Messing About with ‘The Wind in the Willows’

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Mole and Rat picnicking under a tree by the river”; colorized version of Ernest H. Shepard’s 1931 illustration for The Wind in the Willows, from Seth Lerer’s The Wind in the Willows: An Annotated Edition

Kenneth Grahame (1859–1932)—who nearly called his most famous book The Wind in the Reeds —led one of those multiple lives so beloved of late Victorians: secretary of the Bank of England, contributor to the decadent Yellow Book, gently ironic celebrant of childhood in The Golden Age (1895) and Dream Days (1898). (The most famous section of the latter is the enchanting satire “The Reluctant Dragon”—about a poetry-spouting dragon and a highly civilized Saint George.) A resolute amateur of letters, Grahame refused to become a professional writer, holding himself to be “a spring not a pump.”

Today The Wind in the Willows (1908) stands as one of the dozen greatest children’s classics of all time. Yet is it really for children at all? Yes, its Riverbank characters are anthropomorphized animals—Mole, Rat, Badger, Otter, and Toad—and yes, E.H. Shepard’s famous illustrations (1931) are as gently winsome as those he drew for A.A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh books in the 1920s. Nonetheless, to read The Wind in the Willows aloud to a little boy or girl can be disillusioning. Except for the misadventures of the self-dramatizing Toad, there’s really not much action and the mood music of Grahame’s prose sometimes bores the fidgety young. One can certainly understand why the Times Literary Supplement declared in its 1908 review that “children will hope, in vain for more fun.”

Take the book’s single most famous sentence: “Believe me, my young friend,” the Water Rat says to Mole, “there is nothing —absolutely nothing—half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.” So do the pair go rushing down the river, looking for trouble and adventure, like the English cousins of Huckleberry Finn? No, they float placidly, genteelly along, with a hamper of lavish foodstuffs that might have been packed for them by Harrod’s. They enjoy a picnic, and then return to Rat’s “bijou riverside residence,” where dressing gowns and slippers await them.

In fact, the most memorable passages of this outdoorsy book actually describe cozy interiors—in particular, Badger’s shabby-genteel underground apartments and Mole’s snug burrow in the Christmasy “Dulce Domum” chapter. Nearly every episode culminates in a vision of tweedy bachelor comfort: a simple yet hearty supper, warming drinks, good talk in armchairs by the fireside, heavenly sleep.

And yet for all its comfy domesticity and what Grahame’s biographer Peter Green has rightly called its “timeless, drowsy beatitude,” The Wind in the Willows is also deeply suffused by restlessness, by a periodic yearning for something more from life, by a vague need to break away from the quotidian and routine. Mole suffers from spring’s “divine discontent” and suddenly, exuberantly abandons his home for the riverside. The Water Rat …

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