a rule, we do not know, but Kenneth Grahame, employee of the Bank of England from 1879-1908, wrote down his dreams and immortalized them in magnificent short stories. He did not dream of wealth, not of possessing all the money of the Bank of England; he dreamt of a golden age, of a time when mankind was free and happy.
It is a mythical age that Grahame evokes in his title. We know it from ancient poetry. Any number of generations of Latin students has learned the first few lines of Ovid’s Metamorphoses by heart which described the paradise of the Golden Race of Humanity. How carefree was the life of the people on Earth! Without work, without hardship, without war! But the Golden Age had to end, and also Ovid regrets that the Age of Iron has now begun, in which people fight with each other and earn a living by the sweat of their brows.
Yet Graham’s books are not about ancient mythology, but a happy time of some other kind: childhood. In “The Golden Age” he brings this childhood to life with a range of short stories and tells tales that are too beautiful to have actually happened. We see the world through the eyes of a child whose only enemy is the adult. He has forgotten what it meant to be a child and tries to force the little one at his mercy to do things that it thinks pointless. Why be punctual when a river is waiting to be explored? Why sit still when the sun is shining outside? Who cares if the pants get dirty? Life is a wonderful adventure waiting to be experienced. Money? Irrelevant in this world. Work? Something for the big ones who seem to be living on another planet.
One might wonder whether Kenneth Grahame actually had such an idyllic childhood himself if he, as a grown man, still desires it so much. As a matter of fact, the opposite is true. The mother of the author died when he was five years old. Completely overburdened with his task, the father, a notorious drunkard, abandoned the children and gave over care to a grandmother. Kenneth grew up with his three siblings in a parsonage in the countryside before he went to school and was sent to the Bank of England for an apprenticeship when he was 20 years of age.
Did he feel comfortable there? At any rate, even as an adult Grahame had the imagination to empathize with a child’s way of thinking and take others with him on this fantastic journey. His stories became a great success! The readers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries were virtually merging into it. Not only the children, but the adults in particular. For instance, we know that the German Emperor Wilhelm II liked to listen to these stories.
The carefree childhood, which is not burdened with the constraints and responsibilities of the adults, may seem desirable precisely to the one who is overwhelmed by the serious side of life.
Translated by Annika Backe