Butchering Books… The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame

There ought to be a law against it…

.

the wind in the willows

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.

1985-wind-in-the-willows-police-chase-toad-print_700_600_U3R3

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!

wayfarers all

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.

carol singing

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.

the piper at the gates of dawn

* * * * * * *

the wind in the willows 2So… 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?

wind-in-willows-e-h-shepard-ratty-and-mole-in-a-boat

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…

wind in the willows battle

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by CS Lewis narrated by Michael York

the lion the witch and the wardrobeAlways winter, but never Christmas…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

I loved the Narnia books as a child and read them many times, especially this first one. As a child, I was completely oblivious to any religious symbolism in the book, so for me it was simply a great adventure story with a fantastic hero in Aslan. I think I was around eighteen when I last read them and, as with many childhood books, have always been a bit worried to revisit them in case my older, more cynical self has turned me into a Susan – unable to remember the magic and find my way back to Narnia. But when I came across this series on Audible, with some great narrators, I decided to take the risk.

And it was worth it. The book didn’t have quite the same effect on me as when I was seven, but it’s still a great story very well told. This time around I was obviously more aware of the parallels to the Christ story but I was intrigued to note that there are a lot of other references too – Bacchus puts in an appearance, as does Silenus, and of course all the stuff about fauns and centaurs and other creatures from folk legends and mythology. It’s all a bit of a mish-mash really but it works, and stops it from becoming overly preachy. Occasionally the messages are a little heavy-handed – about the evils of lying and so on – but this was fairly standard for children’s literature of the time from what I recall, and isn’t nearly as blatant as in some of them.

The White Witch from the 2005 movie
The White Witch from the 2005 movie

I was also much more aware of how terribly middle-class the children are, and how indoctrinated we were through the books we were reading to accept the subordinate, nurturing role of women and the heroic warrior status of boys. It’s amazing that the generation of women who grew up reading books like these, and Blyton and most of the other books I remember, managed to both love the books and rebel against the message. I did wonder if young mothers of young girls today would be quite so happy to have them reading books where girls help lay the table while boys go off in a manly way to catch fish for dinner, not to mention the girls ending up on the diplomatic marriage market when they were older. Daughters of Eve, Sons of Adam…hmm! Correct me if my knowledge of biology is a bit shaky, but my understanding is that the procreation process requires both genders to participate (or a test-tube or turkey baster at the very least). But I’d encourage young mothers not to let it put them off – my generation seemed to survive the onslaught of not-so-subliminal messages. (I also found myself thinking how little had changed in the role of women in the thousands of years between the Old Testament and this book and yet how much has changed, for those of us in the West at least, in the sixty or so years since. It rather made me proud…)

lucy and mr tumnus

But apart from all this adult over-analysis, I enjoyed the story a lot. The descriptions of the frozen world are great and the Queen is just as scary and horrible as I remember. Edmund is still a revolting little oick, Susan and Peter still badly need brought down a peg or two from their superior teenage smugness and I still identify with Lucy – youngest of four siblings, you see – even if she is a bit too sweet to be true. I loved the thaw – the way he matches the returning of life to the landscape with the returning of joy to the characters. Mr and Mrs Beaver are lovely, and poor Mr Tumnus! The bit with Aslan and the Stone Table is as moving and beautiful as ever it was and I still want to run and play with him, and put my hands in his golden mane! But why, oh why, must it end with them all having turned into stuffy, pompous adults complete with mock medieval language? I hated that bit when I was young and I hate it now – in fact, it was surprising how in tune young FF and old FF turned out to be. Perhaps my inner child isn’t so deeply buried after all…

Aslan, also from the 2005 movie
Aslan, also from the 2005 movie

Michael York’s reading is excellent. He gives all the characters distinct voices, and uses different British regional accents for the creatures. Mr Tumnus is Irish, the Beavers are some kind of rural English – Somerset-ish perhaps? – and I laughed a lot at Maugrim the wolf’s vurry, vurry Scottish accent. The children’s voices grated a bit on me – awfully posh standard English – but I did think they were right for the characters. And crucially he does Aslan’s voice (and roar) brilliantly – just the right deep tones filled with power and menace, but with a warmth beneath.

Michael York
Michael York

So overall a happy visit to my childhood and I can now look forward to enjoying the rest. Since I’m sticking with the original publication order, next up will be Prince Caspian, narrated by Lynn Redgrave. Doesn’t that sound good?

Audible UK Link
Audible US Link

The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster

I tried…I really tried…

🙂 🙂 🙂

the phantom tollboothMilo is an irritating kind of child – finds school boring, can’t quite see the point of learning maths, doesn’t pay attention to the things around him and is eternally bored. Irritating but normal, I’d say. Then one day he discovers a mysterious package in his bedroom which turns out to be a magical tollbooth that transports him to another world. And soon he is on a quest to return Rhyme and Reason to this strange land…

Oh, dear! I tried so hard to like this. A lot of it is quite imaginative – the conductor who plays the colours of the day, the numbers’ mine, some of the wordplay. But most of the ‘quirky’ characters are thinly-disguised teachers, banging home their unsubtle message that we must all learn how to read and count, and pay attention at school etc etc. At first, I assumed my negative reaction was because I was just too old for it (and I’m sure that is a large part of the reason). But then I remembered my childhood reaction to the dreaded The Water Babies, with its hideous pair of monstrous horrors,                                          Mrs Doasyouwouldbedoneby and Mrs Bedonebyasyoudid – a book I thoroughly hated and despised when I was young for its preachy and patronising tone (while I’m pretty sure I missed most of the satirical elements of it). Although The Phantom Tollbooth is undoubtedly more fun, I realised it follows the same pattern of unsubtle moralising and lesson-teaching all the way through.

“That’s why you’re here. You weren’t thinking, and you weren’t paying attention either. People who don’t pay attention often get stuck in the Doldrums.”

“You must never feel badly about making mistakes,” explained Reason quietly, “as long as you take the trouble to learn from them.”

“For always remember that while it is wrong to use too few [words], it is often far worse to use too many.”

the phantom tollbooth map

Then there are the bits that I’m sure grated with me far more as an adult than they would as a child. But I do feel if an author sets out to preach about how important education is, then he has some responsibility for getting his facts right, even when he’s aiming for humour – else how is a child to learn properly? (The same criticism applies to the grammatical errors in the book…)

“We offer you the hospitality of our kingdom.”
“Country,”
“Nation,”
“State,”
“Commonwealth,”
“Realm,”
“Empire,”
“Palatinate,”
“Principality,”
“Do all those words mean the same thing?” gasped Milo.
“Of course.”
“Certainly.”
“Precisely.”
“Exactly.”
“Yes,” they replied in order.

Clever, isn’t it? Of course, it’s also completely
wrong,
misleading,
erroneous,
incorrect,
imprecise,
inaccurate,
and did I mention wrong?

 

Rhyme and Reason practice synchronised preaching - poor Milo looks a bit like how I felt by that stage...
Rhyme and Reason practice synchronised preaching – poor Milo looks a bit like how I felt by that stage…

However, I recognise from all the comments made at the time of the poll that many people adore this book, as children and as adults, so I’ll stop criticising it now. This is one of those cases where I’m happy to admit that my reaction might be a bit unfair – I can see much to admire and enjoy in the book, but in the end it just didn’t quite work for me. There’s no doubt that some of the jokes are quite clever and it did make me laugh a few times. So I’ll end the review on a more appreciative note with one of those bits…

“Why, did you know that if a beaver two feet long with a tail a foot and a half long can build a dam twelve feet high and six feet wide in two days, all you would need to build the Kariba Dam is a beaver sixty-eight feet long with a fifty-one foot tail?”

“Where would you find a beaver as big as that?” grumbled the Humbug…

“I’m sure I don’t know,” he replied, “but if you did, you’d certainly know what to do with him.”

Thanks to all of you who voted to add this book to my TBR – I’m sorry to be so unenthusiastic about it. Better luck next time!

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Smith by Leon Garfield

Stand and deliver…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

A rat was like a snail beside Smith, and the most his thousand victims ever got of him was the powerful whiff of his passing and a cold draught in their dexterously emptied pockets.

smith 2Smith is a twelve-year old pickpocket surviving by his wits in the London of the 18th century. But one day Smith picks the pocket of an elderly man and as he runs away, he sees the man being attacked and killed. Running for fear that he will be caught and accused of this much worse crime, Smith has to wait to find out what he managed to steal – a document, clearly official, but that’s as much as he can tell since he can’t read. But Smith knows documents are worth money and he’s determined to find out what it says…

This book is always marketed as if for children and it certainly is suitable for any child from about ten or eleven, I’d say. But it is also entirely suitable for adult consumption and very enjoyable. Who wouldn’t enjoy a story about pickpockets, highwaymen, mysterious documents and murder? Like Treasure Island or the Quatermain books, this is complex and well written enough to satisfy even a demanding adult, while having enough excitement and adventure to appeal to a younger audience. And, because of its historical setting, it hasn’t suffered from age.

Garfield’s skill is in creating an entirely believable setting and filling it with interesting characters – sympathetic good guys, villainous bad guys and several that fall somewhere between the two. Smith himself is a mixture of hard-nosed thief who will do anything to survive and soft-hearted child who can’t stop himself from helping Mr Mansfield, a blind gentleman whom he meets by accident while on his quest to learn to read. Mr Mansfield is a man who believes in law and justice but who gradually learns the meaning of trust and pity, while his daughter devotes herself to protecting him from anyone who might wish to take advantage of his blindness or good-nature. Together with Smith’s sisters and Lord Tom, the highwayman, all the characters are slightly caricatured in the way Dickens’ characters are.

Leon Garfield
Leon Garfield

And the Dickens comparison extends to the setting – this London, its streets and jails, its dirt and poverty, and the heaths around it where the highwaymen ruled could have come straight from the pages of the master himself. But, unlike Dickens’ little pickpocket Oliver Twist, Smith is not sickeningly good – he’s more of an Artful Dodger, trained by the circumstances of his life to rely on his own wits to survive. The one concession Garfield makes to a younger readership is to keep the language and sentence structure simpler than Dickens, making this an easier and shorter read, but without ever condescending or patronising the reader. And the simpler language still allows room for some great writing and imagery…

Even great ladies came and went – their huge skirts swinging and pealing down the doleful passages like so many brocaded bells, tolling:

What a pity. What a shame. Dick’s to die on Tuesday week. What a pity. What a shame. Poor Mr Mulrone.

I first read this book many years ago and am often reluctant to re-read a book that I remember with pleasure in case it doesn’t live up to my memories. In this case, I enjoyed it just as much again and look forward to reading more of Garfield’s work. Highly recommended to young and old alike.

This book was provided for review by the publisher, NYR Children’s Collection. Just to mention that this edition has Americanized spelling which, since it’s an American publisher, I’ll forgive. However, I’ve changed the spelling back to British in my quotes – nothing in the world could make me spell ‘draught’ with an ‘f’!

Amazon UK link
Amazon US Link

Write Your Own…Mystery by Pie Corbett

write your own mysteryFun and informative…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

This 48-page guide to writing your own mystery story is aimed at children – I’d guess from about age 8-12. It’s very well written, clearly laid out and not in the least patronising.

Corbett takes us through how to decide on a plot, developing the characters of villains and sleuths, evidence gathering, misdirection – all the ingredients of a classic mystery. Along the way, he gives lots of tips on the technical side of writing – using clauses effectively, simple similes and metaphors, the importance of vocabulary, sentence structure and the need to get the spelling right. But none of this is done in a preachy way; Corbett explains why these things make a story easier to read and more exciting. He gives copious examples throughout, showing how using different words or structures can enhance the story-telling experience. The book is illustrated with diagrams and some nice little pencil drawings by Peter Bailey, and contains a glossary and index at the end.

Pie Corbett
Pie Corbett

Frankly, I think I’d have loved to be given this little book when I was a child, along with a nice empty writing journal and pens. Who knows, I could have been the next Agatha Christie!?! In fact, there are many of our best-known authors who could benefit from being reminded of some of the basics included here – like making your protagonist likeable, for instance! (Or getting the book edited for grammar and spelling before publication…)

But the proof of the pudding is in the eating… so, let’s see…

Plot…hmm…sleuth…OK…suspects…no problem…red herrings…right…cliffhanger…hmm…hmm…dramatic twist…uh-huh…right…here goes…

OK, my earth-shatteringly exciting new mystery is ready for publication!!! Hold tight, it’s going to be a bumpy ride…

The Mystery of the Mysterious Mystery

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link