Some Books: Kenneth Grahame’s ‘The Wind in the Willows’

The copy I have owned for near sixty years

It is a very old book, and mine is a very old copy, the oldest book I own that was a gift to me by my parents, a very long time ago. And it is a very long time since I last read it, but I have never allowed it out of my possession, and never will.
I’ve told myself at various times that I would look it out and re-read it and then never done so. A couple of weeks ago, I determinedly went through every bookcase bag and storage crates looking for it, growing increasingly desperate as it refused to appear, knowing I would be heartbroken if, for any reason, I no longer possessed it. The relief when I found it, in the last and most-buried box to be investigated.
The Wind in the Willows is a classic. It’s a children’s book and it has been so for almost 120 years but I bet the number of adults who have read it, with the same degree of pleasure and satisfaction as it’s supposed audience exceeds the children. Nowadays, and for decades, I suspect that the young audience it is meant for know it more from the adaptations and animations and the flammery grown up around it. Not that it matters: even those who have never read the book know its contents, absorbed by osmosis out of Jung’s collective unconsciousness.
But even with this status, there is nothing to compare with reading the book, with sinking in to its lost, Edwardian world. We know everyone without introduction, the fretful, sturdy, lower middle-class Mole, developing his place in a new world he never suspected existed, the bright young thing, the Water Rat, spirit of the Riverbank, messing about in boats, the flower that will never be cut down by a War coming towards the horizon, the eccentric old Colonel and recluse, the Badger, abstaining from Society but ever ready to preserve the stratified world these creatures inhabit.
And the Toad; rich, boastful, irrepressible, irresponsible, foolishness and vanity and self-indulgence rolled up into one nevertheless endearing little bundle. You’d run a mile rather than get involved with a real-life Toad, but in the book the loyalty shown him by his friends, their willingness to go one more time to the well with him, convinces you more than any of Toad’s own actions that he has qualities that make him worth sticking with.
What I most noticed about the book, this long after, is its rich and powerful love for the countryside. Grahame fills long paragraph after long paragraph with detailed descriptions of sights and sounds and scents, picturing these things so intensely that we are drawn into the world he depicts, understanding its meaning to these little animals for whom it is their natural, unconsidered but deeply loved world.
Then, of course, there is ‘The Piper at the Gates of Dawn’. I’ve written before about this part of the book, chapter 7, and a sneaky, underhanded attempt to get young readers to avoid it. This time on, I’d also make the point that when I was a young reader, I read avidly. Every book I read, I wanted to read all of it, absorb it all. I simply could not have left out an entire chapter, I would have been eaten up with curiosity as to what I was missing. I don’t think that makes me unique. That’s another condemnation of that stupid attitude.
I said then, and I have little need to reword it, that:

“I would hope that for most of you who read this there would be no need to explain ‘The Piper at the Gates of Dawn’ but for those of you who have never read a book that is now over a century old and may be regarded as too old-fashioned, there may be a need. The chapter does not form part of the main narrative strand concerning Toad, and indeed he doesn’t appear in these pages. Simply told, Otter is concerned about his young pup, Portly, who has gone missing. The Water Rat and the Mole set off in Ratty’s boat to hunt for the missing child: they fall into a mystical experience in which they find Portly safe and secure, sleeping at the feet of the God Pan, whom they regard with awe, love and fear. Lest their minds be troubled afterwards, Pan removes their memories of this encounter.
Everything about this chapter is on a level higher than elsewhere in the book. Though this is Pan’s only incursion into The Wind in the Willows, he was a common figure in other of Grahame’s work, and there is learned discussion as to whether the author worshipped Pan.
If he did not, he was able to understand those who did, and place that worship into the heads and hearts of two small, and in truth vulnerable creatures, and through them communicate that experience to readers, even those under the age of ten. I always found “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn” a strange experience, something where the book went into waters deeper than elsewhere, waters where it was impossible to tread for any length of time. The chapter is essential to the book, but in a way that I recognised even at so young an age, it is not of it.”

The arc of the story is the familiar one we have known for so long, the one that even people who have never read the book recognise. The spine of the story is the Toad, and his obsession with the new-fangled motor cars that were only beginning to infiltrate the countryside.From tits first appearance, disturbing the horse and destroying Toad’s once-prized caravan, it dominates his thoughts and actions in a way nothing else does. The smashes! The intervention. The escape. The theft. The trial. The Prison. The great escape. The impersonation of the washerwoman, the encounter with the bargee woman. All follow on one another with both the inevitability of consequence and the indifference of a dream.
Toad’s actions are an affront to the natural order of the countryside and of the Edwardian Society of its era, that last golden era that has never been recovered.
And the episodes Grahame chooses to insert between instalments: Mole’s defiant and fearful trip into the Wild Wood to find the Badger. The Piper at the Gates of Dawn. The Water Rat’s dream of the Sea. Each in its place and a place for everything. Of course, the entire book refutes a social conscience but even a social conscience can relax, and draw itself a glass of beer, or a plate of cucumber sandwiches and replay a world like this and in that corner that attaches to Jung’s Collective Unconsciousness, live in this dream for the time it takes to read this book.
Toad’s return signals the endgame. The Weasels, the Stoats and the Ferrets have seized Toad Hall. The proletariat has risen against the established order. Of course, being the proletariat, they cannot stand up in the face of their rightful masters, even when there are only four of them, because this is the true Order. It wasn’t like that in Russia, but when did the English proletariat ever forget the chains in their heads?
But begone with Social Realism! We have all the Realism we want here on the Riverbank, in this dream and fantasy of long ago. We do not have to take it into ourselves because we are only ever visitors to a lost land. Anarchy is overthrown. Toad promises to reform (but he won’t, we all know that).
And in a strangely perfunctory passage, the story ends, the Riverbank frozen in time, preserved in aspic.
This is a beautiful book, and a precious one. For all that Dixon Scott produced a pleasant pastiche, neither he, nor especially William Harwood nor any of those who seek to let themselves in to Kenneth Grahame’s world will ever succeed in doing so, because we cannot be of that time and that understanding. In a way, The Wind in the Willows is no longer a book but a piece of tangible magic, a piece of a star fallen to Earth. Reading it, I am both myself and that little boy of so long ago, receiving a gift from loving Mother and Father and sinking into it the way the best of books absorb you. It is a very small world depicted in here, but it has room for every one of us.

7 thoughts on “Some Books: Kenneth Grahame’s ‘The Wind in the Willows’

  1. I also love this book. When I first read it, I was admittedly confused by Chapter 7. It went over my 7 year old head. But man, I still vividly remember entire chapters, from the hams in Badger’s residence to the water rat and mole going out on the river together. Like Ivan Turgenev, Grahame was simply a master of the craft. True magic, just like you said.

    Also, it makes the Thames valley sound like heaven. “The Wind in the Willows” is basically the British equivalent of a Ghibli movie in book form.

  2. I was too young at first to understand more than that ‘Piper at the Gates of Dawn’ – has there ever been so wonderful a title? – was part of something different from the rest of the book. It’s a very long time, maybe as much as three decades since last I read the book but what an uttery wonderful thing it is. As for the Thames Valley, as a Northerner my vision of Heavem is more oriented to the hills and mountains of my half of the country, but you can’t resist Grahame in this book.

  3. What you wrote above about “…even those who have never read the book know its contents, absorbed by osmosis out of Jung’s collective unconsciousness…” is me. Never read the book but between comics, TV, movies et al it sometimes feels like I have. Maybe I will now (you make it sound very good) but I suspect there’s no replacement for first reading it as a child then growing up with it.

    A very good piece of writing, Martin.

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