Book Scents: Wind in the Willows

 

I never loved The Wind in the Willows as a child. My version was abridged in the same way that many children’s copies are–it left out two chapters about Rat and Mole* and put the emphasis squarely on Toad, who baffled and frightened me. This year I picked it up again and I can’t seem to put it down. I still don’t understand Toad’s appeal, but I love Rat and Mole and their friendship with all my heart, and I have a definite crush on Badger, whose varsity sweater (as imagined above by Robert Ingpen) I’d like to borrow and never give back.

 

What I love best about the book, more than any one character or adventure, is the peculiar yearning sweetness of its tone. It’s a story that’s about longing and restlessness and fear as much as it is about friendship and gentleness. There’s a constant tension in the stories between risk and retreat, adventure and comfort. Toad is on the far end of the risk spectrum, happy-go-lucky, greedy for new experience, chaos personified. Mole is a homebody, worried and nervous, but just as often full of surprise and delight to find himself capable of traveling in a wider world. (And now you know which sort of animal I am most of the time.)

 

The passage I noticed for the first time today, and want to share with you here, is a moment when Mole is reminded–sharply, poignantly–of the home he leaves behind at the beginning of the book. He and Rat and have been on the road for some time. It’s pitch dark and they are both hungry and weary and looking forward to supper at Rat’s house. But then, “the summons reached him, and took him like and electric shock…” It’s the smell of home, but not as we humans know it:

 

We others, who have long lost the more subtle of the physical senses, have not even proper terms to express an animal’s inter-communications with his surroundings, living or otherwise, and have only the word “smell,” for instance, to include the whole range of delicate thrills, which murmur in the nose of the animal night and day, summoning, warning, inciting, repelling. It was one of these mysterious fairy calls from out the void that suddenly reached Mole in the darkness, making him tingle through and through with its very familiar appeal, even while yet he could not clearly remember what it was. He stopped dead in his tracks, his nose searching hither and thither in its efforts to recapture the fine filament, the telegraphic current that had so strongly moved him. A moment, and he had caught it again; and with it this time came recollection in fullest flood.

 

Home! That was what they meant, those caressing appeals, those soft touches wafted through the air, those invisible little hands pulling and tugging , all one way! Why, it must be quite close by him at the moment. his old home that he had hurriedly forsaken and never sought again, that day when he first found the river! And now it was sending out its scouts and its messengers to capture him and bring him in. Since his escape on that bright morning he had hardly given it a thought, so absorbed had he been in his new life in all its pleasures, its surprises, its fresh and captivating experiences. Now with a rush of old memories, how clearly it stood up before him, in the darkness! Shabby indeed, and small and poorly furnished, and yet his, the home he had made for himself, the home he’d been so happy to get back to after his day’s work. And the home had been happy with him, too, evidently, and was missing him, and wanted him back, and was telling him so, through his nose, sorrowfully, reproachfully, but with no bitterness or anger; only with plaintive reminder that it was there, and wanted him.

 

*The chapters generally left out are “Wayfarers All,” in which Rat meets an old Sea Rat and is briefly consumed with wanderlust; and “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn,” in which Mole and Rat meet the great god Pan. It’s interesting to speculate why those two were left out. Perhaps the Pan story was deemed challenging to a conservative Christian audience, or one unfamiliar with mythology. Either way it’s a shame. They are wonderfully poignant, emotional stories that tell us much about  Mole and Rat and their world that we didn’t know.

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8 Comments

  • Cynthia says:

    Thanks for this, Alyssa. I love the passage you highlighted. When I walk my dog there are some areas of the park that send her into a visible scent ecstasy, and this passage reminds me how much more they smell than we do and what pleasure it must bring.
    I think we all need a gentle read sometime. Although my usual fare is mystery and murder, this Christmas I picked up a copy of “Paw Prints in the Moonlight: The Heartwarming Story of a Man and His Cat” by Denis O’Connor at my local library. This is a reissue of an older book, and is nothing more than the story of a man’s rescue of a kitten and the story of their life together. Yet it was just the soft, gentle, heartwarming story I needed at that moment. You have now made me want to search out Rat, Mole and Badger’s story. (And I agree about the frog. I was scared of frogs and he creeped me out!)

    • Alyssa says:

      I love to watch my dog sniffing that way, too. Especially when we go to a new place. Raptures! A whole new world to smell!

      It’s funny about murder mysteries, I think a lot of people find them comforting because the rules of the genre are relatively predictable even if the events are difficult. I have a librarian friend who often tweets about murder mysteries she calls “cozies.” They have titles like “Tea and Murder” or “Knitting a Noose.”

  • Julie says:

    That passage brings me to tears every time. And I always found Toad irritating and exhausting.

    • Alyssa says:

      For me the tears come a moment later when he wrenches himself away from the call to follow Rat. And then again when Rat cheerfully turns around on the path to lead bewildered Mole back home.

      I wonder where the Toad fans are? Surely they must be out there or the book wouldn’t still be here!

  • marianne Owens says:

    Just lovely. Thank you. I too have a dog and often try to imagine what it would be like to have such a strong sense of smell and be guided by it. Totally immersed.

    • Alyssa says:

      I love the way Grahame turns smell into something that is more like an emotion, or even a spirit. I wonder if dogs experience it that way.

  • JoanElaine says:

    The Wind in Willows is a recent favorite. I read it in for the first time in 2007 and fell in love. It one of my comfort reads, a book I reach for when I want to drift away from the world.

    I too find Toad repellant and find his adventures exhausting. The caravan, the car, the courtroom…I just wanted to throw the book across the room!

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