The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame

The Wind in the Willows is one of those classics that I’d never gotten around to reading until recently, even though it has all these attributes of the kinds of books I studied for my undergraduate major. I didn’t even really know that much about it, except for the fact that Disney made a cartoon of it, and that there’s an associated ride at Disneyland where you can go to and then escape from Hell in a cute motorcar buggy.

Wikipedia describes it like this:

Alternately slow moving and fast paced, it focuses on four anthropomorphised animals in a pastoral version of England.

And I think slow moving and fast paced is the best possible way to explain it; it comes across very strongly as a transcription of a series of bedtime stories being told by a parent, nostalgic for a lost time and place, to a child who’d really rather hear more about dangerous and exciting adventures.

Ultimately, it’s about four animal friends and what they do during the changing seasons: Mole, who sets off the book by very suddenly deciding to abandon spring cleaning of his little hole in the ground; Water Rat, a boating-enthusiast poet with whom Mole becomes best friends and housemates; Old Badger, simultaneously pompous and “common,” feared among the smaller rodents but secretly kind and generous; and Mr. Toad, of Toad Hall, wealthy but impulsive, constantly taking up expensive new hobbies only to abandon them when something newer and more exciting comes along (and when the old trend results in him crashing or ruining something).

The narration gets very rosy about the countryside, particularly about boating on the river, and about massive meals in front of cozy fireplaces, and the action switches between characters from chapter to chapter. Between meditations on Water Rat teaching Mole about the rules of living as a river animal, there are short stories, as well as Mr. Toad’s faster-paced episodes in stealing a car, being sent to prison, and escaping, only to find that his house has been overrun by a marauding band of weasels and stoats.

The plot does meander, and the rules of the universe seem changeable and not quite thought out, mostly for the sake of whimsy and comedy. The animals wear clothing and live in houses, but hesitate to go into towns where there are humans. There’s a bit of lore about the forests having large abandoned cities buried far beneath them, before human civilization changed—it’s almost post-apocalyptic. Mr. Toad has a very expansive manor house with a great hall, stables, and a dock on the river; he’s able to disguise himself as a washerwoman to deceive several humans in his jailbreak, and parts his hair with a comb before going to a party. It doesn’t quite make sense, and isn’t always consistent, but the unexplained nature of it combined with the subtle lessons on manners and grammar give it a charm that’s easy to go along with.

Here is my favorite bit from one of the more poetic sections, as Water Rat and Mole decide to go look for their friend Otter’s missing son on the river very late on Midsummer Night:

The water’s own noises, too, were more apparent than by day, its gurglings and “cloops” more unexpected and near at hand; and constantly they started at what seemed a sudden clear call from an actual articulate voice.

Eventually, they find the young otter, curled up asleep under the protection of the god Pan, with his flute. Rat and Mole are overwhelmed by the feelings of beauty and perfection in the presence of a divine being, who “gifts” them by making them forget they saw him, but the experience leaves them both feeling wistful and aching for something lovely and painful.

It’s a bit of unexpected mysticism, and is so curiously combined with that equally surprising line above. Grahame had the ability to be fanciful, but sometimes his prose just feels like it’s perfectly telling you something you didn’t even know could be described. It’s simple, but very real, and I think this feeling is intensified because of how old the book is, and yet how clear and familiar those descriptions are. We really aren’t so far away from 1908, and writing styles from that period aren’t so inaccessible or difficult to unpack.

Reading the title again after I’ve read it, I still don’t quite know what Grahame meant by calling it that, but there is something poignant and sweet in a title that evokes a feeling rather than cluing its audience in to some deeper meaning.

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