The best children's book ever?  Yeah, I'll go with that.

The best children’s book ever? Yeah, I’ll go with that.

The Wind in the Willows

  • Author:  Kenneth Grahame
  • Published:  1908
  • Publisher:  Methuen & Co.
  • Pages:  302
  • First Line:  “The Mole had been working very hard all the morning, spring-cleaning his little home.”
  • Last Lines:  “But when their infants were fractious and quite beyond control, they would quiet them by telling how, if they didn’t hush them and not fret them, the terrible grey Badger would up and get them.  This was a base libel on Badger, who, though he cared little about Society, was rather fond of children; but it never failed to have its full effect.”
  • Film Version:  numerous  –  see below
  • First Read:  sometime in childhood

Arthur Rackham's illustration of Toad and the gypsy.

Arthur Rackham’s illustration of Toad and the gypsy.

When I was finishing my Top 100 Novels list, I decided to expand upon it, adding a second 100.  Those second 100 weren’t getting all their own posts, but I wanted to recognize a lot of great books that hadn’t made my list.  When compiling that list I put The Wind in the Willows on it.  As it turned out, it was the only “children’s book” on the list, which I guess, means I rank as the single best work of literature for children.  And thinking about it, I’ll stand by that assessment.

In some ways, I suppose, The Wind in the Willows fills a similar role to books that The Wizard of Oz serves to films – it embraces everything at once, except perhaps romance.  First and foremost, it is a kid’s book; after all, it was written by Grahame based on the stories that he had been telling his son.  Then it is a fantasy, one in which talking animals take the place of much of proper British society, while there are still several key roles for humans themselves (indeed, this would cause some consternation for some of the illustrators as to what kind of scale to use).  It is a great comedy (just look at the scene where Toad, in jail, must dress as a washer-woman to escape, which is amusing in itself that he could pass for a washer-woman – again the question of scale, but even better is Toad’s indignation at being told he is like the washer-woman, “particularly about the figure.”  “We’re not,” said the Toad in a huff.  “I have a very elegant figure – for what I am.”).  It is an adventure story, complete with a rousing battle at the end.  It is a pastoral scene, complete with epic mythology at the heart of it.  It is the story of friendship, the story of class differences, the story of the encroaching technology pushing aside the days when you could simply mess about in boats.

Justin Todd's "The Piper at the Gates of Dawn", with its brilliant depiction of Pan in the sky and the water between the leaves.

Justin Todd’s “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn”, with its brilliant depiction of Pan in the sky and the water between the leaves.

And yet, what would all of this great story-telling be without the wondrous magic of Grahame’s language behind it?  Just look at one of the most famous chapter titles: “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn” (which would also become the title of Pink Floyd’s first album, a title that would perfectly suit that music).  And look at the first lines of that wonderful chapter: “The Willow-Wren was twittering his thin little song, hidden himself in the dark selvedge of the river bank.  Though it was past ten o’clock at night, the sky still clung to and retained some lingering skirts of light from the departed day; and the sullen heats of the torrid afternoon broke up and rolled away at the dispersing touch of the cool fingers of the short midsummer night.”  This book works so well precisely because you can read it to children and have them relic in the humor of Toad’s adventures, smile at the friendship between Mole and Rat, relish the exciting chase scenes and battle for Toad Hall; yet adults can simply slip into the language and disappear.

Ernest Shepard's illustration of Toad in his driving gear.

Ernest Shepard’s illustration of Toad in his driving gear.

But then let us remember another aspect of the story – the fantasy element that makes it such a perfect book to illustrate.  Unlike with some kids books that are clearly identified with one illustrator or another, over the last century a whole slough of illustrators have taken their crack at The Wind in the Willows.  When you look at a scene like in Chapter II, you have to wonder how to illustrate it:

A careful inspection showed them that, even if they succeeded in righting it by themselves, the cart would travel no longer.  The axles were in a hopeless state, and the missing wheel was shattered into pieces.

The Rat knotted the horse’s reins over his back and took him by the head, carrying the bird cage and its hysterical occupant in the other hand.

Paul Bransom kept his characters in scale for his post-crash illustration.

Paul Bransom kept his characters in scale for his post-crash illustration.

Do you choose, like Paul Bransom, one of the earliest illustrators, to depict the characters very much as animals, with no clothes and tiny when compared to the horse?  Do you, like Wyndham Payne, make them Edwardian gentlemen who happen to be animals?  It is a scene that almost all the illustrators choose to draw because of all the possibilities.  I have chosen a few of my favorites up above – a Justin Todd illustration from the edition I used to read the story to Thomas (I love the way he makes Pan out of the absence of leaves), the Arthur Rackham drawing of Toad meeting the Gypsy (Rackham was famous for his illustrations for many books and he died before his edition was published) and the Ernest Shepard illustration of Toad ready to drive (like with Winnie-the-Pooh, for which he is most famous, I love Shepard’s illustrations and the Annotated edition listed below and pictured at the top has a wonderful Christmas card he sent out of the riverbankers playing instruments which I couldn’t find online).

You can chose among illustrators.  You can choose among editions (the best is the Annotated, but it’s also the most expensive, part of the Norton Annotated Editions series).  You can even chose among films, if you want a chance to watch it (see below).  But choose to pick it up and choose to lose yourself in this, perhaps the best children’s book ever written.

Various Versions of The Wind in the Willows:

The Films:

There are numerous film and television adaptations of The Wind in the Willows, far more than I have seen.  There are two here though, that I will review.  The first was the one I first saw as a child and it would become kind of my mental image for a long time of the book.  The second one I saw earlier this year for the first time, though I had been planning to see it for ages, since it was first out in theaters (though I blinked, and it was gone).  It inspired me to read the book to Thomas.

What does it say that the Headless Horseman dominates the poster?

What does it say that the Headless Horseman dominates the poster?

The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad  (1949  –  ***)

This is an interesting combination of tales.  One of them is distinctly British, in some ways an allegory about the class system and dealing with the encroachment of technology on the British way of life.  The other is very distinctly American, a tale of rural American life and one that has been told now for almost 200 years.  But what they each have is an interesting character right at the heart of it – either the adventurous Mr. Toad or the cowardly Ichabod.

This was the last of the package films – the several films made between Bambi (1942) and Cinderella (1950), when Disney didn’t have the animators or resources to make feature-length animation stories and so made shorter stories and paired them together.  It’s not the weakest of those film (I have The Three Caballeros four spots lower on my ranking) but it’s not even close to the best.  It is a good film, but what would later be called the Disneyfication of such classic stories, especially Willows, keeps it from really rising high enough to rate consideration as Best Animated Film from the Nighthawk Awards.

Though this is the post for The Wind in the Willows, it is really Sleepy Hollow that is the better part of the film – this half of the film really does come alive, with the wonderful Headless Horseman chasing Ichabod from the town, even though that doesn’t actually happen until the final four minutes of the film.  The dreaded laugh of the Horseman, his appearance in the cemetery, his pumpkin full of flames, all of them would become instant classics and they work both at the children’s level (frightening them quite effectively) and at the adult level.

There are two things about the Toad part of the film that really do make it memorable.  The first is that it would become the stylistic concept behind Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, one of the great non-roller coaster rides at Disneyland, one that is fun, but isn’t too frightening for people who don’t like roller coasters.  The second is the ending.  The ending here would actually re-appear in the Terry Jones film version (see below) and is perfectly appropriate for the story – that Toad would move on from his car obsession and soon be flying planes and frightening animals at every level.

Even on the poster Terry Jones looks over-the-top.

Even on the poster Terry Jones looks over-the-top.

The Wind in the Willows  (1996, dir. Terry Jones – ***)

There are several things that Terry Jones’ film of The Wind in the Willows get right.  It has heartfelt performances from Steve Coogan as Mole (when he was still mainly known for just being Alan Partridge), Eric Idle as Rat and Nicol Williamson as Badger (I based my Scottish accent for Badger when reading the book to Thomas entirely on Williamson’s performance).  It is nicely filmed with good sets that really make the Edwardian Era of Britain come alive on screen, complete with the appropriate costumes.  It keeps very well to the themes of the book, even using some of the songs precisely as they are written by Grahame.  And it even steals the Disney ending to the story, rather appropriately.

But, unfortunately there is one thing it gets really wrong.  As Terry Jones was directing the film, there was no one around to tell Jones that he really shouldn’t star in the film.  And certainly there was no one to reign in the complete over-the-top excesses of Jones’ performance.  Watching the trial scene and listening to him his sing his song, though the lyrics come straight from Grahame, someone needed to keep Jones from going so ridiculously over-the-top, not only as an actor in that scene, but also as a director, letting it go on for far too long.

All of this is a shame, because the film didn’t get nearly enough recognition for being a solid film version of a classic book, one that doesn’t really lend itself that well to live-action films.  It did very little business in the U.K. and disappeared almost instantly in the States.  And yet, whenever Jones isn’t onscreen the film has a considerable amount of charm and the stars do work well together, as can be expected from an almost Monty Python reunion.  It’s just too bad, that from the first second he appears onscreen, Jones is just too much and overall the film is stuck as a middling *** film.

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