The Wind in the Willows

Monday, October 26, 2009



1908, Kenneth Grahame


The above is what people often remember from The Wind in the Willows.  I blame Disney. 

For a book that everyone seems to vaguely remember, there's very little in the way of plot.  Toad's story is a plot, misadventure piling on misadventure, thrown in jail, escape, battle, the final defeat of vanity.  The other chapters, which I find much more interesting, are almost a series of sketches exploring the significance of place: Dwelling Places, Wild Places, Play Places, Holy Places, Exotic Places.

The lyrical descriptions leave no doubt in my mind of the affection Grahame held for the countryside where he lived.  In the first chapter, Mole meets the River:

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. - Chapter 1: "The River Bank"

The use of animal characters, in this case, allows them to be closer to the land they live on, and in, and with.  Although it's not an action-packed book to read, it is a beautiful one.

Personally I have a soft spot for the Rankin-Bass animated adaptation, even though the voice acting is far superior to the animation, and the voice acting is just okay.  Mostly I loved it growing up because unlike the Disney animated version, the Rankin Bass spends time with two of my favorite chapters: The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, and Wayfarers All, although it awkwardly combines them into one section.  At some point I need to find time to watch some of the British film and TV versions for comparison.

Both chapters in question are highly mystical in nature.  Me being me, an adventure in which the main characters meet Pan won my interest from a young age, and in Wayfarers All, Rat is possessed somewhat literally by the spirit of wanderlust.

A quick search of the Project Gutenberg text confirms a suspicion of mine:  Of five uses of the word “willow”, four are in the chapter The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, and similarly almost all references to wind in the reeds.  (The actual title phrase is not in the text.)  So I think it isn't unreasonable to think that Grahame considered it the heart of the book.  Especially given the cover of the first edition.

I like the chapter.  I like that it's just there, not foreshadowed, doesn't come up again, just standing alone.

5 Stars - An Awesome Book


To clarify the differences between the books in this cycle, I'm going to run through some of the characteristics of the anthropomorphic society in each book. 
Here we go.

Overall: Unclear relationship toward humans.
Animals probably wear clothes and do talk to humans.  (Not all animals, though.  Stray dog and barge horse seem to be mute, some animals are pets) 

Size: Unclear.
The characters can drive cars, and may be mistaken for human.  On the other hand, the Sea Rat seems to easily stow away on ships, which implies a certain smallness.  Most film adaptations seem to split the difference, and make the characters equivalent to rather short humans.  The pictures in an early edition imply normal animal size.  So... yeah.

Law and Order: Partially subject to human law.  Maybe.
Toad is sentenced to prison time by humans, but does not fear recapture after he gets back into animal territory...
No stated repercussions for either the Weasels squatting in Toad Hall, or when the main group attacks them (with staffs and pistols) and drives them away.

Own language: Not implied.
Can communicate across species, and with humans.

Own religion: Yes.
Pan is presented as the protector and secret champion of animalkind.  He is worshiped by them, albeit semi-unconsciously.

Other Notes:
Human class structure.  The main characters are British gentlemen, appear to be upper-class, have plenty of leisure and money.

Level of Anthropomorphism:  Very High
Clothing, furniture, pistols, pipes, cars, letters, etc.  Does not seem like a put-on to pretend to be human.  I get the feeling the characters would feel naked without clothing, but it may be the influence of the illustrations of the edition I had and the animated version I watched.


This is the first time I've read this book in a while.  It's not quite as brilliant throughout as I wanted it to be, but there's a lot of pleasure to be had.

"And you, you will come too, young brother; for the days pass, and never return, and the South still waits for you. 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. You can easily overtake me on the road, for you are young, and I am ageing and go softly. I will linger, and look back; and at last I will surely see you coming, eager and light-hearted, with all the South in your face!" - The Sea Rat, Chapter 9: "Wayfarers All"

3 comments:

Shiraz Biggie said...

Disney did however give us Mr. Toad's Wild Ride, which though sadly is only at Disneyland these days, did feature a ride through HELL. Even as a seven year old I thought that was fantastic.

I never appreciated this one as a child. Perhaps at some point I should try again.

TwoBibliomaniacs said...

Thanks for commenting on my review! I love the points you make here and I definitely agree the novel is beautifully written. I’ve never seen the movie but I’ll be sure to keep my kids clear of the Disney adaptation (at least until they’ve read the book).

Lindsay said...

Oh, the Disney version isn't terrible for what it is, but it's shortened to about half an hour, mostly concerns Toad, and all the other characters are not great interpretations, in my opinion. (It was released with another short based on The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, and called "The Adventures of Icabod and Mr. Toad," so it's not really a surprise.)

Post a Comment