A dear friend and former teacher of mine** recently wrote of Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, “If ever there was a children’s book written for adults, it is this one.” I whole heartedly agree, and not only because of the stunning beauty of Grahame’s prose.
By way of explanation, I’d like to share a passage from Grahame’s story that, I think, aims right at the heart of his project.
Protagonists Rat and Mole have just set out on a boat ride, hoping to find Portly, a young otter child who has been missing for some time. As they scull along, first Rat and then Mole begins to hear a ghostly summons: music on the wind, liltingly and with piercing poignancy calling them to worship a deity, who animates the world of their river with his benevolence. Arriving at a small island, they discover the young otter, safe and sound in the presence of the nature god himself, whom Grahame calls, “the Friend and Helper.” Smiling, he disappears as the sun rises.
“As they stared blankly, in dumb misery deepening as they slowly realized all they had seen and all they had lost, a capricious little breeze, dancing up from the surface of the water, tossed aspens, shook the dewy roses, and blew lightly and caressingly in their faces and with its soft touch came instant oblivion. For this is the last best gift that the kindly demigod is careful to bestow in those to whom he has revealed himself in their helping: the gift of forgetfulness. Lest the awful remembrance should remain and grow, and overshadow mirth and pleasure, and the great haunting memory should spoil all the after-lives of little animals helped out of difficulties, in order that they should be happy and lighthearted as before.” (Grahame, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn)
Go back and read that again. Goosebumps? Me too.
What is it about this scene that arrests our attention so? Well, firstly, I think it is its familiarity; we all identify with the overawed feeling of returning from a vacation someplace spectacularly beautiful where we have experienced, for a little while, a lifestyle so wholly other to our own that our normal life lacks lustre. Think of this, then, as a vacation of the soul. For a moment the Rat and the Mole have been in the presence of Joy itself, of Life itself, of Hope himself, and, being removed from that presence, they find all of the wonder sucked from their existence. They want to live there, in that presence, forever, just as we might yearn to give up our lives permanently to stay at our seaside retreat or mountain getaway.
The deeper reason, however, that this passage speaks to us, is that the solution to the little animals’ problem is just as common to our own lives as the problem itself. Look at the details of the passage; what reawakens Rat and Mole? A breeze, gently tickling their senses, and calling the temporal world back into motion. The aspens rustle, the dewy roses rouse themselves to offer their scents, and the water ripples and dances. It’s almost as though the spiritual, having torn the physical world with its interjection, sews the rent fabric back together, re-focusing the two animals’ capacity for wonder on the things that had, moments before, been “ordinary” and even dull by comparison. The otherworldly music of Pan’s pipes succumbs to the music of the trees, and the brilliance of his eyes and face gives way to sunlight on the dew and the surface of the river. The echoes of divinity in the temporal world are given back their power to hold the creatures’ attention.
Grahame knows us. He knows we yearn for something beyond our ken, something fantastic and life-changing. He knows we’ve forgotten how to wonder, and that we will pursue whatever evokes it, blindly. Most importantly, he knows that the stuff of real joy and contentment isn’t to be found in surreal experiences with other-ness. It is instead to be found in the details of a life well-lived; Rat loves his river, not because it is ever-changing, but instead because it is never-changing. The sun on the water, the dew on the roses, and the wind in the aspens, though ordinary, are profoundly capable of satisfying our desire for beauty.
There is, I think, a reason that children’s fiction holds such a draw for those of us willing to spend a minute or two paying close enough attention. Other authors can rely upon the average adult to read between the lines—things can be ever so slightly obscure, and yet he can be relatively sure that his audience will “get” it. Not so for the author of children’s fiction.
In order to write work that captures and then holds a child’s attention, a writer must have a grasp on the very best and most winning way to say something. It must be precise, imaginative, and ever so carefully framed, as his readers cannot be trusted to read between the lines. His readers do, however, possess one quality that we in the adult world often lack: the capacity to wonder. This capacity, above all else, is the writer of children’s fictions’ most valuable tool.
Grahame manages a fabulous coup in his Wind in the Willows. He writes with the clarity and precision one would expect from an author of children’s fiction, harnessing the wonder of a childlike imagination, and then he applies all these tools to writing about wonder itself, in such a way as to admonish his fellow adults to reawaken that capacity within themselves. The book delights children, but as a familiar friend, not a brand new discovery. They already know how to wonder, you see. It is we grown-ups who find something long-forgotten and much worth discovering in The Wind in the Willows.
Whether we are teachers, parents, or even students we struggle to find joy in the work before us. We long for an end to the tedium of everyday life, and dream it will be replaced by something wonder-ful. Grahame’s word to us is a good one: joy is to be found in front of you, not on some far off shore. And it’s more than alright if it takes a story to remind us of that.