Part One: In Which I Reminisce About What The Wind in the Willows Means to Me
(Scroll down for my review of Inga Moore's adaptation of this classic)
(Scroll to the very bottom for a peek at Return to the Willows by Jacqueline Kelly, author of
The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate!)
The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate!)
The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame, published in 1908. I have wanted to review this book since I started this blog in 2008. It was a huge part of my childhood - one of my most magical reading adventures. In the absence of so much of the wonderful fantasy on the shelves today, when I was a kid some thirty years ago, traveling to the pastoral English countryside and spending time with the utterly domestic mole and the audacious toad was a trip to another world every bit as much a fantastic adventure as the journey I made to Hogwarts some twenty years later as an adult. I grew up with the Ernest H. Shepard edition of The Wind in the Willows published in 1933 and turned to it, no doubt, because of my childhood love of Winnie-the-Pooh. My husband was raised with the Arthur Rackham and, despite this difference, we have managed to make our marriage work.
I couldn't wait for my daughter to be old enough for us to read The Wind in the Willows to her, which I think we did when she was four. From there, we discovered William Horwood's quartet of sequels illustrated quite nicely by Patrick Benson and read through those.
We even invested in the movie versions - both the truncated Disney cartoon and the amazingly cast (Eric Idle, Terry Jones, John Cleese, Steve Coogan) live-action adaptation (and by adaptation I mean they padded the plot by creating a story line for the weasels and stoats) that included boisterous songs.
Yet, the idea of writing a review of this book is so overwhelming to me that I keep putting it off. I think, above all else, I worried that people don't actually read The Wind in the Willows to their children anymore and this would be irrelevant. However, it took Inga Moore's sumptuous illustrations for another childhood favorite of mine, The Secret Garden, and her charming picture book, A House in the Woods, along with a ringing endorsement from kid's book author, illustrator, and guru, Daniel Pinkwater for Moore's adaptation (yes, adaptation) of The Wind in the Willows on NPR to convince me to write this review. Moore's interview in The Guardian from 2010 also soothed any fears I had that this great book could not survive an abridgement, no matter how idyllic the illustrations. But, I could not write a review of Moore's version without rereading Grahame's text just to make sure she did a good job. Instead of reading, I indulged in the audio book version of The Wind in the Willows, unabridged and narrated brilliantly by Terry Jones of Monty Python fame, also director and screenplay writer for the movie Mr Toad's Wild Ride, as mentioned above.
Part Two: In Which I Review Inga Moore's adaptation of The Wind in the Willows
(Which You Really Should Buy Because it is only $12.99!)
To be quite honest, another reason I was wary of reviewing The Wind in the Willows is because it can be a bit intimidating. The language is very British, the writing very pastoral, the plot very class oriented and, shockingly, there are no positive female characters. I sometimes wonder what is relevant about this story one hundred plus years after its publication? However, without much further thought I can tell you precisely what is eternally relevant about The Wind in the Willows and why it will be read one hundred years from now: friendship. The Wind in the Willows is a memorable story of friendship. I might even go so far as to say that Rat, Mole and Badger performed the first intervention ever recorded in literature, children's or otherwise, when they locked the automobile-addled Toad in his room for his own good, taking turns tending to him. For those of you completely unfamiliar with this delightful book, a brief synopsis. Please forgive the extensive quoting...
The Wind in the Willows begins, "The Mole had been working hard all 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; til 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. It was a small wonder, then, that he suddenly flung down his brush on the floor, said "Bother!" and O blow!" and also "Hang spring-cleaning!" and bolted out of the house without even waiting to put on his coat." I only meant to quote one line, but this is such a splendid passage (well, it's really only two sentences, a fine example of the old-fashioned, British-y style you can expect in this book) needs to be quoted in its entirety. Not a page later, Moore edits out one of my favorite passages (ok, almost every part of this book is my favorite) in which Mole, "jumping off all his four legs at once, in the joy of living and the delight of spring without its cleaning" gambols across the meadow until he reaches the hedge on the further side. There he encounters two rabbits who insist that this is a private road and Mole owes them sixpence to pass. To this Mole remarks jeeringly, "Onion-sauce! Onion-sauce!" and scurries on. However, despite my feelings about this funny moment in Mole's life, I think Moore's editorial instincts are spot on. The Wind in the Willows is a long book with a lot or words in it and, in shaving a few here and there, Moore makes the story move at a breezier clip that is not slowed down by having to explain to a young listener exactly what "onion-sauce" is and how it is being used in a jeering sense rather than a culinary one.
Back to the synopsis: Mole has the good luck to meet the most amiable and generous Rat, who teaches him the joys of "messing-about-in-boats; messing-." Rat waxes quite rhapsodic about life on the river, saying to Mole after his new friend admits to never having been in a boat, "Never been in a - you never - well, I - what have you been doing, then?" The two become fast friends, even when, in his attempt to take a turn at rowing, Mole capsizes the boat, tipping himself and the picnic basket filled with "coldtonguecoldhamcoldbeefpickledgherkinssaladfrenchrollscresssandwichespottedmeargingerbeerlemonadesodawater-" and Rat must dive in to rescue them. The river is everything to Rat and his is a jolly life, "by it and with it and on it and in it." The two make their picnic on the bank, sharing it with Otter, who swims by. While relaxing, Badger of Wild Wood pokes his head through the hedge for a gruff "hello," but refuses the invitation to join them as he shuns society. They also spot Toad out on the river, flailing about in a rowboat, and Rat has the opportunity to share with Mole the long string of Toad's obsessions and how they all end with boredom and occasionally disaster. And in this first chapter, the whole plot is is encapsulated, for The Wind in the Willows is equal parts a story of friendship and the joys of a cozy home life and the bonds of friendship that move the Rat, Mole and Badger to help their manic friend Toad hang on to the cozy life and friendships he often overlooks.
Toad's story is a wild one that kids will love. His current passion for life on the road in a caravan ends when he sees his first motor car go sputtering by. From then on he is single minded in his obsession, one that the court cannot break him of. Toad steals and crashes several cars and eventually does his time in the clink. However, even prison cannot hold Toad and his singleminded fervor. Dressed as a washer woman, he makes his bold escape, even convincing a good Samaritan to let him drive his car while fleeing the cops! When Toad returns to Toad Hall, he finds it has been overrun by weasels and stoats, generally a bad lot. However, his friends are always there for him and they plan a daring attack and regain Toad Hall. The friends insist the Toad repays those who's generosity and gullibility he took advantage of during his bold escape and, after this climax, "the four animals continued to lead their lives, so rudely broken in upon by civil war, in great joy and contentment, undisturbed by further risings or invasions." That was the Grahame version. Moore's ends on a briefer note, "After this climax, the four animals continued to lead their lives, undisturbed by further invasions," again illustrating the ways in which she pares down the text, gets the point across and doesn't loose too much of the charm of Grahame's style.
Hopefully I have made the point that Moore's abridgement cuts out some of the wordiness and extensive descriptions that make Grahame's book lovely but, in this day and age, a bit weighty. For those of you who know Grahame's book well, Moore also eliminates entirely the chapter "The Piper at the Gates of Dawn," in which Otter's young son Portly goes missing for several days and Rat and Mole take to the river at night to find him. They discover the wayward young otter asleep on an island where, as the sun begins to rise, they encounter the great god Pan, the "Friend and Helper," before whom the animals bow their heads and worship. They experience a great awe that is both frightening and beautiful and, in his benevolence, Pan grants them the parting gift of "forgetfulness" so that they will not remember the pure happiness of the moment that would make the rest of their lives pale in comparison and keep the "little animals" from ever being "happy and lighthearted" again. This chapter does stand out a bit from the flow of the story and is often the first chunk of the novel to be cut by editors. Yet, it also adds another bit of insight into the world building that Grahame was crafting. Yet another passage that Moore cut comes in the chapter "Wayfarers All." The Water Rat is restless. He chats with a flock of swallows heading South, asking them why they can't stay on for just this one year? He meets a fellow Water Rat, a merchant marine of sorts, who tells him stories of life on the high seas and travels to foreign lands, stirring Rat's wanderlust, causing Mole to worry that his fit is indicative of a larger malaise. However, Mole stands by his friend, in the end bringing him paper and pen. When Rat begins to write, his agitation dissolves and he is content with his life once again.
My favorite part of The Wind in the Willows are the three chapters, "The Wild Wood," "Mr Badger," and "Dulce Domum," in which the tail end of winter spent in Rat's domicile finds Mole very much wanting an introduction to Mr Badger. During one of Rat's many naps, Mole pulls on her new galoshes and sets out for the heart of the Wild Wood, despite warnings from Rat and other animals. As the day fades to night, Mole finds himself lost and frightened and eventually injured and he takes refuge in a hollow tree, nestling into the dry leaves as snow begins to fall. Rat wakes and finds him and they stumble upon Badger's door, hidden by the snowfall. Badger welcomes them in, feeds them and settles them into bed, telling them not to bother waking early on his account the next day. They pass a lovely time, for Mole anyway, who is enthralled by Badger's expansive underground home. But Rat misses the river and they return through the snowy woods, passing through the village and seeing the glow from within the homes. Mole experiences the inexplicable, which Grahame describes as thus: "We others, who have long lost the more subtle of the physical sense, have not even proper terms to express an animal's intercommunications with his surroundings, living or otherwise, and have only the word "smell," for instance, to include the whole range of delicate thrills which murmur in the nose of the animal night and day, summoning, warning, inciting, repelling. It was one of the mysterious fairy calls from out of the void that suddenly reached Mole in the darkness, making him tingle through and through with its very familiar appeal, even while as yet he could not clearly remember what it was. He stopped dead in his tracks, his nose searching hither and thither in its efforts to recapture the fine filament, the telegraphic current, that had so strongly moved him. A moment, and he had caught it again; and with it this time came recollection in fullest flood. Home!" Mole breaks down with longing for his home and Rat, although he takes a moment or two to catch on to the source of his friend's distress, goes above and beyond to soothe his dear friend and make a warm homecoming for him. Caroling field-mice are cause for a feast and celebration and they are all invited in for food and stories. The evening ends with Mole and Rat tucked into their beds, Rat commenting on what a fine, snug home Mole has made himself.
Finally, I want to share one last example of why Grahame's book is so beloved and also so ripe for editing - and so absolutely delightful when read by Terry Jones. Reflecting on the summer that has passed, Mole wonders:
Such a rich chapter it had been, when one came to look back on it all! With illustrations so numerous and so very highly colored! The pageant of the river bank had marched steadily along, unfolding itself in scene-pictures that succeeded each other in stately procession. Purple loosestrife arrived early, shaking luxuriant tangled locks along the edge of the mirror whence its own face laughed back at it. Willow-herb, tender and wistful, like a pink sunset cloud, was not slow to follow. Comfrey, the purple hand-in-hand with the white crept forth to take its place in the line, and at last one morning the diffident and delaying dog-rose stepped delicately on the stage, and one knew, as if string-music had announced it in stately chords that strayed into a gavotte, that June at last was here. One member of the company was still awaited; the shepherd-boy for the nymphs to woo, the knight for whom the ladies waited at the window, the prince that was to kiss the sleeping summer back to life and love. But, when meadow-sweet, debonair and odorous in amber jerkin, moved graciously to his place in the group, then the play was ready to begin.
Of course this passage has to go. What American kid is going to recognize those plants, let alone get the metaphor of summer blooms as actors in a play with Summer as the stage? Even so, in this day and age when a recent study finds that the informal language in social networking posts is easier for us to remember than passages of literature, perhaps that is even more reason to read your children the Kenneth Grahame version of The Wind in the Willows. But, whatever you do, PLEASE read this book out loud to your children, even if they can read on their own and seem completely disinterested. Give it a try! You won't regret it and they will grow to adulthood, thanking you for planting these stories and images in their brains!
Arthur Rackham's illustrations
One of my favorite scenes, above, finds Mole, having just abandoned his Spring Cleaning for a run in the sun, yelling, "Onion Sauce! Onion Sauce" at the rabbits who insist he owes them sixpence for passing on a private road.
Ernest H. Shepard's illustrations
Don't miss the newest adaptation of this classic by one of my favorite illustrators. More Art Deco than traditional pastoral, Roberts's illustrations bring a liveliness and sense of humor, along with a brilliant splash of color, that is sure to attract new, young readers who might find older versions stuffy...
Return to the Willows by Jacqueline Kelly
from October, 2012