Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Wind in the Willows

For whatever reason, some stories get associated with the holidays even though they really aren’t about Christmas at all. Kenneth Grahane’s The Wind in the Willows is one.

Really, it’s just one chapter of the book that has been adopted into holiday bookshelves. The fifth chapter, called “Dolce Decorum” was excerpted as Mole’s Christmas Welcome, a story about Mole stumbling upon the smell of his old home and dragging Ratty along to look for it. It’s Christmastime and when they arrive in Mole’s home they decorate and eat a nice, but simple meal. It's really very moving, actually, because the call of home is so strong for Mole that he can't ignore it and is pulled by his memories and his senses toward his old life, even though it's only for a short time. Nostalgia is a pretty common holiday feeling, and Grahame's depiction of that draw to the past it beautifully worked out through Mole.

Really, it’s a lovely little story and I’m not at all surprised that it got pulled out as a festive tale. But it really isn’t very representative of the rest of the novel, which is much more action-packed. And although the friendship between Ratty and Mole is certainly well illustrated in the Christmas story, Toad, Badger and the Weasels—all important figures in the story—are completely left out of it.

Toad is also a friend of Ratty and Mole, but instead of occupying his days with leisurely boat rides along The River he becomes obsessed with motor cars, makes very bad decisions and nearly loses his family home, Toad Hall, to the Weasels.

Normally I really dislike books with talking animals, but this is one of the few exceptions. Rather than giving his characters cutesy names, Grahame’s animals aren’t really given names. And although they wear clothes (waistcoats and all) and drive cars and take trains, they are still animals. I’m not sure what it is about Grahame’s storytelling that allows his characters to walk that line—possibly that it’s a story meant for children—but there’s something serious about his tale of animals living along a riverbank.

There are a lot of messages here about greed and responsibility, but more than anything, The Wind in the Willows is about friendship. The friendship between Ratty and Mole that leads Mole out of his tunnels and into a rowboat and allows Mole to lead Ratty into his old home to celebrate Christmas.

And the more complicated friendship between Ratty, Mole and Toad. Toad is incredibly irresponsible and selfish and, from the vantage point of the reader, Toad doesn’t seem to deserve the friendship of either Ratty or Mole. But regardless, when Toad needs them to help save his home from the Weasels that have overrun it, they are there for him. And that seems to be the real story behind the adventure and intrigue of The Wind in the Willows, which is probably a good holiday message too.

As Grahame describes it, it’s easy to get caught up in life—whether that life involves joy riding in stolen cars or peaceful boating or celebrating Christmas in an old burrow—but life only matters when you’ve got good friends to share it with.

The Wind in the Willows
by Kenneth Grahame
First published in 1908 (cover image shown from Palazzo edition)

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