There ought to be a law against it…
The Wind in the Willows was one of the earliest ‘proper’ books I read – probably when I was six or seven. I would go so far as to say that it’s probably the book that most influenced me towards reading what I now think of as ‘literary’ fiction – that is, beautifully written and tells the reader something about the ‘human condition’ rather than simply being a linear narrative with an exciting plot.
In fact, the stuff about Mr Toad, while fun, was not my favourite part of the book – not even close. The chapters I loved most were the ones that explored Ratty and Mole’s friendship, the sense of community amongst the heavily anthropomorphised animals (even as a child I knew that they were people really), the attractions of travel, the comfort of and longing for home. There are three standout chapters for me that I’ve never forgotten from that first read, and sometimes even if I don’t have the time or the inclination to read the whole thing again I will pick up my tattered ancient copy and read one of those chapters.
Wayfarers All tells the tale of autumn when so many of the birds and little animals prepare to follow the sun, travelling south for the winter. Ratty, already restless, meets up with a seafaring rat, who tells him tales of sun-drenched Spanish ports and the shell-fish of Marseilles, and provokes in Ratty an overwhelming feeling of wanderlust. But Mole, concerned for his friend and knowing this life wouldn’t suit him, talks in his turn of the beauties of an English autumn, with harvest giving way slowly to the festivities of winter. It ends with Mole encouraging Ratty to express his feelings and desires in poetry. The language is lush and beautiful, contrasting the glamour of exotic parts with the joys of the familiar.
Today, to him gazing South with a new-born need stirring in his heart, the clear sky over their long low outline seemed to pulsate with promise; to-day, the unseen was everything, the unknown the only real fact of life. On this side of the hills was now the real blank, on the other lay the crowded and coloured panorama that his inner eye was seeing so clearly. What seas lay beyond, green, leaping and crested! What sun-bathed coasts, along which the white villas glittered against the olive woods! What quiet harbours, thronged with gallant shipping bound for purple islands of wine and spice, islands set low in languorous waters!
Dulce Domum is the chapter in which Mole suddenly comes across the scents of his old home. At first, Ratty is in too much of a hurry to listen but when Mole finally breaks down in tears, kind old Ratty berates himself for his selfishness and at once devotes himself, first to finding Mole’s old home and then to turning the dark, cold house into a place full of warmth and cheer. And the chapter ends with the local young field-mice, come a-carol-singing, as they do each year. A perfect chapter.
With bright beady eyes they glanced shyly at each other, sniggering a little, sniffing and applying coat-sleeves a good deal. As the door opened, one of the elder ones that carried the lantern was just saying, “Now then, one, two, three!” and forthwith their shrill little voices uprose on the air, singing one of the old-time carols that their forefathers composed in fields that were fallow and held by frost, or when snow-bound in chimney corners, and handed down to be sung in the miry street to lamp-lit windows at Yule-time.
But my favourite chapter of all is The Piper at the Gates of Dawn. Little Portly, Otter’s son, has been missing for some days, and Ratty and Mole set out one night to search for him. As the dawn rises, they hear the haunting music of distant pipes and are compelled towards it. When they reach the place where the music leads them, they find Portly, safely nestled at the feet of Pan, the great demi-God of the animals – a thinly disguised portrayal of Christ.
Trembling he obeyed, and raised his humble head; and then, in that utter clearness of the imminent dawn, while Nature, flushed with fullness of incredible colour, seemed to hold her breath for the event, he looked in the very eyes of the Friend and Helper…All this he saw, for one moment breathless and intense, vivid on the morning sky; and still, as he looked, he lived; and still, as he lived, he wondered.
“Rat!” he found breath to whisper, shaking. “Are you afraid?”
“Afraid?” murmured the Rat, his eyes shining with unutterable love. “Afraid! Of Him? O, never, never! And yet—and yet—O, Mole, I am afraid!”
This whole chapter is utterly beautiful in both its writing and its message (even to this cynical old atheist) and is the emotional heart of the book. If you haven’t read it recently, here’s a link – the chapter stands alone as a story entire in itself.
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So… imagine my delight when I was offered a new edition of the book for review via Amazon Vine UK, published by Oxford University Press and complete with new illustrations by David Roberts. The layout and illustrations are great – the book is small with clear print, and the illustrations are appropriately quirky and vibrantly coloured, ranging from double-page spreads to small running pictures round the margins and inserted into the text.
Then imagine my horror on being unable to find my favourite chapter! Unbelievably, they have cut The Piper at the Gates of Dawn. There is a note on the inside in tiny print which gives a reason for the omission…
Rather than relating the ongoing adventures of Ratty, Mole, Toad, Badger, and others, the chapter pauses the action and is largely about the god Pan from Greek mythology.
But I’m guessing the truth is that some stupid decision has been reached to omit it due to its overtly religious message. It doesn’t ‘pause the action’ any more than the chapter Dulce Domum does. It is an adventure undertaken by Ratty and Mole – a great adventure, arising out of friendship and love. The god in this book may be Pan from Greek mythology in physical appearance, but in his presence and actions, Grahame is quite clearly pointing to the Christian tradition. What are we saying – that kids can only read action? Or that they are no longer allowed to read any classic that might suggest any kind of spiritual element? Even if we assume that Pan is in fact Pan, are children no longer to be introduced to Greek and other mythologies?
A ridiculous decision, both to remove it and, even more, not to say clearly on the book cover or in the blurb that the text has been butchered. The Wind in the Willows is a 5-star book without question, but why give a child this one when you could give them the one Kenneth Grahame wanted them to read – the one that generations of children and adults have enjoyed. I would hate for any child to grow up thinking s/he’s read The Wind in the Willows without being aware that the emotional heart had been ripped out of the book. What’s the OUP going to do next – The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe without Aslan perhaps?
There ought to be a law against it…