Wednesday 27 July 2016

The Wind in the Willows

Kenneth Grahame, author of The Wind in the Willows, is buried in Holywell cemetery, at the back of what was St. Cross church (now deconsecrated) near-by the Inklings Charles Williams and Hugo Dyson. I saw his modest and all-but neglected grave when visiting, and was moved to tears by the (almost illegible) phrase in the inscription ' who passed the river...'.

The Wind in the Willows is perhaps the oddest truly great book in children's literature. If you try to read it straight through, it comes across as a sequence of heterogeneous and disconnected episodes - some low comedy, some prose poems. There is no real consistency about it, even the animals seem to change size for one part to another (most of the time Toad is toad-sized - but also drives a car and passes himself off as a washerwoman).

But it is a great book, so none of this really matters - our job is to locate in it what is great, not to quibble over its inconsistencies, which clearly don't matter.

This book is one which has touched the heart of many - including AA Milne, Tolkien, and Jack and Warnie Lewis. For a certain type of English person, it is impossible to row a boat on a river, or walk through a snowy wood, or sit by a real fire in a kitchen - without recalling Wind in the Willows. The characters of Mole, Rat, Badger and Toad are archetypes.

The sense of yearning for, but  never quite touching, never quite getting-inside, a rural paradise of beauty and bliss is stronger in this than in any other work - what CS Lewis called Sehnsucht or Joy.

Kenneth Grahame was a very successful banker in the city of London, and the book is a product of that almost desperate wish to escape such a life and place, which most of us have felt at some time, or most of the time, since the industrial revolution. In Grahame's case it led him to write some early examples of neo-paganism (for example in the Pagan Papers essay collection).

If you have not read it, you will need to chose among the many editions - the one I read had no illustrations but was covered in large, black ink blots (it had been my father's as a school boy) - but my two favourite illustrators are EH Shepherd and Robert Ingpen (see below).

The book follows a loose sequence - everybody has their own favourite section (mine are probably the initial river boating, the Wild Wood, and meeting Badger); and I am averse to some of the Toad sections especially his long farcical prison escape adventure - I usually skip these bits.

The various dramatic and animated versions - such as Toad of Toad Hall by AA Milne - are at a much lower level than the book, and I would not bother with them; although it makes an excellent audio-book when read aloud (by a male voice - Alan Bennet seems to be the favourite).

So, if you haven't already - give it a try. It may stay with you forever.

Robert Ingpen's illustration of Badger's kitchen from the lovely 2007 edition


Anonymous said...

I was back re-visiting Holywell Cemetery in October last, and had no idea of the past (at that point) seven years of St. Cross Church history - not, indeed, until this moment! I'm dumbfounded! - not that church closures are unusual, nowadays... (My last sense of it, in the early 1990s, was where 'Hugo' Dyson's widow, Margaret, went to Church.)

There was (still) a good guide map there in the Cemetery - which I had to keep running back to, to get my bearings (my memory of much of it was startlingly false).

I was scared off The Wind and the Willows as a child by the illustrations (which I would now probably thoroughly enjoy - Rackham's?) in a handsome edition I was given - and don't think I read it till I was at university (probably in good part urged by Lewis's praise). Enjoying how you have, I don't think I can write accurately about it - about my sense of it; it is wonderful, and dear, in many ways (and I join in basically urging everyone to try it)... and yet, maybe it's that 'neo-paganism' (much as in some ways I deeply love "The Piper at the Gates of Dawn"), there is something, or are things, terribly false, and terribly sad about it. (As I have felt the death of Alastair Grahame as crushingly sad ever since I knew of it.)

David Llewellyn Dodds

Bruce Charlton said...

@David - Thanks for that.

Yes, it is a book which touches deeply and in a complex way; its motivations seem raw and visceral, almost agonising; despite the idyllic and pastoral form.

It is a feeling I know well in myself - a wanting to be inside and absorbed by those things I most love - yet knowing that it is impossible and cannot be so - in this life.

From this I have been largely rescued by Christianity - in recent years, so it is no longer 'the final word' on existence - but the feeling often recurs, and without Christianity (as for KG) it *is* the final word, and therefore joy is also agony.

David Stanley said...

The Piper at the Gates of Dawn is almost unbearably moving, possibly too much for some yet it inspired all kinds of hippy nonsense. Like THS and LOTR I read it every few years. Is there anything else like this?

Bruce Charlton said...

@David - There is nothing else wike WitW. Perhaps the closest attempt would be The Little Grey Men by BB - but I tried to re-read this recently and it didn't have the old magic I felt when I read it first; but it may be worth a try.

But there are several other fantasy-type books I have been re-reading since childhood/ teen years. e.g. the five books called the Chronicles of Prydain, beginning with The Book of Three - by Lloyd Alexander. The Minnipins (aka The Gammage Cup) by Carol Kendall. The Moon of Gomrath by Alan Garner. I found all of these in my teens when searching for something like Tolkien and they have all become favourites.

Adam G. said...

One of my most cherished--my most sacred--reads. Sometimes I skip the Piper simply because I cannot bear it and am unfit for society for the rest of the day when I do.

Boy-like, I still like the part I liked the most when I was a kid--the eucatastrophe where Badger and Ratty and Mole and, yes, even Toad, set the weasels and the stoats on their ear. But also the descriptions simply of floating down the river. I just now realized that my lifelong ambition of living on the banks of a river probably came from Grahame. But now that I think it, it seems obviously so.

Everything you say, @BC, in your reply to David, could be taken straight from my own soul.

Btw, my own favorite illustrator is David Stone, simply because that is the version I had when I was young. His big set piece illustration of the retaking of Toad Hall is as marvelous as anything by Rackham or Wyeth.

Adam G. said...

By the way, I make no guarantees that David Stone's illustrations are actually that good. I have been reading a different version since I grew up. My childhood version is lost to childhood.

Mercurius Aulicus said...

To a Woman Reading The Wind in the Willows
(by Peter Kocan)

Peeping through the door an inch ajar,

I see you curled-up with your favourite book.

I wonder where precisely now you are,

What green, familiar, friendly path you took—

Ignore them, the neurotic and the driven,

Who’d say your book’s a trivial escape.

What harm if an imagined land is given

A simpler ethos and a gentler shape?

What fitter story could a grown-up find

Than one which makes uncomplicated sense

Of things like being brave and being kind,

Of virtues so important and immense?

And just as stories help the young rehearse

Their courage at the level they can bear,

They do the same for us—except we’ve worse

Than boogies in the shadow of the stair.

Our Wildwood is truly dark and deep,

And no adult who knows it will deride

The fact you find it comforting to keep

Ratty and Mole and Badger at your side.

Bruce Charlton said...

@MA - Nice verse.