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

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Classic British Fantasy: ALICE IN WONDERLAND by Lewis Carroll

Carroll, Lewis. Alice in Wonderland. Illustrated by John Tenniel. USA: CrabCube, Inc, 2010 (via Amazon's CreateSpace). ISBN: 9781453794777. $5.99.

Are there any English-speaking readers who are not acquainted with the adventures of mid-19th century Alice, the little girl who falls asleep only to follow a waist-coated, watch-carrying White Rabbit down down down the rabbit hole to a wonderland replete with substances that make her large or small, pithy platitudes that "do not come out the same as they used to do," talking animals, a Mad Hatter, Mock Turtle, enigmatic Chesire Cat (whose smile lingers after the Cat has disappeared), sharp-chinned Duchess, muddled King and enraged Queen of Hearts? First published as Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in 1865 by Oxford mathematician Charles Lutwidge Dodgson under the pseudonym Lewis Carroll, this charming and topsy-turvy tale, like the mouse’s tail, has wound and bent its way into the hearts of multiple generations.

“What use is a book,” thinks Alice, peeping at her sister’s book as they sit on the grassy bank, “without pictures or conversation?” The very affordable CrabCube 2010 reprint of Lewis’s original publication will disappoint in neither. John Tenniel’s enchanting illustrations are faithfully reproduced, and the conversations interrupt one another in plentitude: when not engaged in chatty absurdities, defiant contradictions and poetic recitations with the fantastic beings of Wonderland, the irrepressible Alice has conversations with herself (interspersed with the narrator’s parenthetical conversational asides to the reader), as for example, when she falls down the rabbit hole:
"I wonder how many miles I’ve fallen by this time?" she said aloud. "I must be getting somewhere near the centre of the earth. Let me see: that would be four thousand miles down, I think"— (for, you see, Alice had learnt several things of this sort in her lessons in the schoolroom, and though this was not a very good opportunity for showing off her knowledge, as there was no one to listen to her, still it was good practice to say it over).
Frequently lauded for its humor, literary nonsense, word play, inverted logic and fantasy, Alice in Wonderland can also be read as a social commentary on the tyranny of entering adulthood in class-conscious Victorian England. A timid but inquisitive Alice struggles for the proper grown-up social response, be it to an invitation to wine when there is nothing but tea (“‘then it wasn’t very civil of you to offer it,’ said Alice angrily”), or to a Duchess that violently tosses her baby while singing (“the poor thing howled so, that Alice could hardly hear the words”), events which are treated with equal dismay by the precocious, somewhat snobby little girl destined to mature into an upper-class protector of British culture. The naughtiness and logical defiance of the creatures of Wonderland must have delighted the repressed children for whom the story was written, the Liddell and Macdonald children among them, but the naughtiness stays within safe perimeters, and ultimately Alice dismisses all the aberrant creatures with adult aplomb, pointing out each logical error of the king and queen in the final trial scene, and concluding, “‘Who cares for you? You’re nothing but a pack of cards!’” The appeal of Lewis’s subversive wit delights even in our permissive age. Enjoy your dip into Wonderland once more.

Reviewed by Alexandra Boyer

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Classic British Fantasy: MATILDA by Roald Dahl

Dahl, Roald. Matilda. Illustrated by Quentin Blake. New York: Puffin Books, 2007. ISBN 978-0-14-241037. $6.99. 

Warning: Do not pick up this book for the first time from your bedside table at night—you will not sleep until you have finished the last page.

The engaging Matilda is a much neglected second child of despicable parents, the Wormwoods, who think of her “like a scab,” and who “looked forward enormously to the time when they could pick their little daughter off and flick her away, preferably into the next country or even further than that.” Before the reader is allowed to bleed too much heart for this poor little girl, the author reveals that she is outrageously, impossibly intelligent—teaching herself to read before she is three, doing difficult arithmetic in her head before she is five, and so on. Thus, Matilda comes into an extremely hard life with some very impressive equipment—and that sets up the first conflict of the book, as Matilda strategizes her way to happiness in spite of oppressive circumstances. The second, related, conflict is introduced when Matilda begins school under the tutelage of the lovable Miss Honey, who, along with all the school children, are brutalized by the powerful, nasty headmistress, Miss Trunchbull. Matilda’s guiding motivation to create her own happiness extends to the happiness of her friends and her dear teacher: she applies her intelligence resourcefully, undaunted.

The reader does not begrudge Matilda her astounding brilliance. Like the librarian who observes in silent amazement the neglected 4-year-old absorbed in Great Expectations, or the sweet Miss Honey, who inwardly thrills to a child prodigy, the reader likes this quiet child of good will and bright ideas. Even other children at school like her—perhaps because Matilda accepts herself without doubt or conceit. She just gets on with it. Quentin Blake’s perky, whimsical sketches convey a Jules Feiffer-like intensity coupled with lightness of spirit that suit Matilda perfectly.

Why is this book so good? It’s not “beautifully written;” it doesn’t parse out profundities or soul-searing pathos (although a plot with clear-cut bad guys who get their comeuppance is certainly gratifying these days). What is it that makes the reader immediately want to lend it to a friend, buy it for a niece? I think it has to be Matilda’s wonderful resiliency. In every adverse situation, she wastes no time feeling sorry for herself, but immediately begins to strategize her way to a better, happier life. She is not a cloying goodie-good little girl (for example, revengeful pranks on her father make her happy), but she is basically kind, lovable, and appealing, as well as super intelligent. Above all, she is confident and guilt-free. Her unassuming, can-do attitude permeates the world of the book, a world where a child can be swung around by the hair and thrown over the playground fence into a playing field, bounce three times, and then get up cartoon-like with a dazed shake of the head, pained but not damaged. Matilda and her friends, like trodden grass, spring back green and growing and alive no matter what. They might quake in terror when Miss Trunchbull looms over them with malice in her eye and a riding crop in her hand, but in terms of human spirit, they are irrepressible.

I finished the last page with a smile—perhaps a slightly patronizing smile—after eagerly anticipating the completely predictable ending. Yet the next morning, Matilda had seeped into my spirit with typical disregard for any of my pretence at grown-up superiority: I caught myself reviewing my long-shot hopes and dreams, and thinking “Why not?”

Alexandra Boyer