The Wind in the Willows
One spring day Mole is doing his routine spring cleaning, pauses to rest, and is seduced by the smell of spring in the air to wander about and experience a fresh, new life. He eventually comes to the River, where he meets the Water Rat, who introduces him to boats (“there is no other way to live”). Mole is immediately entranced by life on the water and takes up residence with Rat.
He is quickly introduced to the wealthy Mr. Toad, who lives in a sizable manor along the river a ways. Alas, Mr. Toad, once an enthusiastic lover of boats, has now moved on and is a fan of gypsy carts, which he persuades Mole, and faithful Rat to accompany him in. Not many days later, the beautiful canary yellow cart is wrecked by an automobile. Mr. Toad, far from being upset, is transfixed, obsessed with the power and speed of the automobile.
The story tends to alternate between Mr. Toad’s automotive adventures and the more down-to-earth life of Mole and Rat. Mole’s curiosity about the Wild Wood, which Rat warned him repeated about, draws him to seek out the elusive Badger, said to live in the center of the Wood. He gets lost, it becomes night, and he hears strange noises and sees strange faces with luminous eyes, eventually running in fear and spending the night in a log. In the morning there has been a blanket of new snow, and Rat comes looking for him. They become lost, but in the process stumble across Badger’s front door. He invites them in, they are treated to a warm kitchen and a very tasty (and well-described) breakfast and lunch, and are taken to one of Badger’s side doors at the edge of the Wood. While walking back home, Mole realizes that his home is near; while not feeling it, Rat understands the importance of the call of home and they pay a visit to Mole’s simple, practical, but cosy home, where they entertain some young mice out Christmas caroling.
Mr. Toad has been infatuated with motor cars, buying and wrecking quite a number. Badger meets up with Rat and Mole, and together they go to try to talk some sense into Mr. Toad. He will have none of it, so they keep him a prisoner at his house until he comes to a more beneficial way of thinking. Mr. Toad resists for quite a while, eventually resorting to the trickery of appearing to acquiesce. When Mole lets his guard down, Mr. Toad escapes down the water spout, steals a motor car, wrecks it, and is imprisoned.
Meanwhile, Otter, also a friend of Rat and Mole, has lost his son, who has disappeared. Mole and Rat take the rowboat up river to look around for Otter’s son. Before dawn, in a quiet spot in the river, they notice the grasses and flowers much more verdant than usual, the stream much more alive than usual. They land on the island and find the god Pan, who is waiting for them with Otter’s son. They are in awe of and in love with the god, but the god leaves, causing the memory of the bliss to fade. The reuniting of father and son is remembered, however.
Mr. Toad languishes in a repurposed medieval dungeon for a few weeks and experiences a small contraction in his ego, which is interrupted when the jailer’s daughter takes pity on him and arranges for him to change clothes with the washerwoman. He makes his escape, narrowly avoiding recapture through the help of the train engineer who contrives a way for him to jump off yet keep the police train in pursuit of the train (now emptied of Mr. Toad).
It is fall, with all animals migrating southward, and Rat gets struck with the wanderlust himself. He meets a Ship Rat on the road, who tells him of the many adventures he has had and the exotic places he has been. Rat is on the verge of following him when Mole, who has noticed his unusual absence and set out to find him, discovers him, and leads him back home and to his favorite things.
After spending an uncomfortable evening outdoors, Mr. Toad hitches a ride on a laundry barge being towed up a canal. He is unable to effectively lie about being a washerwoman (he is still dressed as one), nor is he to contain his ego, which inflates rapidly after he dumps the washerwoman in the canal and steals her horse, which he sells to a gypsy for a meal and change. He runs across the same motor car as before, steals it, and lands in the river near Badger’s back door and is pulled out of the river and hidden from recapture by the three friends.
Mr. Toad now discovers that in his absence Toad Hall has been taken over by the ferrets from the Wild Wood. The four (but mainly Badger and Mole) plot how to recapture Toad Hall: Toad’s father knew of a secret passage from the boat dock to the pantry, but told the information to Badger in case his overly talkative son had need of it. The morning of the invasion day Mole scouted out the sentries that were posted, and tells them that a huge army would be attacking in the evening. Much to Mr. Toad’s chagrin, Badger praises Mole for his psychological warfare. In the evening, they attack, the ferrets run in fear, and Toad Hall is restored to its rightful owner. Badger requires that Mr. Toad host a banquet, except that there is to be no self-glorifying speeches or poems by Mr. Toad. After a wistful self-glorifying song in front of the mirror, a newly and truly reformed Mr. Toad hosts a quiet and respectable banquet.
I was inspired to re-read The Wind in the Willows this year as spring has been wet and cool, with the creeks running full, and my drive to work crossing back and forth across a quiet stream. My last reading was as a kid, and the spring had been begging me to re-read it, as I watched the streams along the path and wished that I were small enough to boat down the stream. The book was a nice companion to the pleasant spring this year.
The part about Pan made no sense as a kid, and still sticks out as a little odd. In contrast to the Christian-themed carols which the author obviously composed himself, the inclusion of a Greek god seems a little strange, unless the author was more of a cultural Christian with a nature-worship interior. C.S. Lewis refers to the passage in Mere Christianity as an example of the numinous, the spiritual that he claims all of us feel. Certainly Grahame’s description of the animals simple awe-worship of Pan has elements of how true worship of God might be. Yet, the purpose of the passage is still unclear to me.
This is a book for lovers of water, lovers of a quiet life with tasty food, and lovers of nature. It portrays a quiet life with friends on the water, with occasional longings for adventure. In contrast, Mr. Toad is always shifting from one infatuation to the next, never quiet, never stable, and never part of the nature surrounding him. Readers who are of Mr. Toad’s sentiment will probably find the non-Toad parts of the book dull and overly descriptive, however, readers who are at peace among the green grass, the shaded woods, and the calm water will enjoy the word pictures and the portrayal of the idyllic life we would love to live.
Since I am of the Rat persuasion, enjoying water, green trees, and a quiet, reflective life, I enjoyed this book. It is better as a kid, since it is a children’s book and the ideas expressed are more likely to be new, but it makes for a relaxing read in the evening. Certainly I can sympathize with the characters more, and even the Pan section is meaningful. Definitely a fine example of a 100-year book.
II CAME L