The Wind in the Willows, by Kenneth Grahame, was published in 1908, and has been in print ever since. I’m not sure exactly why this book, a collection of loosely-tied together stories about a Water-Rat, a Mole, a Badger, and a Toad, was held with such affection by me, although the popularity of the book tells me I am not alone. I was very curious to read it again, to see if I could tease out the reason why it was one of those books I read and re-read numerous times.
And I’m not sure I can answer that! I didn’t finish the book with a sense of wonder and enchantment, which is the emotions that are stirred up by the memory of reading it as a child. But I did enjoy it, just the same. And I came away from it with a few thoughts.
First of all, the descriptions in the book, especially in the first chapter, are lovely. I can appreciate them now with a writer’s eye, much more than I did at the time. We are introduced to Mole, diligently cleaning his underground home, the patient and kind Rat, and the landscape, which is described with great beauty and affection. The reader is immediately drawn into this world. I love the picture of Mole getting fed up with cleaning and abandoning it to go to the surface and delight in the spring-time beauty he finds there. Soon he stumbles across the River, and here is Graham’s beautiful picture of what he sees:
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. The Mole was bewitched, entranced, fascinated. By the side of the river he trotted as one trots, when very small, by the side of a man who holds one spellbound by exciting stories; and when tired at last, he sat on the bank, while the river still chattered on to him, a babbling procession of the best stories in the world, sent from the heart of the earth to be told at last to the insatiable sea.
Grahame himself loved rivers and the natural world, according to the preface by Susan Cooper in the edition I read, and you can tell. He lived at the turn of the century, when the green England of his boyhood was being caught up in the Industrial Revolution and the introduction of the motor car, and his writing captures some of the nostalgia he felt for the peaceful days of yore. In fact he wrote a collection of stories which were published in 1895 called The Golden Age, and it was this book that made his name as an author.
When Grahame was nine years old he was sent to a boarding school in Oxford, and was very happy there. His preference would have been to go to University in Oxford and live and work beside the River Thames there. Sadly, his rather severe guardians (his mother had died when he was five and his alcoholic father gave him up to the care of his relatives) sent him to live and work in London instead, away from his beloved peaceful countryside.
It wasn’t until 30 years later, in 1906, that he was able to move back to the countryside, along with his wife and sickly child, Alastair. The Wind in the Willows first arose as stories told to his fretting son in 1904, and was completed after his move to the country. It was originally published without illustrations, but various illustrators have illustrated it since.
Secondly, In this re-visit of one of my favourite childhood books I discovered that the parts I Ioved and the parts I didn’t enjoy as a child were still the same today.
What didn’t I like then, and now? In a word, Toad. I can remember not liking this character as a child. This boasting, self-centred, pompous, selfish and pleasure-loving animal wasn’t my cup of tea as a child and still isn’t today. Although I think I have a little more sense of humour about him now then I did then, which you would have thought would be the other way around!
Interestingly enough, the “Toad” parts of the book were the ones Kenneth Grahame wrote first in his initial compilation of the stories he told to his son. The parts about Mole and Rat and Badger came later, after he moved back to the countryside. Thank goodness, I say!
But the my two favourite chapters (well, three, if you include the first one) remained the same, the ones entitled Dulce Domum, and The Piper at the Gates of Dawn.
In Dulce Domun (Latin for “Sweetly at Home”) Mole and Rat are returning to Rat’s riverside home, where Mole has been staying since leaving his own home months before. It is mid-December, and chilly, the night closing in and a storm approaching. They are hurrying across the countryside when Mole is suddenly stopped short by a familiar smell, the scent of his old home.
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 a plaintive reminder that it was there, and wanted him.
Anyone who wanders for any length of time can relate to this, this sudden longing for home, which can catch you quite unawares. Mole tries to tell Rat that he wants to stop, to find his home, but Rat doesn’t hear him, and presses ahead, eager to get out of the approaching snow and back to his own riverside home. And dear Mole loyally follows his friend, even though his heart is nearly breaking at leaving his home behind. But his grief is too much, and Rat, noticing Mole’s lagging steps, finally sits him down for a rest, prompting Mole to finally burst out in sobs. Astonished, Rat asks Mole what is the matter.
….it was my own little home – and I was fond of it – and I went away and forgot all about it – and then I smelt it suddenly – on the road, when I called and you wouldn’t listen. Rat – and everything came back to me with a rush – and I wanted it! – oh dear, o dear! and when you wouldn’t turn back, Ratty – and I had to leave it, though I was smelling it all the time – I thought my heart would break. – We might have gone and had one look at it, Ratty – only one look – it was close by – but you wouldn’t turn back, Ratty, you wouldn’t turn back!
Poor Rat, faced with this paroxysm of grief, pats Mole on the arm and assures them that they will turn back, and find Mole’s home, even though it is now full dark, and cold. And so they do, and Mole finds the scent again, and at last they arrive at Mole’s underground home, named Mole End. The place is in disarray and dusty after Mole’s long absence, prompting great despair by Mole once more, but Rat bustles around, cleaning the place up and Mole, heartened, joins him. Soon a nice fire is laid on the hearth, and supper – bits and pieces from Mole’s larder – is put together, and they are just about to settle in when they hear noises from the door. Lo and behold a group of field mice are there, to do their yearly carolling.
Oh, how I love this chapter. It always brought tears to my eyes as a child, and it did again! The longing for home, the loyal Mole following Rat even though he wants nothing more than to turn aside, the equally loyal Rat insisting they turn back to find Mole’s home, and the friendship shown by Rat as he fixes up the place, complimenting Mole all the time on his snug little house, settling Mole’s torn heart. And to top it off, the lovely little field mice, come a-carolling. This is Christmas at it’s finest, beautiful gifts of friendship given and received. I admit that I never have participated in carolling without thinking of this chapter, and the little field-mice singing their hearts out.
The Piper at the Gates of Dawn begins on an ominous note, with Mole and Rat, looking for their friend Otter’s son Portly, who has gone missing. They begin at night, while it is still dark, both of them wanting to get going on the search as soon as possible. The moon rises, lending her light, then falls, and then dawn approaches Suddenly Rat hears a song, “The merry bubble and joy, the thin, clear, happy call of the distant piping!” Entranced, he directs Mole to follow it, and soon Mole hears it too, and falls equally under its spell.
Grahame’s descriptions of the burgeoning dawn as they follow the song bring the reader right into the enchantment with Mole and Rat. Eventually they come to a small island, and mooring the boat, they go ashore.
Then suddenly the Mole felt a great Awe fall upon him, and 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.
That presence is Pan, the god of the animals, and sleeping at his feet is the missing Portly.
This chapter, with its beautiful descriptions and its flawless depiction of the experience of the sacred and numinous, quoted above, was probably the first description I had read of an experience of the holy. Many years later I read C.S. Lewis’ The Weight of Glory, and he summed up exactly the impact this passage had on me:
Apparently, then, our lifelong nostalgia, our longing to be reunited with something in the universe from which we now feel cut off, to be on the inside of some door which we have always seen from the outside, is no mere neurotic fancy, but the truest index of our real situation. And to be at last summoned inside would be both glory and honour beyond all our merits and also the healing of that old ache…At present we are on the outside of the world, the wrong side of the door.
My final discovery about The Wind in the Willows as I read it again is that I now realize it was an introduction to me to the types of books I turned to again and again in my childhood years – novels about animals, written from their points of view. I couldn’t get enough of these books, and I devoured them: Black Beauty, Charlotte’s Web, White Fang, The Call of the Wild, and many, many more.
My love of these books all trace back to these stories of a Mole and a Rat, their friendship and adventures, and the idyllic countryside that they call home.