Three reasons why Kathleen Raine’s 'The Story of Three Water Drops' is a Christmas classic
1. The book is beautiful, inside and out
Published 75 years ago in 1946, The Story of Three Water Drops was written well before Kathleen Raine became internationally renowned as a world-leading William Blake expert, yet the first of her two children’s books bears many beautiful Blakean influences. The story is as simple as it is profound, narrating the fable-like adventures of three sibling water drops ‘whose home was in the great ocean’, and the book was also delicately illustrated by Sir Francis Rose.
From a watercolour cover as fluid and lyrical as the tale itself to painted scenes throughout, like eldest droplet Indigo diving in search of a literal pearl of wisdom, we can see exquisite echoes of Blake’s own creations in Rose’s work.
Just looking at them and reading the wonderful words that flow alongside:
‘Sometimes they all joined hands in the waves and danced in the sunshine, and in the moonshine, and in the starshine. Sometimes, when all the winds were still, and the whole world hung quiet like a cradle in the sky, all the millions and millions of water-drops would go to sleep…’
leaves little doubt that the seeds of Kathleen’s academic brilliance were already taking root. And speaking of seeds…
2. Art and Science combine
Surprisingly, Kathleen read Natural Sciences as an undergraduate rather than English – 'I had that much good sense', she later joked – and she would be immensely proud decades afterwards when her beloved granddaughter Sonia became a botanist. As well as taking them on a magical, mythical adventure, Three Water Drops can teach children some elementary scientific principles – without them even realising it! One of the sweetest scenes occurs when Limber, the ‘middle child’ droplet who has a thirst for adventure, is absorbed into the sky:
And indeed, when he let go of his ladder of sunbeam, he found that he could fly quite beautifully. But when he looked round for the other water-drops who had set off with him to climb the ladders of sunbeams, where were they? He could see no one, nothing in the whole blue sky except the golden sun shining down, and the blue sea, far below him, where Indigo and Violet were still looking up at him, and waving their hands to him.
Limber suddenly felt afraid. “Where are you, where are you, water-drops?” he called. And to his great joy, hundreds of little voices answered: “Here I am.” “Here I am.”
“But I can’t see you,” called Limber.
“We can’t see you, either,” they answered. “We are all invisible.”
They had all turned into water-vapour, and were flying about in the air, quite invisible!’
Like the best make-believe, there is truth at the heart of each water drop’s experience and the wind, sea, sun and snow all provide unforgettable elemental characters. Whether reading the book today or during the days of rationing, children discover something of how the world works, with just enough enchantment to know that they are never alone in nature.
3. It’s a timeless tale of wisdom, adventure and love
To me, the purity of Three Water Drops is unsurpassed 75 years after its creation. Vita Sackville-West later described Kathleen’s poems as ‘like drops of water: clear, self-contained, and sometimes iridescent with the elusive colours of mysticism’, and that glittering spiritual simplicity ripples through this story too. The three water drops love each other deeply, and the best part of any escapade is always returning home to share the delight with their beloved brothers and sisters. Violet, the little girl droplet, enjoys an especially moving journey to discover the true meaning of Christmas, and it is crystal clear from her story that in a well-balanced world, kindness is rewarded.
‘And as she watched, she melted with pure joy, and rose into the air with the singing, and the singing carried her away over the sea, back to her own home in the ocean.’
In conclusion, I’m certain that The Story of Three Water Drops should be considered a Christmas classic – and surely there are animators out there who’d enjoy making a modern version? All that remains is to wrap up with the words of the author herself in Message from Home:
'Of all created things the source is one,
Simple, single as love;'
Ps. If you're eager to learn more about Kathleen's incredible life, get ready for my new novel The Rowan Tree (Valley Press, 2023)!