Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Tales of the Willows

One of my favorite children’s books is Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows. It’s warm, funny and even frightening in a scene or two, such as the one where Mole is lost in the Wild Wood. And the characters are unforgettable. So when I heard that William Horwood was writing sequels which stayed true to the characterization and style of the original, I had to read them – and actually sprung for a hardcover copy of my favorite.

1. The Willows in Winter

Not the most memorable book in the Tales of the Willows series, but it’s a pleasant read, and there’s an amusing section where Mole falls through the frozen surface of the River and is presumed dead. The other animals, grieving, gather outside for a funeral service.

In the middle of that, Mole (who has struggled out of the water downstream) returns, but not realizing that the solemn gathering is for him, he waits patiently at the edge of the crowd and wonders who has died. It’s just the kind of gentle humor that I’ve come to expect from the novels.

2. Toad Triumphant

This is my favorite book of the series. Now there’s no denying that Toad is vain, lazy, self-centered and forever searching for the next big thrill. But he’s also a mover and shaker, plot-wise. The takeover of Toad Hall, the daring prison escape and the “return of Ulysses” in the original book would never have happened without him.

This story begins when he commissions a statue of himself, which will be sculpted by a lady toad – a French countess, actually. She proposes the idea of Toad as a conquering Roman general with Mole, Badger and Rat as smaller legates looking up at him in admiration. Toad soon has a proposition of a different kind in mind, and asks if Madame la Comtesse will do him the honor of accepting his hand in matrimony.

She’s not too interested at first, but after Toad falls through a greenhouse window in an attempt to woo her, he both ends up on the wrong side of the law (again) and makes the acquaintance of Madame’s young son. And that’s where the book comes into its own. This series can’t do romance, but it’s good with friendship and it does wonderfully with the relationship that develops when Toad and Madame’s son become fugitives together on a boat.

The young Comte is spoiled, self-centered and demanding – just like Toad, in other words. But he’s also lonely. He’s never had a father figure, and Toad finds himself slowly becoming protective of the lad as they journey up the River and try to stay clear of the law.

As for the young Comte, he becomes quite fond of Toad, and Madame starts to think that perhaps wedlock may not be all that onerous… except that by then, Toad has realized his passion for her was merely an infatuation. So the chapter “In Loco Parentis” is followed by one titled “Breach of Promise”.

As his fiancee came out onto the terrace, when all attention was upon her and the High Judge, Toad turned and fled as fast as his short legs would carry him.

As he went he hurled off anything that might be an encumbrance to flight: the carnation in his lapel, his morning coat, then his top hat, and finally his cravat, that he might puff and pant more freely as he fled.

A manhunt, a trial and a guilty verdict ensue. The sentence is death. How Toad averts it, what happens to Madame, where her son ends up… that is for you, dear readers, to discover.

3. The Willows and Beyond

This is a something of a wrap-up book. The characters we knew and loved have grown old, or in Badger’s case, older, and so they hand the reins over to the next generation. This consists of Rat’s friend the Sea Rat’s son, Badger’s grandson (introduced in a previous book), Toad’s ward (ditto) and some young relative of Mole’s (ditto).

There was nothing wrong with this book, and it even has the Amusing Misunderstanding that’s now a trope of the series. A rumor spreads of a Beast in the Wild Wood, a great hulking creature with round shining eyes. Turns out this is Toad, who bundles up well when he’s hiking and wears goggles that reflect light, but he’s attacked quite severely before the others discover this. But plotwise, I can’t remember anything else that happened in this book. It had a few funny moments and that was that.

4. The Willows at Christmas

I thought of buying this, but at the last moment decided to check if it was available through the library. Thankfully, it was. This book is another of the less memorable Tales of the Willows – it’s adequate as a Willows story, but the series seems to be running on autopilot at this point.

Amusing Misunderstanding? Check.
Camaraderie and feasting? Check.
Previously unmentioned family members of Badger, Toad, Mole or Rat showing up? Check and check.
Toad gets into trouble with the law, and requires rescue? Check, check, and throw the clipboard away already.

I was disappointed that this book didn’t feature Toad’s ward, because the scenes between him and Toad in previous novels are always entertaining – he’s just as much of a lazy hedonist as Toad, and lies with more aplomb. There’s also an interesting chapter where Rat and Otter figure out how to break Toad and Mole out of jail. But unlike Toad Triumphant, it’s not the kind of book I’ll read again.


Anonymous said...

This makes me want to reread "The Wind in the Willows". In some ways, childhood classics are even more fun to read as an adult.

Randall said...

You know, I've never actually read the Wind In The Willows. Suppose I should.

Marian said...

Tasha - I think the elaborate language and style would be just as appealing to adults. When I was a kid, I didn't really get the "Piper at the Gates of Dawn" chapter, but it's more meaningful now.

Randall - Worth a read, especially if you're in the mood for something lighthearted. \