‘The Wind in the Willows’. It is a haunting title which has been with me since I was very young. I used to see the volume on the bookshelf at home, and then I would picture a stream and beside it a line of willow trees gently moved by the breeze. It was slightly eerie and very mysterious. I tried to think what the words really meant. I could never quite reason it out, but the feeling was slightly unsettling.
The effect was heightened by the alliteration of the ‘w’s and the repetition of the ‘i’ sounds, which also coincide with the two stressed syllables. The title has a music of its own. Its strength lies in what you feel when you read it aloud.
Kenneth Grahame is not that well known. He stays in the background behind Ratty and his friends, just as Conan Doyle lets Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson take centre stage.
The Rat is, above all, good natured and kind, and this kindness is one of the themes of the story. For example, when Mole insists on rowing and then upsets Ratty’s rowing boat, he admits he is both ashamed and sorry. Here is Ratty’s answer.
“That’s all right, bless you!” responded the Rat cheerily. “What’s a little wet to a Water Rat? I’m more in the water than out of it most days. Don’t you think any more about it; and look here! I really think you had better come and stop with me for a little time. It’s very plain and rough, you know – not like Toad’s house at all – but you haven’t seen that yet; still, I can make you comfortable. And I’ll teach you to row, and to swim, and you’ll soon be as handy on the water as any of us.”
And with this chance meeting on the river bank, the story begins.
Mole later meets Toad, who lives in Toad Hall, a fine house by the river. Toad is likeable but exasperating for his friends, who humour him as far as they can but do their best to reform him.
In Ratty’s words, “He is indeed the best of animals. So simple, so good-natured, and so affectionate. Perhaps he’s not very clever – we can’t all be geniuses; and it may be that he is both boastful and conceited. But he has got some great qualities, has Toady.” This is a fair assessment of Toad, and is also evidence of Ratty’s own good nature,
There are certain scenes which strike a chord, and we feel they matter. For example, one is the importance of home. Mole abandoned his one spring morning when he suddenly went off to discover the outside world.
When Christmas comes, Ratty and Mole are on a long ramble and on the way back Mole feels his home is near and he cannot help but return to visit it. Ratty and Mole go back to Mole End, and Mole realizes how much his home means to him. Before going to sleep, he looked around his room.
“Ere he closed his eyes he let them wander round his old room, mellow in the glow of the firelight that played or rested on familiar and friendly things which had long been unconsciously a part of him, and now smilingly received him back, without rancour.
It was good to think he had this to come back to, this place which was all his own, these things which were so glad to see him again and could always be counted upon for the same simple welcome.”
Let’s turn to Badger’s home. Ratty and Mole, who had moments before been cold and lost in the snow in the Wild Wood, were relieved and happy to have come across Badger’s house. Here Badger welcomes them in and takes them to his kitchen for a meal.
“The floor was well-worn red brick, and on the wide hearth burnt a fire of logs…Rows of spotless plates winked from the shelves of the dresser at the far end of the room, and from the rafters overhead hung hams, bundles of dried herbs, nets of onions, and baskets of eggs. The ruddy brick floor smiled up at the smoky ceiling; the oaken settles, shiny with long wear, exchanged cheerful glances with each other: plates on the dresser grinned at pots on the shelf, and the merry firelight flickered and played over everything without distinction.”
Mole’s return home is in the chapter ‘Dulce Domum’. What titles Grahame dreamed up! ‘The Open Road’, ‘The Wild Wood’ and, as we have seen, the title of the book itself, ‘The Wind in the Willows’. Listen to Rat telling Mole about the wood. Once more there is the haunting repetition of consonants and vowels. “Beyond the Wild Wood comes the Wide World,” said the Rat. “And that’s something that doesn’t matter, either to you or me. I’ve never been there, and I’m never going, nor you either, if you’ve got any sense at all. Don’t ever refer to it again, please. Now then! Here’s our backwater at last, where we’re going to have lunch.”
The final chapter is ‘The Return of Ulysses’. This tells how Ratty, Mole and Badger recaptured Toad Hall which had been occupied by the weasels and the stoats, the squatters of 100 years ago. The battle was far less violent and bloody than the version in ‘The Odyssey’. In fact, there were no serious casualties though several weasels and stoats would wake up stiff and bruised next morning.
Do not analyse the book. If you do, you will find that there are four animals who wear clothes, have kitchens and front doors, who row boats and drive cars. There are some humans who live nearby and who think a toad in a dress sitting next to them in their car is a washerwoman. In a time warp there is a chapter set in a prison in Merry England, where a sergeant of police says “Oddsboddikins! But all of this does not matter at all. It is unimportant. Rat, Mole, Badger and Toad triumph in the end, and they matter a great deal.
This is a very satisfying book. One to go back to just as Mole went back to his home. One to read every year, not to read through but to pick up when buffeted by life and to spend half an hour with. A pleasant half hour.
Well, there we are then. We have finally come to the end of the bookshelf. Johnson took up a lot of space with the five volumes devoted to him, and there was only room for one more book. ‘The Wind in the Willows’ is worthy of filling this last space.
When Johnson finished the last ‘Rambler’, he had produced an essay twice a week for over two years. His deadline was every Tuesday and Saturday from 1750 to 1752. In his last contribution, Number 208, he wrote, ‘Time, which puts an End to all human Pleasures and Sorrows, has likewise concluded the Labours of the Rambler. I have now determined to desist.’ Well, I too have determined to desist from my labours on this website, at least for the time being. I began my blog over ten years ago. A few years later it became a website, and as such it remains.
It is there to be dipped into and, I hope, enjoyed.