I somehow managed to escape childhood without ever reading Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows. Or without having it read to me, as so many seem to have initially come by it. (Fellow Parenthood watchers, did you notice Max’s mom reading Willows to him in a recent episode?)
I didn’t necessarily consider this a great loss until I read Sheldon Vanauken’s memoir A Severe Mercy several years ago. I loved that book, and was intrigued that Vanauken and his wife considered Willows to be their favorite book. Of course then I had to read it.
I’m still trying to decide what I think of Willows. I enjoyed much of it, and I can see the appeal. But I didn’t looooove it.
I’m wondering if Willows is somewhat of an acquired taste? Something that becomes more pleasurable with repeated readings? Like the literary equivalent of Monty Python and the Holy Grail?
When did you first meet Rat, Mole, Badger, and Toad and enter into their story? Is Willows a book you’ve passed on to your children? What do you love about it? Which character(s) do you most identify with?
I felt the most kindred with Mole: passionate and impulsive, and forever grateful for his patient, faithful friend Rat, who rescues him from more than one scrape (even when the scrape was his fault in the first place for not heeding Rat’s advice.) My life is rich indeed with many Rats.
Friendship was a major theme of the book. I relished the loyalty displayed among the four friends, as different as they were from each other. That’s what happens among dear old friends: Sometimes it’s hard to remember what drew you together in the first place, but time has forged a bond that must be upheld at all costs, even to self. These are the kind of friendships that fill life to the brim and over.
However I do have to say that—not being friends with Toad myself—I did not like him. I mean, the guy’s an addict. I did not feel sympathy toward Toad at all. Was I supposed to be charmed by him? And I didn’t understand what (finally) caused the dramatic life change in him in the final chapter. Please feel free to explain all this to me.
And then there’s The Piper at the Gates of Dawn. After hearing passing allusions to him over the years, I was intrigued by his story. I started out reveling in the mystery surrounding his appearance. But every few sentences my thoughts would be interrupted with a vision of a prog rock band performing the scene, a la Spinal Tap, and I would find myself giggling at the scene instead of getting lost in it. Alas.
I did enjoy the twin themes of love of home and love of travel—the tension one feels when pulled by the dramatic on one side and the domestic on the other. How the unexplored Open Road calls out to us, and yet nothing quite soothes the soul like sleeping in our own bed after a long absence.
I think I’ll have to reserve final judgment on The Wind in the Willows until I’ve read it at least one more time. I’d like to try reading it aloud to my kids to see what they think. It’s such a grown-up book in a way. But I suppose many children’s classics are like that—adult tales disguised in animal costumes.
On a final note…After investigating several different versions of Willows, I most definitely prefer the illustrations of Ernest Shepard. (He of Winnie-the-Pooh fame.)
Which illustrator do you prefer? What are your thoughts and feelings about The Wind in the Willows?