The Golden Age
I have written before about the children Edward, Selina, Harold, Charlotte and their narrator brother – who fill the stories in Kenneth Grahame’s 1895 The Golden Age. In his Prologue the narrator describes them as very astute in evaluating their elders – whom they refer to as the Olympians (after the gods who lorded it over Mount Olympus in Grecian times). As the boy narrator looks back in time he notes how the elders of his family treated children with indifference. At a very early age I remember . . . there grew up in me . . . a vague sense of a ruling power, willful, and freakish, and prone to the practice of vagaries . . . as, for instance, the giving of authority over us to these hopeless and incapable creatures who made no positive use of it. For instance, They might dabble in the pond all day, hunt the chickens, climb trees in the most uncompromising Sunday clothes . . . yet they never did any one of these things. On the whole, . . . these Olympians seemed to be entirely void of interests, even as their movements were confined and slow, and their habits stereotyped and senseless. To anything but appearances they were blind. For them the orchard (a place elf-haunted, wonderful!) simply produced so many apples and cherries . . . They never set foot within a fir-wood . . . The mysterious sources . . . of the old Nile that fed the duck pond had no magic for them . . . They cared not to . . . dig for hidden treasure.
The 18th chapter of St. Matthew’s Gospel (which we shall read throughout September) starts off with: Amen, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. I think to some degree Grahame’s fictional children reflect something of what Jesus means by becoming a child. It means retaining that pre-adult suspicion that the adult world somehow behaves weirdly. As in the narrator’s remark: It was a perennial matter for amazement how these Olympians would talk over our heads – during meals for instance – of this or the other social or political inanity, under the delusion that these pale phantasms of reality were among the importances of life. We illuminati, eating silently . . . could have told them what real life was. We had just left it outside, and were all on fire to get back to it. Of course we didn’t waste the revelation on them.
These Olympians, of course, continue to manage our world and the headlines reveal how badly they do so. But of course they do so in all seriousness because they insist that in an adult world things like trust, faith, love, grace are childish, naïve, irresponsible behaviors – quick to provoke violence if you let down your guard. Hasn’t history proven this over and over again? Yet Christ says unless you turn and become like children. What is the main characteristic of the children of The Golden Age? A kind of proud naiveté, yes. Their world is one of continual wonder, adventure, stimuli to their creative, dramatic imaginations – unimpeded by adult caution, constant warnings that make even of God an ambiguous Being – someone to be unsure of, the Olympian of the Olympians. Yet all the God of Jesus asks of us is that we not so much revere him as trust him, actively to trust his universe, his eternal commitment – even as a lost sheep can trust a true shepherd to come looking for it until he finds it. Truly I tell you, he is happier about that one sheep than about the ninety-nine that did not wander off.
The boy narrator does tell of one adult who merited the children’s admiration – the local curate who took the children’s world seriously, never laughed or sneered, who would receive, unblenching, the information that the meadow beyond the orchard was a prairie studded with herds of buffalo. The boy, now an adult, says of that old cleric of long ago: I trust he is a bishop by this time. He had all the necessary qualifications.