Tuesday, September 29, 2015

The Wind in the Willows
Kenneth Grahame

The Mole had been working very hard all the morning, spring-cleaning his little home.

            There it is, a sentence with its feet planted firmly on the ground. What is there not to understand? The two adjectives — “very” and “little” — add a touch of naive charm. So it will be all through The Wind in the Willows. Child or adult, you will understand and you will be charmed.
            Mole’s housework is interrupted when he suddenly catches the scent of Spring, with its “divine discontent and longing.” He flings down his brush (“Hang spring cleaning!”) and scrambles up the tunnels of his burrow until he is rolling in the warm grass of the meadow.
            Of the four main characters in Wind, Mole is the least sophisticated. He will have his taste of the Life Adventurous — and a taste of it will cause him to appreciate the Life Contented. He eventually achieves a sensible and pleasing balance between the two.
            Rat, who lives on the bank of a river, has much more knowledge of the wide world, but there’s a cautiousness to his nature. That cautiousness is shaken when he meets a wayfaring Sea Rat and hears all sorts of exotic tales. He becomes determined to leave his home and strike out on a ship bound South. He is dissuaded from this potentially dangerous venture by Mole. Still, Rat experiences a lingering wistfulness.
            Badger, who has a snug home in the Wild Wood, is older and more settled than the other two. He knows what he is and is satisfied with what he has. In fact, he can be quite grumpy if his quiet existence is disturbed. But he is soon revealed to be warm-hearted, generous, wise and, in a crisis, a formidable ally.
            Toad provides most of the crises. Unlike the others, Toad is an extravagant character. He is ruled by “enthusiasms” (a crucial one in the book involves motorcars, with their Siren’s song of “poop-poop”). His greatest extravagance, however, is himself. He is not conceited; he is vainglorious. He is not irresponsible; he is reckless. He can go from abject misery to rapture in an instant. He can suffer the most humiliating experience and turn it, in his mind, into another of the Great Toad’s triumphs.
            Mole, Rat and Badger are constantly advising, cautioning and chastising Toad. Will he, as he promises at the end of the book, mend his ways? I doubt it. Toad is an example of a personality who exists far from the Golden Mean. That he is young and rich doesn’t help matters.
            When not involved with the rollicking misadventures of Toad, the novel moves along leisurely, like a pleasant country stroll on a sunny day with an amiable and amusing friend.
            Kenneth Grahame embeds some Life issues seamlessly in The Wind in the Willows. One is: How do we live our lives? Grahame acknowledges the desire we have for adventure, which is fine and natural, but he shows how foolhardiness can lead to troubles small and large. Wisdom is in knowing how to limit your desires and how to find fulfillment in the good things you have. The other question is: How do we treat one another? And the answer is: Exactly how the characters in his book do! With kindness, generosity, care and, when needed, a helping hand. Oh that humans would act so well toward one another.