The Piper at the Gates of the 21st Century
So, last week Monica Edinger, who writes the most excellent blog, Educating Alice, gave her opinions on the new BBC production of The Wind in the Willows, but moved on to broader questions as to the relevancy of the book in today's kidlit world:
The story has such a dated feel; it is very much about a bunch of old boys (in the British public school tradition) and no girls “messing about,” there is some ugly class commentary (when you get to those inhabitants of the Wild Wood), one of the oddest odes to paganism or something ever, and there is hardly a female to be seen (not surprising since it sort of replicates a boys’ school).I don't quite get the connection between Grahame's characters and British public schools -- unless Edinger meant to point out that the four main animal characters come off as wealthy upper-crust Brits. But to answer the question: how relevant are the adventures of Mole, Badger, Ratty, and Toad today?
First, I'll be the first to admit that Grahame's novel is not for every kid. There's some pretty fancy prose on display in this book, and the fact that we are given two completely different storylines -- the lyrical forest adventures of Mole and Rat, and the comic adventures of Mr. Toad -- with different moods and pacing. There are action-packed chapters followed by sequences in which almost nothing happens. The effect can be jarring, especially for kids listening to the story aloud.
And yeah, it's a shame that there aren't any assertive female characters, but to tell the truth, when I read this as a kid, I didn't see the characters as being particularly male or female, but as animals. Androgynous animals, whose gender didn't seem to apply to them as it does to humans.
I don't quite get Edinger's connection between Grahame's characters and British public schools -- unless Edinger meant to point out that the four main animal characters come off as wealthy, clubby upper-crust Brits. I don't know if Grahame intended for the four animal characters to come off as quite so snobbish as they might to some readers. Keep in mind that there is more economic diversity between them than you might think -- Mole, with his almost-abandoned burrow, seems solidly middle-class, while Mr. Toad is the quintissential foppish aristocrat. As for me, I never got the impression that the animals were anything but old-fashioned, close friends.
I am fortunate to have a own copy of First Whisper of The Wind in the Willows, edited by Grahame's wife Elspeth, which contains all of the letters that Grahame wrote to his son, Alistair, in which the book's stories were first created. Naturally, there aren't nearly as many descriptive passages in the letters as in the book, and in the beginning there are far more animal characters, including a sty of silly pigs.
Rereading these letters, I personally get the impression that Grahame was more interested in creating a fantasic world of talking animals for his son than he was in replicating upper class Edwardian life. The notion that there may be a hidden world of genteel forest creatures is part of what still makes this book appealing. It's the same feeling that I think is still echoed in a lot of today's animal fantasies, such as Russel Erickson's A Toad for Tuesday, Cynthia Rylant's Thimbleberry Stories and perhaps even Kate DiCamillo's Tale of Despereaux. Likewise, I think the lyrical sequences of the book have a direct descendant in Randall Jarrell's The Animal Family.
However, the crux of the matter over the book's relevancy seems to lie in this: Grahame's skill at evoking the beauties of nature, the comforts and connections to one's own home, and the a fascination with forest animals, is still as evocative now as it was in 1908. In an increasingly nature-deprived world, I think there's nothing better for kids than to revel in a description of woods, rivers, and the luxury of getting absorbed in the outdoors.
Likewise, whenever I find a child -- or myself -- coveting the latest technological gadget, I'm always of a mind to sit us down for a ride on Mr. Toad's motorcar. In an era in which we are increasingly encouraged to upgrade our material lives, the misadventures of Mr. Toad seems more necessary than ever. The next time you experience a power failure, and find yourself tearing out your hair from e-mail deprivation, get out the candles and spend some time "messing about in boats." It'll do you good.