The Wind in the Willows
I've been wanting to re-read this classic for quite a while; I just wanted to find the right time. It's so long since I read it (I'm sure I was reading it aloud to small children last time, and they are grown now) that I only remembered some of the major points -- and of course, the perfect illustrations by E. H. Shepard.
It's spring, and Mole has been doing so much spring-cleaning that he needs a break; he goes out to enjoy the day. He's so delighted with everything that he goes farther than he's been before, finds the River, and meets the Water-Rat.* Mole is so enchanted with this new world that he stays with Ratty for months, and together they have many adventures.
We also meet Badger, a solid, dependable, but solitary fellow, and Toad. Toad is faddish, vain, and flighty, and his adventures form a comedic alternating counterpoint to the pastoral joys of picnics and boating. At first he just wants to go camping in a cart, but then....Toad sees his first motor-car. And being a wealthy Toad, he buys a car and becomes a tyrant of the roads. He's a speed addict, and a very bad driver, so he goes through several cars before stealing one and going to prison.
The world Grahame builds is an imaginary landscape that is mostly Edwardian, but he throws in plenty of incongruous elements. Toad owns a manor house and regularly goes to inns; he's smaller than people, but they readily take him for a person when he disguises himself. Everybody else lives in the wood, but they have human tools, including lanterns, swords, and pistols. The weasels and stoats (villains, of course) have rifles. And when Toad goes to prison, an Edwardian constable turns him over to prison guards with halberds, who take him past torture devices and throw him in a dungeon. It all culminates in a train chase, in which Toad is pursued by a train bristling with detectives, constables, and armor-suited knights. It's exactly what a boy of eight might have imagined in about 1910.
|"simply messing about in boats"
The center of the book comes in midsummer, with the chapter titled "The Piper At the Gates of Dawn." Just as Toad is languishing in a dark dungeon, with a bit of straw for his bed, Ratty and Mole hear that their friend Otter's son Portly is missing. He's an adventurous boy who likes to wander, but he's been gone for several days and nobody has seen him. The friends decide that they can't go to bed; they'll hunt for little Portly along the River. And in the dawn they find a perfect little island, and there they see the great Pan, playing his pipes. They're so overwhelmed with joy and worship that they must be made to forget what they've seen, but they find Portly too.
So the shape of the narrative reminds me of the Odyssey or something; the animals travel around, have adventures, and at the very center, they meet with ....I don't know, the Absolute? Something like that. Each meets their destination -- a glorious dawn, or a dark despair.
The only other thing I want to mention is about the re-taking of Toad Hall, which is filled with weasels, ferrets, and stoats, and the four friends sneak in and attack:
What a squealing and a squeaking and a screeching filled the air! Well might the terrified weasels dive under the tables and spring madly up at the windows! Well might the ferrets rush wildly for the fireplace and get hopelessly jammed in the chimney! Well might tables and chairs be upset, and glass and china be sent crashing on the floor, in the panic of that terrible moment when the four Heroes strode wrathfully into the room! The mighty Badger, his whiskers bristling, his great cudgel whistling through the air; Mole, black and grim, brandishing his stick and shouting his awful war-cry, "A Mole! A Mole!" Rat, desperate and determined, his belt bulging with weapons of every age and every variety; Toad, frenzied with excitement and injured pride, swollen to twice his ordinary size, leaping into the air and emitting Toad-whoops that chilled them to the marrow!
I just love Mole's awful war-cry.
Nobody should miss reading this story, which is both enchanting and funny, and not only for children.
*Water-rats are water voles, just called water-rats colloquially. Here's a real one!