Published in 1908, this British classic tells tales of four country friends–a rat, a mole, a badger, and (most famously) a rich, pompous, adventuresome toad. These are no flat, stock children’s book characters. They have enough neurotic vinegar in them to make the cast of Toy Story seem like The Waltons by comparison. Not only do they have strikingly realistic personalities, but they behave in the ways that our grandparents did, ways that make us blush today. They don’t hesitate to insult someone, calling a spade a spade when needed, they acknowledge violence as a normal way to deal with thugs, and differences between social classes aren’t treated at all as anything unusual–just another natural part of life.
And yet, this world that often seems rough to our “modern sensibilities” is also markedly refined compared to most of our daily ditherings. The Wind in the Willows is so thoroughly pastoral that it practically strives to be scripture on the subject, vying perhaps to sit next to Walden and The Boy Scout Handbook on my shelf. One chapter, in fact, dreamily describes an episode where two lost characters in the woods encounter an ecstatic ancient spirit, whose communion is powerfully glorious. Such seemingly pagan influences struck me as odd for a book coming from the Edwardian period, but it fits in without a ripple of real inappropriateness here, not blushing in its unabashed environmentalism.
All this has just been prologue, though, for the thing that truly makes this masterpiece stand up and demand our attention is just how amazingly literary it is. (more…)