Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The Wind in the Willows - Turns 100!

The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame was first published in 1908. The first edition was illustrated by Ernest Shepard with work that is almost as perfect as Grahame's story. In this its 100th year, what better time is there for a review.

Grahame's classic novel is a fine example of how writing is more than just words. In fact, that it is more than just ‘the best words in the best possible order’ (a definition of poetry taught to me when I was at school).

This is rich narrative, with wonderful characters and word choice and sentence structure that is as close to perfect as you can get. But there is more. Here is language that is symphonic, with the rhythms of each sentence and the choice and ordering of words matching exquisitely the settings, situations and atmosphere that Grahame has created. Or perhaps it’s the other way round.

The book really came to prominence when the famous playwright, A. A. Milne adapted a part of the story for the stage in 1929 - Toad of Toad Hall. Milne loved the book so much that he wanted others to appreciate it. This first production led to many other versions over the decades (see below).

The story summary

The book opens in spring, when the weather is fine and animals along the river and in the wood are stirring from their winter slumber. We first meet the good-natured and uncomplicated Mole, who tired and bored of his spring-cleaning, senses restlessness within and leaves his underground home. He reaches the river, a thing he had never seen before and meets the wise and worldly Ratty (in reality it was a ‘water vole’ which is often confused for a rat and is now a rare mammal), who sees life as something that must be lived along the river. Grahame then slowly (at a springtime afternoon pace) introduces us to the main characters.

After meeting Otter and Badger along the river Ratty takes Mole to meet our main character Toad near Toad Hall. Toad is rich, jovial and friendly, worldly, conceited, vague and prone to becoming obsessed with new things that are quickly discarded. Having exhausted his love of boats his current craze is his horse-drawn caravan. Ratty and Mole head off with him on their first adventure and are with Toad as he discovers his next obsession, the motorcar. What follows is the story of Toad as he creates havoc with his new obsession, ends up in gaol, and has his home invaded by stoats and weasels. We are drawn along by the drama as Toad’s friends strive to protect him from himself and his latest craze and eject the impostors who have taken over Toad Hall.

Here's how the story begins, giving just a hint of the beauty of its language and the mood that Grahame creates with words:

The Mole had been working very hard all the morning, spring-cleaning his little home. First with brooms, then with dusters; then on ladders and steps and chairs, with a brush and a pail of whitewash; till he had dust in his throat and eyes, and splashes of whitewash all over his black fur, and an aching back and weary arms. 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. It was small wonder, then, that he suddenly flung down his brush on the floor, said `Bother!' and `O blow!' and also `Hang spring-cleaning!' and bolted out of the house without even waiting to put on his coat. Something up above was calling him imperiously, and he made for the steep little tunnel which answered in his case to the gravelled carriage-drive owned by animals whose residences are nearer to the sun and air.

The movie version

If you think that your children will struggle with the richness of the language you might consider using a video first or one of the many illustrated versions of the story. I introduced my grandchildren to the story through the wonderful video/DVD depiction of the story first when they were less than 5 years. There are a number of versions, but the one we have is an animated production produced by Carlton UK and narrated by Vanessa Redgrave and with wonderful readers for the characters including Michael Palin who voices Ratty. It runs for 73 minutes and faithfully retells the story with perfect background music, faithful and accurate characterisation and precise use of the language of the novel.

Jacob (now 6) was just 3 when I first showed him the video and he loved it from the start. Within minutes of his first viewing we were acting out scenes from the video. We were to dramatise parts of the story on numerous occasions over the following two years (often in the back yard or under the Jacaranda tree at church after services). “Can we be Ratty and Mole?” he would implore me, and as a good grandad I would comply. I was almost always Ratty, he was mole, his Nanna and father (when roped in occasionally) would alternate as Badger, and his mother was typically Otter with little sister Rebecca becoming Portly (the baby otter). We hunted stoats and weasels, visited Badger in the Wild Wood, saved Toad and restored Toad Hall to Toad’s hands.

In time we began to read illustrated versions of the book (of which there are numerous versions) and later the novel.

You can also view a 6 minute video clip from the Terry Jones screenplay of the novel with a real life cast and an appearance from John Cleese as Toad's lawyer at his trial (click here).

Live productions

There have been a number of major live productions of The Wind in the Willows (in some form) since the A.A. Milne production of Toad of Toad Hall in 1929. These include:

Wind in the Willows, a 1985 Tony-nominated Broadway musical starring Nathan Lane
The Wind in the Willows, by Alan Bennett (who also appeared as Mole) in 1991
Mr Toad's Mad Adventures, by Vera Morris
Wind in the Willows, by Ian Billings

If you live in Sydney you can also take your children to a live production in the Royal Botanic Gardens from the 5-26 January 2008 (details here). This is an annual event that has been going for at least 20 years. Carmen and I took Jacob to see this production in 2006 and he loved it (as we did). The play is performed at several locations around the Gardens with the audience moving to the various locations where basic props have been set up. This is a wonderful way to appreciate this great book in another way with the Sydney Harbour Bridge and the Opera House as the backdrop.

Sequels and adaptations

William Horwood created several sequels to 'The Wind in the Willows': The Willows in Winter, Toad Triumphant, The Willows and Beyond, and The Willows at Christmas. The Willows in Winter appears on the same DVD as the TVC production of The Wind in the Willows.


Andrew said...

Thanks for this post. It is one of my favourite books. I read it out loud to my wife during late night feeds of our baby (now 5 months old). But I can't wait for him to grow up so I can introduce him to the wonderful world of mole, ratty, badger and of course Toad.

Trevor Cairney said...

Thanks Andrew, yes it is a wonderful book. Keep reading constantly to your little baby and he'll be enjoying Wind in the Willows before you know it (you can always start at about age 4 with one of the illustrated or abridged versions).

Best wishes,

Muscadecipio said...

Cool post and a great site. I had an early edition of this book as a kid that my grandfather gave me (I'm 44) now. Very worn and dog eared (as any good book should be)and I think it is in my bookshelf somewhere. It was one of the books I read to my kids when they were younger. We are a bookworm family and Sunday afternoon's are often spent with the family sprawled in the lounge reading. There are a lot of fights as I read the fastest and will often "borrow" my sons books while they are still busy with them :-)