Thursday, April 5, 2012

Classic British Fantasy: THE WIND IN THE WILLOWS by Kenneth Grahame

Grahame, Kenneth. The Wind in the Willows. Illustrated by Robin Lawrie. London: Puffin Books, 2008. ISBN 978-0-0141-32113-4. $4.99.

Reading Wind in the Willows is like a comfortable chat at home with friends: many times the reader vicariously sits down to a cozy hearth or home-cooked meal as we join Mole, Ratty, Mr. Badger and their companions in the simple events that mark the turning of the seasons along the river, and the not-so-simple escapades of the wealthy and reckless Toad of Toad Manor. Robin Lawrie’s whimsical, unpretentious sketches suit the book perfectly. Although in contemporary times the book is frequently abridged to just the plot that involves Toad’s infatuation with, and theft of, a motorcar, his subsequent imprisonment and escape, and the routing of the hooligan weasels from Toad Hall, the first two thirds of the book address life along the river. These chapters are written more reflectively and much more poetically than the Toad chapters, for example when Mole heads to the Wild Woods at the beginning of winter:
The country lay bare and entirely leafless around him, and he thought that he had never seen so far and so intimately into the insides of things as on that winter day when Nature was deep in her annual slumber and seemed to have kicked the clothes off. Copses, dells, quarries and all hidden places, which had been mysterious mines for exploration in leafy summer, now exposed themselves and their secrets pathetically, and seemed to ask him to overlook their shabby poverty for a while, till they could riot in rich masquerade as before, and trick and entice him with the old deceptions.
Grahame’s gentle, pastoral world is, from a more detached perspective, a gender-bending oddity. The sympathetic characters are all animals (humans are “other”), and all of the animal characters are male. No wives, no sisters, no daughters, no lovers, and no female friends enter their homes, their adventures, or their conversations. Not only that, but all the sympathetic male characters, with the exception of the selfish and irresponsible Toad, are domestic and kind. They appear to have no professions whatever (although they don’t suffer from want), and they busy themselves with food stores for the winter, pots and plates for tea, and spare beds and clothes to lend to their friends. They take comfort in the same domestic joys, and feel the same domestic restrictions, that usually are attributed to females. The driving action of almost every chapter is around the same conflict: the desire for freedom and adventure vs. the wisdom and contentment of “staying home.” With one notable exception (the framing story of Mole, which will be considered later in this review), every conflict is decided in favor of staying home. Even the best known story of Toad and the stolen motorcar ends with an implied moral lesson from Toad’s prison ordeal, his terrifying and humiliating escape, and his final restoration to Toad Hall, where he at least makes a show, however unconvincing, of contrition and future commitment to be content at home. Other stories are variations of the same moral: Mole sets out to visit the Wild Woods and encounters fierce cold and terrifying weasels until happily Ratty recues him, leads him to Mr. Badger’s safe domicile, and then back home to the riverbank. A little later, Otter’s son Portly disappears on a river exploration; Ratty and Mole find him and bring him safely home. In a chapter titled “Wayfarers All,” Ratty has an encounter with a seafaring rat and feels the stirrings of wanderlust, until his friend Mole, seeing that Ratty is ill and “not himself,” restores the Rat to home and hearth, safe and sound.

Grahame’s eloquent writing waxes almost as romantic in descriptions of longing for adventure as it does in depictions of the natural beauty surrounding our friends. Indeed, the adventure of Portly, told in the sequence “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn,” suggests that one coping mechanism for confining domesticity is escape into Nature in the transcendent sense, a spiritual adventure that takes place in another dimension while physical boundaries are maintained. After increasingly ethereal passages, such as “breathless and transfixed the Mole stopped rowing as the liquid run of that glad piping broke on him like a wave, caught him up, and possessed him utterly,” an enraptured Rat and Mole find Portly in the lap of the demigod Pan. Pan magically erases their memory of the incident so that they won’t forever find their ordinary lives disappointing, “lest the awful remembrance should remain and grow, and overshadow mirth and pleasure, and the great haunting memory should spoil all the after-lives of little animals helped out of difficulties, in order that they should be happy and lighthearted as before.”

A second commendable outlet for inappropriate wanderlust is suggested by Mole’s considerate rehabilitation of the infatuated Rat, when the Rat’s imagination still thrills to the tales of the seafaring rat: Mole leaves a pen and paper beside the stunned Rat, and later peeks in to see Ratty scribbling poetry. “It was a joy to the Mole to know that the cure had at least begun.” If poetry is an acceptable “cure” for wanderlust, suddenly our reading experience is reflected back to us like an image rippling on the river, as we read Grahame’s poetic tales from the comfort and safety of our own hearths.

The single exception to the better-at home-than-adventuring message happens in the framing story of Mole. The book opens with Mole poking his nose out of his dear underground home during spring-cleaning. Mole discovers the river, Ratty, and emancipation; he never returns to his home except for one brief, deeply sentimental visit. If we believe the protagonist of this story is the character who undergoes change, then it is Mole (since no one believes Toad’s contrition). Mole morphs from a timid, naïve, protégée of Ratty to a courageous and strategic fighter, a companion with initiative and confidence—for example, in his tactics to drive the weasels from Toad Hall. A reversal of roles is also apparent when Mole calms the over-excited Ratty after the seafaring rat episode. Perhaps, given that Grahame wrote the story for his son, Mole represents the child who will grow up to be a companion to his father-friend, Ratty, after having learned the proper boundaries of responsible adulthood: out of the mole hole, but not past the river. In which case, if Ratty represents the poet-father Grahame, the seafaring rat episode takes on a curious hue—but this is more tedious analysis than Grahame’s lyrical, friendly, comforting tale deserves. Better we readers just drift in the boat with Ratty and Mole, rock with the lapping river waves, and listen to the whispers through the water reeds and the wind in the willows.

Alexandra Boyer

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