Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Reading with my Kids: The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame

Source of book: I own a lovely hardback edition of this book.

The Wind in the Willows has long been one of my favorite books. Not one of my favorite childrens’ book, but one of my favorite books, period. I must admit, I really relished reading this with my kids for this month’s book at the Reading to Know Book Club.

My wife read this with our older kids some years back, but they were pretty young, and didn’t remember it that well. The boys probably weren’t old enough back then, so it was very new to them.

Kenneth Grahame was a man trapped in a life that he hated. After his mother died, his father abandoned him to be raised by relatives - although he apparently did have a pleasant childhood. He was on track to attend the university, but finances were lacking, and the relatives that did have money refused to step in. He got a job working at a bank in London. His heart was far from the city, though. In many ways, Grahame reminds me of my father-in-law, who never did embrace the life of a city lawyer, and is happiest when out in the wilderness, far from civilization.

A shy and reserved man, Grahame found an outlet in writing. Some early essays and stories were published in the 1890s, and he eventually gained some success, although not enough to completely support himself.

At age 40, Grahame married an “elderly” spinster (she was 38), a marriage which was disappointing to both of them. They had one child, and both poured their attention into him. Grahame told little Alistair a series of stories, which eventually became The Wind in the Willows.

In many ways, the book is quite obviously Grahame’s own escapist fantasy. He was too moral of a man to abandon his family like his father did. (After the book sold well, he was able to retire from the bank, and move to the country, thankfully.) Each of the characters represents a facet of his personality in a way. The irresponsible and spontaneous Mr. Toad that he wishes he could be. Mole, full of wonder, emotion, and loyalty. The carefree yet competent Water Rat. Eternal bachelor Badger. The book also is dominated by the two contrasting ideas which warred within Grahame’s own self: The lure of the open road and adventure, and the security and comfort of a well-beloved home.

Perhaps this is why I identified with this book as a child, young adult, and even now in my middle age. I am a bit of a homebody, but I also love the wilderness, the open road, and adventures. As long as I can come back to my home and my roots. I would also say that I identify with all of the characters except for Toad - although I love him as a character. I can have Badger’s prickly introversion, and I feel that sometimes I am called upon to be the one reliably responsible person. I am generally practical like Ratty; if you want to plan an excursion, you definitely want me to pack your picnic basket. But at heart, I think I am much like Mole. I prefer to be the second banana. I feel affection for home, and for friends and family. I am a romantic at heart.

The Wind in the Willows is prose, but only barely. It is about as poetic as writing can be without being actually poetry. It is so easy and pleasant to be caught up in the flow of the words and in the worlds that Grahame creates. I like reading aloud, and I think I am pretty good at it, even though my tongue is not the most nimble when I get going fast. However, it is very rare for me to feel like the world has disappeared and that all that I can hear is the words and sounds as they rush past in a tumult of beauty. (At least while reading prose to my kids. Reading poetry aloud, even if I am the only one listening, is a transcendent experience more often than not. Much like music as I experience it.) I found myself forgetting that I had listeners while we read this book. Like other masterpieces for young readers, it improves as one gets older.

Fortunately, my kids loved this book as well. They got the humor, and quickly picked up the word “conceited,” which is the only way to refer to Toad.

One of the parts they liked the best was the description of the picnic basket.

`What's inside it?' asked the Mole, wriggling with curiosity.

  `There's cold chicken inside it,' replied the Rat briefly; “coldtonguecoldhamcoldbeefpickledgherkinssaladfrenchrollscress-
san dwichespottedmeatgingerbeerlemonadesodawater -- -- '

  `O stop, stop,' cried the Mole in ecstacies: `This is too much!'

It was fun to run all the words together, but even better for my older three when they tried to read the long word themselves.

We also enjoyed the saga of the doormat. Mole and Rat have become lost in the Wild Wood during a snowstorm, and are trying to either find their way out, or find shelter. After discovering a door scraper, they poke around some more.

After some further toil his efforts were rewarded, and a very shabby door-mat lay exposed to view.

  `There, what did I tell you?' exclaimed the Rat in great triumph.

  `Absolutely nothing whatever,' replied the Mole, with perfect truthfulness. `Well now,' he went on, `you seem to have found another piece of domestic litter, done for and thrown away, and I suppose you're perfectly happy. Better go ahead and dance your jig round that if you've got to, and get it over, and then perhaps we can go on and not waste any more time over rubbish-heaps. Can we eat a doormat? or sleep under a door-mat? Or sit on a door-mat and sledge home over the snow on it, you exasperating rodent?'

  `Do -- you -- mean -- to -- say,' cried the excited Rat, `that this door-mat doesn't tell you anything?'

  `Really, Rat,' said the Mole, quite pettishly, `I think we'd had enough of this folly. Who ever heard of a door-mat telling anyone anything? They simply don't do it. They are not that sort at all. Door-mats know their place.'

If you can read this without laughing, you have a hard, cold heart indeed.

I also should note (since I am, after all, a lawyer) the farcical courtroom scene.

`To my mind,' observed the Chairman of the Bench of Magistrates cheerfully, `the only difficulty that presents itself in this otherwise very clear case is, how we can possibly make it sufficiently hot for the incorrigible rogue and hardened ruffian whom we see cowering in the dock before us. Let me see: he has been found guilty, on the clearest evidence, first, of stealing a valuable motor-car; secondly, of driving to the public danger; and, thirdly, of gross impertinence to the rural police. Mr. Clerk, will you tell us, please, what is the very stiffest penalty we can impose for each of these offences? Without, of course, giving the prisoner the benefit of any doubt, because there isn't any.'
  The Clerk scratched his nose with his pen. `Some people would consider,' he observed, `that stealing the motor-car was the worst offence; and so it is. But cheeking the police undoubtedly carries the severest penalty; and so it ought. Supposing you were to say twelve months for the theft, which is mild; and three years for the furious driving, which is lenient; and fifteen years for the cheek, which was pretty bad sort of cheek, judging by what we've heard from the witness-box, even if you only believe one-tenth part of what you heard, and I never believe more myself -- those figures, if added together correctly, tot up to nineteen years -- -- '
  `First-rate!' said the Chairman.
  ` -- So you had better make it a round twenty years and be on the safe side,' concluded the Clerk.
  `An excellent suggestion!' said the Chairman approvingly. `Prisoner! Pull yourself together and try and stand up straight. It's going to be twenty years for you this time. And mind, if you appear before us again, upon any charge whatever, we shall have to deal with you very seriously!'

Anyone who has seriously contemplated the Federal sentencing guidelines (or just about any corresponding state guidelines) knows that sometimes the penalties seem as silly as the ones described here. And as calculated to punish non-cooperation with authority figures as to prevent actual crime.

However, in Grahame’s fantasy world, foibles are forgiven, and sentences are hardly carried out with severity. Toad gets his comeuppance, and may even reform by the end of the book, but he is still shown love. He is forced to make restitution, of course, but his life isn’t ended by his past mistakes. And we all suspect, deep in our heart of hearts, that Toad will be off on another ludicrous lark before too much longer.

Sadly, Grahame’s life would never experience that happy ending. Alistair was found dead on a train track in what was almost certainly a suicide, although the authorities ruled it an accident to avoid embarrassing the family. Sadly for us, The Wind in the Willows would prove to be Grahame’s last significant work. Thus, this sunny and idyllic work has a slightly bitter tinge in light of its history.

I should specifically mention a few chapters which made a huge impression on me when I was young. Chapter VII, “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn” is one of those rare passages which capture the unworldly feeling one gets in nature sometimes. (I can think of a few: Standing in Richardson Grove in the California Redwoods as a child, with the sunbeams coming down through the lingering fog; watching an approaching thunderstorm in Arizona and then having the lightning all around; standing at the top of Yellowstone falls and feeling the roar in my very feet; viewing the high sierra peaks from the top of Half Dome; the murky half-darkness at 100 feet below the surface of the Pacific Ocean, watching 600 pound sea bass swim by. I could go on.) Grahame captures this wonder, and when the demi-god Pan makes his appearance, it comes as no surprise to those of us who have experienced the feeling. The myth comes from the feeling and describes it.

Second, Chapter IX, “Wayfarers All,” is an amazing musing on the power of the escapist fantasy. Even Ratty, who is so sensible most of the time, is nearly carried away. I know the feeling, and yet am glad that I too have a Mole inside of me that brings me back to reality and that grounding that I know I need.

So really, if you have never read this book, you need to. If you haven’t read it since you were a child, I guarantee you missed some things. Go back and re-read!

Note on other media:  Most are probably familiar with this book through Disney’s old cartoon (which also included some of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.) That one that inspired Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride at Disneyland. (One of my favorites as a kid. Even if Amanda and I did break down in hell when we went there while dating.) Disney took some pretty great liberties with the plot, and left out most of the great lines from the book. Not a bad movie, but don’t expect to know the book from the movie.

However, there was also another movie version, made by Cosgrove Hall in 1983, using stop motion. While slow paced and rather “British,” it is remarkably faithful to the book, and charming in its detail. You can also see it online:

1 comment:

  1. We are enormous fans of the Cosgrove Hall movie and all its sequels.
    This one is much darker, but fabulous: http://www.amazon.com/Toads-Wild-Ride-Roger-Ashton-Griffiths/dp/B0000DZTIM