Published in 1908, this British classic tells tales of four country friends–a rat, a mole, a badger, and (most famously) a rich, pompous, adventuresome toad. These are no flat, stock children’s book characters. They have enough neurotic vinegar in them to make the cast of Toy Story seem like The Waltons by comparison. Not only do they have strikingly realistic personalities, but they behave in the ways that our grandparents did, ways that make us blush today. They don’t hesitate to insult someone, calling a spade a spade when needed, they acknowledge violence as a normal way to deal with thugs, and differences between social classes aren’t treated at all as anything unusual–just another natural part of life.
And yet, this world that often seems rough to our “modern sensibilities” is also markedly refined compared to most of our daily ditherings. The Wind in the Willows is so thoroughly pastoral that it practically strives to be scripture on the subject, vying perhaps to sit next to Walden and The Boy Scout Handbook on my shelf. One chapter, in fact, dreamily describes an episode where two lost characters in the woods encounter an ecstatic ancient spirit, whose communion is powerfully glorious. Such seemingly pagan influences struck me as odd for a book coming from the Edwardian period, but it fits in without a ripple of real inappropriateness here, not blushing in its unabashed environmentalism.
All this has just been prologue, though, for the thing that truly makes this masterpiece stand up and demand our attention is just how amazingly literary it is. My jaw would have hit the floor after reading every page (and sometimes practically did) when I remembered that this was a children’s book–it’s written in a style and with a vocabulary that would take the education of most adults today to task. But the result is so rewarding–this is a fantastic achievement on every level. Consider this, the first two paragraphs of chapter 11:
THE Rat put out a neat little brown paw, gripped Toad firmly by the scruff of the neck, and gave a great hoist and a pull; and the water-logged Toad came up slowly but surely over the edge of the hole, till at last he stood safe and sound in the hall, streaked with mud and weed to be sure, and with the water streaming off him, but happy and high-spirited as of old, now that he found himself once more in the house of a friend, and dodgings and evasions were over, and he could lay aside a disguise that was unworthy of his position and wanted such a lot of living up to.
‘O, Ratty!’ he cried. ‘I’ve been through such times since I saw you last, you can’t think! Such trials, such sufferings, and all so nobly borne! Then such escapes, such disguises, such subterfuges, and all so cleverly planned and carried out: Been in prison got out of it, of course! Been thrown into a canal swam ashore! Stole a horse sold him for a large sum of money! Humbugged everybody made ’em all do exactly what I wanted! Oh, I am a smart Toad, and no mistake! What do you think my last exploit was? Just hold on till I tell you ‘ [full text here]
Breathtaking. The first paragraph is long and complex, but perfectly balanced. The second gives us a glossy picture of Toad, his rambling, narcissistic dialogue a photo of his smarmy charm. And the diction! “Subterfuges.” “Humbugged.” Ah, mellifluous indeed! Also, when was the last time you saw a book for grade schoolers that used a semicolon?
Where today does anyone write like this, much less reads such things if they do?
My kids loved The Wind in the Willows–they’ve been on Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride at Disneyland, so they could relate to Toad’s insane and inane motoring–but I loved it even more than they did. I want to read it again by myself, and savor each delicious page.
Our library has the excellent 75th anniversary edition, which reprints the illustrations done by Ernest Shepard (of Winnie the Pooh fame). These pictures are fantastic in and of themselves, some done in full color plates, but the pencil drawings approach a woodcut quality that brings to life not only the characterization, but the atmosphere of the culture in which this novel was produced. It’s a world gone by, and now even the mundane details of the story seem like fantasy. Do yourself a favor and get a copy of this edition.
Final Grade: A+