Book Review: The Wind in the Willows

I never read The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame as I was growing up: I don’t think I had even heard of it. I didn’t read it to my children, but we did watch a video of it which I thoroughly could not stand. It mainly focused on Toad’s misadventures with his car, and Toad just irritated me to no end.

But reading some of C. S. Lewis’s books over the last couple of years, particularly On Stories, I saw that he mentioned it quite a lot, and some of his comments spurred me to give it a try.

It begins with Mole getting exasperated by his spring cleaning and escaping out into the forest, running about to his heart’s content, until he comes to a river, which he has never seen before. Delighted by the sight, he notices the Water Rat, who invites him into his boat for a ride. Mole has never been in a boat and is thrilled. He ends up not only having a picnic with Rat, but going to stay at his house for a time and meeting Otter, Badger, and eventually Toad.

Otter is more of a secondary character, but Mole, Rat, Badger and Toad become fast friends. Badger is introverted and doesn’t come into society much, but is friendly when he does. He was an old friend of Toad’s father and is very wise. Rat loves his boat, believes “there is nothing – absolutely nothing – half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats,” and likes to write poetry and songs. Mole is an all-around good fellow but gets into trouble by extending himself past his experience and ability a couple of times, until near the end, when his doing so saves the day. Toad is rich, pompous, conceited, undisciplined, and goes full-bore into whatever his current interests are (and I still don’t like him very much. 🙂 ) When he discovers motor cars, he’s almost a lost cause.

There are almost two stories intertwined in the book: the raucous Toad’s pursuit of cars, wrecks, theft of one, imprisonment, disguise, escape, wild journey back home, and defense of his home from the weasels and stoats who overtook it while he was away, and then the quieter, gentler, homier experiences of the other animals. I like the second much better, but I understand that a book especially for children needs some action.

If I had to try to sum up what the book was about overall, the theme that comes to me is friendship. Each of the friends extends himself for the others at various points (except Toad, unless you want to count his final trying to rein himself in after several false repentances as an effort for his friends’ sake). They often inconvenience themselves greatly for each other, are kind to his others’ foibles, encourage and look out for each other.

There is one odd little section where Mole and Rat are helping to search for Otter’s lost little one and come upon the god Pan playing his pipes and watching over the little Otter. There reaction personifies reverence:

Then suddenly the Mole felt a great Awe fall upon him, an awe that turned his muscles to water, bowed his head, and rooted his feet to the ground. It was no panic terror—indeed he felt wonderfully at peace and happy—but it was an awe that smote and held him and, without seeing, he knew it could only mean that some august Presence was very, very near. With difficulty he turned to look for his friend and saw him at his side cowed, stricken, and trembling violently…

Perhaps he would never have dared to raise his eyes, but that, though the piping was now hushed, the call and the summons seemed still dominant and imperious. He might not refuse, were Death himself waiting to strike him instantly, once he had looked with mortal eye on things rightly kept hidden. Trembling he obeyed, and raised his humble head; and then, in that utter clearness of the imminent dawn, while Nature, flushed with fullness of incredible colour, seemed to hold her breath for the event, he looked in the very eyes of the Friend and Helper; saw the backward sweep of the curved horns, gleaming in the growing daylight; saw the stern, hooked nose between the kindly eyes that were looking down on them humourously…

‘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.

I was curious to know what Grahame might have meant by it, especially since one of his previous books is titled Pagan Papers. I found a variety of opinions about it: one professing pagan fully embraced it as pagan worship and called Pan his favorite god; one thought it was a representation of Christ, as Aslan was in the Narnia books (and was taken to task in the comments); one thought it was a personification of nature. I still don’t know Grahame’s intention, though. I know C. S. Lewis used the mythic gods as something almost like superheroes, maybe just above or below the angels but definitely above man, yet in service to the one true God. I did read that some newer editions leave out this section, and I wasn’t the only reader that thought it was anomalous. But one of the posts I read – I forget which one – pointed out that though Pan made an appearance in person, his influence was all throughout the book. And when I went back and reread the first few pages, I thought that might be true: the way nature is spoken of is the same there as it is in the section with Pan. So I am a little wary: if I was reading this to my children, we’d have to have a discussion about it.

I went back and skimmed through the couple of books by C. S. Lewis looking for one quote in particular that most influenced me to read the book, and, frustratingly, I could not find it. If my memory is correct, I thought it had to do with dealing with ridiculous people (Toad in this case), and it helped me in regarding a ridiculous person or two in my acquaintance. But here are a few other quotes from Lewis about Wind in the Willows:

Does anyone believe that Kenneth Grahame made an arbitrary choice when he gave his principal character the form of a toad, or that a stag, a pigeon, a lion would have done as well? The choice is based on the fact that the real toad’s face has a grotesque resemblance to a certain kind of human face–a rather apoplectic face with a fatuous grin on it. This is, no doubt, an accident in the sense that all the lines which suggest the resemblance are really there for quite different biological reasons. The ludicrous quasi-human expression is therefore changeless: the toad cannot stop grinning because its ‘grin’ is not really a grin at all. Looking at the creature we thus see, isolated and fixed, an aspect of human vanity in its funniest and most pardonable form; following that hint Grahame creates Mr. Toad–an ultra-Jonsonian ‘humour’ (On Stories, p. 13).

It might be expected that such a book would unfit us for the harshness of reality and send us back to our daily lives unsettled and discontented. I do not find that it does so. The happiness which it presents to us is in fact full of the simplest and most attainable things–food, sleep, exercise, friendship, the face of nature, even (in a sense) religion. That ‘simple but sustaining meal’ of ‘bacon and broad beans and a macaroni pudding’ which Rat gave to his friends has, I doubt not, helped down many a real nursery dinner. And in the same way the whole story, paradoxically enough, strengthens our relish for real life. This excursion into the preposterous sends us back with renewed pleasure to the actual (On Stories, p. 14. Incidentally, the paragraph just after this one contains the quote, “No book is really worth reading at the age of ten which is not equally (and often far more) worth reading at the age of fifty–except, of course, books of information.”)

The Hobbit escapes the danger of degenerating into mere plot and excitement by a very curious shift of tone. As the humour and homeliness of the early chapters, the sheer ‘Hobbitry’, dies away we pass insensibly into the world of epic. It is as if the battle of Toad Hall had become a serious heimsókn and Badger had begun to talk like Njal (On Stories, p. 18).

I never met The Wind in the Willows or the Bastable books till I was in my late twenties, and I do not think I have enjoyed them any the less on that account. I am almost inclined to set it up as a canon that a children’s story which is enjoyed only by children is a bad children’s story. The good ones last (On Stories, essay “On Three Ways of Writing For Children,” p. 33).

Consider Mr Badger… that extraordinary amalgam of high rank, coarse manners, gruffness, shyness and goodness. The child who has once met Mr Badger has ever afterwards, in its bones, a knowledge of humanity and of English social history which it could not get in any other way (On Stories, “On Three Ways of Writing For Children,” (p. 37).

If you subtract any one member, you have not simply reduced the family in number; you have inflicted an injury on its structure. Its unity is a unity of unlikes, almost of incommensurables…A dim perception of the richness inherent in this kind of unity is one reason why we enjoy a book like The Wind in the Willows; a trio such as Rat, Mole, and Badger symbolises the extreme differentiation of persons in harmonious union, which we know intuitively to be our true refuge both from solitude and from the collective (The Weight of Glory, essay “Membership,” p. 165).

That last one may have been the one I was searching for initially, because I remembered it had to do with unity among different kinds of people. But I had thought the quote I had in mind mentioned Toad specifically and had the word “ridiculous” in it, so maybe not.

I’ve been giving Toad a hard time, but some people do find him lovable and funny despite his foibles.

Now, for a few favorite quotes from the book itself:

He thought his happiness was complete when, as he meandered aimlessly along, suddenly he stood by the edge of a full-fed river. Never in his life had he seen a river before—this sleek, sinuous, full-bodied animal, chasing and chuckling, gripping things with a gurgle and leaving them with a laugh, to fling itself on fresh playmates that shook themselves free, and were caught and held again. All was a-shake and a-shiver—glints and gleams and sparkles, rustle and swirl, chatter and bubble.

They braced themselves for the last long stretch, the home stretch, the stretch that we know is bound to end, some time, in the rattle of the door-latch, the sudden firelight, and the sight of familiar things greeting us as long-absent travellers from far over-sea…

We others, who have long lost the more subtle of the physical senses, have not even proper terms to express an animal’s inter-communications with his surroundings, living or otherwise, and have only the word ‘smell,’ for instance, to include the whole range of delicate thrills which murmur in the nose of the animal night and day, summoning, warning, inciting, repelling. It was one of these mysterious fairy calls from out the void that suddenly reached Mole in the darkness, making him tingle through and through with its very familiar appeal, even while yet he could not clearly remember what it was. He stopped dead in his tracks, his nose searching hither and thither in its efforts to recapture the fine filament, the telegraphic current, that had so strongly moved him. A moment, and he had caught it again; and with it this time came recollection in fullest flood.

Home! That was what they meant, those caressing appeals, those soft touches wafted through the air, those invisible little hands pulling and tugging, all one way! Why, it must be quite close by him at that moment, his old home that he had hurriedly forsaken and never sought again, that day when he first found the river! And now it was sending out its scouts and its messengers to capture him and bring him in. Since his escape on that bright morning he had hardly given it a thought, so absorbed had he been in his new life, in all its pleasures, its surprises, its fresh and captivating experiences. Now, with a rush of old memories, how clearly it stood up before him, in the darkness! Shabby indeed, and small and poorly furnished, and yet his, the home he had made for himself, the home he had been so happy to get back to after his day’s work. And the home had been happy with him, too, evidently, and was missing him, and wanted him back, and was telling him so, through his nose, sorrowfully, reproachfully, but with no bitterness or anger; only with plaintive reminder that it was there, and wanted him.

The smell of that buttered toast simply spoke to Toad, and with no uncertain voice; talked of warm kitchens, of breakfasts on bright frosty mornings, of cozy parlour firesides on winter evenings, when one’s ramble was over and slippered feet were propped on the fender; of the purring of contented cats, and the twitter of sleepy canaries.

Take the Adventure, heed the call, now ere the irrevocable moment passes!’ ‘Tis but a banging of the door behind you, a blithesome step forward, and you are out of the old life and into the new! Then some day, some day long hence, jog home here if you will, when the cup has been drained and the play has been played, and sit down by your quiet river with a store of goodly memories for company.

Another theme in the book seems to be the contrast between going on adventures – usually fun and enlightening – and coming home, even more delightful.

I did not find a lot of biographical information about Grahame online or in the sketches in the books I looked at, but they all said this book grew out of stories he used to tell to his only son, Alastair. The son seemed to have a number of problems, and Toad was based on his personality. Sadly, Alastair took his own life as a young adult.

I listened to an audiobook version, and sampled several narrations before choosing the one I initially did. Unfortunately I had not listened far enough to catch the character voices, and that narrator’s voice for Mole was like fingernails on a chalkboard. Thankfully Audible allows returns, so I exchanged that one for this one narrated by Michael Hordern, and found it much more cozy and not at all grating.

WillowsAnd though I very much enjoyed the audiobook, I felt this book might best be enjoyed in a full-color illustrated version. I tried this Kindle one, but the pictures were very small. The only copy I could find in our nearby branch library just had line drawings by Ernest Shepard rather than color illustrations, but after I got over their not being in color, the drawings did enhance the story a lot. I had not thought of Toad as comical (though he is supposed to be) until seeing Shepherd’s illustrations, especially of Toad’s disguise as a washerwoman. Shepard includes a nice introduction about showing his drawings to Grahame.

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I hope you’ll forgive the length of this review. It’s more than a review, really: I like to try to note my thoughts and reactions for my own benefit and memory rather than just writing a shorter and more focused review like you’d find on Amazon or Goodreads, but that means some of it might be extraneous to my readers.

Except for the odd bit about Pan, I thoroughly enjoyed the book and understand why it is a classic. I am glad I finally read it and imagine I will turn to it again some time.

(Sharing at Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books)

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10 thoughts on “Book Review: The Wind in the Willows

  1. I never did read Wind in the Willows but I used to watch a video when my youngest was little. He loved it and wore the video out! I don’t remember much about it except that one of the voices was Roddy McDowall and something about a baquette. Have a great day.

  2. I can’t believe I missed this as a young person! I was probably in my 30s when I read it, and I thought it was brilliant! I loved the characters and the unifying river. It’s one of those classics that would be so wonderful to read out loud to children. Thank you for your review. I’m glad you liked it, too.

  3. I enjoyed this book. I didn’t read it as a child nor did I read it to my children. It was discovered when I started the hunt for classic books for the challenge I am doing. I enjoyed this review as well! Hope you have a beautiful day Barbara!

  4. Actually, the “odd bit about Pan” that you quoted reminds me a lot of Lewis and his fiction, showing rather than than telling us about the awe we might feel if we came before the Living God. I think it’s lovely picture of worship and an encounter with divine holiness.

    I love Wind in the Willows, and I even have a soft spot for Toad. He’s such a repeat offender, but then, so am I, to be honest.

    • That’s probably how I would have felt about it if I hadn’t read that Grahame wrote a previous book called Pagan Papers and if I hadn’t come across an article by a full-blown self-professed pagan embracing the whole book as an expression of paganism. I couldn’t find any information about how Grahame actually meant it.

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