The Fresh 'Wind in the Willows'

Had you asked, when I was 7 or 8 I could have led you right to the spot where Rat and Mole lived along the River Bank. Kenneth Grahame didn't supply exact coordinates for the hole in "The Wind in the Willows," but I knew it was by a stream in a meadow near my house. The same goes for Toad Hall, which was just down the road.

As an adult, I've come to accept that Grahame did not, in fact, have my corner of the Northeastern United States in the 1980s in mind when he wrote his allages classic in England in 1908. I've also learned that I'm not remotely alone in feeling that the book was written solely for me. By some strange magic, an untold but sizable percentage of Grahame's readers find in his stories an uncanny reflection of their experiences, especially of being young.

This kind of magic is fragile: as the old line about dissecting jokes says, if you try to explain this book's charm, you might end up with little more than a dead toad (and mole … and rat … and badger …). So the news that two annotated versions of Grahame's book would appear within a few weeks of one another raises some difficult questions. For instance: "What kind of sadistic pedant killjoy would want to annotate 'The Wind in the Willows'? And how can there be two such fiends?"

Seth Lerer and Annie Gauger, the editors of the new annotated editions, don't entirely allay this skepticism. Each of their volumes (published by Harvard University Press and W.W. Norton, respectively) is laden with buzz-killing trivia. When Toad disguises himself as a washerwoman and sweet-talks a train conductor into helping him evade the police, Gauger notes: "The trading of laundry service for a free ride would have been against regulations for anyone working for the London and North-Western Railway Company." Lerer, for his part, shows a mania for citing the OED. Yet both offer insights that burnish the book. Sometimes because of their efforts and sometimes in spite of them, Grahame's weird masterpiece seems as charming as ever—but also sadder, more enduring and more necessary.

It's Lerer, for instance, who highlights a quality of the book that might elude even devoted readers: what he calls its "bookishness." Grahame's story marinates in a world of texts—of language written, read and occasionally sung. Rat "murmurs poetry-things to himself" when drifting down the river to a picnic and, when lost in the snow with Mole, is consoled when he reads the sign MR. BADGER. THE river itself is a kind of living anthology, as Grahame puts it in the first chapter—"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."

In a more meaningful way, the bookishness reflects the story's origins. Rat and Badger and the rest began their careers in bedtime stories that Grahame told Alastair, his only child. Nicknamed Mouse, the sickly boy had a difficult childhood, one marred by emotional problems and severe eye trouble. His ideas and questions had so much influence on his father that Gauger calls Alastair the book's "first editor and co-author." It can't be an accident that the novel's protagonist is a mole, an animal that can barely see in real life, but who in the story sees just fine.

If Grahame dreamed up Toad's carstealing high jinks partly as a way of cheering up his son, he also did so partly to cheer up himself. The other point reiterated in the new editions—more fully in Gauger's version than in Lerer's—is just how sad a life Kenneth Grahame lived. Born in 1859 in Scotland, he lost his mother at age 5 and saw his alcoholic father walk away soon after that. The happiest days of his youth were spent with his grandmother and siblings at the Mount, a bucolic estate that sounds a lot like the River Bank. The closed-off nature of that idyll—he lived there for just two years, before being relocated again—may explain why, for all the book's careful depiction of late-Victorian manners colliding with Edwardian bustle, its spirit is overwhelmingly Romantic. The influence of Wordsworth, poet laureate of youth-in-nature, pervades the writing, which often has a rapturous beauty. Here is Grahame describing the animals as they look back on summer:

After a stingy uncle denied him an Oxford education, Grahame began a career at the Bank of England, rising quickly (if without much enthusiasm) to early prominence. He also married, though not especially well. Elspeth Thomson was a demanding and difficult woman, ill suited to a private man who clearly preferred the company of his friends, usually male, often on the water. Rat clearly speaks for his creator when he tells Mole, "Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing—absolutely nothing—half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats."

With this sad biography in mind, it's poignant to think of the book as a kind of wish fulfillment: the unhappy Grahame finding a way, as Rat did, to pass up a life of adventure and, through his writing, remain content at home. It's even more poignant to learn this was not to be. In 1920 the troubled Alastair, then a student at Oxford, was killed by a train, apparently after lying down on the tracks. For the rest of his life, Grahame had to protect the legacy of a book whose every word must have recalled his late son. "I love these little people, be kind to them," he told E. H. Shepard, whose winsome illustrations of Rat and Mole and the rest would treat them kindly indeed.

By supplying all this data, Lerer and Gauger's annotated editions enrich the experience of reading the book. The twist is that little of the benefit comes from the actual annotations, which tend to clutter up the story's marvelously fluid rhythm. It's the introductions that give us a new relationship to the story. Placed in the context of Grahame's life and times, and our own lives and times, his book comes to seem less a monument to innocence than a masterpiece of nostalgia.

I don't use the word in the sense of fond remembrance, but in the literal meaning: "the pain of going home." When writing the book, Grahame thought of his boyhood home at the Mount; when reading it, Alastair thought of the better home he wished he had—and I think of being a kid, and maybe you do too. And all of us think of the story's Edwardian manners and customs, and how they were blown to pieces by World War I. The more distance that accrues between us and that world—both the individual selves we've outgrown and the historical world that is never coming back, because it never entirely existed in the first place—the sweeter and more melancholy the book becomes.

Thus the Wordsworthian ring of Mole and Toad's adventures goes far beyond Grahame's swooning over pastoral beauty. It seems an odd claim to make on behalf of a funny little book in which sharp-eyed moles picnic and toads sing, but repeated visits to Grahame's story may offer one of literature's best chances to measure our growing up, our progress in learning (as Wordsworth put it) how "To look on nature, not as in the hour/Of thoughtless youth; but hearing oftentimes/The still, sad music of humanity."

Join the Discussion