Friday, October 04, 2013

Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows (1908)

Another book that I'd never read, but only had read to me as a young'un.  Fixed that!

I suppose I don't need to tell you that The Wind in the Willows is thoroughly charming, but what's interesting to me is the way the book almost seems to be actively trying to prevent you from visualizing its world in any kind of coherent way.  So you have animals: yes, they're talking animals who wear clothes and have houses and stuff, but a number of times Grahame generalizes about animal as opposed to human behavior, and the animal world seems to exist on a separate level from the human one.  Badger notes that the Wild Wood used to be occupied by humans, but they come, they go, who knows what they do?  And yet, when Toad steals a car and is tried and imprisoned, it's all by humans.  The jailer's daughter who takes pity on him does so because she likes animals (but refrains from telling him that she likes them as pets, on the basis that he would get upset).  The novel sort of mimics human social structures, but no one seems to do any kind of work--Toad is rich just 'cause.  When Mole's talking about his bric-a-brac, he talks about how he really had to save to get some of it.  Save what?  With what?  And don't let's forget that not only do the animals celebrate Christmas, in an explicitly Christian way, but they also worship the god Pan--who makes an actual appearance.  It's bananas, people!  It's a testament to how good the book is that these things don't really bother you in any significant way.  You can just accept them.

Beyond Grahame's powerful descriptive style, I think the main reason for the book's primal appeal is its small-c conservative nature.  It's not an exaggeration to say that every episode in the novel has to do with getting home and being safe and secure and comfortable: Mole and Rat find safety in Badger's house after being caught in a blizzard.  Mole regains his home, the perceived loss of which had precipitated an existential crisis, and has a jolly, festive holiday (an ancient tradition!) there.  In the rich and strange "Piper at the Gates of Dawn" episode, everyone just wants Otter's son to come home safe and happy.  What's wrong with Rat going off with the Sea Rat to see the world?  He would be abandoning his home and everything he knows, that's what.  That would be fundamentally wrong in the novel's reckoning (you could, I suppose, make a case that the Sea Rat is just a manifestation of Rat's restlessness rather than an actual character, but given the amount of stuff he knows that Rat couldn't possibly have, I'm not buying it.  In any case, the point remains approximately the same).  And what, after all, is Toad's entire story about but coming to recognize the importance of home as opposed to dilettanting around all the time?  The fact that Toad Hall has been taken over by outsiders is a huge deal, as it represents the most central threat possible to what Grahame values most.  As I understand it, he led kind of a tragic life, and you can easily see in The Wind in the Willows an effort at a sort of consolation.  I hope it helped.  The book is premodern in the best way possible, and if somehow you've managed to avoid it up 'til now, I recommend it.  Disney's Mister Toad's Wild Ride is good, but it's really not at all the same thing.

(Are William Horwood's sequels any good?  Hard to imagine them being on Grahame's level, but who knows?  The wildly unreliable amazon reviews are mostly positive.)


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