Wednesday, March 16, 2011

I Finally Caught Wind of This...

Well, I can cross another classic that I probably should have read a long time ago off my list of To-Be-Read. If memory serves, it’s a particular favorite of Anon.*

Yes, folks, somehow The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame escaped me before. Other than a few bits and pieces I’d gathered over the years and what little I knew of it from the Disney cartoon, I’d never been formally introduced.

I took to it immediately. For Grahame brings us delightful characters, full of life and bearing both a severity and a cuteness. As I went along, though, I started to think it would be nothing more than a few random escapades strung together. I don’t mean that as a bad-mouthing, far from it. For there are plenty of marvelous ‘nothing but strung vignettes’ out there, such as Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland or Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator. But two-thirds of the way through or so, The Wind in the Willows starts to come together.  Without the separate scenes, we’d never get the sense of who these charming critters are, the depth of their relationships nor even necessarily care about what happens to the ancestral home of Toad.

Like Peter Pan, Toad is neither wholly likeable nor wholly condemnable.  On the other paw, I found that I loved all the characters equally. They’re a great batch and there’s quite a dynamic to their interactions. I especially liked the “foreboding” quality given to Badger... only to discover the truth about him, which then turns out to be multi-layered and any apprehension felt toward him is revealed as well.

It’s also interesting that I cannot decide whose story this novel tells. I suppose everyone’s first thought is Toad. But he’s really just the catalyst to get all the others in motion. Not always true, though, since Mole is the first we meet and he sets out to have a very rare walkabout and finds himself in a whole new world of adventures. So is it his tale? One mustn’t forget the tail of the Water Rat, however. For without him, Mole probably would never have come across Toad Hall or had the gumption to meet Badger. So, all in all, it’s an ensemble piece.

I found a couple of bits curious, though. The horse doesn’t seem to mind being, well, a horse. In a world of suited critters who drink tea and own books, he seems to be just a cart horse. At first I thought he wouldn’t even be given the opportunity to speak. Mole, however, does talk to him (though we are given no dialogue.) There are other horses as well, but they, too, are just cart-pullers. There’as a line in the book that sort of sums it up. ...since the horse had complained that he was being frightfully left out of it, and nobody considered him in the least. It’s not a flaw, per se, just a “hmm.” The fact that Toad has hair to comb also jarred me.

One vignette that I’d been looking forward to and which did not disappoint is the Piper at the Gates of Dawn. I absolutely love his mysterious nature. The whole chapter is compelling and really gives a sense of the sheer magical presence of this character.

As I’ve said, the novel culminates in a grand scheme and daring adventure. It ranks up there among the best laid plans, well, moles and men. Just the sort that one can easily bring to the mind’s eye.

And speaking of the mind’s eye, I have to admit that I couldn’t get Disney’s version of Toad out of my head as I read. Just this character. For I didn’t really remember their other depictions very well, with the exception of mole, of which I’d been mistaken (as my vague notion of his design turned out to be their drawing for Badger!) To be honest, when I did re-watch the cartoon, I’d been just short of actually appalled. For I thought they got each of them quite wrong. Rat, especially. That’s just my opinion, sure, but they just didn’t, for me, match up nor live up to their personalities or descriptions. Except Toad. And to be even more honest, I fell asleep about halfway through. I woke up for the end, though, and as can be expected, Disney changed it. They have Toad soaring off on a new obsession - an airplane. In the book Toad learns his lesson and does change his ways. Without this development, I think the book would have lost a lot of its power/message.  Also interesting to note is that the word "mania" for Toad's wild escapades is not used in the novel as it is in Disney.  I rather missed it, I must say.

And so there you have it, I am now among those who have visited the Wild Wood of Kenneth Grahame - and what a marvelous place it is!

* Barrie enthusiast and my faithful reader and #1 fan


Anon said...

Well, I don't love it as much as Peter Pan, obviously, but it's unique and enjoyable on its own terms. It's certainly a different sort of book than I've ever seen before.

It seems to me that there are two story arcs: Mole's in Chapters 1-5, and Toad's in Chapters 6, 8, 10-12. Chapter 7 ("The Piper at the Gates of Dawn") and Chapter 9 "Wayfarer's All") seem to not even belong plot-wise to the rest of the book, though theme-wise they may well serve as a collective centerpiece.

Certainly the Piper was on the cover of the first edition, and the title "The Wind in the Willows" comes from an unused title for the chapter in which he appears.

By the way, did you know that Grahame was originally going to call the book "Mr. Mole and His Mates"?

Peter Von Brown said...

Thanks for all the extra info. Two arcs, indeed, just as you describe. I do think that "Piper" and "Wayfarer's" seem a little out of place in one sense. But for me they served as a nice break from Toad. And not just for the sake of a change of scene. The affects of these events can be seen later in the tale. Such as finding the gumption and courage to seek out the otter, which stengthens their thirst for the quest for Toad Hall.

"different sort of book"
Yes, it's somehow a refreshing book. It's engaging but is also very relaxing, as if we were on the river with Rat and Mole.

And it's intersting that it had been entitled Mr. Mole and His Mates. That might solve the dilemma of whose story it is, as also evidenced by it beginning with him. I'm still inclined to think of it as an ensemble, though.

Anon said...

Oh, it is an ensemble, no arguments there. In a way it almost seems to prefigure The Lord of the Rings, in that the latter was also an ensemble piece. The collective protagonist of that work is the Fellowship of the Ring, or at least some of its members. You can't really say it's just Frodo's story, or just Sam's story, or just Aragorn's story, etc.

Anon said...

"WAYFARERS All", my apologies. No apostrophe.

Anon said...

By the way, did you notice that Mole lives at "Mole End", while Bilbo Baggins lives at "Bag End"? While it is true that "bag end" comes from the French "cul-de-sac" and simply describes the location of the home in the neighborhood, it is also a fact that Tolkien liked The Wind in the Willows--in fact, I read somewhere that it was one of the few things written since CHAUCER that he actually LIKED!

Peter Von Brown said...

Thanks for even more cool info! I did not know any of that. :)
(Well, I did about Mole's home name, but it did go out of my head.)