C.S. Lewis alludes to Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows as casually as if it were the story of Cinderella – as though everyone has read it dozens of times and is familiar with all the characters and even specific scenes.
This made me feel a little dumb when reading C.S. Lewis. So, I thought what’s good enough for C.S. Lewis is good enough for me, and I checked out the little novel from the library. It was in the children’s section, and came with illustrations. But it’s a beautifully written little story, about 4 animals in a wood, and about friendship, and about the misadventures of a conceited toad. Some of Grahame’s prose is delicately beautiful and heartbreakingly rich, and it’s the kind of book that you should lend a couple of hours to at a time, and finish in two or three sittings (which is not how I did it).
In the Afterword, it is explained that the book is actually 3 in one. “There is the contemplative, pastoral, sentimental, and nostalgic story of those best of old-fashioned friends Rat and Badger and Mole. There is the rollicking adventure of the irrepressible and trouble-minded toad. And there is the mystical, magical, even visionary and dreamlike, allegory of Pan with his pipes at the Gates of Dawn. Some readers prefer the story of friendship; some prefer the fast-paced adventure; some prefer the dream.”
I prefer the dream. My favorite passages came out of the two dreamlike chapters, which have almost nothing to do with the rest of the story and reflect some of Grahame’s philosophical and spiritual beliefs. I found these chapters like precious stones in a pile of gold. They would waken something deep and piercing inside me, almost to the point of discomfort, but a good discomfort. But some of the scenes in the story of friendship were also quite moving in their own simple, lovely way: they left me with a sweet longing for old friends and for that idyllic, slow lifestyle spent mainly outdoors, picnicking and boating. I really didn’t care for the hapless shenanigans of Mr. Toad, but to each her own.
I’ll leave you with a couple of my favorite passages (both from the two dreamy chapters).
From The Piper at the Gates of Dawn:
Perhaps he would never have dared to raise his eyes but that, though the piping was now hushed, the call and the summons seemed still dominant and imperious. He might not refuse, were Death himself waiting to strike him instantly, once he had looked with mortal eye on things rightly kept hidden. 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 […] 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.
‘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!'”
I would give you a quote from the chapter “Wayfarers All” but I might save that for its own post. But I love the part where the Water Rat packs the perfect picnic:
“There he got out the luncheon basket and packed a simple meal, in which, remembering the stranger’s origin and preferences, he took care to include a yard of long French bread, a sausage out of which the garlic sang, some cheese which lay down and cried, and a long necked straw-covered flask containing bottled sunshine shed and garnered on far Southern slopes.”
Let’s take that with us to the Hollywood Bowl, hey?