Since my last blog post explored the idea of books as gateways to other worlds, I thought it would be lovely to transport myself to a beloved children’s classic. First published in 1908, Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows tells the story of four anthropomorphised animals living in a pastoral countryside similar to Edwardian England. Over the years, there have been a few adaptations, the most popular being Disney’s The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad. Thus, I have selected this book for my “Adapted Classic” entry in the Back to the Classics Challenge because of my fond memories of this book. Re-reading The Wind in the Willows was such a wonderful experience that felt like enjoying a relaxing picnic with some old friends.
My edition of this book is The Classic Edition which includes the original illustrations by E. H. Shephard. The artwork is so beautiful and perfectly captures the spirit of the writing. If you plan on reading this book, make sure it includes the Shephard illustrations as they bring these fun characters to life. I also love how my copy is slightly larger than your standard hardcover book. As you can see from the eye-catching cover, it certainly will brighten any bookshelf. Each chapter is a short adventure within itself while still coming together to tell a larger story.
Kenneth Grahame once said that “for every honest reader, there exists some half-dozen honest books, which he re-reads at regular intervals of six months of thereabouts.” While it probably will not be that often, I know I will turn to this book time and time again throughout my life. I’ve always believed that the sign of an endearing children’s story is that you can still find enjoyment in it as an adult. As I was reading, I found myself completely enthralled in the adventures of the four main characters. We are first introduced to Mole who proves himself to be intelligent, loyal, and full of the spirit of adventure. After becoming fed up with his secluded existence, he bravely ventures out into the bigger world where he encounters Rat. Enjoying a life of leisure on the river, Rat has a romantic spirit which he channels into his poetry. Wise old Badger chooses to live life as a hermit in the Wild Wood, but he will still come to the aid of his friends when necessary. Finally, we have Mr. Toad. Larger than life and perhaps a little misguided at times, Toad prefers to be the center at any gathering (similarities to myself did not go unnoticed, thank you very much). His “enthusiasm” for motor cars tend to land him in trouble, as anyone who has ridden the Disney ride knows. In the end, Toad proves himself quite resourceful. I thought the personalities of the four main characters complimented each other perfectly.
Another quality that separates The Wind in the Willows from your average children’s book is that it becomes quite philosophical at times. While several parts of the book move at a fast pace, there are just as many sections where the action slows down, which is perfect considering the setting. Kenneth Grahame was known to prefer places over people, and this book is so elegant in its descriptions of setting. Here’s one small snippet: “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.” Beautifully written right? There are so many beautiful paragraphs of description that requires you to slow down and just drink it in. Part of the fun of this book is to overlook the discrepancies with the characters’ sizes as animals. In some situations, they come across as equal to humans, while others have them the size of their real-life counterparts. My advice is to just overlook and enjoy the story for the fun and elegant storytelling.
I enjoyed learning more about the history of this book and its author from a great introduction by Brian Sibley. Many of the stories were written to entertain Grahame’s son Alastair (nicknamed “Mouse”), who sadly, took his own life years later while attending college. The wondrous adventures of Mr. Toad and friends often served as an escape from the harsher aspects of Grahame’s life. While none of his other work will ever reach the popularity of The Wind in the Willows, it can be guaranteed that Grahame achieved immortality through these extraordinary adventures. This book proves that timeless wisdom can still be found in children’s literature.