The Wind and the Willows, by Kenneth Grahame

… suddenly he stood by the edge of a full-fed river. Never in his life had he seen a river before– this sleek, sinuous, full-bodied animal, chasing and chuckling, gripping things with a gurgle and leaving them with a laugh, to fling itself on fresh playmates that shook themselves free, and were caught and held again. All was a-shake and a-shiver– glints and gleams and sparkles, rustle and swirl, chatter and bubble. The Mole was bewitched, entranced, fascinated.

The Wind and the Willows is the kind of book that is like fine wine– it gets all the better with age. Your age. I read it as a pre-teen for the story, but it was only as I became a young adult that I grew to appreciate the poetry of Kenneth Grahame’s narration and description. The book is a linguistic feast.

The actual stories of Willows have been well-deservedly popular. The plot is very simple and mostly episodic in nature, following the cast of animal friends and their adventures together. I don’t know why British authors have produced so many delightful anthropomorphic animal characters, I am only glad that they have, and Mole, Rat, Toad, and Badger rank with the best of them. Generations of children have loved the escapades of boisterous, swaggering Toad and his motor-cars, and I hope that generations to come will carry on that love. (I have always loved Rat best myself, identifying with his sensitive, poetic soul.) Older readers can appreciate Grahame’s world-building: though anthropomorphic, the animals retain enough of their “beastliness” (in the positive sense) to keep them from becoming nothing more than humans in animal disguise. Hence you get gems like this passage:

We others, who have long lost the more subtle of the physical senses, have not even proper terms to express an animal’s intercommunications with his surroundings, living or otherwise, and have only the word “smell,” for instance, to include the whole range of delicate thrills which murmur in the nose of the animal night and day, summoning, warning, inciting, repelling. It was one of those mysterious fairy calls from out the void that suddenly reached Mole in the darkness, making him tingle through and through with its very familiar appeal, even while as yet he could not clearly remember what it was. He stopped dead in his tracks, his nose searching hither and thither in its efforts to recapture the fine filament, the telegraphic current, that had so strongly moved him.

So they are animals, yet quintessentially British animals:

“Glorious, stirring sight!” murmured Toad, never offering to move. “The poetry of motion! The real way to travel! The only way to travel! Here today– in next week tomorrow! Villages skipped, towns and cities jumped– always somebody else’s horizon! O bliss! O poop-poop! O my, O my!”

“O stop being an ass, Toad!” cried the Mole despairingly.

Toad’s motor-car obsession is what leads to the funniest adventures in the story. Woven among the humor, however, are more contemplative episodes exploring themes of friendship, what makes a home, and the rhythms of nature. One of my favorite scenes is Rat and Mole’s brush with the Divine, personified by the god Pan.

Then suddenly the Mole felt a great Awe fall upon him, an awe that turned his muscles to water, bowed his head, and rooted his feet to the ground. It was no panic terror– indeed he felt wonderfully at peace and happy– but it was an awe that smote and held him and, without seeing, he knew it could only mean that some august Presence was very, very near… trembling, he obeyed, and raised his humble head; and then, in that utter clearness of the imminent dawn, while Nature, flushed with fullness of incredible colour, seemed to hold her breath for the event, he looked in the very eyes of the Friend and Helper…

… “Rat!” he found breath to whisper, shaking. “Are you afraid?”

“Afraid?” murmured the Rat, his eyes shining with unutterable love. “Afraid! Of Him? O, never, never! And yet– and yet– O, Mole, I am afraid!”

It brings me to tears. The scene has shaped my concept of God and had a deep impact on my heart in a way that very few intentionally spiritual books have ever had.

The Wind in the Willows is a classic in every sense of the word– time tested, beautiful, enjoyable for every age. I read it aloud to my son when he was only 6 months old, savoring the poetry of the narration on my tongue. Now that my son is 5 and my daughter is 2.5, their attention span is not as long, but they love audiobooks, and whenever there’s a gap in their current obsession with Henry Huggins, it will be time for me to break out my audio version of Willows– my favorite is narrated by Andrew Wincott. My hardcover edition was illustrated by Michael Hague, with gorgeous full-color plates as well as many smaller vignettes scattered throughout the book.

But it doesn’t really matter in what form you read it. If you delight in language for its own sake, if you appreciate the marriage of story with poetry, if you’re not too old for talking animals, then you should try The Wind in the Willows. Say hello to Rat for me.

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