Author: Kenneth Grahame
Type: Fiction, novel
I read it: December 2013
This is an odd little book. It seems to be regarded as a classic of children’s literature (the kind that adults also love) although I had never heard of it until this year. I can’t say I really understand the devotion, but that’s almost certainly because I did not read this book as a youth. Anyone else out there read it only as an adult? What did you think of it?
I don’t know what Grahame was going for with his setup. The characters are all animals in the woods, but they live in human-like dwellings and wear clothes and do things like serve each other dinner. So this is no naturalistic Watership Down. Characters with simple names like Rat, Badger, Mole, and Toad say things like “Look here, old man” and “If people would be more careful…” even though they are talking about fellow animals in these instances. This is also not a Narnia situation, where a fantastical world is made up of anthropomorphic beasts, and where the only humans are outsiders. No, the strangest thing in Willows is not only that these animals live explicitly in England, but that there are also human beings in the story. The humans seem to interact with the non-human characters nonchalantly, and expect them to live by their customs (there are police, and an engineer, and jailers, and boat captains–all human as far as I could tell). It makes me wonder why the main characters are even animals at all. They do only superficial animal things, and act much more like the humans whose world they share. The author seems to want all cakes to eat at once.
To give some credit, Grahame is no slouch in the writing department. His descriptions of nature are lush, such as when the “hot sun seemed to be pulling everything green and bushy and spiky up out of the earth towards him, as if by strings.” To describe a seafaring life, he writes of “quiet harbours, thronged with gallant shipping bound for purple islands of wine and spice, islands set low in languorous waters.” You can see why he is a pleasure to read, especially when evoking the English summertime.
Yet unevenness is hard to overlook. There seems to never quite be a strong arc, for the story starts with a focus on Mole but the second half is almost entirely about Toad. The chapters are a bit episodic, which is fine, but do not come together to make a novel. There is one weird, dreamlike chapter with the (admittedly great) title of “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn” that makes very little sense, and serves only to briefly introduce Pan. So the book consists of non-human animals, humans, and…demigods? The whole thing ends in a head-scratching revenge subplot that seems to ignore some rules established earlier in the book: the animals are beholden to human laws (which is why Toad gets thrown in prison). However, these laws are not invoked to regain Toad’s home which is being squatted in. Instead, the protagonists forcibly take it as if might was the law of the land. In fact, there is a point toward the end where Badger was spooked and “on the point of putting a bullet into Toad.” That’s right, they beat down their opponents with guns and cudgels, and that’s the climax.
It could just be that besides for the nostalgia factor, this book is not standing the test of time very well. Published early into the 1900s, for all I know it paved the way for The Hobbit, Narnia, and other English fantasy for young readers. That’s all well and good, but the book now looks more like a historical bit player than a veteran all-star.