kenneth grahame | the wind in the willows

29 12 2010

NOTES from the UNDERGROUND No. 210 | December 29, 2010


While we’re still in the aftermath of the Christmas season, still giving, receiving, remembering, I frequently find myself evenings at the small shelf of books in the living room which still hold some of the books I once read to my son and daughter, books that call back images, tales, the comforts of fatherhood: a kid in one’s lap, listening intently, following words and illustrations, totally surrendered to a world of wonder, goodness and a father’s voice transforming the narrative into something close to prayer.

Though I have passed many of these books on to both my kids and grandkids through the years…it was so heartbreaking for me to let go of some of them, I found myself replacing many of my favorites with duplicate copies.

This is the time of year, Christmas and winter, I most enjoy revisiting that world with memories of a small child in my lap. Sometimes I hear my own voice, alone in the middle of the night, reading aloud to the dark.

I was reminded of all this when I came across an old copy of The New York Review of Books and the review of Michael Dirda, who doesn’t ‘review’ books so much as illuminate them. His perceptions regarding the classic THE WIND IN THE WILLOWS (excerpted below), are worth sharing. Remembering. Calling readers back to a story that sustains us all, child or adult. Certainly, adult. —Norbert Blei

Messing About with “The Wind in the Willows”
Michael Dirda

  • The Annotated Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame edited with a preface and notes by Annie Gauger, Norton, 384 pp., $39.95
  • The Wind in the Willows An Annotated Edition by Kenneth Grahame, edited by Seth Lerer, Belknap Press/Harvard University Press, 273 pp. $35.00


Kenneth Grahame (1859-1932)—who nearly called his most famous book The Wind in the Reeds—led one of those multiple lives so beloved of late Victorians: secretary of the Bank of England, contributor to the decadent Yellow Book, gently ironic celebrant of childhood in The Golden Age (1895) and Dream Days (1898). (The most famous section of the latter is the enchanting satire “The Reluctant Dragon”—about a poetry-spouting dragon and a highly civilized Saint George.) A resolute amateur of letters, Grahame refused to become a professional writer, holding himself to be “a spring not a pump.”

Today The Wind in the Willows (1908) stands as one of the dozen greatest children’s classics of all time. Yet is it really for children at all? Yes, its Riverbank characters are anthropomorphized animals—Mole, Rat, Badger, Otter, and Toad—and yes, E.H. Shepard’s famous illustrations (1931) are as gently winsome as those he drew for A. A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh books in the 1920s. Nonetheless, to read The Wind in the Willows aloud to a little boy or girl can be disillusioning. Except for the misadventures of the self-dramatizing Toad, there’s really not much action and the mood music of Grahame’s prose sometimes bores the fidgety young. One can certainly understand why the Times Literary Supplement declared in its 1908 review that “children will hope, in vain for more fun.”

Take the book’s single most famous sentence: “Believe me, my young friend,” the Water Rat says to Mole, “there is nothing—absolutely nothing—half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.” So do the pair go rushing down the river, looking for trouble and adventure, like the English cousins of Huckleberry Finn? No, they float placidly, genteelly along, with a hamper of lavish foodstuffs that might have been packed for them by Harrod’s. They enjoy a picnic, and then return to Rat’s “bijou riverside residence,” where dressing gowns and slip¬pers await them.

In fact, the most memorable passages of this outdoorsy book actually describe cozy interiors—in particular, Badger’s shabby-genteel underground apartments and Mole’s snug burrow in the Christmasy “Duice Domum” chapter. Nearly every episode culminates in a vision of tweedy bachelor comfort: a simple yet hearty supper, warming drinks, good talk in armchairs by the fireside, heavenly sleep.

And yet for all its comfy domesticity and what Grahame’s biographer Peter Green has rightly called its “timeless, drowsy beatitude,” The Wind in the Willows is also deeply suffused by restlessness, by a periodic yearning for something more from life, by a vague need to break away from the quotidian and routine. Mole suffers from spring’s “divine discontent” and suddenly, exuberantly abandons his home for the riverside. The Water Rat falls under the spell of a seafarer’s romantic tales of faraway places: “Take the Adventure, heed the call, now ere the irrevocable moment passes!” Toad repeatedly surrenders to megalomaniac fugue states in which he views himself as Toad the Great, Toad the Hero, no matter what the actual tawdry circumstances. Virtually all the characters except Badger, that stern voice of rectitude, feel the tug of the road not taken, the allure of a new beginning.

Really, what could be more… middle-aged?

Not surprisingly then, The Wind in the Willows also shows us a world on the wane, when the old ways—the ancient rural traditions of England—are being pushed aside by the steady encroachment of modern civilization. Rat complains that the wash from “steam-launches” has been flooding his living room. In one chapter, we glimpse the great god Pan, but that guardian of the wild vanishes with the day, and we know that fewer and fewer of us will ever hear “the piper at he gates of dawn.”

While The Wind in the Willows certainly has the appearance of a children’s book, this masterpiece none the less tends to be most deeply affecting to those past forty. It’s a bedtime story for readers of Henry James, and throughout its pages one periodically hears the faint, wistful cry that haunts Strether in The Ambassadors (1903): “Live all you can; it’s a mistake not to.”

[from The New York Review of Books, August 13, 2009]