It’s often said that the greatest of children’s literature is accessible to the appreciations of both child and adult alike; appealing, indeed, to that self still sensitive to certain finely-phrased simplicities which ought to remain alive in every reader, of any age. It is literature that respects the child’s intelligence not because it expects every child to be somewhat precocious (and thus capable of understanding high-level metaphor, and/or possessed of a preternaturally large vocabulary) but because it is mindful of the adult that the child will become; the adult whom, in nostalgic fits, will likely look back on the books she enjoyed in her youth with the discernment that maturity normally brings, and then effect a kind of culling, asking of them: Which of you commands similar authority over my intellect and delight as from years ago? Which of you will I find did not condescend to who I was when I had so much yet to read, with little sense of what was good and bad?
Maybe it is that lack of condescension which marks the very best of children’s literature. Despite the obvious, and necessary, limitations set in place for such works, there is a distinction reserved for the book that holds almost nothing back from its young reader, while at the same time nurturing that mind’s naïveté into a fuller awareness of what she might come to expect from more mature art in the years to come.
One would be hard-pressed to find a better example of such a book than The Wind in the Willows.
Among the children’s classics I’ve experienced, there is no doubt that Kenneth Grahame’s novel withholds very little in the sense outlined above. It requires from its child-reader a relatively advanced vocabulary, as well as an openness to a certain syntactical sophistication. While I doubt that the average reading level of American children would be up to those standards today (as opposed to those, say, more common among the literate classes in the time Grahame published his book), the fact that The Wind in the Willows remains a beloved work, which is regularly reprinted/adapted, attests to its popularity even with contemporary readers, regardless of declining standards. Perhaps, then, for the child who has not graduated past Suzanne Collins or Rick Riordan-level fare, Grahame’s prose might prove to be a mountainous task, or (God forbid) something of a snooze-fest. Likely true, and more’s the pity, for it must count as a grievous loss to the reader who passes through these many words without both heart and mind illumined:
Nature’s Grand Hotel has its Seasons, like the others. As the guests one by one pack, pay, and depart, and the seats at the table-d’hôte shrink pitifully at each succeeding meal; as suites of rooms are closed, carpets taken up, and waiters sent away; those boarders who are staying on, en pension, until the next year’s full re-opening, cannot help being somewhat affected by all these flittings and farewells, this eager discussion of plans, routes, and fresh quarters, this daily shrinkage in the stream of comradeship. One gets unsettled, depressed, and inclined to be querulous. Why this craving for change? Why not stay on quietly here, like us, and be jolly? You don’t know this hotel out of the season, and what fun we have among ourselves, we fellows who remain and see the whole interesting year out. All very true, no doubt, the others always reply; we quite envy you – and some other year perhaps – but just now we have engagements – and there’s the bus at the door – our time is up! So they depart, with a smile and nod, and we miss them, and feel resentful.
There isn’t much to say about The Wind in the Willows that hasn’t already been said in the century since its publication. This will be less a thorough analysis than an appreciation of its many quality passages. On a personal basis, I wish I’d gotten to it sooner, and not at the ripe old age of twenty-seven, although there was a moment where that could have been achieved:
In the sixth grade, I picked it up on a whim at the public library, attracted by, admittedly, the notion of anthropomorphized woodland creatures going on an adventure (I was an avid fan of Brian Jacques’s Redwall series). I remember leafing through the pages, at once charmed by the twee illustrations and befuddled by what seemed a more impenetrable style than what I was used to. Was this stuff even meant for kids? I stashed it in my bag, not altogether expectant to begin but intrigued, nonetheless.
Then, on the following day, in line with my classmates waiting for the school doors to open, some of the boys had gotten ahold of my things in the midst of horse-play. Inevitably, the book was brought out for investigation. It should be said, a few of these boys were normally quite friendly with me, but that particular morning had other plans for what would pass between us.
The ringleader, an affable jock-type liked by pretty much everyone, beheld the cover—Mole and Water Rat sitting close together on their river-boat—with an almost consternated expression, while the others gawked over his shoulders and snickered.
“The Wind in the Willows…?” It was a combination of words seemingly alien to his conception of all possible sentences. “What the fuck is this? What are you, gay?”
Taken aback, I flushed and protested. This only spurred further insinuations. A circle began to form around me and any lightness I could muster to play along with their jeers had been snuffed. I didn’t really know what ‘being gay’ was, then (of course I had notions, but being raised staunchly Evangelical, it was a topic mostly circumvented in conversation); all that mattered was, in that moment, I was being laughed at, and seen as less than, and that the word meant I couldn’t lay claim to the same things these boys possessed and were currently brandishing over-against me.
I was a sensitive child, and easily buckled under most forms of pressure. The more I tried not to, the more I dissolved. Why did the book single me out? Why did the title baffle my classmate and what about it provoked that specific accusation? Why did the things I enjoyed, and was curious about, isolate me from the other boys, who found strength in belittling whatever that innocuous-enough cover seemed to conceal?
Maybe it is a memory I should laugh about more often (how weak I was, how capitulatory!), but they’d genuinely hurt me, and not even their contrition (as the ringleader handed me back the book, apologizing, almost confused himself by how hard I’d sobbed—weren’t we all just kidding around?) was enough to block some of the same turmoil from coming to me again upon recollection, years after.
These pains are, in any case, quite formative. I learned very quickly what I would and would not allow them to see. I couldn’t find the heart to touch the book again and it sat in my bag for days. Then it was due, and I simply returned it, unread, to the library. And then there was a long separation between the book and me, past childhood, past early adulthood, before I could set aside the turmoil and renew my curiosity, and again begin some correspondence with what I’d abandoned out of ignorance and fear, however misplaced.
Reading The Wind in the Willows as an adult proved a rewarding experience, and not only because the prose holds up—for both prose written principally with a younger audience in mind and for prose written in the Edwardian era—but because the distance created by age and, more saliently, experience, allows for subtler tones to be discerned in the adventures (and mishaps) of Mole, Water Rat, Toad, and Mr. Badger, tones that most children would only skim along the surface of in their anticipation of the next plot-point.
The quality of these tones might best be described as elegiac, pervaded by a sense of innocence soon to be lost, or, as David Bentley Hart writes, of a nostalgia expressing a “very palpable sense of its time; but it is also perennial: a longing to return to a paradise that everyone remembers, even though no one can remember ever having been there; a yearning for an idyllic natural realm eternally protected from the monstrosity of the ‘Wide World.’”
History itself supplies The Wind in the Willows with an emotional resonance it could not have possessed on its own: Only a few years after it was published, the Great War would break out, where many of the young who themselves likely delighted in Grahame’s story would perish in their hundred-thousands. The longing, then, that Hart remarks upon is also for a time before the world was so marred by horror, a longing for simpler days where one might doze off by hearth-fire and reminisce over the sort of quaint, rustic complications Grahame’s characters are involved in. When Mole and the Rat walk by a village under light snowfall in the evening, this odd melancholia is felt quite keenly, and is one of many scenes where innocence/security are wistfully experienced in passing:
But it was from one little window, with its blind drawn down, a mere blank transparency on the night, that the sense of home and the little curtained world within walls—the larger stressful world of outside Nature shut out and forgotten—most pulsated. Close against the white blind hung a bird-cage, clearly silhouetted, every wire, perch, and appurtenance distinct and recognisable, even to yesterday’s dull-edged lump of sugar. On the middle perch the fluffy occupant, head tucked well into feathers, seemed so near to them as to be easily stroked, had they tried; even the delicate tips of his plumped-out plumage pencilled plainly on the illuminated screen. As they looked, the sleepy little fellow stirred uneasily, woke, shook himself, and raised his head. They could see the gape of his tiny beak as he yawned in a bored sort of way, looked round, and then settled his head into his back again, while the ruffled feathers gradually subsided into perfect stillness. Then a gust of bitter wind took them in the back of the neck, a small sting of frozen sleet on the skin woke them as from a dream, and they knew their toes to be cold and their legs tired, and their own home distant a weary way.
Can a child fully appreciate this particular sociohistorical aspect? Not very many, certainly. Thankfully, much else in the novel is perfectly open to the intellect of the young. Its delightful (and entirely relatable) opening reminds one of even something like The Hobbit, another beloved classic of the genre:
The Mole had been working very hard all the morning, spring-cleaning his little home. First with brooms, then with dusters; then on ladders and steps and chairs, with a brush and a pail of white-wash; till he had dust in his throat and eyes, and splashes of whitewash all over his black fur, and an aching back and weary arms. Spring was moving in the air above and in the earth below and around him, penetrating even his dark and lowly little house with its spirit of divine discontent and longing. It was small wonder, then, that he suddenly flung down his brush on the floor, said, “Bother!” and “O blow!” and also “Hang spring-cleaning!” and bolted out of the house without even waiting to put on his coat. Something up above was calling him imperiously, and he made for the steep little tunnel which answered in his case to the gravelled carriage-drive owned by animals whose residences are nearer to the sun and air. So he scraped and scratched and scrabbled and scrooged, and then he scrooged again and scrabbled and scratched and scraped, working busily with his little paws and muttering to himself, “Up we go! Up we go!” till at last, pop! his snout came out into the sunlight and he found himself rolling in the warm grass of a great meadow.
Mole, like Bilbo, finds that the world outside his cozy little hole in the ground has more in store for him than anything his too-familiar comforts (and discomforts) can afford.
It’s a simple tale, really: The Wind in the Willows mainly follows Mole, a stodgily naïve creature who eventually befriends a group of his fellow forest creatures: Water Rat, a plucky, would-be poet; Toad, an arrogant “businessman” who continually throws himself into whatever fad catches his fancy; and the dignified and loyal Mr. Badger. I say mainly, because there are deviations (sometimes chapter-long) where the narrative focuses on Rat—his turn in the spotlight, “Wayfarers All,” is one of the most beautiful and even dark moments in the whole book—or on the madcap exploits of Mr. Toad.
There is so much in the novel worth reading absolutely fresh—Mole’s frightful first encounter with the Wilderness; Mr. Toad’s short stint in, and subsequent escape from, prison; the final “battle” in Toad Hall—so I won’t go into detail. Suffice it to say that all of the characters are a joy, but Mr. Toad especially is one of the great comic characters in children’s literature, and his various mishaps are truly zany (one might be loath, in real life, to have for a friend someone like Toad) but the reader can’t help but endear themselves to him, especially by the end, when he learns to finally put away childish things.
Of course, I’d be remiss to neglect the novel’s most famed chapter, that extraordinary interlude “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn.” Seemingly (but only seemingly) divorced in tone from the rest of the book, it consists of Mole and Rat going in search of the lost son of their mutual friend Otter. On their way down the river, Rat is possessed by a ghostly, impassioned music only he can hear, until Mole also notices, and both traverse a natural world now infused with numinosity.
The chapter, over the years, has had its fair of share of admirers (co-founder of rock band Pink Floyd, Syd Barrett, even naming their debut album after it) as well as controversy, and some editions even remove it entirely, along with the aforementioned “Wayfarers All.” Many have savaged it for reasons literary and/or religious, but one cannot deny the power generated by that continuous lyrical flow culminating in Mole and Water Rat’s encounter with the entity Pan, this charming story of friendship and humorous delinquency now cresting into the sublime:
Trembling [Mole] obeyed, and raised his humble head; and then, in that utter clearness of the imminent dawn, while Nature, flushed with fullness of incredible color, seemed to hold her breath for the event, he looked in the very eyes of the Friend and Helper; saw the backward sweep of the curved horns, gleaming in the growing daylight; saw the stern, hooked nose between the kindly eyes that were looking down on them humorously, while the bearded mouth broke into a half-smile at the corners; saw the rippling muscles on the arm that lay across the broad chest, the long supple hand still holding the panpipes only just fallen away from the parted lips; saw the splendid curves of the shaggy limbs disposed in majestic ease on the sward; saw, last of all, nestling between his very hooves, sleeping soundly in entire peace and contentment, the little, round, podgy, childish form of the baby otter. All this he saw, for one moment breathless and intense, vivid on the morning sky; and still, as he looked, he lived; and still, as he lived, he wondered.
Only the staunchest of biases can dissuade a reader from savoring the music of these words. To call it “out of place” would be to ignore Grahame’s attention to the beauty of the natural world so favored throughout the book in earlier chapters; it is nothing but Grahame pulling back the curtain of the world’s material substance to reveal the divinity behind it, which provides that material world beauty in the same way that the sun provides variegated radiance to stained glass.
As much as it is an interlude, “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn” is also central to Grahame’s approach to the whole text. Remove it (and “Wayfarers All”) and you have simply a very charming, very well-written little book about Talking Animals. Taken together, however, and the little book becomes charged with something like grandeur, all of its diverting adventures now colored by a quality more mysterious, perhaps even more sorrowful, that is liable to vanish just as it vanishes from Mole and Rat’s minds after Pan takes his leave.
It is no wonder, then, that publishers opted to remove it: Children, in their minds, are incapable of handling such strange episodes. But children, no matter their limitations, are actually capable of far more than what (some) adults assume; and better still, their memories are long-lasting, and might secure some things on a deeper level than what their rational faculties can yet parse.
If I, un-dissuaded by the other boys’ cruelty, had read The Wind in the Willows in the sixth grade, I can imagine coming upon this chapter and not really knowing what to make of it. Perhaps I would have been cluelessly enchanted by the lyricism, yet also disturbed by the appearance of a pagan deity so lovingly genuflected before, as I was still in the grip of fundamentalism. I can imagine putting the book away, part of me appreciative and another part puzzled.
I can imagine carrying that enigma with me for years, until I on a whim decide to return to the book in a fit of nostalgia, eager to see what’s worth salvaging among the scattered detritus of juvenilia. And I can more easily imagine accompanying good old Mole and Rat to that god-haunted isle in the river, re-possessed by a music I’d always known but could never fully name until it had found me again.
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More from Ezekiel Yu: Sordid Romp: On Emerald Fennell’s “Saltburn” (2023), Cease & Concern: on Franco Piavoli’s “Voices Through Time” (1996), Craft & Cutting: On Robert Bresson’s “Lancelot du Lac” (1974)