Saturday, September 16, 2023

Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows


Opening Passage: 

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.

Summary: The Mole gives up spring cleaning to enjoy the spring, and by good fortune meets the friendly and sensible Water Rat, with whom he quickly becomes good friends. Rat teaches him how to boat on the river and introduces him to other animals. One of these other animals is Toad of Toad Hall, a wealthy, irresponsible, bombastic, conceited, very affable fellow. Toad turns out to have a fatal weakness: he becomes addicted to recklessly driving motor-cars. While this problem is developing, Rat introduces Mole to the Badger, who lives in the Wild Wood. (Narnian Talking Animals are of coruse modeled on the animals in The Wind in the Willows, and Badger is the most obvious point of similar, because he would fitly comfortably in either world.) As Toad's obsession with motor-cars gets him into increasing trouble, Mole, Rat, and Badger hold an intervention for him, to prevent him from reaching the apparently inevitable end of either death or ruin. The intervention fails completely, however; Toad takes a final joyride in another person's car and is caught, with the result that he is brought before the Magistrates, who take a dim view of his entire action. Poor Toad is thrown in jail. He eventually escapes in disguise and makes a fugitive flight across the country in order to get home, where money and being well liked will provide some protection. When he gets back, he finds that Toad Hall has been taken over, and will need the help of Mole, Rat, and Badger to get it back. In the meantime, Mole and Rat meet the great god Pan, and Rat, with Mole's help, has to fight off the temptation to become a seafarer.

Much of the story can be seen as exploring the struggle between the restlessness and thirst for adventure we often feel in mundane and domestic matters and the homeliness of home. Mole gives in to the restlessness and it becomes in some ways the best thing he ever did, because it results in his having excellent friends. Toad only ever gives in to the restlessness and it lands him in prison. Rat has to fight off the restlessness because it is really contrary to who he is. I think Chapter VII, "The Piper at the Gates of Dawn", where Mole and Rat meet Pan, shows both of the two impulses tangled together. Pan's piping is the music of the wind in the reeds and the rushes; it calls forth to adventure, but paradoxically, coming to Pan is also like coming home to animals, a paradox that is neatly captured by perhaps the most famous passage in the chapter:

“Rat!” he found breath to whisper, shaking. “Are you afraid?” 

 “Afraid?” murmured the Rat, his eyes shining with unutterable love. “Afraid! Of Him? O, never, never! And yet—and yet—O, Mole, I am afraid!” 

 Then the two animals, crouching to the earth, bowed their heads and did worship.

But there is another reconciliation of adventure and home that we find throughout the book: friendship. Friends are an adventure in which we are at home, and a home which is full of adventures. Whether it is Mole and Rat drifting down the river and then having a picnic, or the two enjoying Badger's excellent hospitality, or the three looking out for Toad as he returns home from his flight, having friends is one of the ways to satisfy both the restless thirst for adventure and the deep need for being at home.

Besides reading this work, I also listened to an audiobook version (from Blackstone Publishing, narrated very well by Mary Woods), and I'm glad I did so. In many ways, this is really a tale meant to be read aloud rather than silently -- preferably with friends, of course, but in any case aloud. Many of the poetic descriptions found in the book work best in the living voice. 

Favorite Passage:

One morning the girl was very thoughtful, and answered at random, and did not seem to Toad to be paying proper attention to his witty sayings and sparkling comments. 

 “Toad,” she said presently, “just listen, please. I have an aunt who is a washerwoman.” 

 “There, there,” said Toad, graciously and affably, “never mind; think no more about it. I have several aunts who ought to be washerwomen.” 

 “Do be quiet a minute, Toad,” said the girl. “You talk too much, that’s your chief fault, and I’m trying to think, and you hurt my head. As I said, I have an aunt who is a washerwoman; she does the washing for all the prisoners in this castle—we try to keep any paying business of that sort in the family, you understand. She takes out the washing on Monday morning, and brings it in on Friday evening. This is a Thursday. Now, this is what occurs to me: you’re very rich—at least you’re always telling me so—and she’s very poor. A few pounds wouldn’t make any difference to you, and it would mean a lot to her. Now, I think if she were properly approached—squared, I believe is the word you animals use—you could come to some arrangement by which she would let you have her dress and bonnet and so on, and you could escape from the castle as the official washerwoman. You’re very alike in many respects—particularly about the figure.” 

 “We’re not,” said the Toad in a huff. “I have a very elegant figure—for what I am.”

Recommendation: Highly Recommended.