Wednesday, 27 July 2016

The Wind in the Willows

Kenneth Grahame, author of The Wind in the Willows, is buried in Holywell cemetery, at the back of what was St. Cross church (now deconsecrated) near-by the Inklings Charles Williams and Hugo Dyson. I saw his modest and all-but neglected grave when visiting, and was moved to tears by the (almost illegible) phrase in the inscription ' who passed the river...'.

The Wind in the Willows is perhaps the oddest truly great book in children's literature. If you try to read it straight through, it comes across as a sequence of heterogeneous and disconnected episodes - some low comedy, some prose poems. There is no real consistency about it, even the animals seem to change size for one part to another (most of the time Toad is toad-sized - but also drives a car and passes himself off as a washerwoman).

But it is a great book, so none of this really matters - our job is to locate in it what is great, not to quibble over its inconsistencies, which clearly don't matter.

This book is one which has touched the heart of many - including AA Milne, Tolkien, and Jack and Warnie Lewis. For a certain type of English person, it is impossible to row a boat on a river, or walk through a snowy wood, or sit by a real fire in a kitchen - without recalling Wind in the Willows. The characters of Mole, Rat, Badger and Toad are archetypes.

The sense of yearning for, but  never quite touching, never quite getting-inside, a rural paradise of beauty and bliss is stronger in this than in any other work - what CS Lewis called Sehnsucht or Joy.

Kenneth Grahame was a very successful banker in the city of London, and the book is a product of that almost desperate wish to escape such a life and place, which most of us have felt at some time, or most of the time, since the industrial revolution. In Grahame's case it led him to write some early examples of neo-paganism (for example in the Pagan Papers essay collection).

If you have not read it, you will need to chose among the many editions - the one I read had no illustrations but was covered in large, black ink blots (it had been my father's as a school boy) - but my two favourite illustrators are EH Shepherd and Robert Ingpen (see below).

The book follows a loose sequence - everybody has their own favourite section (mine are probably the initial river boating, the Wild Wood, and meeting Badger); and I am averse to some of the Toad sections especially his long farcical prison escape adventure - I usually skip these bits.

The various dramatic and animated versions - such as Toad of Toad Hall by AA Milne - are at a much lower level than the book, and I would not bother with them; although it makes an excellent audio-book when read aloud (by a male voice - Alan Bennet seems to be the favourite).

So, if you haven't already - give it a try. It may stay with you forever.

Robert Ingpen's illustration of Badger's kitchen from the lovely 2007 edition