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.