The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame. Reread / readaloud: 262/262.
I feel silly not making about ten posts about this book as we went along. Owl’s been reading it to me, which is nice of him, since I started off and then got lazy. (On the other hand usually when Owl has been reading it to me I have been doing things like important cooking etcetera.) I haven’t read The Wind in the Willows since I was a kid. It seemed really brilliant then. I couldn’t remember anything that happened. I knew all of the characters gave me excitable feelings. I couldn’t remember what the feelings were. I couldn’t remember what anyone was like, except that Toad is wicked and Badger is nicer than real badgers are, probably.
IMPORTANT SELF-UPDATE: IT IS IN FACT REALLY BRILLIANT.
Other facts include being wildly funny, and really strange–it’s really strange. WHAT ARE THE MAIN CHARACTERS? Why, you might say, they are animals! They are a badger, a mole, a rat, and a toad!
Well, yes, okay, except they’re all about the same size as each other and they have boat and motorcars, and when Toad wants to escape human prison he dresses up as the jailor’s daughter’s washerwoman aunt and her clothes fit him. Worse yet, he keeps horses–he RIDES a horse–THE HORSE CAN TALK–and these animals that you might expect to be small eat things like sides of bacon and cold beef tongue. There is a sea rat of approximately the same size that somehow still lives a stowaway ship rat life.
The line between sentient and non-sentient animals is jagged or nonexistent. Maybe there are normal sized versions of toads and rats somewhere in the world! Maybe they do not eat pigs! Maybe the pigs are not friends of theirs first? MAYBE THEY JUST EAT EACH OTHER AND THIS IS NOT A MATTER OF CONCERN. It’s certainly not a matter of concern to the author. He does not care. The worst thing of all is that right near the end of the book you find out that Toad has hair. At first you think, or you hope, that maybe it is a washerwoman wig, but no, it is just hair, his hair, and he parts it and slicks it. I am grateful to illustrator Ernest H. Shepherd, who showed true decency in not portraying the Toad with hair. Or maybe he didn’t know until he got to the end of the book, where the hair really showed up, and refused to go back and pen it on to all his drawings.
In rereading this book I have identified one of my strongest lurking feelings about it: Mole and Rat are cohabitating gentlemen. The Edwardian Bachelorian Air to the book doesn’t really seem to be a slur against women–there are female characters and while the wretched Toad does not always treat them well, the author is on their side.
(There’s also a “gypsy” character whose scene I sat through with trepidation–he does buy a stolen horse from Toad, but Toad is the thief, and Grahame lands a nice blow on the jaw of social attitudes near the end of the book in saying the “gypsy”‘s asking price was, rather than cheating or greedy, right on the nose. He’s also a good cook, and he keeps his bargains. I’m sure there’s better representation in the world but it was a reasonably good subversion circa 1908.)
Not hating women, if ignoring them somewhat, you have basically a jolly group of grown men comfortable in their ways who have no real interest in women, e.g., slightly homosexual, eh, chap? Mole is a mole who goes for a walk, meets a charming fellow who is crazy about the river, and immediately moves in. He and Rat can have their separate passions but always come back to one another and attend to one another and rescue each other. Mole decides to find Badger in the Wild Wood all by himself and Rat has to come save him from weasels and snow–
–and there is a very strange scene where the aforementioned Sea Rat appears to Rat alone and overcomes him with tales of life on the sea, and Rat sort of passes out and hallucinates and Sea Rat asks him to come away with him, and Rat goes home to pack in a frenzy, and Mole has to gently fix him up until the fever to follow has passed. IT IS A RAT SEDUCTION. IT IS VERY UNNERVING. IS THIS A CHILDREN’S BOOK? Mole takes no offense and Rat has no real interest in leaving after all. Mole and Rat NEVER leave one another. They are soft friends living in a comfortable home on the river who suit each other perfectly and are perfect forever. FOREVER.
Toad is also perfect, in that he is the worst. I remember this! I remembered something about a motorcar. Toad is a fiend. Toad’s brain is overrun with desires for things he should not have or want and then he goes after them anyway. Other people’s cars, for example. He is a Toad who sings conceited songs and breaks out of prison and yells at bargewomen and steals horses and cars and is crafty in a deal, and is generous, humorous, moody, jealous, and wildly repentant. Toad would be an exhausting person to know. I expect a lot of people know him.
I don’t think Grahame cared at all if the book matched up to anything. He writes it all as if it makes perfect sense, and anyway the characters are very good, and I don’t think I noticed when I was small that everything else was a little odd. Why should you? He believed in it! And Badger and Mole and Rat and (especially?) Toad and Grahame’s comfortable friendship with the countryside are very distracting from anything else.