4/15/2017 07:37

The Wind in the Willows

For years I've heard about The Wind in the Willows. I mean the book of that title. Hardly anybody talks about the real wind blowing through a real willow tree. The book, however, was widely known and sometimes talked about. I grew up without ever having my hands on it. Perhaps my mother intentionally chose not to make it available to me, which would be another sign of her parental wisdom.

I had assumed that The Wind in the Willows was a collection of tales about anthropomorphized animals living in the wild. It is a collection of tales, but beyond that I was misled. Unless by "wild" you mean "a previously developed area of post-Victorian England now vacant and overrun by invasive species" Mole and Toad are not living in the wild.

As for the characters themselves, they are not so much aggressively anthropomorphized animals as slightly therianized Victorian men. They have animal skins which are wrapped around human bodies and which are in turn wrapped in human clothing. Like a face or a fingerprint, their skin serves for identification (as "Mole" or "Toad") without having any effect on behavior or mode of thought. The seeming animals consume sardines and ethanol without regard for speciation. They drive horses, raise sheep, and keep caged birds in their parlors. They are, toad and mole and badger and otter, all of a size and conveniently occupy space and furniture in each others' homes.

There is a seeming exception in the field mice who come a-caroling one Christmas. (Real field mice are actually voles, but are only remotely related to the water vole which, in the character of Rat, welcomed the carolers in the book.) The field mice are one of only two admissions that not all residents in an ideal world can be adult male humans. In order to limit the intrusion of children, their role is assigned to a different species which is accordingly allowed to be smaller. Smaller, yet still adult enough to partake in mulled ale.

There is one true child in the book, Otter's lost son Portly, and this engenders a conundrum for even in an ideal world it is not possible to have a son without there being a mother. Fortunately Mrs. Otter is not one to make an appearance other than in hearsay. She stays quietly at home while Otter posts himself by the river. The married couple thus chastely separated, the story can proceed with mutual male support and a therianized male divinity.

Females are not completely disregarded; they do receive at least one other mention when Mole and Rat are imposing false arrest on Mr. Toad, so as to prevent him from succumbing to his addiction to automobiles. As Mole and Rat escort Toad to the room which is to be his jail cell, Mole reassures him by promising an end of stints in hospital, "being ordered about by female nurses". Even the suspension of his rights to liberty and property, and the absence of all due process, must pale in comparison to that!

But then I haven't yet read as far as the civil war and the jailer's daughter, and we know that no arcadian fantasy, nor any utopian one, can become a classic without an admission that actual reality also exists and may intrude.