Thoughts on ‘The Wind in the Willows’

Recently I had the great joy of reading The Wind in the Willows, if not quite for the first time (I had read it at least once before when I was much younger) then for the first time since I became able to fully appreciate it.

You all probably know the story, such as it is, though it’s less a straight story than a collection of vignettes centered around the protagonists Mole, Rat, Badger, and Toad. Mr. Mole becomes tired of spring cleaning and tunnels up to the surface to enjoy the springtime itself, whereupon he strikes up a friendship with the hospitable Water Rat and they spend the spring and summer together, while their friend, the wealthy Mr. Toad of Toad Hall, becomes obsessed with motorcars and they, along with the authoritative Mr. Badger, attempt to bring him in line before he ruins himself.

It is really a most wonderful little book: full to bursting with that distinctly late-Victorian, early 20th Century English charm, with remarkably deft characterization on its delightful quartet of protagonists and some truly gorgeous writing.

Let me give you an example, just from the first chapter:

“He thought his happiness was complete when, as he meandered aimlessly along, suddenly he stood by the edge of a full-fed river. Never in his life had he seen a river before – this sleek, sinuous, full-bodied animal, chasing and chuckling, gripping things with a gurgle and leaving them with a laugh, to fling itself on fresh playmates that shook themselves free, and were caught and held again. All as a-shake and a-shiver – glints and gleams and sparkles, rustle and swirl, chatter and bubble. The Mole was bewitched, entranced, fascinated. By the side of the river he trotted as one trots, when very small, by the side of man who holds one spellbound by exciting stories; and when tired at last, he sat on the bank, while the river still chattered on to him, a babbling procession of the best stories in the world, sent from the heart of the earth to be told at last to the insatiable sea.”

To be able to write like that takes more than just talent, it takes a degree of reverence and humility; the power just to stand and listen to creation, picking up the quiet, but distinct character of each river, each meadow, each forest, and each sunrise. You’d have to have a heart open to receive the words and magic of nature spoken in its own language, not forced into a cramped, scientific or material perspective. You have to feel that every flower, every tree, every little eddy in the river is unique and placed there for its own sake. In a word, Kenneth Grahame’s writing isn’t just a matter of style, it’s a matter of heart; his descriptions can only come from a place of love and reverence.

And he doesn’t only use this to describe nature, but also things like the lure of adventure (in the chapter where Rat meets the Seafaring Rat), where the distinctive flavors of different lands and peoples are rendered with loving detail, or even numinous awe, as in the chapter where Rat and Mole have an encounter with Pan:

“All this he saw, for one moment breathless and intense, vivid on the morning sky; and still, as he looked, he lived; and still as he lived, he wondered.

‘Rat?’ he found breath to whisper, shaking. ‘Are you afraid?’

‘Afraid?’ murmured the Rat, his eyes shining with unutterable love. ‘Afraid! Of Him? Oh, never, never! And yet – and yet – Oh, Mole, I am afraid!'”

There is also a delightfully surreal, childlike tone to the story. The author makes no attempt to make this into a real and consistent world; the animal heroes live in burrows, but borrows stocked with shelves and cookery and little treasures that “required a lot of careful saving to purchase.” Mr. Toad is able to disguise himself as a washerwoman and combs dry leaves out of his ‘hair,’ yet of course fits into Rat’s hole and is treated as toad by the human characters. When he’s arrested, he’s thrown into a dungeon straight from the Middle Ages complete with men at arms, loose straw for bedding, and the like (and when the warden’s daughter takes pity on him, being fond of animals, he convinces himself she’s fallen in love with him and reflects with regret of the great social gap between them).

As C.S. Lewis described it, the thin disguise of the characters being animals allows the author to present the tale he wants; the characters are able to enjoy life as both children and adults: they go where they like and do what they please, while meals and clothes and household goods are simply there as if by magic. No one gives a thought to employment or jobs or bills or any other wretched thing. When Toad returns to the riverbank, there is no thought that the law will pursue him there; he’s ‘safe’ as though in a children’s game. It’s all pure imagination; allowing the characters to experience the world as we might wish it were, to enjoy their adventures and lessons and dreams, to experience the ups and downs of life without the tedious details.

And oh, what life we get! Rat’s fervent, almost familial love for the river and for boating. Mole rediscovering his beloved hole after being so long away and being driven to tears for the want of it, small though it is. The warm caroling session by field mice that greets him when he arrives. Mole’s frightening adventure in the Wild Woods (“At first, there was nothing to alarm him”) and Rat’s subsequent rescue operation. Badger’s hole in the woods, which turns out to be built into the ruins of a buried Roman city (what ideas, what dreams, what haunting meditations arise just from that image!). Rat’s encounters with the migratory creatures who tell of their alternating calls to the north and south, and of the delight of arriving in each, followed by his long talk with the Seafaring Rat. The Battle of Toad Hall, which is what ever child imagines a fight is like; everyone gets to be brave and noble, no one is seriously hurt, and we thrash the disreputable cowards soundly in a good cause and send them home to lick their wounds.  Not to mention Toad’s adventures, where he bounces back and forth between adversity and triumph, while alternately lamenting his own foolishness and singing songs to his own glory.

Of course, there is no better image for such a hilariously vain and ridiculous figure than a toad; the absurd, ugly, hopping, fat little creature with a fatuous grin permanently plastered on its face. Toad is a toad to the tee; fundamentally good-natured, but vain and foolish to any imaginable degree. 

Which brings us to the wonderful quartet at the center of the story. Little Mole, the homebody; shy, but curious, wanting to try everything but not sure he dares. He’s the kind of fellow who is generally too cautious for an adventure, but who, when he has a burst of courage, generally makes a fool of himself because he’s too sheltered to understand the dangers, yet is a loyal friend through thick and thin, and more than willing and able to pull his weight when called on. Your typical lower-middle class, sedate Englishman of a small town. 

Rat, on the other hand, is the confident one; he knows his own ground, what he wants from life, and that he’s more or less got it. He has his river, his poetry, and his cozy little whole, and he embraces all adventures and adversities that may come as a part of that life. He knows his way about, is a dab hand with a variety of weapons, and has the courage to stride into the snowy woods after Mole and the competence to know how to safely go about it. A middle-class, English countryman; a man of letters and culture, deeply in love with his own hobbies and his own home.

Toad, of course, is the irresponsible country squire who inherited his family money and estate without also getting any of the good sense that made it. Fundamentally decent, but completely out of touch with reality and having no sense of what his position means beyond an occasion for preening and getting his way. Proud of himself and his family name, but in the sense of thinking it means he doesn’t have to make any effort of his own. He expects the world to conform to his whim, though he always wishes to be well thought of and to be able to do his bit. He’s the kind of friend who will show you a wonderfully good time and then call you at three o’clock in the morning to say, “Dear Ratty, I’ve had a spot of bother with the local police. Could you possibly come down to the county jail and help sort it out?”

Finally, there’s Mr. Badger, the reclusive country gentleman of an earlier generation (he was friends with Toad’s father) who hates society, but loves his friends; an “extraordinary amalgam of high rank, coarse manners, gruffness, shyness, and goodness,” as Prof. Lewis put it. He commands absolute respect both for his size and strength and for his wisdom, sense, and good heart. He allows his manners to be rough and his hole untidy because he doesn’t want any visitors, yet he tends to them with his own paws when they show up. He’s sort of a Dr. Johnson or Evelyn Waugh type: the man who may be sharp with you and tolerates no nonsense, but will never let you down and whose advice and friendship you can always count on.

A large part of the delight of the book is simply the opportunity to spend time with these wonderfully good characters. I mean that not only in the sense of their being expertly sketched, thoroughly human figures (ironically enough), but that they’re good people; people you would want to know, to be friends with, to be like. Even Toad is the kind of friend who, while he’d be very tiresome, would at least be a lot of fun to have around. It’s the sort of book where, as you read it, you ask “what do I have in my life that stands in place of Rat’s river? Or Mole’s hole? Or Badger’s tunnels?” or “How snug and delightful it would be to have your own little world and to not want another; to know all its particular changes, trials, and tribulations, and to know that you accept them. But also how delightful it would be to sail the seas as a wayfarer, tasting the wine of each new land.” Above all, “how charming it is to have all these different kinds of people, with their own marvelously shaped personalities, bound tightly to their own particular loves and lives! How do I fit in to that? What is my life and my love?”

Immediately before reading The Wind in the Willows, I had just finished The Brothers Karamazov. I was rather startled to find that the former had a much more profound effect on me than the latter. Don’t get me wrong: Dostoevsky’s book is a masterpiece, but it left me rather dissatisfied, simply because it leaves so much of the story untold (Dostoevsky intended it to be the first of a series of books, but died before he could begin the sequel). There were profundities, and deeper ones there, but I found Wind in the Willows, in its quiet, innocent way, resonated more with me, or more completely. Perhaps I am closer to the English spirit than to the Russian, or perhaps it’s simply that Willows is so much more compact and accessible, but I know which one I’ll be rereading first.

I think The Wind in the Willows will be going up on my shelf next to The Lord of the Rings and Cyrano de Bergerac as an all-time favorite. The book is more than a delightful and excellently crafted piece of literature; it hits something in my own heart and soul that doesn’t get touched nearly as often as I would like, and shows me a world of peace and beauty and quiet order that I love to spend time in. It’s a work to treasure.

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Why ‘Phineas and Ferb Star Wars’ is the Best Disney Star Wars

It is kind of a sad commentary on the state of the once-venerable franchise that the best and most satisfying work to come out of Star Wars’s move to Disney is a Phineas and Ferb special. Granted, Rogue One was pretty good, though it wasn’t well paced and the characters were mostly pretty bland. And I haven’t seen The Last Jedi, so maybe it’ll…you know what, I’m actually going to go out on a limb and say I don’t think it’ll make much difference.

So, what does Phineas and Ferb do right that the other recent Star Wars films fail to do?

First of all there’s the fact that, though it’s a spoof, it nevertheless manages to pay sincere homage to the original while also doing something new. Unlike Force Awakens, which was a lamer retread of the first film, PnF cook up their own storyline set in the Star Wars universe…and, just to compound the insult, they do it while literally retreading the first film.

The special posits versions of the Phineas and Ferb characters were present and played an unseen, but crucial role in the events of the first Star Wars. Phineas and Ferb live next door to Luke Skywalker on Tatoinne, but where Luke longs for something more the two brothers are perfectly content with their lot and spend their days making the most of their life on the desert planet. Until, that is, they run across R2-D2 and accidentally end up with the Death Star plans. So, while Luke, Obi-Wan, and the rest try to get R2 to the Rebels, thinking he has the plans, Phineas and Ferb race after them to try to get the plans back to them.

Thus, instead of a character who is dissatisfied and longs for more, he we have two characters who are satisfied, but are knocked out of their comfort zone and forced to attend to larger issues they hadn’t thought of (neatly foreshadowed in an early scene where their father tries to get them to go off the planet to experience the wider world). This is paralleled by both Candace – here an overzealous and underappreciated stormtrooper – and Isabella – here a rival smuggler to Han Solo, in a somewhat jarring departure from her normal characterization. All three sets of characters are more or less comfortable in their present lives, not realizing that those lives are unhealthy or unsuited for them, and over the course of the story are pulled out of their comfort zone and forced to re-evaluate their situation.

The one exception is Doofenshmirtz (here called ‘Darthenshmirtz’), an underappreciated scientist for the Empire and the actual designer of the Death Star (which, of course, is why it was so easy to destroy; it had a self-destruct button. This is even funnier in the wake of Rogue One’s revelation that that’s actually the canon explanation). Doof, in typical fashion, wants to cheat his way to greater respect and to that end has created a ‘Sith-Inator,’ which makes anyone it hits extremely attune to the Dark Side of the Force.

Now, I don’t know enough Star Wars lore to know if that fits the universe, but quite frankly, and setting aside Doof’s goofiness, that’s actually a pretty decent superweapon and a neat twist on the established elements. It sounds plausible given the setting, and it’s both more interesting and more insidious than just another planet buster. It’s mostly a gag, and primarily exists to set up a fight between Phineas and Ferb (the writers went on record saying evil mind-altering technology was literally the only way that could happen), but it’s a gag that evinces more real creativity than the whole of The Force Awakens, and one that honestly could have served for a whole trilogy.

It also sets up a genuinely emotional and tense confrontation playing on established themes of loyalty and ambition…while also making a joke about the way lightsabers keep getting more complicated and impractical (and they somehow made Ferb actually look scary, which is impressive in itself). That’s the thing: the special is a goof, but it’s a goof with honestly good storytelling.

Also the way the characters develop and change over the course of the special is really well done. Like Force Awakens we have a stormtrooper switching sides, but it’s done a lot better here. Candace has her perspective altered by experiencing something her training has taught her could not happen, letting in a bit of light that finally makes her question her point-of-view. And, equally believably, once she does that she quickly notices other things that didn’t fit with her assumptions (“didn’t we just blow up a planet?!” “Yes, that is sort of difficult to justify, morally”). Also, when she does change sides, she’s still kind of a badass and proves an effective ally, putting her stormtrooper skills to good use, rather than being a total ineffectual loser.

Likewise with Isabella’s story arc of learning to open up and care for Phineas and Ferb, both being impressed by their skills and attracted by their loyalty. It’s a standard character arc, of course, but it works. The progression is believable, much like Han’s progression in the first film was believable.

Speaking of which, I can much sooner buy Han Solo having a rivalry with Isabella and talking smack with her at a bar than I can buy him divorcing Leia and going back to smuggling after losing the Falcon and what the hell were they even thinking?! Stupid, stupid, stupid!

Sorry. But, yeah, oddly enough Han and Isabella’s conversation and mutual prodding actually sort of works and I can almost imagine it really going down like that.

Also, it’s fun. It’s exciting. It’s funny. It moves quickly and the characters are all engaging and likable. It let’s us know how and why the Empire is bad and makes us feel what’s at stake even as it uses the material for jokes. They play Alderan’s destruction for dark humor, but it’s balanced by Phineas’s stunned reaction when he finds out what the Death Star can do (“I never thought the Empire would go that far!”).

So, yeah, the silly parody in a Saturday morning cartoon special was better, more interesting, and more in keeping with the spirit of the original than the ultrabudget sequels.

 

Mission Marvel and Legit Heroes

On the subject of genuine heroics, allow me to present Phineas and Ferb: Mission Marvel, a crossover special where the Phineas and Ferb cast meet a bunch of Marvel characters.

Now, this sounds like it wouldn’t work; goofy surreal kid’s show meets semi-serious comic book heroes. And it’s not perfect, or even one of the better PnF specials (which frankly says more about just how good the others are than about this one), but there are some key elements that it does really well.

First of all, the difference in tone is actually the main point of the special, with the PnF characters being a little disturbed by confronting a situation much more serious than they’re accustomed to, while the Marvel characters are confused by the more absurdist tone of Phineas and Ferb (it’s actually similar to Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein now that I think about it).

By the way, this blending of tones is something a lot of crossovers miss: that it’s not enough to put two different groups of characters together, you have to make it feel like a meeting of two distinct stories with their own special themes and emotional tones (Oddly enough, the best example of this I’ve seen yet is Freddy vs. Jason).

Another thing the special does really well is that it doesn’t just feel like a meeting of worlds, it feels like this is what a kid would hope meeting his heroes would be like. Phineas and Ferb is, in large part about childish imagination brought to life: kids who get to really do what other kids pretend to do. In this case, they get to hang out with some of their favorite heroes and even help them save the day.

But that’s that point: the heroes are still the dominant figures, with Phineas, Ferb, and the rest in support roles, because that’s exactly what a real kid would want. Kids don’t want to show up their heroes, but only to be able to feel worthy of them. The scenario here is perfectly suited to that, with the heroes temporarily deprived of their powers, requiring Phineas and Ferb’s help to get them back while trying to thwart a group of supervillains at the same time. So, the kids can legitimately contribute without diminishing either the heroes or the villains, and the situation is desperate enough that it’s acceptable for the heroes to bring the kids into battle (once the heroes get their powers back, the kids stay out of the fight).

Which brings me to another point: the heroes are genuinely heroic. Remember what I said about legit heroes? The superheroes here count (actually, from what I can tell, the heroes are more heroic here than in the actual comics at the moment).

The heroes here are constantly behind it: either lacking powers or having the wrong powers. Yet again and again, they still step up to the plate and go into battle. Even when they clearly have no chance of winning, they still saddle up to do whatever they can because, as they explain, that’s what they do. Their powers aren’t what makes them heroes, their willingness to do the right thing whatever the cost is.

This also inspires the kids, who join them in battle despite being obviously outclassed. Phineas and Ferb discover early on that their tech is woefully inadequate to fighting real supervillains, but in the final battle they put on their damaged Beak suit and go in anyway. Like any good adventure story, the heroes are constantly being dumped on in one way or another, all the way up until the end, where the heroes and the kids they inspired engage in a mad dog-pile scramble just trying anything and everything they can think of to keep the villains from winning for as long as possible (the action sequences are fantastic, by the way, with really fast, highly detailed animation that encourages multiple viewings to catch everything going on).

So, Phineas and Ferb absolutely nailed what people love about comic book heroes, just another example of how deceptively excellent that show is.

Beauty Response and the Importance of Definitions

So, my beauty piece got a response essay on CM. That’s good, since it’s a sure sign people were talking about it. It’s okay for the most part; a lot of reacting to things I didn’t say and emphasizing points I specifically mentioned. I notice that whenever you say something positive, people automatically read a lot of negatives into it: if I say ‘beauty is real and important’ people read ‘physical appearance is the measure of a woman’s worth and men don’t have to worry about it.’ She also confuses attraction and beauty, which most people do these days and which I didn’t have time to deal with.

But here’s the one part that really bugged me, just because this is a pet peeve of mine:

Okay, so what did the article miss?

1. That all women are beautiful, regardless of form or figure.

Women are God’s crowning glory. We were created at the peak of creation, after all other creatures and beings (aka rough drafts), and each one us holds the immense power to create life within ourselves. I mean, our physical forms can’t get more amazing.

The catch in the other article is that “beautiful” seems to refer to the type of women who stop you in your tracks walking down the street. But that should not mean that all other, more “ordinary” women are not beautiful.

For clarity’s sake, let’s just reiterate: every female form is the peak of creation! Regardless of shape, figure, size, flavor, or color.

I don’t say this to be mean, but no, not every woman is beautiful in any meaningful sense of the word. Yes, the female form and body is amazing for its powers and dignities, but that’s not the same thing as beauty (‘Nobility’ or ‘majesty’ would be a better adjective, conveying the idea of ‘worthy of honor’).

A lot of people like to say “all women are beautiful since they are all God’s creations.” But to say that someone is beautiful because they are a creature of God is to make ‘beautiful’ synonymous with ‘exists.’ And while it may be a good thing to remind someone she exists, there are already plenty of words to convey it. But beauty is such a unique and difficult concept that philosophers have struggled to define it for millenia. Our language is muddled enough; we don’t need to keep watering it down.

Besides, ‘you are beautiful because you are made by God’ is praise that could just as accurately be offered to a cockroach. It is a glorious thing to be a creature of God, but it is hardly a distinguishing compliment.

Not only that, but to insist that ‘all women are beautiful’ is to say that a woman’s worth is dependent upon her beauty, because the implication is that to say otherwise is to imply a lack of worthiness. To say ‘not all women are beautiful’ is to render beauty inessential to a woman. It is a glorious thing, but a woman who lacks beauty has no less dignity or worth than one who does.

The trouble is that words stripped of their meaning are stripped also of their power. To expand the definition of a word so as to comfort those who don’t fall within its scope will not actually help anything, like how receiving participation trophies doesn’t actually boost anyone’s self esteem. There is no magic in words, only in ideas, and people generally understand where the idea ends. To have the word and not the idea; to be told that you are what you yourself know you are not isn’t actually comforting. Quite the reverse, actually; it encourages resentment.

Did you ever notice that the leveling of standards has been accompanied by an increase in resentment? That the more you try to tell people they are equal in fact and not just in principle, the more of both envy and arrogance they show? The more someone is encouraged to say ‘I’m as good as you,’ the angrier he becomes at the voice of reason telling him that he isn’t.

It’s one thing to be denied something entirely; it’s quite another to be given a sham replica, or to be given the title, but none of the honors. It’s better just to be honest and say that this particular title is not for you, but you’re no less worthy as a person because of it.