Nothing Half So Much Worth Doing — The World of The Wind in the Willows
By Farwell Forrest
May 14, 2013
A note to the reader: This is the fourth in a series of columns exploring noteworthy landmarks in paddlesport's literary backwaters. Links to the earlier articles can be found below.
I'm not sure how many paddlers on the American side of the Pond have read Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows. Not many, I imagine. Perhaps a few had it read to them when they were young, however, and others may have seen the movie. Disney first attempted to commodify the story in 1949, reworking a smattering of threads plucked from the book into a hodgepodge of an animated film (The Adventures of Ichabod and Mister Toad) and then building a "dark ride" around the film's theme. The movie crops up now and again in Disney Classic packages, and the California ride is still operating, but there really isn't much of the book in either the film or the ride. Happily — there's an anodyne for all distempers, if you only know where to look — Grahame's tale has also been adapted for radio and television many times in Britain, and most of these adaptations have kept faith with the original. I don't know if any of them have drifted across the Atlantic, though.
But this much is certain, at any rate: There isn't a canoeist, kayaker, or sailor anywhere who isn't familiar with at least one phrase drawn from the pages of Wind in the Willows. Who among us hasn't heard someone speak of "messing about in boats"? There's even a monthly magazine by that name, a rare (and welcome) print survivor in our pixelated age of digital ephemera. In fact, the "messing about" catchphrase has now reached the status of a cliché, something that careful writers take pains to avoid. Well, you can call me careless, if you want, but I've invoked it on more than a few occasions, and so has Tamia, and no one seems to be any the worse for our transgressions.
Anyway, here's the moment when "messing about in boats" entered the language:
"This has been a wonderful day!" said [Mole], as the Rat shoved off and took to the sculls again. "Do you know, I've never been in a boat before in all my life."
"What?" cried the Rat, open‑mouthed: "Never been in a — you never — well I — what have you been doing, then?"
"Is it so nice as all that?" asked the Mole shyly, though he was quite prepared to believe it as he leant back in his seat and surveyed the cushions, the oars, the rowlocks, and all the fascinating fittings, and felt the boat sway lightly under him.
"Nice? It's the only thing," said the Water Rat solemnly, as he leant forward for his stroke. "Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing — absolutely nothing — half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats. Simply messing," he went on dreamily: "messing — about — in — boats…."
Few paddlers would disagree with the Water Rat, though fewer still would own up to even a nodding acquaintance with what is, after all, a children's book, and one that's over a century old, into the bargain. It shows its age in many ways, too. The story is set in an idealized pastoral landscape, a landscape that was already under siege in 1908, when Wind in the Willows first appeared in print, and which is now largely a sepia‑tinted memory. After all, the Britain of today is a very different place from the Britain of 1908. For one thing, cars were a rarity then. Nowadays, though, a spiderweb of motorways crisscrosses the once green and pleasant land, with more strands being added every year. Yet each bank holiday sees tailbacks (traffic jams) extending for miles, on roads choked by cars crawling along at something less than a walking pace, their frustrated occupants desperate to escape the congestion and fumes of car‑dominated cities and suburbs. In short, they're going nowhere at great cost on motorways built at enormous expense, hoping for a few hours' respite from an environment made almost unbearable by … er … by the very cars that they rely on to carry them away. It's one of modern life's crueler ironies.
And the British landscape celebrated in Wind in the Willows isn't the only thing that has changed out of all recognition. Even the original cast of characters is now under threat. Of the four principals in the story — Mole, Ratty, Toad, and Badger — only Toad and Mole are holding their own. Ratty — aka the Water Rat, but really a European water vole — is in decline everywhere in the United Kingdom, a victim of habitat destruction, toxic pollution, and clandestine "liberations" of North American mink from fur farms. (That's another irony for you.) And Badger? He's currently being blamed for the persistence of bovine tuberculosis in British cattle herds, with the result that he finds himself under sentence of death in several places, facing what the British government is pleased to call "pilot culls," with the promise of wider‑ranging mass kills to come. The upshot? Badger will need to keep his head down if he isn't to join Ratty on the threatened list.
All this has taken us very far from Wind in the Willows, however. And that would be sad, indeed. To be sure, the world of Grahame's book bears only a slight resemblance to today's increasingly crowded Little Britain, that awkward hybrid of 24–7 tourist theme park and gilded playground for thrusting City bankers, Russian oligarchs, and football millionaires. Grahame's idealized Britain was something quite different: a harmonious, fruitful collage of river (The River, of course), fertile meadowland, and forest. It was not without its dangers, of course. The Wild Wood was a dark, forbidding place, where scores of shining eyes peered hungrily out from the shadows at every passer‑by. (Not unlike many city centers today, I suppose.) The picturesque torrent at the weir threatened unwary boaters with a sudden, watery death. And gin (leghold) traps lay in wait among the flowers, ready to maim or kill any incautious four‑footed wanderer.
Yet the riverbank denizens were neither defeated nor disheartened. They were — they are, since they live on in the pages of the book — resourceful, brave (even foolhardy, at times), and loyal, the model citizens of an ideal republic, a sort of commonwealth of equals. Some are more equal than others, however. Toad is wealthy. Ratty is not. And Mole is a bit — I'm afraid there's no other word for it — dim. Nor is every "river‑banker" uniformly virtuous. Mole is impetuous, and Badger can be ill‑mannered. Toad is boastful and feckless, and Ratty is often headstrong (and occasionally short‑tempered, as well). But taken all in all, the river‑bankers' virtues far outweigh their vices. They're a lot like your friends and mine, in other words — the sort of people you wouldn't mind spending a day on the water with.
So much for atmosphere. As for the story behind the story, I'm afraid it's rather bleak. Grahame's mother died within days of giving birth to his younger brother, and his father soon abandoned the family, preferring the company of the bottle. The four children were then taken in by their grandmother, and they spent two carefree years living in a sprawling house near the River Thames. But a winter windstorm brought down the house's chimney, bringing an end to the children's brief idyll, too. And later, when Grahame showed unmistakable academic (and athletic) promise, his pinchpenny uncle refused to underwrite his further education, forcing him to take employment as a clerk. Still, Grahame made the best of it, rising quickly in this, his unchosen profession. At 39, he was Secretary of the Bank of England, a signal achievement.
But then, only five years after taking up the position, he was attacked in his office by a pistol‑wielding madman. Luckily, the madman proved a remarkably bad shot, and Grahame escaped injury. He suffered a catastrophic loss of confidence, though, and he resigned from the Bank not long afterward. It was given out that he had retired because of "ill health," but this was a face‑saving half‑truth, at best. In reality, his nerve was gone. Today, he'd probably be diagnosed as suffering post‑traumatic stress disorder and urged to seek counseling. He lived in a less enlightened age, however. Perhaps he was lucky in that respect, as well.
Instead, Grahame sought refuge in writing — he'd already written several volumes of essays and short stories — and The Wind in the Willows was published in the year he retired. The book had been taking shape for a very long time, having had its beginnings in the bedtime stories he told his son. Grahame had married late, in 1899, and the marriage was not a happy one. To make matters worse, the couple's only child, christened Alastair, was half‑blind at birth, and it was soon apparent that he also lacked his father's keen, retentive mind. His parents, themselves half‑blinded by displaced ambition, pressed him to excel, anyway. Not surprisingly, he rebelled, and when, more or less despite himself, he found his way to an Oxford college, the burden of his parents' great expectations became too much to bear. In 1920, two days before his 20th birthday, Alastair lay down in the path of a speeding train, taking care to place his neck across one rail.
That tragic event put a period to Grahame's days as a storyteller. But by this time The Wind in the Willows was already firmly established as a children's classic, notwithstanding the fact that it had received very mixed reviews when it first appeared. Arthur Ransome, who was later to win recognition as a children's author in his own right, wasted few words in condemning the book, branding it a "failure" and comparing it, somewhat bizarrely, to a "speech to Hottentots made in Chinese." The public didn't share Ransome's misgivings, however, nor did the book appeal only to children. Theodore Roosevelt received a prepublication copy, and he wrote to Grahame from the American White House, confessing that he had "read [the book] and reread it," returning to it so often that he'd now come to think of the characters as "old friends." Such thumping endorsements carried far more weight with readers than the kvetching of a few carping critics: Wind in the Willows sold very well on both sides of the Atlantic, going through many editions. It's still in print.
And just what is the book's secret? Christopher Milne, the son of A. A. Milne and the model for Christopher Robin in Winnie‑the‑Pooh, once characterized The Wind in the Willows as "two separate books spliced into one," in which chapters describing the "adventures of Toad" are interspersed with others exploring the panoply of human emotions, particularly "fear, nostalgia, awe, [and] wanderlust." That seems a pretty fair summary, and it may also help to explain the book's enduring popularity. The boastful Toad's fortunes and misfortunes, on The River and off, are always good for a laugh — there's a bit of Toad in us all — while Grahame has few equals in his ability to work the stops of human sentiment. Whether he's depicting the subtle menace of a familiar woodland as the long shadows of evening overtake it (see, for example, the chapter titled "The Wild Wood"), or echoing the pangs of longing we may feel for a lost home (see "Dulce Domum"), or eliciting the awe we sometimes experience when forced to confront our individual insignificance in nature's great game ("The Piper at the Gates of Dawn"), Grahame seldom misses a note.
His powers of description are formidable, too. This ability to paint a waterscape in words is already a dying art. We have HD camcorders to do the job for us now, and the discipline demanded by Tweets and instant messages precludes wordy elaboration (ROTFL!). Still, for anyone with a pre‑Twitter attention span, there's a certain anachronistic pleasure to be had in savoring a passage like the following one, in which Grahame describes Mole's delight on getting his first glimpse of The River:
He thought his happiness was complete when, as he meandered aimlessly along, suddenly he stood by the edge of a full‑fed river. Never in his life had he seen a river before — this sleek, sinuous, full‑bodied animal, chasing and chuckling, gripping things with a gurgle and leaving them with a laugh, to fling itself on fresh playmates that shook themselves free, and were caught and held again. All was a‑shake and a‑shiver — glints and gleams and sparkles, rustle and swirl, chatter and bubble. The Mole was bewitched, entranced, fascinated. By the side of the river he trotted as one trots, when very small, by the side of a man who holds one spell‑bound by exciting stories; and when tired at last, he sat on the bank, while the river still chattered on to him, a babbling procession of the best stories in the world, sent from the heart of the earth to be told at last to the insatiable sea.
So that's what Wind in the Willows has to offer paddlers, whatever their age. Humor and pathos and almost everything that lies between those two poles. (There's no sex, though. This is a children's book, remember?) And there are also some superb word portraits of a pastoral landscape that was disappearing even as Grahame described it, a landscape which is now irretrievably lost. There are no helpful hints for campers to be found in the book's pages, however, and no instruction worth mentioning. But what does that matter? You have Paddling.net and the In the Same Boat archive (and much else besides) for those things.
OK. I see that I've mentioned the book's humor several times, but I've given no examples. It's not too late, though, is it? And what better way to end this piece than with a chuckle. So here goes. I'll set the scene first. Toad, who has been splashing up and down The River in a fancy racing rowboat ("wager‑boat") for some time, has just been seized by a new enthusiasm. He explains his sudden change of heart to an uncomprehending Rat:
"O, pooh! boating!" interrupted the Toad, in great disgust. "Silly boyish amusement. I've given that up long ago. Sheer waste of time, that's what it is. It makes me downright sorry to see you fellows, who ought to know better, spending all your energies in that aimless manner. No, I've discovered the real thing, the only genuine occupation for a lifetime. I propose to devote the remainder of mine to it, and can only regret the wasted years that lie behind me, squandered in trivialities. Come with me, dear Ratty, and your amiable friend also, if he will be so very good, just as far as the stable‑yard, and you shall see what you shall see!"
And just what is it that Ratty and Mole will see? What is Toad's new passion, "the only genuine occupation for a lifetime"? To find out, you'll have to read the book. I'll say one thing, though: If you're thinking that Toad's latest enthusiasm won't last, you're right. But that's Toad for you.
Is there a canoeist, kayaker, or sailor anywhere who hasn't, at one time or another, spoken feelingly of his delight in "messing about in boats"? Probably not. But how many of us know where this happy turn of phrase comes from? Well, now you do. And you know a little something about the story behind The Wind in the Willows, too. It only remains for you to read the book itself. So, what are you waiting for? After all, there's nothing half so much worth doing.
A Warning to Those About to Venture Into the Backwaters: Times change, and we change with them. The popular literature of the 19th and early 20th centuries abounds in offensive stereotypes, and racial and religious slurs are commonplace. You can, of course, pass over these grating notes, treating them as cultural artifacts grounded in a particular time and place. Or you can choose not to open the books at all. The decision is yours.
The Latest Book From the Backwaters
A note on the illustrations in the article: The header is taken from the cloth cover of the 1913 Charles Scribner's Sons (New York) edition. It's the work of Paul Bransom, an American illustrator who had a summer home in the Adirondacks. The tailpiece is from a photo of a meadow vole by Tamia. I'd hoped to use Bransom's illustration of Ratty, but though it's very good, it's obvious that he used a brown rat rather than a water vole as a model — there are no North American water voles — and I wanted a better likeness. Tamia (and the meadow vole who posed for her at the mouth of his riverbank home) obliged.
And the Earlier Articles in the Series
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