Thursday, August 29, 2013

The Wind in the Willows, by Kenneth Grahame

Okay, so I know this book doesn't exactly fall within my usual bailiwick of science-fiction or history. I mean, since the main characters are all anthropomorphic animals and there's a demigod it might count as fantasy but even then that's a tenuous link at best. To be perfectly honest the reason was I was reminded of the book and remembered liking it a lot as a child, as well as a couple of its film adaptations, and I decided to dust off my old copy and see if it was as good as I remembered it being. Looking at it now, though, I find the whole book rather odd and I think a lot of that is because it's displaced in both time and location and what may seem appropriate for an early twentieth century community on the banks of the Thames certainly does not seem appropriate in twenty-first century Ohio. It's still an entertaining family read, but its overall tone and emphasis is very odd to a modern reader.

In a way, I find this book to be about the quintessential landed English gentleman, much like the hobbits in Lord of Rings. The characters, much like the hobbits, haven't got a lot of work to do and spend much of their time wandering around and having picnics. There's also this sort of overall message that you should never do anything exciting or dangerous ever in your life and should be content with lazily wandering around in the country. Okay, to clarify on that as you're no doubt aware, Mr. Toad takes up a number of expensive fads throughout the book which he ultimately gets bored with and moves on to the next thing. The most expensive and dangerous of these fads being Mr. Toad's obsession with that new-fangled technology of motorcars. Now of course there is certainly a lot to be said for moderation and not doing anything to excess, which is certainly Toad's weakness, and on that point I agree with the author. What troubles me is that there's a chapter when Ratty wants to go on an adventure because he's young and wants to have a few stories to tell when he's older. Quite frankly I see nothing wrong with him doing that since he apparently has no real pressing obligations along the riverbank. I'm all for young people going off and having an adventure or three before they have to settle down and be responsible, heck I've done it myself on a couple of occasions. The troubling part is that Mole keeps Ratty from going on his adventure and then Ratty thanks Mole for saving him from his mania. Maybe this is just a rural English thing, but apparently doing anything different or unusual is bad and should be avoided at all costs. Certainly a message that a twenty-first century American audience probably will not understand.

The other thing I really noticed about this story was an emphasis on class standing and proper respect towards one's betters. Again, I think this is because I'm reading this in a different country a hundred years later that it's confusing me more than anything. As an American, and a twenty-first century American at that, I don't really follow the same strict stratification of classes that an early twentieth century Englishman might. Granted, I will admit there are certain social classes in America today and I certainly belong to a certain class and move in that social circle, but I certainly don't expect people to be doffing their caps or knuckling their forelocks to me. And I certainly won't be doffing my hat to anyone just because they're somehow "better" than me. The indignation over disrespect towards higher social strata is probably the part I found most alien to me, merely because of changes over time.

There's also a matter of asking "So when the hell are we, book?" which comes out during Toad's imprisonment. I had assumed for the most part the book was set in 1908, when it came out, and for the most part that seemed to be true. But when Toad gets put in prison it's described as a medieval dungeon with straw and his guards carry halberds. I mean, really? Halberds? In 1908? I of course started thinking of the Yeoman Warders of the Tower of London and as far as I can tell the Tower stopped being used as a prison well before 1908. (Granted, it apparently was used to hold POWs during both World Wars, but since this is peacetime I have significant doubts.) And then it gets worse when Toad escapes and his jailers chase him on a train....with halberds. It was a confusing anachronism that I found frustrating more than anything else.

A final thing that kind of bothered me about this book was the statement that Toad didn't deserve to go to prison because he was rich. I will admit that even in the United States there is a different law for the rich than there is for the poor, as has been proven many, many times, but I like to at least pretend that no one is above the law, regardless of who they are. Again, maybe it's a difference in time and place that makes saying rich people are allowed to break the law a perfectly acceptable thing to say, but I found it rather jarring and I think that's why most adaptations try to make Toad innocent when he goes to prison

Is it a good book? Well, it's certainly still a beloved story a century later and the subject of much nostalgia. I certainly wouldn't say you shouldn't read it, but I find it very odd and definitely a product of its times. And if reading isn't your thing there are countless adaptations which you can pick and choose from.

- Kalpar

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