The Wind in the Willows, by Kenneth Grahame – Book Review By Fred Patten.
by Patch O'Furr
Submitted by Fred Patten, Furry’s favorite historian and reviewer.
The Wind in the Willows, by Kenneth Grahame. Frontispiece by Graham Robertson.
London, Methuen & Company, October 1908, hardcover 6/- ([vi] + 302 + [ii] pages).
The Wind in the Willows is world-famous today. It was almost immediately world-famous. President Theodore Roosevelt praised it in 1909. Yet until Grahame died in 1932, he did not think that the entire book could be illustrated. The sole illustrations published during Grahame’s lifetime were of the famous “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn” chapter featuring the god Pan. Paul Bramson illustrated the 1913 edition showing Rat and Mole gazing at Pan as natural unclothed small animals, even though they get to him by rowboat and by implication have been of human size and wearing clothes just before that. Ernest Shepard’s illustrations in 1933, Arthur Rackham’s in 1940, and the Walt Disney animated feature The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad in 1949 made it “illustratable” – but usually by omitting the Pan scene.
The reason is because the narrative segues so often between Mole, Rat, Otter, Badger, the weasels and field-mice and hedgehogs and rabbits as natural English riverbank and woodland animals, and their being imitation humans – not just Toad in stately Toad Hall, but each having a small, furnished home – sometimes tiny, sometimes of human size; rowing a boat, presumably wearing clothes (Toad certainly wears clothes and is of human size when he disguises himself as a washerwoman, yet is of toad size when he enters Rat’s riverbank hole), capable of driving a motor-car and of being tried in court. Everyone was aware of the disparity, but because Grahame’s writing was so lyrical, everyone was willing to gloss over the disparity.
Natural woodland animals? The book begins with a blending of the animal and human worlds:
“The Mole had been working very hard all the morning, spring-cleaning his little home. First with brooms, then with dusters, then on ladders and steps and chairs, with a brush and a pail of whitewash; till he had dust in his throat and eyes, and splashes of whitewash all over his black fur, and an aching back and weary arms. Spring was moving in the air above and in the earth below and around him, penetrating even his dark and lowly little house with its spirit of divine discontent and longing. It was small wonder, then, that he suddenly flung down his brush on the floor, said ‘Bother!’ and ‘O blow!’ and also ‘Hang spring-cleaning!’ and bolted out of the house without even waiting to put on his coat. Something up above was calling him imperiously, and he made for the steep little tunnel which answered in his case to the gravelled carriage-drive owned by animals whose residences are nearer to the sun and air. So he scraped and scratched and scrabbled and scrooged, and then he scrooged again and scrabbled and scratched and scraped, working busily with his little paws and muttering to himself, ‘Up we go! Up we go!’ till at last, pop! his snout came out into the sunlight, and he found himself rolling in the warm grass of a great meadow.” (pgs. 1-2)
The Wind in the Willows was a new kind of children’s book, and at first people did not know what to make of it. Lewis Carroll’s two Alice fantasies were set in what was clearly a dreamland, so it seemed natural being bizarre and shifting and, well, dreamlike. Subsequent children’s fantasies such as E. Nesbit’s brought one fantastic talking animal such as a Psammead or a Phoenix into the real world, or sent a realistic human child into a magic world, as L. Frank Baum’s American Dorothy Gale to Oz. But The Wind in the Willows was supposed to take place in the real England, but with the wild animals having little houses and being able to talk, and where the government (at least the police and the courts) treated the animals as people:
“‘To my mind,’ observed the Chairman of the Bench of Magistrates cheerfully, ‘the only difficulty that presents itself in this otherwise very clear case is, how can we possibly make it sufficiently hot for the incorrigible rogue and hardened ruffian whom we see cowering in the dock before us. Let me see: he has been found guilty, on the clearest evidence, first, of stealing a valuable motor-car; secondly, of driving to the public danger; and, thirdly, of gross impertinence to the rural police. Mr. Clerk, will you tell us, please, what is the very stiffest penalty we can impose for each of these offenses? Without, of course, giving the prisoner the benefit of any doubt, because there isn’t any.’” (pgs. 139-140)
But the public speedily adjusted to this, and ever since, talking animals and humans have very comfortably mixed in children’s fantasy – and, with Orwell’s Animal Farm and Adams’ Watership Down, in adult fantasy as well.
The Wind in the Willows is neatly divided into two parts. The first five chapters paint a lovely, peaceful word-portrait of the wondrous English countryside, and lazing along the river (by implication, all English rivers) during spring, summer, and autumn; but also during the depths of winter:
“The Mole came and crouched beside him [the Rat], and, looking out, saw the wood that had been so dreadful to him in quite a changed aspect. Holes, hollows, pools, pitfalls, and other black menaces to the wayfarer were vanishing fast, and a gleaming carpet of faery was springing up everywhere, that looked too delicate to be trodden upon by rough feet. A fine powder filled the air and caressed the cheek with a tingle in its touch, and the black boles of the trees showed up in a light that seemed to come from below.” (p. 60)
Chapters 6 and 8 through 12 shift to what Disney calls “Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride”: Badger, Rat, and Mole’s attempt to reform Toad by locking him in his bedroom, his escape and stealing a motor-car, his being sentenced to twenty years in a dungeon, his escape disguised as a washerwoman, his dashing recklessly in a railroad locomotive and barge and by horseback and the same motor-car while singing a rollicking boast …
“‘The world has held great Heroes,
As history-books have showed;
But never a name to go down to fame
Compared with that of Toad!’” (p. 236)
… until rescued by Rat, his learning that Toad Hall has been occupied by the Wild Wood weasels and ferrets and stoats during his absence, and Rat, Mole, and Badger’s reconquest of Toad Hall with him. There is a setup for Toad’s adventures in the “peaceful” first half, and Rat’s almost being lyrically seduced into seeking sea wanderings in the “action” last half, and the beautiful but strangely out-of-place Chapter 7, “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn” (it reads like a separate work); and somehow it all seems to fit together. The 1908 idyllic portrait of the unspoiled English countryside has been growing increasingly outdated during the century-and-more since The Wind in the Willows was written, yet its story seems timeless and ever-fresh.
If you have missed the delight of reading The Wind in the Willows, read it now. If you have only seen the 1949 Disney animated cartoon, discover the real book.