For me, The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame is one of those childhood books (like The Hobbit, like The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe) that were not so much well-loved books – although they were and are, of course – than they were a vital part of my inner life, as personal as the memories of dreams.
It was an interesting and worthwhile experience, therefore, to re-read Willows this year, as an adult. There were some things I had never forgotten – the escapades of Toad, Mole’s rediscovery of his riverbank home, and also the Wild Wood. There were also details I had forgotten but were brought splendidly back to life, upon re-reading the book. And there were things, curious things, that I had never really noticed before, but now strike me as intriguing and strange.
The story itself is very simple, and a summary might be: Mole meets Rat, Mole and Rat meet Badger, Mole, Rat and Badger then get involved in Toad’s misadventures and help him to recapture his ancestral home. And that’s basically it, apart from a few chapters where odd, unconnected things happen. It’s a bit like a river, really; meandering along, slow here, then fast, then a bit slow again, nothing too complicated. Take away the saga of Toad, and there wouldn’t, narrative-wise, be very much left.
But that doesn’t matter. Grahame’s delightful characters carry the show: timid yet plucky Mole, cheerful Rat, gruff and sensible Badger and of course the incomparably impulsive, irresponsible, lovable, larger-than-life Toad of Toad Hall. Their interactions and conversations are a joy to read. And the world they inhabit is also a joy, a sort of cosy, rural, sunlit Edwardian riverscape that never existed in the “real world” but nevertheless does exist, in the imaginations of those who have read and loved this book.
Many things are just as I remembered them. As a child, I found the Wild Wood scary, and this episode still has a sinister, unsettling charge to it. Sitting in my warm room in front of the computer, I can read it with equanimity; outdoors in the wintry dark, this is the sort of stuff than can come back to haunt. And Badger’s house – you know, if I ever became single again, this is the kind of place I would like to inhabit, a bachelor’s comfortable, snug, fire-lit den, preferably underground, with lots of passages and well-stocked larders and, of course, a stout door to keep the Wild Wood out…
There are other aspects of the book of which, as a child, I was completely oblivious. Like the fact that the characters could be said to lead rather privileged lives, defending the interests of the landed gentry against a horde of bolshie upstarts and lower-class types. Or that the characters are also talking animals, who dress and behave like humans, but exist in a world where there are also animals (such as horses) who look and behave just like animals, and humans who are humans but who are also somehow the same size as the animals (how else could Toad disguise himself convincingly as a washerwoman?)
However, it’s best not to expend too much analytical thought on all that, for it matters not a whit. The story exists outside normal time, space and historical realities, and it abides by dream-logic, which is perfectly fine, and logic enough for the story’s purposes.
There are a couple of strange things, though, not noticed much when I was reading it as a child, but which now stand out. The abandoned underground city, with its vaults and pillars and pavements, which is connected by passageways to Badger’s home. And the unearthly but benevolent Presence encountered by Mole and Rat, when they go searching for the missing Little Portly (Chapter VII, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn.) Lost cities and pagan gods, what can it all mean? Well, I’m not sure if I’ll ever know, but again there’s nothing to lose sleep over. The reader’s sense of wonder is engaged, and that’s the thing that matters.
The Wind in the Willows was first published in October 1908, almost exactly a hundred years ago, and since then it has not lost a fraction of its ability to entertain and enchant.
Happy centenary, old friend.
(I posted this review last month on Planet Bookworm, and thought I’d better add it to my blog before the end of 2008. How time flies!)