Most people who like to read must have days when they think of starting a new book, but a strange restlessness of mind or spirit makes the choice difficult. Normally, in a position to plump for a new book, they savour the delights of the five or six most pressing titles before choosing. But there are some days and moods when nothing will do, not even one's favourite authors. Days like these are perhaps more common in late August or September, when there is a sense of uneasiness and dissatisfaction that everything must begin again: school, the closing in of the days, the pressure of things that must be done, forgotten long long ago in the balmy days of June. When such a mood seizes me, which it does perhaps once a year, there is one book to which invariably springs to my mind unsought, after musing in vain to think of something to satisfy me. It is a book without peers - for like an angel it is a single species and is without any class or imitators - and it is Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows.
Here is my penny's worth literary critique. It is perhaps no accident that this is the book that the soul seizes in such a mood, because the pivot upon which the book turns is neither Mole's yearning for home (for Mole is too much of a lover of the simple domestic pleasures, and a follower of other's bright ideas to provide the moment upon which the story is balanced); nor is it the climax of the storming of Toad Hall (for this, while a moment of martial glory is hardly the point for which the story exists). Rather, it is the strange desire that comes upon Rat, the Wanderlust that carries him bodily out of home and onto the highroad after his meeting with the Sea Rat and his tales of adventure. This episode tries Rat's stedfastness to his friend, and his scarcely willing resignation of the glamour of danger and the wine dark seas of the South is the backdrop to Mole's and Rat's subsequent heroics. It questions the ease of the idyll that had gone before that moment, which is then redeemed it in the hard-fought valour of the climax.
Part of the glory of the book is also in its unnecessary plot diversions, like the vision of Pan, which I should think is one of the few persuasive pieces of post-pagan paganism, and possibly one of the most beautiful written since the gods forsook "their Temples dim".
It was in the grip of such a restlessness that I picked up the Wind in the Willows today, and casually read the introduction, to find that The Golden Age and Dream Days, Grahame's two other books, which are worth reading although not at all masterly pieces like it is, were early works. (I had assumed that they were a late falling away of a youthful genius, for they seem to view childhood at a greater remove: quite the contrary. They were his youthful attempts.) But what I read of the book's writing was very poignant. It grew from nursery stories told to his only and much beloved son Alistair; and was then continued in his letters to his son at school. Kenneth saw his son pass from Eton to Oxford, where, in 1920, Alistair was killed at a level crossing. In the following twelve years that were left to him, he did not write again.
I suppose one has to wonder if he did well to leave off, having written such a book (which I would defend, without any irony, as a great literary work). One doubts if he could have bettered this tale. A father's love for his son had - all unknowingly - already shaped an immortal tribute.