The books we love become our cartography.
Several times, during a long life of reading, I’ve been tempted to write an autobiography based solely on the books that have counted for me. Someone once told me that it was customary for a Spanish nobleman to have his coat of arms engraved on the headboard of his bed so that visitors might know who it was who lay in a sleep that might always be his last. Why then not be identified by the books at my bedside that, better than a symbolic shield, define and represent me? If I ever indulged in such a vainglorious undertaking, a chapter, an early chapter, would no doubt be given over to The Wind in the Willows.
I can’t remember the very first time I read The Wind in the Willows, since it is one of those books that seem to have been with me always, but it must have been very early on, when my room was in a cool, dark basement and the garden I played in boasted four tall palm trees and an old tortoise as their tutelary spirit. The geography of our books contaminates the geography of our life, and so, from the very beginning, Mole’s meadows and Rat’s riverbank and Badger’s woods seeped into my private landscapes, demanding from the cities I lived in and the places I visited the same feelings of delight and comfort and adventure that sprang from those much-turned pages. In this sense, the books we love become our cartography.
In 1888, John Ruskin gave a name to the casual conjunction between physical nature and strong human emotions. “All violent feelings,” he wrote, “produce in us a falseness in all our impressions of external things, which I would generally characterize as the ‘Pathetic Fallacy’.” Kenneth Grahame magnificently ignored the warning. The landscape of Cookham Dene on the Thames (the place in which he lived and which he translated into the world of Mole and Rat, Badger and Toad) is, emotionally, the source and not the result of a view of the world that cannot be distinguished from the world itself. There may have been a time when the bucolic English landscape lay ignored and untouched by words, but since the earliest English poets the reality of the place lies to a far greater extent in its description than in its mere existence. No reader of The Wind in the Willows can ever see Cookham Dene for the first time. After the last page, we are all old inhabitants for whom every nook and cranny is as familiar as the stains and cracks on our bedroom ceiling. There is nothing false in these impressions.
There are books that have (beyond the calm that comes with familiarity) an intrinsically quiet, soothing quality. The Wind in the Willows is such a book. Something in the choice of words and the rhythm of its sentences echoes the mood of the ancient, beloved landscape so dear to Grahame and that he knew so well. But the ease of his prose is deceiving. “A sentence that is easy to read,” he once said, “may have been difficult to put together. Perhaps the greater the easiness in writing, the harder that task in composition. Writing is not easy: I need not tell you that. There is always a pleasure in the exercise; but, also, there is always an agony in the endeavour. If we make a formula of those two motives, I think we may define the process. It is, at its best, a pleasurable agony.”
And yet, The Wind in the Willows did not start at that leisurely pace. It began as a story breathlessly told to Mouse (the nickname of Grahame’s son, Alastair) during a crying fit on the boy’s fourth birthday, and was then continued by letter while Alastair was at the seaside with his governess in the summer of 1907. The story (if we are to judge by the letters, published by Grahame’s widow Elspeth in 1944 under the title First Whisper of ‘The Wind in the Willows’) had a pure bedtime-story tone, a fast-paced cuteness mercifully absent in the finished version.
Green Bank Hotel,
10th May 1907
My darling Mouse,
Have you heard about the Toad? He was never taken prisoner by brigands at all. It was all a horrid low trick of his. He wrote that letter himself—the letter saying that a hundred pounds must be put in the hollow tree. And he got out of the window early one morning, & went off to a town called Buggleton, & went to the Red Lion Hotel & there he found a party that had just motored down from London, & while they were having breakfast he went into the stable-yard & found their motor-car & went off in it without even saying Poop-poop! And now he has vanished & every one is looking for him, including the police. I fear he is a bad low animal.
Your loving Daddy.
Mouse was, by all accounts, a fearless boy, as undaunted by danger as Toad himself. His mother said that he never dreaded “anything of material nature.” As a small child, he loved to hear the wind blowing outside the house at night, and when asked if he minded sleeping alone in the nursery, he answered: “Not if you’ll go away and shut the door.” And when asked further if he wasn’t afraid being all alone in the dark, he said: “Not if you’ll put out the light.”
Years later, Mouse was killed in an unexplained accident in Oxford. For the reader, the intrusion of this tragedy in the story of the story surreptitiously turns The Wind in the Willows into an elegy. The tone now is of something recognizably dear but lost, alive in memory (in the memory, constantly renewed, of the reader), eternally youthful because prevented by death from growing old.
When he offered the novel to the publisher Charles Scribner’s Sons, Grahame described it as “a book of youth, and so perhaps chiefly for youth and those who still keep the spirit of youth alive in them; of life, sunshine, running water, woodlands, dusty roads, winter firesides, free of problems, clear of the clash of sex, of life as it might fairly be supposed to be regarded by some of the wise, small things ‘that glide in grasses and rubble of woody wreck’.”
And yet, the youthfulness of the book seems laden with another feeling: of contentment that is not often of youth but of the time that comes later, after the restlessness and anxiety of the new are over and we settle down in our destined place. The Wind in the Willows begins with leaving, and with a search and a discovery, but it soon achieves an overwhelming sense of peace and happy satisfaction, of untroubled familiarity. We are at home in Grahame’s book.
But Grahame’s universe is not one of retirement or seclusion, of withdrawal from the world. On the contrary, it is one of time and space shared, of mirrored experience. From the very first pages, the reader discovers that The Wind in the Willows is a book about friendship, one of those English friendships that Jorge Luis Borges once described by saying that they “begin by precluding confidences and end by forgoing dialogue.” The theme of friendship runs amicably through all our literatures. Like Gilgamesh and Enkidu, Achilles and Patroclus, David and Jonathan, Don Quixote and Sancho, Ishmael and Queequeg, Sherlock Holmes and Watson, Kim and the Lama, Bouvard and Pécuchet (all of whom cross, arm in arm, our best-loved stories), Rat and Mole reflect for each other discovered identities and crossed views of the world. Each one asserts for the other the better, livelier part of his character; each encourages the other to be his finer, brighter self. Mole may be lost without Rat’s guidance, but without Mole’s adventurous spirit, Rat would remain withdrawn and far too removed from the world. Together they build Arcadia out of their common surroundings; pace Ruskin, their friendship defines the place that has defined them.
If The Wind in the Willows was a sounding board for the places I lived in, it became, during my adolescence, also one for my relationships, and I remember wanting to live in a world with absolute friends like Rat and Mole. Not all friendships, I discovered, are identical. Rat and Mole’s bonds are unimpeachably solid, equally balanced and unquestioned (and I was fortunate enough to have a couple of friendships of that particular kind), but their relationship with Badger is more formal, more distanced, since we are in England, land of castes and classes, and Badger holds a social position that requires from all others a respectful deference. (Of the Badger sort, too, I found friends whom I loved dearly but with whom I always had to tread carefully, not wanting to be considered overbearing or unworthy.)
With Toad, the relationship is more troubling. Rat and Mole love Toad and care for him, and assist him almost beyond the obligations of affection, in spite of the justified exasperation he provokes in them. He, on the other hand, is far less generous and obliging, calling on them only when in need or merely to show off. (Friends like Toad I also had, and these were the most difficult to please, the hardest to keep on loving, the ones that over and over again made me want to break up the relationship, but then they’d ask for help once more and once more I’d forgive them.)
Toad is the reckless adventurer, the loner, the eternal adolescent. Mole and Rat begin the book in an adolescent spirit but grow in wisdom as they grow in experience; for Toad every outing is an eternal return to the same whimsical deeds and the same irresponsible exploits. If we, the readers, love Toad (though I don’t), we love him as spectators; we love his clownish performance on a stage of his own devising and follow his misadventures as we follow those of a charming rogue. But Mole and Rat, and even Badger, we love as our fellow creatures, equal to us in joy and in suffering. Badger is everyone’s older brother, Rat and Mole the friends who walk together and mature together in their friendship. They are our contemporaries, reborn with every new generation. We feel for them in their misfortunes and rejoice in their triumphs as we feel and rejoice for our nearest and dearest. During my late childhood and adolescence, their companionship was for me the model relationship, and I longed to share their picnics and to be part of their easy complicité as other readers long for the love of Mathilde or the adventurous travels of Sinbad.
Because The Wind in the Willows is not a fantasy and must not be confused with a work of fantastic literature. In fact, it is strange how keenly Grahame succeeded in making his creatures utterly believable to us. The menageries of Aesop or La Fontaine, Günter Grass or Colette, Orwell or Kipling, have at least one paw in a symbolic (or worse, allegorical) world; Grahame’s beasts are of flesh and fur and blood, and their anthropomorphic qualities mysteriously do not diminish, but enhance, their animal natures.
I’ve said that with every rereading, The Wind in the Willows lends texture and meaning to my experience of life; that with each familiar unfolding of its story, it elicits for me a new happiness. That is because The Wind in the Willows is a magical book. Something in its pages re-enchants the world, makes it once again wonderfully mysterious. I envy the reader who is about to begin it now, who has yet to enter its welcoming landscape and who has yet to meet the comrades of a lifetime.