A Place for The Wind in the Willows

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The Wind in the Willows

I must admit, I’ve known about Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows practically since my infancy. I can’t really tell you how I found out about it but I do remember having a highly abridged copy of The Wind in the Willows with plenty of illustrations as a little girl and my parents and I once stayed at a guesthouse of the same name (and my mum has a story about how good a child I was with a connection to that place). But, as I grew up, I never took the time to read the book. Oh, of course I read the abridged version but it wasn’t quite the same. I mean, every so often, I would pick up the copy we had in the bookshelf, sit and read a little and then for some reason move onto something else  without finishing. It was like a New Year’s resolution gone wrong.

Then, oddly enough, on New Year’s Eve a family friend who is as much a bookworm as I am asked me if I’d ever read the book. Well, of course, I couldn’t lie so I told her I hadn’t read it yet. She seemed rather pleased with it so I decided that this New Year I would make a concerted effort to get all the way through The Wind in the Willows (don’t you love bookish New Year’s resolutions – they’re so easy to accomplish, unlike one of my others, flossing – yuck). So, I  put it on my bedside table and forced myself not to put the book away until I had read the whole thing.

The Wind in the Willows is the story of the adventures of four woodland animals, the Mole, the Water Rat, the Badger and Mr Toad. When the Mole meets the Water Rat, he has no idea that he is going to be involved in so many adventures that take him up and down the river, into the Wild Wood and even up against weasels. The Water Rat and the Badger, in turn, have no idea that they will be making a new friend. And Mr Toad has no idea how his life will be turned upside down. Will each animal learn his lesson and become better and stronger for it or will these adventures break them all down?

Movie Magic:

As I’ve said, I’ve known about The Wind in the Willows for a long time and the story line was rather familiar as I read some portions. I guess part of this was because of the illustrated books I had on hand as a little girl. But, I think some of my knowledge of the plot might have come from vague memories of animated versions of The Wind in the Willows that I’ve watched over the years and forgotten.

A quick web search of The Wind in the Willows movies brings up a whole host of videos particularly pertaining to a 2006 live-action movie starring funny-man Matt Lucas (you’ll probably recognise his face rather than his name). It seems as though the film was an adaption of a musical which was adapted from the original novel – making it an adaptation of an adaptation. I’ll admit I haven’t seen the film myself so I can’t really pass judgement. But, it appears to me kind of strange that rats, moles, toads and badgers should be played (not just voiced) by humans. For me, it kind takes something away from the story to have men simply dressed a little like animals, even if they are all men dressed as animals acting like gentlemen. I’ve seen that type of thing before and found myself still seeing the men and women as men and women with peculiar habits rather than as animals where those habits would be perfectly normal.

I would have thought that an animated film (or even CGI) would have made for a much more satisfying character development because those truly animal characteristics would have been able to remain. Of course, the animated versions of The Wind in the Willows that have come before have been true disappointments (not even worth remembering)but perhaps that just has to do with bad animation or production. Perhaps it’s time a truly worthy animation company like Disney (who did a version in the early days but may want to brush up) or Dreamworks or Aarkman took the wheel and made an exciting version to end all other versions.

It’s definitely something to think about.

In My Humble Opinion:

When I thought about writing this book review, I wasn’t at first sure what to talk about. I thought perhaps a blog about The Wind in the Willows as a children’s story. After all Kenneth Grahame reportedly wrote The Wind in the Willows after he told some of the stories to his young son, in much the same way as A.A. Milne wrote Winnie the Pooh. You see, I didn’t really think it suited a children’s story. There were many descriptive scenes painted in colourful language and so many hidden morals and commentaries on life that I wasn’t convinced a child would understand the complexity of the story. But, then again, my frame of reference is modern children who watch television where everything is action so perhaps I’m not the best judge.

I’d also thought about looking at the animal angle. I mean, we’re dealing here with talking animals but many of the lessons of the story can be applied to humans too, or even more so. And, as I told you, the animals in the The Wind in the Willows act like gentlemen, which would make for an interesting discussion on what the fact that the characters are animals not people does for the story. I thought about maybe writing on the use of animals as a vehicle for moral commentary (now that sounds like the title of an article). But, the problem was, much of what I thought about the use of animals as a vehicle of for moral commentary was based on my own personal speculation. I thought, for example, of how humans have times (or seasons) in their lives where they become restless and this is also reflected in the animals but I didn’t have enough to back that speculation.

Then it hit me one morning. I began to wonder: what literary era could The Wind in the Willows be classified into? It may sound like a simple question with a simple answer. Just look up the original publication date and find the era that surrounds that date, you might say. Or even better, Google it; I’m sure a famous book like that will be part of a list of some literary era.

But a two-fold problem arises with these thoughts. Firstly, the publication date of a book doesn’t always determine the literary era. There have been books written today, in a postmodern society, that could happily be classed as part of the Romantic era. Some books from the time of Queen Victoria were ahead of their time. It’s very difficult to say for certain that a book belongs to a literary era because it was published during that era. The other problem is that The Wind in the Willows is classified as a children’s book and children’s books hardly ever get classified into eras as other literary works do (except perhaps Alice in Wonderland). From my side, I’m not sure why. It seems to me that children’s novels are merely an extension of literature. They may be intended for children but children grow into adults of similar taste. It makes no sense to exclude this literature when it forms a very integral part of the future of literature. So, my self-given mission was to see whether I could uncover what literary era The Wind in the Willows belonged in even if it will never be part of any period reading list.

I started by looking up the first publication date of The Wind in the Willows which is 1908. That I found situated The Wind in the Willows in the very beginning of what can be classified as Modernism. But, I then encountered a problem. Every literary era has a series of characteristics which can be seen in the literature of that era. The main characteristic if Modernism was this idea of “making it new” by avoiding the symbolism and breaking away from the traditions that were part of previous literary eras. Though The Wind in the Willows was technically published at the beginning of the Modern era, it really didn’t seem to have these characteristics. There are plenty of symbols and traditions. The novel does not exactly present new ideas either. So, does it even have a literary era that it can be classified into?

Well, yes, I think it does. After discovering that The Wind in the Willows didn’t fit in with the Modernist characteristics, I began to think about Kenneth Grahame specifically. His novel was originally a series of stories for his young son which he must have written out and then had published. This means that while his book may have been published in 1908, it may have been written before that, the ideas thought out before that. Added to this is the most obvious fact that Kenneth Grahame was an adult when he wrote this novel but much of his worldview would have been established when he was a child. He would have learnt all about how to perceive the world from interacting with it as a child. So, although the novel was published in 1908, the worldview used to compose the novel was established long before that. Modernism only really began at the turn of the century but Grahame’s worldview was established long before the century “turned”. And, with that in mind, I turned back to the era before the Modernist era, the Victorian era, to see if The Wind in the Willows might suit that era more.

A website called Victorian-era.org suggests that the Victorian era has three general characteristics:

  1. Victorian literature is all about realism but in an idealist setting
  2. Victorian literature asserts its moral purpose
  3. Victorian literature is pessimistic and confused about science

I decided to see whether I could find any examples of these three characteristics in The Wind in the Willows.

Firstly realism but with an idealist edge. It sounds contradictory but what this means is that Victorian literature focused on real, practical problems like  the need for money and possessions, work difficulties, relationship issues etc rather than deep-seated philosophical issues while the solutions to these problems were more idealist. Victorian writers would solve poverty by proving that a good, kind person would always overcome. Real problems, ideal solutions.

Given the realist side of Victorian literature, it seems quite impossible for The Wind in the Willows to be a Victorian book. After all, how realistic are talking animals in dressing gowns and galoshes really? But, while the animals may walk, talk, dress and generally do what humans do (making them unrealistic), they still do have some truly animal characteristics like the need to rest all winter, the need to travel south and not to mention their keen hearing and smell. Their animal intuition. That is all realistic. And the animals do have practical problems like the Water Rat’s house flooding during the rainy season. But, the “human” characteristics are, what I would call, the ideal solution. Their “human” characteristics are sometimes the solution to their practical problems – and sometimes the cause of them, in the case of Mr Toad. They can sometimes get out of trouble by talking things out or using tools and objects we humans would too. So, there is realism with an ideal edge.

Secondly, moral lessons. The Wind in the Willows is full of moral lessons. And why wouldn’t it be? It’s a children’s book, intended to teach and instruct children on how to behave in society. All through the book are lessons in doing as you are told, being courteous, being patient, not lying, not stealing, not cheating, being cautious, helping others, being industrious, insightful and innovative. Each adventure comes with a moral or two. And with all these moral lessons The Wind in the Willows certainly asserts a moral purpose – it is intended to teach.

And lastly, the pessimism and confusion about science. This might be incomprehensible to some so let me give a brief explanation. The Victorian era was a time of great development especially where Industrialisation was concerned. People thought Industrialisation would make everything better and were shocked and dismayed when upon moving away from the squalor  of the country to work in the factories, they were met with even more horrific conditions. This made people confused. They wanted progress but not at the price it came with: very likely death. The confusion caused many writers to take a pessimistic view of new scientific technologies because of the price people had to pay (their lives) for these technologies.

Ok, so how does this translate in The Wind in the Willows? Well, one of the major technologies mentioned throughout the book is the motorcar. By today’s standards, the motorcar mentioned in The Wind in the Willows wouldn’t exactly be classed as a technological innovation. But, in Kenneth Grahame’s day, the motorcar was ahead of its time. Though, that doesn’t mean that Grahame saw any benefit in the motorcar in his novel. Actually, quite the reverse (pun unintended). As a “modern” convenience, the motorcar becomes a source of endless troubles and difficulties for all the characters. In a way, the pessimism of scientific technologies is portrayed in the troubles that the motorcar gives the animals.

And with that, I guess I’ve proved that The Wind in the Willows can be classed as Victorian classic having the three most important characteristics used throughout Victorian literature.

But, I suppose like all good reviews, you don’t just want to know about The Wind in the Willows, you probably also want to know whether I liked the book. Weeeeelll. Ok, let me just say that I really enjoyed it, mostly. The descriptions of nature were really quite fantastic and I enjoyed the personalities of the different characters and how they interacted and changed (their development) through the course of the book. It would have all been great except, unfortunately I found the climax involving Mr Toad to be rather an anticlimax. In my mind, it takes a great experience to change a personality greatly and it just seemed like the point of change in Mr Toad happened a little too anticlimactically. There was no sudden realisation, more a rather lame acceptance of his personality defects. In other words, he changed with more of a whimper than a bang. And that rather upset me. How can you have such an amazingly brilliant book with such a lousy ending? Perhaps some day I might right a new ending for the story, one in which the ending matches the rest of the book in my estimation.

What did you think of The Wind in the Willows? Did you read the book? Perhaps it was read to you as a child. And what do you think of the literary era I’ve placed it in? Do you agree? Let me know in the comments below. And remember to update your score on the Challenge. I’d also love to see how much you’re reading.

Until next time…

Happy Reading!

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