Best of all were those winter evenings when I crawled into bed and grinned a big grin as I picked up our lovely hardcover edition of Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, with illustrations by Michael Hague. Before I cracked it open I knew I would like it, but I really never expected to be transported, as, evening by evening, I was. After the first night (I read only one chapter at a stretch), I wanted the experience to last as long as I could possibly drag it out. It was with a sigh compounded of pleasure and regret and satisfaction in Toad’s successful homecoming that I closed the book. I knew I would read The Wind in the Willows many times, but I could never again read it for the first time. ....There is a good deal more.
.... If we must claim that The Wind in the Willows is about something, I would say that it’s mostly about the inter-animating powers of friendship and place. Ratty loves the river, but he loves it more when he can show it to Mole. Ratty has known all along that “there is nothing—absolutely nothing—half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats,” but he chants this well-worn fact over and over, dreamily, because in sharing the experience with the novice Mole he finds it coming fully alive to himself once more. Badger’s home is all the more delightful as a refuge from the cold because it is Badger’s home, not just some generic warm spot. Badger’s gruff hospitality allows all sorts of creatures to come and go as they will. And Toad Hall becomes more wonderful than ever when it has been saved from the stoats and weasels, and saved by Toad’s faithful friends. Friends give meaning to a place, and the traits of certain places encourage and strengthen the blessings of friendship. These are great lessons for anyone to learn, or to remember, at any age. And no book shows us these relations so beautifully as The Wind in the Willows. ....
The Wind in the Willows is surely the most beautifully written of all children’s books—it offers to the willing learner a deep course in the making of sentences—and its finest prose may be found in the famous chapter 7: “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn.” This is when Rat and Mole, searching the river for a lost baby otter named Portly, find themselves drawn by a distant haunting melody to a small island:
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 color, seemed to hold her breath for the event, he looked in the very eyes of the Friend and Helper; saw the backward sweep of the curved horns, gleaming in the growing daylight; saw the stern, hooked nose between the kindly eyes that were looking down on them humorously, while the bearded mouth broke into a half-smile at the corners; saw the rippling muscles on the arm that lay across the broad chest, the long supple hand still holding the pan-pipes only just fallen away from the parted lips; saw the splendid curves of the shaggy limbs disposed in majestic ease on the sward; saw, last of all, nestling between his very hooves, sleeping soundly in entire peace and contentment, the little, round, podgy, childish form of the baby otter. 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.The language here goes right to the brink of over-sweetness—but that is precisely what it must do, as it strives to describe experiences so good, so powerful, that they overtax the human imagination. ....
“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!”
....The reader does not expect to discover, in the midst of this paean to friendship and domesticity, a glimpse of something far greater than friendship or domesticity—something good beyond Badger’s goodness and yet infinitely more frightening—something numinous. ....
And now, for me, it’s back to a reading of the story that I wish I had known in my childhood. (And yet would I have loved it then?) The river holds more than enough excitement, after all, and so does The Wind in the Willows. When Mole asks Ratty about the Wild Wood, he receives just a few broken, reluctant, uninformative sentences. And when he asks about what might be found on the other side of the Wild Wood, he gets only this quite proper rebuke: “‘Beyond the Wild Wood comes the Wide World,’ said the Rat. ‘And that’s something that doesn’t matter, either to you or me. I’ve never been there, and I’m never going, nor you either, if you’ve got any sense at all. Don’t ever refer to it again, please.’”
Alan Jacobs seems to like all the right books — and for the right reasons. I rather envy his Wheaton College students.
Beyond the Wild Wood | First Things