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Although Grahame penned several works, his reputation stands almost solely on a single book, the classic “children’s book” The Wind in the Willows; since that is also his only book properly in our fields, it is that book alone that I will discuss here.
The book is an “animal book”—that is, its protagonists are all animals endowed by the author with human intelligence, speech, and mannerisms. Such things can be very, very good or very, very bad, depending on the author’s good sense or lack thereof.
Grahame’s book, as generations of delighted readers testify, is of the very, very good kind. One of the several reasons is that he treats his creatures and their setting with a kindly warmth that never descends, or even comes close to, the level of treacle. Another reason is the masterly way in which he can make his characters very human-like while yet allowing each retain his distinct animal characteristics: they are not people dressed up in fur.
It is an amazing trick. The Rat and the Badger and the Mole, for example, all have burrows; Rat’s is by the river, and plainly cannot be human-sized. Yet they all wear clothing and go out in rowboats and have picnics that involve mustard jars. Toad orders and drives automobiles that humans can and do drive, and chats with people in pubs, and can be dressed in a human’s clothes and be mistaken (we are to believe) for an old lady when so dressed. The creatures seem to be at once their "real" size and also a size compatible with the human world. The amazing thing is not so much that we accept this as that it needs no acceptance—we never really even think about it at all.
But it is not just in size that the creatures are dual: they have human emotions and concerns—they keep Christmas—and at the same time emotions and concerns that are peculiar to their individual animal natures and only distantly comprehensible (and that by Grahame’s genius) to us real humans reading their tales.
Many animal books are popular with both adults and children because they offer a false but rosy view of life as children wish it. That view (not unique to animal books, as the Sherlock Holmes tales show) is of a world of adult abilities and prerogatives, including having cozy quarters with a cheery fire in winter, bounteous meals (or “repasts”) early and often through the day, the right to dress and read and act largely as and how and when one pleases, easy and unquestioned pocket money, and lots of free time for exciting adventures in which the characters never come (nor, we sense, could come) to harm—all with no worries or responsibilities save such few as boon companionship and the code of derring-do impose. Who would not want to live at 221-B Baker Street or in the Hundred-Acre Wood or in the Tardis?
Grahame’s characters have some of that rosy aura of the casual life about them, enough to attract the sentiments of both children and adults, but the animals also do have real responsibilities, chores to do, upkeep to manage—just enough that the parent reading to a child, or the adult reading for pure personal pleasure, can avoid the feeling that this world is an impossibly simple and easy world, but not so much so that it seems just a reflection of the tedious workaday world we live in.
Without descending to dissection for analysis, we may in passing take note that Grahame’s prose is, to use a simple, overworked, but honest word, beautiful. It has been called “poetic”, and that is a fair telling: it uses alliteration and assonance, but above all it has a sense of rhythm and meter. It reads aloud wonderfully (parents take note).
That’s nearly all that one can, I think, meaningfully say about this wonderfully delightful book: indeed, if we respect words, “wonderfully delightful” will suffice as a description. Here, then, are a few representative samples of the tale:
The Mole had been working very hard all the morning, spring cleaning his little home. First with brooms, then with dusters; then on ladders and steps and chairs, with a brush and a pail of whitewash; till he had dust in his throat and eyes, and splashes of whitewash all over his black fur, and an aching back and weary arms. 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. It was small wonder, then, that he suddenly flung down his brush on the floor, said “Bother!” and “O blow!” and also “Hang spring-cleaning!” and bolted out of the house without even waiting to put on his coat.
As he sat on the grass and looked across the river, a dark hole in the bank opposite, just above the water’s edge, caught his eye, and dreamily he fell to considering what a nice snug dwelling-place it would make for an animal with few wants and fond of a bijou riverside residence, above flood level and remote from noise and dust.
“Nice? It’s the only thing,” said the Water Rat solemnly, as he leant forward for his stroke. “Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing—absolutely nothing—half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats. Simply messing,” he went on dreamily: “messing—about—in—boats; messing—”
“I see you don’t understand, and I must explain it to you. Well, very long ago, on the spot where the Wild Wood waves now, before ever it had planted itself and grown up to what it is now, there was a city—a city of people, you know. Here, where we are standing, they lived, and walked, and talked, and slept, and carried on their business. Here they stabled their horses and feasted, from here they rode out to fight or drove out to trade. They were a powerful people, and rich, and great builders. They built to last, for they thought their city would last for ever."
“But what has become of them all?” asked the Mole.
“Who can tell?” said the Badger. “People come—they stay for a while, they flourish, they build—and they go. But we remain. There were badgers here, I’ve been told, long before that same city ever came to be. And now there are badgers here again.”
The weary Mole also was glad to turn in without delay, and soon had his head on his pillow, in great joy and contentment. But ere he closed his eyes he let them wander round his old room, mellow in the glow of the firelight that played or rested on familiar and friendly things which had long been unconsciously a part of him, and now smilingly received him back, without rancour. He was now in just the frame of mind that the tactful Rat had quietly worked to bring about in him. He saw clearly how plain and simple—how narrow, even—it all was; but clearly, too, how much it all meant to him, and the special value of some such anchorage in one’s existence. He did not at all want to abandon the new life and its splendid spaces, to turn his back on sun and air and all they offered him and creep home and stay there; the upper world was all too strong, it called to him still, even down there, and he knew he must return to the larger stage. But it was good to think he had this to come back to, this place which was all his own, these things which were so glad to see him again and could always be counted upon for the same simple welcome.
Nature’s Grand Hotel has its Season, like the others. As the guests one by one pack, pay, and depart, and the seats at the table-d’hote shrink pitifully at each succeeding meal; as suites of rooms are closed, carpets taken up, and waiters sent away; those boarders who are staying on, en pension, until the next year’s full re-opening, cannot help being somewhat affected by all these flittings and farewells, this eager discussion of plans, routes, and fresh quarters, this daily shrinkage in the stream of comradeship. One gets unsettled, depressed, and inclined to be querulous. Why this craving for change? Why not stay on quietly here, like us, and be jolly? You don’t know this hotel out of the season, and what fun we have among ourselves, we fellows who remain and see the whole interesting year out. All very true, no doubt the others always reply; we quite envy you—and some other year perhaps—but just now we have engagements—and there’s the bus at the door—our time is up! So they depart, with a smile and a nod, and we miss them, and feel resentful. The Rat was a self-sufficing sort of animal, rooted to the land, and, whoever went, he stayed; still, he could not help noticing what was in the air, and feeling some of its influence in his bones.
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While there are seemingly countless pages on the web about Grahame or Willows (to write about the one is necessarily to write about the other), there is, curiously, no dedicated site. Here is a collection of links probably representing the cream of what there is out there.
When reading Grahame biographies, be aware that you should read several sources, since the biographies available vary materially one from another—usually as to which unfortunate part of Grahame’s life they want to wallpaper over (his alcoholic father, his family’s later sharp want of money, his son’s suicide, and the like) with euphemisms.
Perhaps the outstanding one-off page is the Kenneth Grahame page of the always reliable “Author’s Calendar”. Besides that one, there are these:
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Here are a few:
Kenneth Grahame, a Biography by Peter Green.
Eternal Boy: The Life Of Kenneth Grahame by Matthew Dennison.
The Man in the Willows by Matthew Dennison.
Another book, largely biographical, that also gives the reader insights into the works is Inventing Wonderland by Jackie Wullschläger, which looks at not only Grahame but Edward Lear (of the “nonsense” verses), J. M. Barrie (Peter Pan), Lewis Carroll (Alice), and A. A. Milne (Pooh). Wullschläger does a good job of showing how those several authors go together and also what distinguishes them, and the era and outlooks they jointly embodied.
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