Sunday, September 18, 2011

"Divine discontent and longing"

On the one-hundredth anniversary of the publication of Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows, an appreciation by Gary Kamiya:
.... Since its first publication, it has been issued in over a hundred editions and translated into many languages, with annual sales figures running into the hundreds of thousands. With Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland, Mark Twain's Tom Sawyer, J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings and C.S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia, it is one of those rare books that speaks with the same eloquence to children and adults — and is equally beloved by both.

The pleasures of The Wind in the Willows are endless. Take the scene where Rat and Mole meet. Mole is shy. Rat rows across the river. Rat invites Mole to a picnic lunch. Afterward, Rat casually says, "Look here! I really think you had better come and stop with me for a little time." Mole accepts, moves into Rat's house, and as far as we know he is living there still. It's an evocation of friendship right out of a fairy tale, where the prince and the princess fall in love at first sight. But it's a fairy tale that Grahame makes real, capturing that moment when two people suddenly realize, without fanfare, that they'd rather spend time with each other than do anything else. ....

And always, there is the glorious language. ....

The book opens with a straightforward sentence: "The Mole had been working very hard all the morning, spring-cleaning his little home." But then one sentence later we come upon this: "Spring was moving in the air above and in the earth below and around him, penetrating even his dark and lowly little house with its spirit of divine discontent and longing." Divine discontent and longing? It is only a hint of things to come, but just three sentences into the book we know we're about to take a magic carpet ride on words so perfectly weighted, so musical, so right, that they fly all by themselves. The last line of the chapter is: "He learnt to swim and to row, and entered into the joy of running water; and with his ear to the reed-stems he caught, at intervals, something of what the wind went whispering so constantly among them." If that sentence doesn't give you goose bumps as if you were simultaneously riding in a canoe slipping through cat tails and approaching a Wordsworthian vision, you need to tune up your ear and your heart.

Grahame described The Wind in the Willows as "a book of Youth and so perhaps chiefly for Youth, and those who still keep the spirit of youth alive in them: of life, sunshine, running water, woodlands, dusty roads, winter firesides." He was right, of course. And yet The Wind in the Willows is not the same book read at age 14 as it is at 55. For a child, The Wind in the Willows is the fantastic story of the adventures of four unforgettable animals, the Mole, the Rat, the Badger and, above all, the irrepressible Toad. (No discussion of Grahame's book can fail to mention the perfect illustrations by Ernest Shepard, which have delighted generations of children and adults. When he met with Shepard, the aging Grahame simply said, "I love these little people, be kind to them.") Mole's terrible night in the Wild Wood, Rat's huge pile of weapons, Badger's secret tunnels and Toad's wild escapades are simply irresistible. As a child you're dimly aware of the darker, more complex notes of loss and longing and redemption, but those things remain at the edge of your field of vision. As an adult, those haunting notes become an inseparable part of your enjoyment, the way a connoisseur of wine learns to appreciate the subtlety of less obvious flavors. It is a book of happy dreams, and as you begin to realize how many of your own dreams will never come true, Grahame's tale appears lit not just by the brilliant sun of noon but by the golden light of late afternoon.

The Wind in the Willows can be so many books during one reader's lifetime because it is more than one book to begin with. It is at once a children's book and an adult book, a wish-fulfillment and a satire, a comic adventure story and a poetic bildungsroman, the rollicking story of Toad and the inward-turning story of Mole. .... (more)
"The Wind in the Willows" at 100 - Children -

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