I want to tell you about something completely different today, a truly small volume I ran onto among the big books on the shelves of the Big Library. This little book was published during World War II, and has a message inside regarding wartime necessities and what even the publishing industry must do without – excess paper. No wasteful blank pages, no wide margins or wasted space at the ends of chapters. A note on the title page tells us:
Under Government regulations for saving paper during the war, the thickness of this book has been reduced below the customary peacetime standards. The text is complete and unabridged.
The pages give new meaning to the words “paper thin.” Expensive bathroom tissue is thicker than this paper.
But I’m not here to talk about the mechanics of wartime publishing, but about the subject of the book and its authors. This slim volume, which I found tucked away among much larger books at the Big Library, is titled First Whisper of “The Wind in the Willows” by Kenneth Grahame, edited by Elspeth Grahame, his wife, who also wrote a wonderful introduction.
The book includes not only the genesis of The Wind in the Willows, but also a great story about a book store on the edge of the Grand Canyon that sold mostly tourist guides and such, but had a copy of The Wind in the Willows in a prominent place. An English friend of Grahame’s on a trip to see the Grand Canyon (“Having seen it, I am relieved of any desire to see it again.”) also visited the book store and saw Grahame’s book.
He asked about it and the owner of the store said “I am very pleased to meet you.” She then told him about buying the book years before in Chicago and making a vow that if she ever owned a bookshop Grahame’s book would be there in a place of honor.
“It helps me to retain my self-respect while I am selling to the daily tourists the sort of fiction that they read in Pullman cars.” Today it would be 747s. But her other motive was that she knew who people were when they commented on the book. “That is why I said at once that I was pleased to meet you.”
This exchange, Grahame’s friend noted, happened at the outset of Bright Angel Trail. “No other place on earth could be farther in feeling from the English countryside.”
I first read The Wind in the Willows as a child, but it seemed too complicated for my little mind. Then I read it again at Whitman College when it was assigned reading for a wonderful freshman class with a reading list that included Hesse’s Magister Ludi, Rolvaag’s Giants in the Earth, War and Peace, The Wind in the Willows and Goethe’s Faust.
Quite a lineup for a freshman lit class. And one of the most stimulating classes I ever had. One of our assignments was a paper comparing any two of the novels. I chose Magister Ludi and The Wind in the Willows.
The Wind in the Willows is much more than a children’s story although it began that way, as an entertainment from Kenneth Grahame in bedtime stories and letters to his son, Alastair, nicknamed Mouse. The book first centered around the adventures of Mr. Toad, but over time expanded to include the Mole and the Water Rat and the rest of the creatures living near the willows.
Two of the chapters near the center of the book, “Dulce Domum” and “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn” are among the most spiritual and tender chapters ever in print. These two chapters are meant for the grownups who read the book to their children. “Dulce Domum” speaks to the concept of home, no matter how long one has been away from it or how humble it may be.
I had a sweetheart once who loved this book as much as I did, mostly because he loved “messing about in boats,” much like the Water Rat who explains to the Mole that “there is nothing—absolutely nothing—half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats. Simply messing.”
But we both loved “Dulce Domum” and one Christmas I recorded a tape of it for him. I wonder if he still has the tape. It was a very long time ago.
“Piper at the Gates of Dawn” is a tale of a lost creature, faith, and rescue in the presence of – well, something greater than oneself. It’s a beautiful story.
One of my favorite pieces of advice for living comes from The Wind in the Willows. It’s in the chapter “Wayfarers All” when the dashing Sea Rat describes his adventurous life to the Water Rat and urges him to come along on the next adventure:
“Take the adventure, heed the call, now ere the irrevocable moment passes! ‘Tis but a banging of the door behind you, a blithesome step forward, and you are out of the old life and into the new!”
I try to remember these words when I’m boggled by so much new life these days…one thing after another. I try to take the blithesome steps forward but often, like the Water Rat, just end up more boggled than ever.
In the book, when the Water Rat sinks into a daze of confusion about the irrevocable moment, the Mole comes to the rescue – gently and with great tact. He puts a few pieces of clean paper in front of his friend and a pencil and says the magic words:
“It’s quite a long time since you did any poetry…You might have a try at it this evening instead of—well, brooding over things so much. I’ve an idea that you’ll feel a lot better when you’ve got something jotted down—if it’s only just the rhymes.”
It’s a beautiful book. Two beautiful books.
I think I’ll go write some poetry.