The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame had me from page one, when Mole said, “Hang spring-cleaning!” and went off to see something of the world. My thoughts exactly.
The Wind in the Willows is possibly the most delightful book I have ever been lucky enough to read. I don’t know why I never read this as a child, honestly, I must have been deprived, but it only occurred to me to remedy this oversight after I read Fiction Fan’s review of an illustrated and abridged edition of the story (as per the link below, and make sure you check out the gorgeous pictures).
Fiction Fan was very disappointed that whole chapters had been removed from the edition she read, so when I found an old ex-school library copy of the book in an op shop, I snapped it up, and started reading.
The story starts with Mole, who is fed up with spring-cleaning. He very sensibly actions his thoughts, and leaves his underground home and cleaning for the bright sunlight above, and sets off to see the world. Very soon after, he arrives at the river, and is, in Kenneth Grahame’s words, “bewitched, entranced, fascinated” by the river. (So was I, except that I was bewitched, entranced, and fascinated by the story, the characters and the life lessons).
At the river, Mole meets the Water Rat*, known as Rat, or more affectionately, as Ratty, and the two become very dear friends. Both Mole and Rat have fine characters, and are exactly the sort of people who most of us should aspire to be. Rat is clever and Mole is diligent, and both are good and honest and kind. Mole ends up staying with Ratty in his home near the river, and is introduced to a whole new way of life.
Along the way Rat introduces Mole to his friends, including Mr Toad of Toad Hall and Badger. Badger is respected by all, but Mr Toad is silly, full of himself and not above exaggerating his adventures to anyone who will listen. Everything bad that happens in this story is directly caused by Mr Toad’s selfish and inconsiderate behaviour, which includes car theft, dangerous driving, breaking out of prison, selling other people’s property – this reads more like a television show aimed at men who like that sort of thing, rather than a children’s story that is over 100 years old.
Despite Mr Toad’s faults, Ratty, Mole and Badger stand by their friend, and actively help Mr Toad out of his difficulties.
Mole and Rat’s friendship was special too. Rat saved Mole from a frightening adventure in the Wild Wood, and when Ratty came down with a case of wander-lust, when everyone else they knew seemed to be heading off to somewhere exotic or other, Mole was able to remind Ratty of the things he loved at home.
The highlight of the book for me was discovering how serious Ratty, Mole, Mr Toad and Badger are about food. They regularly picnic, and eat together and there is nothing so important that it can’t wait until after they have eaten. They eat pies, and hot buttered toast, and biscuits, and sardines, and potted lobster, and cheese, and cold beef and pickles, and stews made of “partridges, and pheasants, and chickens, and hares, and rabbits, and peahens, and guinea-fowls, and one or two other things.” I’ve rarely wanted to be a character in a book so badly.
I l0ved The Wind in the Willows, and suspect that future re-reads will fill me with as much joy as my first experience of this story.
*I once worked in a first-floor office overlooking the Yarra River in Melbourne, which is known for its enormous water rats (the river, not my old office). One day, I heard a squeal from the stairwell, and a few seconds later a terrified plumber burst through my door, and told me there was a giant rat beneath the stairs.
I looked down from the safety of the landing and saw the monster for myself, and I swear, the thing was massive, the size of a middle-sized wet dog. I phoned the Pest Control people, who assured me they would come to our rescue within the hour, then settled back to my work, interrupted from time-to-time by shouts and yells from other big, burly tradesmen who had not expected to open the door to this frightening beast.
Finally, there was a scream to end all screams, one that went through the entire neighbourhood, the sound of which just about turned my knees to jelly. Seconds later a terrified electrician burst fell into the office and once he could speak again, told me the rat ran out the open door as he opened it, right across his feet, and disappeared down a storm water drain.