Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Bliss tomorrow and more and on

Current book: The Wind in the Willows
Pages read: 1-98

I'm almost halfway through, and Mr. Badger has only just arrived, really, in a dressing gown rather than a waistcoat, but I'll take it. It's a bit hard to relate the plot of this book due to the fact that it's really more like a collection of short stories than anything with plot, but I think I can manage.

It begins with Mole leaving his home after winter and meeting Rat, with whom he quickly becomes very good friends. (Actually, this part was a little awkward. Every time one cute, anthropomorphised animal meets another, they become fast friends for no good reason. I'm going to let it slide as a quirk of a kids' book written in 1908, but it's annoying.) Anyway, they embark on various adventures together that include punting, picnics, and eventually visiting Mr. Toad at Toad Hall. Toad seems to be the richest and most foolish of the animals that live in the area, and is always getting obsessed with expensive hobbies like sailing. Mole, Rat, and Toad go on a caravan trip together in a lovely canary-yellow gypsy wagon, but their adventure is cut short by a motorcar that sideswipes them off the road. Instead of being angry and disgusted at the car and its driver, Toad admires the power and speed of the car and takes up motoring as his new obsession.

Mole and Rat also go to visit Badger in the Wild Wood, though they get lost in the snow on the way and end up staying the night. On their way home, they stop by Mole's old house and entertain a family of young mice out caroling (Which is, I must admit, cute beyond all reason, and the text of the included Christmas carol makes me want to learn the melody and sing it at every possible occasion. That would be dorky and ridiculous, of course, but don't underestimate the extent to which I'm devoted to all things Christmasy.). The following summer, Badger and Rat decide that Toad's driving is out of control and stage an intervention, but the mad amphibious motorist escapes them, steals someone else's car, and crashes spectacularly, after which he's thrown in jail by the local magistrate with a sentence of twenty years.

I'm charmed by many of the scenes, and the illustrations in my edition are contributing significantly to my affection by being both gorgeous and heartwarming. The canary-yellow caravan and the mice singing carols struck chords of wanderlust and nostalgia in me, and I can't express how much I'm longing to have a picnic right now. It is also, of course, a breeze to read, especially compared to most of the other books on the list. All that said, there's a tendency to moralize, characteristic of the children's literature of this period, that's weighing down Grahame's writing with straitjacketed axioms. The values he's communicating aren't necessarily sunshine and buttercups, either. They have a tendency to advise the reader to stick to the status quo and avoid danger and its attendant adventure:

"For others the asperities, the stubborn endurance, or the clash of actual conflict, that went with Nature in the rough; he must be wise, must keep to the pleasant places in which his lines were laid and which held adventure enough, in their way, to last for a lifetime," (64).

In some ways it reminds me of The Hobbit, actually, in its appreciation of the pastoral English landscape coupled with the wanderings and adventures of humorously bumbling but ultimately endearing homebodies. That said, (and God help me, because I'm about to praise Tolkien) The Hobbit actually comes down on the side of adventure and wandering, encouraging free thought and risk-taking, whereas The Wind in the Willows wants its reader to stay home and be safe.

I also think that there's some satire of the upper class going on here. It's not biting or particularly sharp, but all of these animals seem to wander around wasting time with picnics and motoring, getting obsessed with fads and meddling in each others' business. If that's not mockery of the aristocracy, I don't know what is.

I suspect I'll finish tomorrow, so I'm crossing my fingers that Interlibrary Loan will get Willa Cather to my branch library on time. Death, after all, awaits the archbishop. Who am I to stand in the way?

1 comment:

  1. I didn't write down my page numbers, which is moot because I have a different edition, but I wanted to list a couple of phrases that I found charming. "Spring...its spirit of divine discontent and longing." Narrator "Doormats know their place." Rat Oh, terrible bad, sir, terrible deep the snow is." Young Hedgehog (That reminded me so much of the James Herriot series.) And, as part of the Dulce Domum chapter, "slumber gathered him forthwith".

    In the tri-part battle amongst home, adventure, and the open road, home definitely comes in first. I'm disappointed by that too. I also feel that the inordinate amount of time that it takes Toad to give up his arrogant disregard for others is directly connected by the author to the amount of wealth he possesses. That, of course, is an unfair stereotype.



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