Kenneth Grahame’s 1908 (!) anthropomorphic-animal classic. I read a 1976 paperback with a Disney cover that had nothing to do with any scene in the book.
3.5 out of 5 stars.
Times Read: 1
Mole, Rat, Badger and Toad have adventures in the English countryside.
As a kid, I thought I was too cool for books about talking animals and fantastic adventures. Amending this mistake, I’ve been going back to the classics (The Neverending Story, The Last Unicorn, Watership Down) with great results. The Wind in the Willows might not be as good as those others but it’s a pleasant, quick read.
We really have two books here: one a lovely tale of friendship between Mole and Rat with moments of poignancy, affection, and surprisingly moving spirituality. The second, which unfortunately ends up dominating the book, is about Toad: a cocky, reckless, irredeemable character who the others like for some reason.
Unlike Watership Down, this truly is a children’s book. The stakes are low and everything works out in the end. No violence, no lasting pain, nothing worse than hurt feelings.
Two last points before we get into it: the text feels fifty years old, not a hundred (a compliment, believe me, a huge compliment), and Grahame does something I’ve never seen before: the animals, who wear clothes and behave as people, live alongside and interact with same-sized humans.
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.
After all, the best part of a holiday is perhaps not so much to be resting yourself, as to see all the other fellows busy working.
A bijou riverside residence, above flood level and remote from noise and dust.
adjective – (especially of a residence or business establishment) small and elegant.
noun – (archaic) – a jewel or trinket.
“Otters, kingfishers, dabchicks, moorhens, all of them about all day long and always wanting you to do something.”
(p.16 – 17)
The little grebe, also known as dabchick, is a member of the grebe family of water birds.
Moorhens – sometimes called marsh hens – are medium-sized water birds that are members of the rail family, (Rallidae).
The silvery shoulders and foamy tumble of a weir.
noun – a barrier across the horizontal width of a river that alters the flow characteristics of the water and usually results in a change in the vertical height of the river level.
“In his brand-new wager-boat; new togs, new everything!”
noun – a high-performance boat for sculling, and winning wagers.
noun – clothes
verb – be or get dressed for a particular occasion or activity.
Willow-herb, tender and wistful, like a pink sunset cloud, was not slow to follow.
Epilobium is a genus of flowering plants in the family Onagraceae. The genus has a worldwide distribution. Most species are known by the common name willowherbs for their willow-like leaves.
The screens of quickset, the billowy drapery of beech and elm seemed best away.
A quickset hedge is a type of hedge created by planting live hazel or whitethorn cuttings directly into the earth. The word quick in the name refers to the fact that the cuttings are living, and not to the speed at the which the hedge grows, although it will establish quite rapidly.
“A door scraper!”
A small horizontal bar fixed to the ground near a door where visitors can scrape mud from their shoes before entering.
That happy grace which is the last thing the skilled actor shall capture – the natural grace which goes with perfect unconsciousness of observation.
(p.85 – 86)
Close against the white blind hung a birdcage, clearly silhouetted, every wire, perch, and appurtenance distinct and recognizable.
noun – an accessory or other item associated with a particular activity or style of living.
Even the delicate tips of his plumped-out plumage penciled plainly on the illuminated screen.
Plaster statuary – Garibaldi, and the infant Samuel, and Queen Victoria, and other heroes of modern Italy.
Giuseppe Garibaldi (1807 – 1882) was an Italian general, politician and nationalist who played a large role in the history of Italy.
Joshua Reynolds (1723 – 1792) was an influential eighteenth-century English painter, specializing in portraits. One of his works was The Infant Samuel (1776). The subject (I think?) is Samuel, the leader of ancient Israel in the Books of Samuel in the Hebrew Bible. (But why would Samuel be a hero of modern Italy?)
Down one side of the forecourt ran a skittle alley.
Skittles is an old European lawn game, a variety of bowling from which ten-pin bowling, duckpin bowling, candlepin bowling, and five-pin bowling are descended.
Sudden a star has led us on,
Raining bliss and benison
noun – (literary) – a blessing.
[The mice] toasted their chilblains till they tingled.
(also known as pernio, Chill Burns and perniosis) A medical condition that occurs when a predisposed individual is exposed to cold and humidity, causing tissue damage. It is often confused with frostbite and trench foot.
They were all busily engaged on him like water men applying the Royal Humane Society’s regulations to a case of long submersion.
The Royal Humane Society is a British charity which promotes lifesaving intervention. It was founded in England in 1774 as the Society for the Recovery of Persons Apparently Drowned, for the purpose of rendering first aid in cases of near drowning.
A hot sun seemed to be pulling everything green and bushy and spiky up out of the earth towards him, as if by strings.
“At this very moment, perhaps, Toad is busy arraying himself in those singularly hideous habiliments so dear to him.”
noun – (archaic) – clothing.
[Toad] was a soft-hearted and affectionate fellow, very easily converted – for the time being – to any point of view.
“Then you don’t promise,” said the Badger, “never to touch a motorcar again?”
“Certainly not!” replied Toad empathetically. “On the contrary, I faithfully promise that the very first motorcar I see, poop-poop! Off I go in it!”
So spoke the Badger, not knowing what the future held in store, or how much water, and of how turbid a character, was to run under bridges before Toad should sit at ease again in his ancestral Hall.
adjective – (of a liquid) cloudy, opaque, or thick with suspended matter.
confused or obscure in meaning or effect.
Men-at-arms in casquet and corselet of steel, darting threatening looks through the vizards.
noun – a light open headpiece.
noun – (historical) – a piece of armor covering the trunk.
noun – (archaic) – a mask or disguise.
“Thy old head shall answer for his – and a murrain on both of them!”
noun – an infectious disease, especially babesiosis, affecting cattle or other animals.
(archaic, humorous) – a plague, epidemic, or crop blight.
The dark selvedge of the river bank.
noun – an edge produced on woven fabric during manufacture that prevents it from unraveling.
(Geology) – a zone of altered rock, especially volcanic glass, at the edge of a rock mass.
At last, over the rim of the waiting earth the moon lifted with slow majesty till it swung clear of the horizon and rode off, free of moorings.
The splendid curves of the shaggy limbs disposed in majestic ease on the sward.
noun – an expanse of short grass.
(farming) – the upper layer of soil, especially when covered with grass.
Still, as he looked, he lived; and still, as he lived, he wondered.
Mole stood still for a moment, held in thought. As one wakened suddenly from a beautiful dream, who struggles to recall it, and can recapture nothing but a dim sense of the beauty of it, the beauty! Till that, too, fades away in its turn, and the dreamer bitterly accepts the hard, cold waking and all its penalties; so Mole, after struggling with his memory for a brief space, shook his head sadly and followed the Rat.
“This is the end of everything” (he said), “at least it is the end of the career of Toad, which is the same thing.”
[The canary] was shrouded in an antimacassar on the parlor table at night.
noun – (historical) – a piece of cloth put over the back of a chair to protect it from grease and dirt or as an ornament.
[Dinner] was bubble-and-squeak, between two plates.
Bubble and squeak is a traditional English dish made with the shallow-fried leftover vegetables from a road dinner. The main ingredients are potato and cabbage. The dish is so named because the cabbage makes bubbling and squeaking sounds during the cooking process.
He heard the wicket gate in the great outer door click behind him.
noun – a small door or gate, especially one beside or in a larger one.
Nightjars, sounding their mechanical rattle, made him think that the wood was full of searching warders, closing in on him.
Nightjars are medium-sized nocturnal or crepuscular birds characterized by long wings, short legs and very short bills.
“You may have heard, too, of Sigurd, King of Norway, and how he sailed thither with sixty ships.”
Sigurd I Magnusson (~1090 – 1130), also known as Sigurd the Crusader, was King of Norway from 1103 to 1130. He is famous for leading the Norwegian Crusade (1107 – 1110), earning the eponym “the Crusader.” Sigurd possessed a total force of about 5,000 men in about 60 ships, as recorded by the sagas. He left almost everything he had gained in Constantinople.
 Grahame’s in-story attempt to explain the name/mythology of the “Norwegian rat” (which, in Stephen King’s “1922” (note ), we leaned wasn’t from Norway at all):
“When Sigurd returned home, many of his Northmen remained behind and entered the Emperor’s bodyguard, and my ancestor, a Norwegian born, stayed behind too, with the ships that Sigurd gave the Emperor. Seafarers we have ever been.”
“We made Alassio in the evening.”
Alassio is a town and comune (basic administrative division) in the province of Savona situated in the western coast of Liguria, Northern Italy, approximately 50 miles from the French border.
The hungry complaint of the gulls and the sea mews.
Sea mew, seamew or (obsolete spelling) seamewe refers to the common gull, or “mew gull.”
“He’s a blood horse (…) And he’s been a Prize Hackney, too.”
A blood horse is a thoroughbred or any purebred horse.
A Hackney horse is a breed known for its high trotting action, particularly in harness.
 Reference (the title of Chapter 11):
“Like Summer Tempests Came His Tears”
A line from Home they Brought her Warrior Dead (1847) by Alfred Lord Tennyson (there it reads: “Like summer tempest came her tears”).
“I shall keep a pony-chaise to jog about the country in.”
noun – a light, low chaise, drawn by a pony or a pair of ponies.
The Wind in the Willows is a fine and pleasant book; well-written with two characters I’m very happy to have met. It’s not required reading by any means. If you have a patient child (the type who can handle pastoral passages), this would be a great bedtime read-aloud (though, have a dictionary handy). If, like me, you’re an adult who missed this one, you can continue your life without it.
Actually, I lie. One section is worth reading, even if you never look at any other page of the book. Chapter 7: The Piper at the Gates of Dawn. I understand now why Syd Barrett picked this title for Pink Floyd’s first album.
Mixing the schedule up next week, we’ll do a Monday through Friday five-post review of John Fowles’ short story collection The Ebony Tower.