When we were given the assignment to reread and discuss a book from our childhood, I was filled with delight. The prospect of revisiting the stories, the friends, of my youth was thrilling. I could once again travel to the lands of my imagination, once again witness the friendships and rivalries and romances, once again hope, with clenched-fist expectancy and sweat on my brow, for my hero to come out on top.
But this happiness, unfortunately, was accompanied by an unavoidable and unwanted diiemna: I could only choose one book. It was as if I had been brought to the largest candy shop in the world and had only a dime in my hand. Which treat would I choose and which would I have to give up. How could I take but one book and leave behind all of the other ones that I loved so much? I could return to the world of Narnia, or to the land of Oz. I could take a trip with James in a giant peach, or tag along with Tom Sawyer in Mississippi. I could, once again, peruse the tales of Rudyard Kipling, or those of Judy Blume. All of these stories, and many more brought me great delight as a child and all deserved another reading. A single choice, nevertheless, had to be made. And, when I thought about it, one book came to mind above all the rest. It is "a book of . . . life,sunshine, running water, woodlands, dusty roads, winter firesides"1, a book in which "friendship is the cental theme,"2, and a book that "sits . . . as one of the shaping spirits of all that was to be written for children thereafter."3 It is The Wind in the Willows, by Kenneth Grahame; it is a book that I read and loved, time and again, in my past and a book that I read happily again today.
Grahame, when he wrote the book, created "an Other world . . . somewhere you would never reach even if you traveled through the space of this universe for ever and ever a world that could be reached only by magic . . ."4 "He took [children] out of the steamier corner's of family life and showed them the joys of a parentless and carefree summer . . . the lovely untroubled countryside, the friendship, the mammoth meals, the scrapes and escapades. . .Quite simply, Grahame [created] a Utopia. . . "5 When I read the book as a child, this untroubled, childhood attracted and excited me. The book is, from one end to the other, adventure after adventure. The four main characters Rat, Mole, Toad, and Badger travel the counryside, boat on the river, and battle great enemies. "The four friends . . . do not work,but they rule the river quite naturally."6 This carefree, adventurous life is an alluring fantasy for a child.
In addition to the untroubled world in which they live, the characters are entertaining. Mole, with his childish curiosity and good-nature, is one of my favorites. He is always eager to try new things and often gets into trouble. When he goes on a picnic with Rat, he becomes envious of Rat's ability to row and begins to imagine that he can do it just as well. So, of course, he grabs the oars and tries it, with disastrous results:
He jumped up and seized the sculls so suddenly, that the Rat . . . was taken by surprise and fell backwards off his seat . . . while the triumphant Mole took his place and grabbed the sculls with entire confidence.
"Stop it. you silly ass!" cried the Rat, from the bottom of the boat. . ."You'll have us over!"
The Mole . . . made a great dig at the water. He missed the surface altogether, his legs flew up over his head. and he found himself lying on top of the prostrate Rat. Greatly alarmed, he made a grab at the side of the boat, and the next moment Sploosh!
Over went the boat . . . 7
Scenes like this were ones that I greatly enjoyed as a child.
Rat I loved because he too has a good nature. He is a friend to everyone and is always eager to help out. When the Mole first visits, Rat immediately packs a picnic of "coldtong- coldhamcoldbeefpickledherkinssaladfrenchrollscressandwidgespottedmeatgingerbeerlemonades odawater ."8 The characters are always packing lunches or making meals for each other. It is "friendship confirmed by the gift of food; that basic anthropology speaks straight to the heart of any right-minded reader."9
Toad, the last of the characters, was and is my favorite. He is rich and very fickle. He is hopelessly vain as well, and is constantly complimenting himself: "'Ho Ho!' he said to himself as he marched along with his chin in the air, what a clever Toad I am. There is surely no animal equal to me for cleverness in the whole world!"10 But for all of his boasting, Toad is perpetually getting into trouble: he steals a motorcar; he gets thrown in to prison, he is chased by authorities, and he has to dress in washerwoman's clothes as a disguise, to name but a few. I loved waiting to see the outcome of poor Toad's escapades.
When I was very young, I loved the adventure and friendship on the banks of the river. The animal's triumphs made me happy, and their tragedies made me sad. It was a book that gave me great pleasure.
The book today held for me a different kind of enjoyment. This is how I felt when rereading this book:
There is a key that will open (or reopen) to adults the door of children's books. It is the same key that children hold pleasure although it may be a different kind of pleasure from a child's since an adult brings to his reading of a children's book his whole experience of life, his association of ideas, his mature taste and discrimination.
I enjoyed it immensely, but I did enjoy different things than I had as a child. As a youth, I merely enjoyed the adventures, but now, I found myself enjoying Grahame's eloquent prose.
When at last they were thoroughly toasted, the Badger summoned them to the table, where he had been busy laying a repast. They had felt pretty hungry before. but when they actually saw at last the supper that was spread for them, really it seemed only a question of what they should attack first where all was so attractive, and whether other things would obligingly wait for them till they had time to give them attention.11
This is just one of the passages that I admired. In addition to the prose style. I also found myself noticing things that seemed out of place to me today, but were intended to make the animals into human beings to a child. For example, when Toad wakes up after sleeping in a tree trunk he "[combs] the dry leaves out of his hair with his fingers."12 This is ironic because toads have neither hair nor fingers. This time too I noticed that although human beings and animals interact in the book, the people set traps and keep animals as pets. Now I saw the irony of that as the animals in the book are far freer than human beings in the real world.
I enjoyed reading The Wind in the Willows in the past and immensely once again. It was a pleasure to be able in some sense, to relive a happy part of my past. The book was notably simpler now, and the adventures were no longer a surprise. But the fond memories it brought back of reading it in a simpler life more than compensated for this -- and what I noticed this time about its nature as a paradise and the ironies in the book. The power of this book is aptly explained by C.S. Lewis when he said: "No book is really worth reading at the age of ten which is not equally (and often far more) worth reading at the age of 50.'"13
1 Smith. Lillian H. The Unreluctant Years. (Chicago: American Library Association, 1953), p. 161
2 Inglis. Fred The Promise of Happiness. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 198), p. 118 3.
3 Ibid, p.123
4 Lewis, C.S. The Magician's Nephew. (London: Bodley Head, 1955), p. 25
5 Inglis, pp.122-23
6 Ibid p.119
7 Grahame, Kenneth. The Wind in the Willows. (New York: Dell Publishing Co., 1969), p.15
8 Ibid, p. 6
9 Inglis, p.118
10 Grahame, p.189
11 Ibid pp. 59-60
12 Inglis, p.102
13 Lewis, p. 26