‘Really, Rat,’ said the Mole quite pettishly, ‘I think we’ve had enough of this folly. Who ever heard of a doormat telling anyone anything? They simply don’t do it. They are not that sort at all. Doormats know their place.’
The indelible outline of Rat, Mole, Toad and Badger is sketched so keenly on my childhood memory that it was indeed a surprise to discover I’d never actually read it. It is a tale that every child knows in some form or another, though I suspect it was first delivered to me in the form of the 1983 stop-motion animation film.
For those who either didn’t have the pleasure of this text as a child, or have simply forgotten the plot, ‘The Wind in the Willows’ is a classic children’s story of four animals living on and around a river bank. Through the eyes of Mole, Rat, Toad and Badger we are taken on a series of adventures including the theft of a motor-car, jail, attacks by weasels and the age-old change of seasons. At its heart, ‘The Wind in the Willows’ is a pastoral classic, taking the reader on a rip-roaring Edwardian adventure before getting you home in time for tea and crumpets.
Its language is nostalgic with almost a fragile beauty. Grahame invokes home, hearth and friendship at every turn, creating a net of safety around the reader through the repetition of the setting’s solidity.
It seemed a place where heroes could fitly feast after victory, where weary harvesters could line up in scores along the table and keep their Harvest Home with mirth and song, or where two or three friends of simple tastes could sit about as they pleased and eat and smoke and talk in comfort and contentment.
In addition, the river itself flows throughout the novel, reminding us of nature’s constancy despite the seasonal change.
Yet, please do not be fooled into thinking this is a dull book. The warm promise of home is merely the glue for a larger narrative. Pastoral England in the form of the river bank comes into conflict with modernity through the entrance of the motor-car. It comes streaming into the animals’ quiet lives, ‘immense, breath-snatching, passionate’, and soon leads the excitable and slightly foolish Toad down a path of destructive obsession. The animals’ attempts to deal with Toad’s ‘painful attack’ of techy-love are both quaint and humourous, and the narrative finishes neatly with a swash-buckling battle to take back Toad’s ancestral home from the scheming weasels.
I immensely enjoyed this book. Grahame’s writing radiates warmth, contentment and security. In an increasingly bleak economy, where students like myself are told we shall be worse off than our parents, it holds out a reassuring hand of child-like comfort and amusement. It is in fact the ‘cosiest’ book I’ve ever read. It’s simply not happy unless you are reading it with a smoking jacket and slippers.
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