One does not argue about The Wind in the Willows. The young man gives it to the girl with whom he is in love, and, if she does not like it, asks her to return his letters. The older man tries it on his nephew, and alters his will accordingly. The book is a test of character.- A. A. Milne
The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame (first published in 1908) is described by A. A. Milne as "a Household Book: a book which everybody in the household loves, and quotes continually." And he's right: a library cannot be complete without The Wind in the Willows, and, furthermore, it is one of the few, if not the only book I cannot understand people not liking. I can forgive people not liking Zola: I admit he's a bit grim at times ("a bit?", the haters ask!). Virginia Woolf is not for everyone, Samuel Richardson can go on a bit, and I don't mind at all if you prefer Charlotte or Emily Brontë to Anne, or if you prefer Jane Austen to all. But not Wind in the Willows. At the very least, one has to like it.
It is the perfect book for this time of year, when spring is in the air but winter is still fresh in our minds. The opening lines:
The Mole had been working very hard all the morning, spring-cleaning his little home. First with brooms, then with dusters; then on ladders and steps and chairs, with a brush and a pail of whitewash; till he had dust in his throat and eyes, and splashes of whitewash all over his black fur, and an aching back and weary arms. Spring was moving in the air above and in the earth below and around him, penetrating even his dark and lowly little house with its spirit of divine discontent and longing.
|Mole looking for home (Thames Television|
"... divine discontent and longing" - that is spring. And from then we move to spring, through summer and autumn, to winter and see the lives of the Mole, Toad, Rat, Badger, Otter, and many others. The constant themes are home and travel - "sweet unrest", to quote the "second swallow" in the novel - Mole, Toad, and Rat experience a kind of wanderlust at some stage, a yearning for adventure and experience (in some ways The Wind in the Willows may be read as a sort of junior Odyssey), but they always return home. One of the chapters is titled "Dulce Domum", referring to the Winchester College song -
Domum, domum, dulce domum![Home, home, joyous home!]
And, as says the second swallow,
First, we feel it stirring within us, a sweet unrest; then back come the recollections one by one, like homing pigeons. They flutter through our dreams at night, they fly with us in our wheelings and circlings by day. We hunger to inquire of each other, to compare notes and assure ourselves that it was all really true, as one by one the scents and sounds and names of long-forgotten places come gradually back and beckon to us.
|Pan, by Arthur Rackham.|
This is a rite of passage, a call of nature, and nature has a mystical element. The Wind in the Willows is an old book, the themes within it are ancient, with the references to Homer (the final chapter is titled "The Return of Ulysses") and the Greek God Pan (in Greek "Πᾶν"), whose name derives from the Greek "πάειν", meaning to pasture. He is associated with nature, first appearing in Pindar's Pythian (5th Century B.C.), and in some traditions he is believed to be the son of Penelope, wife of Odysseus. And of course, the animism and anthropomorphism in it: the belief that animals, nature, even inanimate objects have life, sometimes human life, in them (very popular in children's literature, the ultimate animist / shamanistic novel being The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett). It is not just the animals who have the human element; the river and the moon, for example, are living things - during the search for Otter's lost cub Portly, the moon "did what she could, though so far off, to help them in their quest". And as for the river - it's a major character. Here is Mole's first encounter:
Never in his life had he seen a river before--this sleek, sinuous, full-bodied animal, chasing and chuckling, gripping things with a gurgle and leaving them with a laugh, to fling itself on fresh playmates that shook themselves free, and were caught and held again. All was a-shake and a-shiver--glints and gleams and sparkles, rustle and swirl, chatter and bubble. 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 spell-bound 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.
|The River Pang, Berkshire, |
thought to have inspired Grahame.
The Wind in the Willows is itself a living entity, so very full of life and spirit. It is pastoral with its romanticised descriptions of nature and, more specifically, harmony with nature, like that of Roman poets Virgil and Ovid, harking back to the Golden Age, which Ovid describes in Metamorphoses -
Spring was the only season. Flowers which had never been plantedwere kissed into life by the warming breath of thegentle zephyrs;and soon the earth, untilled by the plough, wasyielding her fruits,and without renewal the fields grew white with theswelling corn blades.River of milk and rivers of nectar flowed in abundance,and yellow honey, distilled like dew from the leaves ofthe ilex.
This, the Golden Age, is before the reign of Jupiter, described by Virgil as when
Fields knew no taming hand of husbandmenTo mark the plain or mete with boundary-line.Even this was impious; for the common stockThey gathered, and the earth of her own willAll things more freely, no man bidding, bore.
But in The Wind and the Willows modernity does threaten. In the same year as the publication of The Wind in the Willows, Henry Ford first produced the Ford Model T, the first "affordable" motor car, and in the novel Toad himself buys a motor car, abandoning a previous obsession with gypsy caravans, and this car gets him into a lot of trouble - an awful lot of trouble. But - well, I won't spoil the end if you haven't read it.
Such a beautiful book. It is, as I say, inspired by the Greeks, and it portrays this gentle, earthy Golden Age to perfection. Time barely seems to exist, save the changes in the season. Nostalgia is the word. So gentle, with loving portrays of the little animals. I cannot recommend it enough!