Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Why "The Wind in the Willows"?

We finished reading The Wind in the Willows today. Rarely has a book surprised me so much, maybe a result from what I expect to find in "children's books." Silly me, I feel like Toad. The last chapter gave a great chance to explain its title to the boys...why the allusion ties into what Odysseus experienced on his return. But my youngest asked a question about the title that caused me some pause: Why is it titled "The Wind in the WILLOWS"? We didn't recall willows explicitly mentioned in the text. So a quick check with Project Gutenberg returns the following quotes:
  • Chapter 3: Such a rich chapter it had been, when one came to look back on it all! With illustrations so numerous and so very highly coloured! The pageant of the river bank had marched steadily along, unfolding itself in scene-pictures that succeeded each other in stately procession. Purple loosestrife arrived early, shaking luxuriant tangled locks along the edge of the mirror whence its own face laughed back at it. Willow-herb, tender and wistful, like a pink sunset cloud, was not slow to follow. Comfrey, the purple hand-in-hand with the white, crept forth to take its place in the line; and at last one morning the diffident and delaying dog-rose stepped delicately on the stage, and one knew, as if string-music had announced it in stately chords that strayed into a gavotte, that June at last was here.
  • Chapter 7: The Willow-Wren was twittering his thin little song, hidden himself in the dark selvedge of the river bank.
  • Chapter 7: Fastening their boat to a willow, the friends landed in this silent, silver kingdom, and patiently explored the hedges, the hollow trees, the runnels and their little culverts, the ditches and dry water-ways. Embarking again and crossing over, they worked their way up the stream in this manner, while the moon, serene and detached in a cloudless sky, did what she could, though so far off, to help them in their quest; till her hour came and she sank earthwards reluctantly, and left them, and mystery once more held field and river.
  • Chapter 7: On either side of them, as they glided onwards, the rich meadow-grass seemed that morning of a freshness and a greenness unsurpassable. Never had they noticed the roses so vivid, the willow-herb so riotous, the meadow-sweet so odorous and pervading. Then the murmur of the approaching weir began to hold the air, and they felt a consciousness that they were nearing the end, whatever it might be, that surely awaited their expedition.

    A wide half-circle of foam and glinting lights and shining shoulders of green water, the great weir closed the backwater from bank to bank, troubled all the quiet surface with twirling eddies and floating foam-streaks, and deadened all other sounds with its solemn and soothing rumble. In midmost of the stream, embraced in the weir's shimmering arm-spread, a small island lay anchored, fringed close with willow and silver birch and alder. Reserved, shy, but full of significance, it hid whatever it might hold behind a veil, keeping it till the hour should come, and, with the hour, those who were called and chosen.

That doesn't quite lend itself to the title, does it? So I posed the question to the leaders of the workshop the boys were going to attend. They pointed me to the probable reason—an alliterative change from the possible title The Wind in the Reeds, given the number of times the wind through the riverbank reeds is mentioned (an intentional play on the orchestral meaning for "reed" section):

  • Chapter 1: He learnt to swim and to row, and entered into the joy of running water; and with his ear to the reed-stems he caught, at intervals, something of what the wind went whispering so constantly among them.
  • Chapter 7: The horizon became clearer, field and tree came more into sight, and somehow with a different look; the mystery began to drop away from them. A bird piped suddenly, and was still; and a light breeze sprang up and set the reeds and bulrushes rustling.
  • Chapter 7: The Mole, greatly wondering, obeyed. 'I hear nothing myself,' he said, 'but the wind playing in the reeds and rushes and osiers.'
  • Chapter 7: 'Or something very surprising and splendid and beautiful,' murmured the Rat, leaning back and closing his eyes. 'I feel just as you do, Mole; simply dead tired, though not body tired. It's lucky we've got the stream with us, to take us home. Isn't it jolly to feel the sun again, soaking into one's bones! And hark to the wind playing in the reeds!'
  • Chapter 7: 'So I was thinking,' murmured the Rat, dreamful and languid. 'Dance-music—the lilting sort that runs on without a stop—but with words in it, too—it passes into words and out of them again—I catch them at intervals—then it is dance-music once more, and then nothing but the reeds' soft thin whispering.'

    'You hear better than I,' said the Mole sadly. 'I cannot catch the words.'

    'Let me try and give you them,' said the Rat softly, his eyes still closed. 'Now it is turning into words again—faint but clear—Lest the awe should dwell—And turn your frolic to fret—You shall look on my power at the helping hour—But then you shall forget! Now the reeds take it up—forget, forget, they sigh, and it dies away in a rustle and a whisper. Then the voice returns—

    'Lest limbs be reddened and rent—I spring the trap that is set—As I loose the snare you may glimpse me there—For surely you shall forget! Row nearer, Mole, nearer to the reeds! It is hard to catch, and grows each minute fainter.

    'Helper and healer, I cheer—Small waifs in the woodland wet—Strays I find in it, wounds I bind in it—Bidding them all forget! Nearer, Mole, nearer! No, it is no good; the song has died away into reed-talk.'
  • Chapter 10: He rose to the surface and tried to grasp the reeds and the rushes that grew along the water's edge close under the bank, but the stream was so strong that it tore them out of his hands. 'O my!' gasped poor Toad, 'if ever I steal a motor-car again!

Gee, notice the number of quotes, again, from Chapter 7, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn? (See this post for more discussion on this chapter). The use of reeds, and the obvious musical reference in the chapter, was one of many things that appealed to me. I never tied the title of the book to their use, though. Maybe I'm imposing what I want to believe, but it fits very well. I'll post more here as I find out more, but I thought I would start with this initial investigation, all starting with the question from my 8-year-old.


Jenny said...

I just finished reading this with my own children (ages 9 and 7.) They loved the humor and action of the riotous chapters, and were much more engaged with the quieter chapters than I'd expected. We had a long discussion after "The Piper at the Gates of Dawn" about what Pan looked like. My children were taken aback at my (traditional) description: both thought a god of the animals ought to have more animal representation (i.e. bits of different animals in him.) Afterward, my son got a remarkably faithful graphic-novel version of it out of the library and read it over several times.

I'd forgotten how beautiful this book is, and how quietly funny. A.S. Byatt's The Children's Book speaks to some of the atmosphere that went into creating work for and about children at that time.

Dwight said...

Jenny, you may like sharing some of the links from the LitWits Pinterest board with your kids: http://www.pinterest.com/LitWits/the-wind-in-the-willows/ , although I'm sure the graphic novel provided info for some of the words the kids won't know.

Jonathan Chant said...

Shamed to say I have never read this classic. Your post inspires me to do so. Thanks, Dwight.

seraillon said...

Dwight - thanks for giving me an idea for a Christmas present for one of the godkids. This is the second time this week that Kenneth Grahame has come up. The first time was in a French book about "forgotten authors." I have not read the Grahame section yet, but I wonder if the author of the book knew that Grahame is hardly "forgotten" in the Anglophone world.

Dwight said...

This is a perfect gift. I highly recommend the edition with illustrations by Robert Ingpen. The volume is kind of large and heavy, but the illustrations are great.

Jonathan, I can't believe I had never read the book until now. I'm glad I corrected that, and hope you feel the same way (when you get to it).

Mercurius Aulicus said...

Have you ever read Australian poet Peter Kocan's "To a Woman Reading The Wind in the Willows"?

Dwight said...

Ha! No, I had not read that. Thanks for the link.

What fitter story could a grown-up find
Than one which makes uncomplicated sense
Of things like being brave and being kind,
Of virtues so important and immense?

Unknown said...

I recall an episode of "As Time Goes By" in which Lionel is catching up on books he missed as a child; now you have whetted my appetite for the same book.

Thank you for reminding me that I am not too old to read again as a child.

Now I must dash off to find a copy of Wind in the Willows. Thank you again for your generous posting.