Such a Mensch: Gary Barwin’s Yiddish for Pirates

Barwin, Gary. Yiddish for Pirates: Being an Account of Moishe the Captain, His Meshugeneh Life & Astounding Adventures, His Sarah, The Horizon, Books & Treasure, as told by Aaron, His African Grey. Vintage Canada, 2016.

Told by a five hundred year old parrot, this novel is among other things a romp to the seventeenth century Caribbean, for, as its subtitle informs us, it is by way of Being an Account of Moishe the Captain, His Meshugeneh Life & Astounding Adventures, His Sarah, The Horizon, Books & Treasure, as told by Aaron, His African Grey.

Reading this novel is somewhat akin to attending a Bar Mitzvah party or a wedding when everyone has become somewhat relaxed. The jokes and puns might overwhelm you if you aren’t in the mood. Aaron the parrot has the voice and idiom of a long-retired vaudeville comic whose days on the Catskills circuit are long gone but who remembers the glory days from the comfort of his Florida retirement home.

Yiddish for Pirates is a love story, a picaresque quest story, a historical novel, an exploration of colonisation and a thumbed nose at antisemitism. Even without Barwin’s opening the novel with a quotation from Voltaire’ satire of Enlightenment optimism, it’s impossible not to draw comparisons with Candide as one follows Moishe from Vilnius to Seville, where the Inquisition is in full fire, to his sailing with Columbus, to his becoming a pirate, and to his final adventures in Florida.

As is the case with all good comedy, this novel is insightful and utterly serious. Perhaps one of the most effective ways of opposing evil is to laugh at it. At times, the farcical pace and the incongruous juxtaposition of humour, even slapstick, with such events as an auto-da-fé leave the reader somewhat breathless. Towards the end of the novel, this pace slackens somewhat, and I found myself missing the sense of being carried somewhere without a clear map, which, of course, is what those who sailed with Columbus were doing. As the pace slowed, I found I needed more character development and a little more explanation, more whys and wherefores. It seemed almost as if Barwin, too, was running out of breath. This is but a minor criticism of the work.

Overall, I appreciated Barwin’s examination of what it means to be Jewish, whether Sephardi or Ashkenazi, his opposition to rigid dogma, his interrogation of the impulse to colonization, itself a kind of piracy, and his celebration of the flexibility of idiom and the creative power of language.


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That Fatal (?) Wrath: Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls

Barker, Pat. The Silence of the Girls. Hamish Hamilton, 2018.

This is Pat Barker’s latest novel and it signifies a slight change of focus. Once again, Barker is writing about the effects of war, but this time she moves far into the mythological past in a revisioning of The Iliad and of other Greek myths from the point of view of women, particularly one woman, Briseis, the captured Trojan, dispute over the possession of whom caused the rift between Agamemnon and Achilles.

The novel begins just before Briseis is captured. When her city falls to the Greeks, her cousin leaps from the parapet of the tower where the women of Lyrnessus have taken refuge. But Briseis who has watched her own husband be killed cannot bring herself to follow her cousin’s example so is taken into slavery and allotted to Achilles. The story ends as Polyxena is sacrificed and the Greeks leave Troy burnt and desolate.

This novel breaks the silence of the distant past about the women in this tale. How often do the mortal women speak in the Greek and Roman myths? Goddesses have power and voice, as do some nymphs, but mortal women are rarely heard except to keen over their dead. They are sacrificed as is Iphigenia, they unleash all the ills on the world as does Pandora. They wait and weave like Penelope, or are transformed like Daphne. If they do act as does Clytemnestra they are punished. Admittedly murder is a capital crime, but Clytemnestra is held to a different standard from her adulterous committer of infanticide husband, Agamemnon.

Barker’s novel does indeed give voice to Briseis, the newly enslaved concubine, who narrates most of the novel. At times, Barker shifts to a third person narrative, especially when she is focusing on Achilles. I’m undecided about how effective a technique this is, especially as she also sometimes shifts tenses in these passages. Yes, they do allow us insight into events that Briseis does not see and allow us a sense of Achilles’ own feelings, but at times, they are disruptive.

What Barker does achieve is the sense of reluctant understanding that Briseis seems ultimately to have for Achilles, and of the developing respect even friendship that grows between her and Patroclus. Certainly, the novel evokes a more nuanced sense of Achilles than we receive from The Iliad. His flaws, if such they are, are not the hybrisof the ancient Greeks but more the psychological dilemmas recognised post Freud, post Jung.

The novel creates a world of women, captives, some in bondage since birth and others the victims of war, whose lives and deaths have become contingent upon the whims of their captors or on the ultimate outcome of war. Even here, there is hierarchy and jealousy. There is also friendship and trust. Barker also poses the moral question of whether survival is the stronger obligation when contrasted with loyalty. Briseis is unable to commit suicide; something compels her to live.

Further, she submits to her fate commenting, that Achilles “wasn’t cruel” and admitting, “he wasn’t doing anything he didn’t have a perfect right to do” (28). In these few words, Briseis summarizes up the whole position of a slave. A slave is a possession, an object owned, a prize. Where there is no recognition of subjectivity or agency in the owned, there can be little expectation of consideration, courtesy or empathy from the owner. Barker’s novel interrogates this situation showing that slave and master do indeed share humanity and by virtue of proximity cannot avoid relating to each other on a human level, and in many ways it was this aspect of the novel that I found most engaging and thought-provoking.

At the end of the novel, Briseis wonders what the future will make of the story of Achilles. The readers know what has been done with the story of Achilles. We have The Iliad,Herodotus, Robert Graves, Edith Hamilton, et al. do we not? Now, too, we have Pat Barker questioning just what we do not only with classical myths but also, and more important, with the myths we build around the conflicts of our own times. Millennia from now, what will our descendants think of us as they consider, for example, concentration camps, genocide, barrel bombs, sectarian violence? Will they look for heroes and villains or look for shared humanity? The ending of the novel is in some ways surprising gentle, even strangely optimistic. Briseis asserts that even though she’s now married to “a bit of a fool,” Alcimus, her “own story can begin” (324), and Barker reminds us once more of the power of narratives and of the fact that the silence within narratives is as important, perhaps even more important, than what is said.








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A Celtic Light: Cahill’s How the Irish Saved Civilization.

Cahill, Thomas. How the Irish Saved Civilization: The Untold Story of Ireland’s Heroic Role from the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Medieval Europe. Vol I. The Hinges of History. Nan A. Talese. 1995.

The aspect of this book that struck me most was, I think, Cahill’s obvious pleasure in the idea of a particularly Irish personality that he sees as having remained constant from Ireland’s pre-Christian days. Often, he comments on Irish playfulness and humour. At one point, he includes a quotation from Edmund Campion, the Jesuit martyred in 1581, who described the Irish as “sharpe-witted, lovers of learning, capable of any studie whereunto they bend themselves, constant in travaile, adventurous, intractable, kinde-hearted, secret in displeasure (qtd. Cahill 150), and goes on to assert that this “Elizabethan group portrait” reveals “not only the Irish of our own day but the lively ghosts of Irishmen long past—Ailil, Medb, Cuchulainn, Derdrui . . . .” (150). I might cavil at the thought of Medb and Derdrui being “Irishmen[my emphasis],” but this passage does serve to illustrate one of the underlying tenets of How the Irish Saved Civilization: the continuity of Irish character and Irish love of learning.

Some readers may find Cahill’s rather conversational tone unacceptable for an academic. At times, he addresses his reader directly and perhaps reveals himself as somewhat classist as he retells the occasion of a “smug German traveller” (215) who in 1843 discovered an Irishman reading “‘an old manuscript, written in the Irish language’” ( qtd.216): “I don’t know what it does to you, dear Reader, [says Cahill] but the unlikely survival of an Irish Codex in the gnarled hands of a Kerry farmer sends shivers up my spine” (216). At further odds with usual academic practice is Cahill’s omission of the standard bibliography. Instead he includes a section of “Bibliographical Sources” organized with commentary by chapters, telling us that he finds himself “dissatisfied with most bibliographies, because . . . [he] can’t figure out which of the many books an author lists were important to him, and which were not” (221). True indeed, but perhaps he could still have listed a suggestion for further reading or something similar. I do rather like to have a list. I would also have appreciated some more detailed in-text notation at the end of his quotations.

These reservations aside, How the Irish Saved Civilization is a highly engaging and informative book. Cahill’s first chapter “The End of the World: How Rome Fell—And Why” is one of the clearest brief explanations of the gradual erosion and collapse of the Roman empire, especially in the west, that I’ve encountered. I was also in particular sympathy with his attitude towards the Roman Church with its dependence upon Augustine of Hippo and its inheritance of the imperial sense of hierarchy and order. I know I’m not alone in thinking that if the decision of the Synod of Whitby in 664 had decided in favour of Irish rather than Roman practice of Christianity, the history of the west might be very different indeed.

I also found very interesting Cahill’s observations about the tradition of “trust in the objects of sensory perception” (134) and a “sense of the world as holy” (133) expressed in Irish art and poetry that has remained constant from pre-Christian times to the “Christian Druidism of Seamus Heaney” (134). This aesthetic was carried by the Irish monks like Columcille (Columba)who took Christianity to Iona and his followers who took it to Lindisfarne and on into Europe. Cahill believes without these white martyrs, we would not have the sensibility that created the “smiling angels of Gothic art” (133). And we might have lost Latin literature. Cahill reminds us that, yes, Jews would have maintained the Hebrew bible and Greek works were preserved in Byzantium, but “Latin literature would almost surely have been lost with the Irish, and illiterate Europe would hardly have developed its great national literatures without the example of Irish, the first vernacular literature to be written down” (193). He goes on to tell us the Irish missionaries “reestablished literacy and breathed new life into the exhausted literary culture of Europe” (196).

These kinds of assertions are somewhat difficult to deal with because they tend to elicit questions. Was the literary culture of Europe exhausted? Surely not all documents from Roman imperial times were completely lost? What did Norse sensibilities contribute to the emergence of the Gothic? Cahill’s book is now over twenty years old. When it appeared, it went quickly to the Best Seller lists. Is it dated? Is it superficial? Does Cahill draw invalid conclusions or does he overgeneralize? The work isn’t dated, but its brevity does leave its assertions somewhat open to question. How the Irish Saved Civilization is a book written for the interested general reader not for academics. It was glowing reviewed in 1995. The truth of the matter is that this is such a charming and celebratory book that one perhaps forgives Cahill for such faults as one may perceive.








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A Question of Perspective: Julian Barnes’ The Only Story

Barnes, Julian. The Only Story. Random, 2018.

Another short book that I was able to read very quickly. The Only Story is a love story. Or is it?

What are our expectations of a love story? Romeo and Juliet? Segal’s Love Story? La Dame Aux Camélias? Peter Wimsey’s courtship of Harriet Vane? It takes Dorothy L. Sayers several books to draw that one to a conclusion. Tom Jones? Jane Eyre? Any story published by Harlequin or Mills and Boon? When you begin to think about it, defining a love story can be rather difficult. Do we expect high tragedy or farce? Perhaps we might say The Only Story is a novel about love.

The novel begins with a first person narrator asking, “Would you rather love the more, and suffer the more; or love the less and suffer the less?” (3). He goes on to assert that “Most of us have only one story to tell . . . . only one that matters” (3).

Do we agree? It’s an opening more or less guaranteed to set the reader thinking. Are these assertions true? Do I have only one story that matters? Is that story a love story? Not long ago a friend since our university days referred to a long gone lover as “probably the love of my life.” I found the synchronicity between the occasion of her words and my reading The Only Story interesting. Despite our post-modern, highly digitized world, we still place an awful lot of emphasis on finding, defining, and experiencing love. Perhaps, the increased rate of divorce actually reflects our demand for and expectations of love.

The Only Story is the story of Paul Roberts and Susan Macleod who meet as doubles partners in a suburban tennis club nearly sixty years ago. Paul is enduring the long vacation at the end of his first year at Sussex university and “in a spirit of satire” (7) has allowed his mother to pay his dues at the tennis club. Mrs. MacLeod is the wife of a business man and mother of two daughters quite near in age to Paul. The relationship that grows between the two lasts through the sixties and, in various incarnations, beyond so informing the course of Paul’s whole life.

The novel is structured in three sections roughly focusing on the various stages of Paul and Susan’s relationship. The first section is the longest and appears to be a straightforward account of how Paul and Susan fall in love. Barnes’ evocation of the enervating comfort and narrowness of view during that period of time is masterly. One can envision the streets emptier of cars than now, almost smell the myriad Sunday roasts. There are only two channels on the television; the measured tones of John Arlott can be heard through open windows. Hedges are neat; lives private. The second two sections are shorter and change the dynamic of the novel. Section Two shifts between the first and the second person. Paul observes himself more closely. Section Three is a third person narrative until the last few paragraphs which revert to Paul as narrator.

This shifting point of view draws attention to how situations look from the outside. They underscore Paul’s journey from an almost arrogant innocence to achieving some kind of “posthumous reconciliation” with his parents (254). The novel manipulates the reader’s emotions, the optimism of the first section becoming melancholy at the end. That apparent joy in the beginning is actually blind nostalgia. The story turns out not as the young Paul believed it would, and one realises that one has been drawn into collaborating with the naïve narrator only to end as disappointed as he. Except the reader isn’t disappointed. While identifying somewhat with Paul and understanding why he did not achieve as much as he could, and realising that in the blind egoism of youth he missed a lot of things that he should have seen, the reader is struck by the skill of the writer. The pleasure that comes from this novel is not in the story so much as in the telling.

I closed this book with a sense that I had been engaging with a master narrator and realised I should have paid more attention to the epigraph from Samuel Johnson: “Novel: a small tale, generally of love.” The Only Story is about love, and whether it is a small tale depends on one’s point of view. For the narrator, his love for Susan MacLeod is the story of his life, the lynch-pin securing the structure of who he is and why. For the reader? Well, she has at least two choices: one, to read the novel as a sensitive creation and development of a well-rounded character and as an examination of the psychological effects of inappropriate love; the other to enjoy it as an example of what one might call a theoretical novel. I certainly found myself pondering on Bakhtin, Derrida, et al. and decided that this novel is not so much about love as about fiction, both the fictions we live by, the tales we tell ourselves to explain ourselves to ourselves and to others, and the created fiction we read. Can we trust either? There are so many possible stories. Paul at the end of the novel thinks of other ways his life might have been and tells us, “None of this happened” (254), just as in fiction none of it happens. It’s a creation, an artefact, something made up, possibly containing some fragments of if not truth then of verisimilitude.

I would highly recommend this novel with one caveat, read it with your intellect not your emotion unless you want the catharsis of remembering your own story.










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Metaphysical? Harkness’ Time’s Convert and Jeanette Winterson’s The Daylight Gate

Harkness, Time’s Convert. Viking, 2018, ebook.                                            Winterson, Jeanette. The Daylight Gate. Arrow/Hammer, 2012.

I’m reviewing these two books together for several reasons: the Winterson novel is really quite short, I read Harkeness’ Time’s Convert a couple of months ago, they both deal with the supernatural, and I have a stack of read but unreviewed books still to address.  I’ll use as another excuse what one of the characters in The Daylight Gate wrote: “Brevity is the soul of wit.” Yes, Shakespeare does indeed make a brief appearance in The Daylight Gate warning Agnes Nutter against being “seen to stray too far from the real that is clear to others, or you may stand accused of the real that is clear to you” (Gate 92).

Both works deal with possible realities, perceived reality and what may actually be. Harkness’ novel develops on the love story between Marcus and Phoebe whom we met in the All Souls Trilogy and fills out the story of Marcus’ own past lfe while detailing the challenges of Phoebe’s transition to being a vampire. I felt less at home in Marcus’ past in the Revolutionary War than I did when Diana time travelled into seventeenth century England. In some way, Time’s Convert is less engaging than Harkness’ previous books about the De Clermont family. Perhaps I am actually less interested in vampires than I am in witchcraft. Perhaps there’s less at stake in this latest novel than there was in the previous books. Nevertheless, in Time’s Convert, Harkness once again turns her historian’s as well as her fabulist’s eye on pivotal eras. The story holds us even if this book is a little easier to put down than its predecessors.

Winterson focuses on witchcraft, and The Daylight Gate is a fictional embellishment of what we know about the Pendle, Lancashire, witchcraft trials of 1612. In her introduction, Winterson outlines how she’s drawing on the material written by the lawyer Thomas Potts and explains how during the reign of James I little distinction, if any at all, was made between witchery and popery. Both diabolism and Catholicism could condemn a believer to death. This is a short book, it can be read in a couple of hours, but it is disturbing. Winterson offers us a rational explanation of events, especially when it comes to understanding how the wealthy Alice Nutter was seen as complicit with the impoverished Sarah Device and her family. We also see how politics gives an excuse or licence for sadism, and how ignorance and poverty contribute to superstition. However, Winterson also suggests the possibility of magic. Alice Nutter has studied with Dr. Dee and Edward Kelley. We are left wondering at times if Winterson is suggesting that Alice does indeed experience a supernatural reality.

Both novels address the power of love to drive people to take risks and suggest that love itself can be a kind of magic, a state of being that transports lovers into another level of experience far removed from mundane existence. Both address themes of the conflict between good and evil and the problem of defining those terms. Despite its brevity, as I said earlier, the Winterson novel leaves a stronger impression, not only because it is rooted in actual events, but because of the spell it casts on the reader, the questions it asks of the conflict between science and intuition, between faith and betrayal, between love and lust.




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Speaking for Herself: Elaine Pagels’ Why Religion?

Pagels, Elaine. Why Religion? A Personal Story. Ecco: 2018.

In her introduction to Why Religion? A Personal Story, Elaine Pagels tells us it took her seven years to write this book. I’m unsurprised it took her so long because as its subtitle indicates, this work is a very intimate story about joys and despair and about a personal relationship with a certain kind of academic work. One of the things one learns early in an academic career is that scholarship is expected to be objective not subjective. Particularly for those of us educated in the sixties and seventies, subjectivity and experience carried little weight in any response to a text. One learnt to think of oneself in the third person as “the current writer,” to efface oneself even as one diligently removed such prose weakening subjective phrases such as “I think” or “I believe.”

In the 1980s a certain aura of excitement permeated the hallowed halls of academe as Women’s Studies and Theology were re-evaluating particularly Jewish and Christian texts addressing the traditional secondary place of women in these two religions and drawing rather interesting observations. We were reading Mary Daly and Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza. We were reading Elaine Pagels. It was all highly envigorating. I’m not sure whether our optimism has been totally justified in either religion or academia, let alone in the world at large. What for me rather established Pagels as somewhat different from other female writers about biblical texts was, dare I say it?, her objectivity. She discussed what her engagement with primarily non-canonical texts revealed about the times in which they were written and pointed out how they often presented a sometimes extremely different set of religious ideas from the ones accepted as canonical and which had contributed greatly to the evolution of at least western culture as we experience it. 

In Why Religion? Pagels reveals her joy in working with the texts of secret gospels such as the Gospel of Thomas or the Gospel of Truth: “Now for the first time heretics could speak for themselves, and that changed everything” (23). She goes on to tell us how

Many lectures took place in the Divinity School, where arched ceilings and high windows suggested high-minded and religious thoughts, I often felt like a Dionysian trapped in a church-camp. . . .women, too, were cast as outsiders. Then we discovered that several Harvard professors, each of them married, and each with a flock of children, also cast us as sexual targets. (24)

Are we surprised that even in theological studies, women students in the sixties and seventies were regarded as an associate benefit of tenure? Probably not. I suspect it varies from individual woman to individual woman whether what disturbs her most about her memories of her university experience is the general discrimination against women students (the demand for higher standards of admission from women, being turned down for awards in favour of male students despite higher grades, the assumption of lack of serious engagement, I could go on), or the conviction of some professors that the female student body was theirs for the taking. In common with many women of her time, Pagels kept silent for decades about this aspect of her studies. What does come through in this book is how her studies permitted her what we all hope for in academic endeavour: the opportunity to discover, to learn more, and to share our enthusiasm for what we learn.

She also tells us more about why she followed the course she did, how it affected her life, how she dealt with personal tragedies—the death of her son, and not so long afterwards the death of her husband. She tells us of her childhood in California, and she tells us of how she has experienced religion. I use the word experienced because Pagels has indeed spent the majority of her life devoted to the history of religion. In her introduction, she is quite firm about being “a historian who talks about human behaviour and the cultures we create” (xiii). In other words, she has studied the texts that record religious experience and outline religious teachings, but she does not draw conclusions about the nature of god. She makes observations about how those teachings and the sources of those teachings have shaped societies and their cultures. She is not a theologian. Her own religious convictions have ebbed and flowed. Towards the end of the book, she says, “I’m aware that anything I say can speak to you only as it resonates through what you have experienced yourself; yet even within those limits, we may experience mutual recognition” (208).

Certainly, I experienced “mutual recognition” in reading Pagels’ memoir. My own attitude to and experience of religion are akin to hers. My interest is in how religious belief creates and influences us even when we claim to have no religion. Yuval Noah Harari asserts that “when we look for the meaning of life, we want a story that will explain what reality is all about” (21 Lessons for the 21stCentury, Signal, 2018. 273).  A religion’s texts provide those stories, and Pagels’ work particularly with material discarded or suppressed by usually the “fathers” of a religion throws the light of enquiry on to the significance of those texts both in their own time and now. She reminds us how “discovering these long-suppressed sources invites us to uncover hidden continents of our own cultural landscape. And when we do, we gain perspective on reflexive attitudes that we may have unthinkingly inherited” (56).

Pagels’ academic work challenges us to engage with our own “cultural landscape” and gives us further material to make our own journeys towards whatever we perceive as grace. Her memoir offers us a testament to her resilience and hope and allows her to remind us forcefully that what matters is “how we engage the imagination” (xiv). It is in that engagement Pagels’ believes that we find healing from the pain of our losses.

Why Religion? is a courageous book. I’m not at all sure I would want to share as much of myself in print as Pagels’ does. While she reveals how her research led her to texts and ways of thought that helped her survive immense grief, I wonder if she also realises just how much her contribution to our understanding of the roots of the belief systems that still inform the way we live today has also helped other people. We owe her a debt of gratitude.

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More than Nostalgia? Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows

Grahame, Kenneth. The Wind in the Willows. 1908.

You will notice that I’ve not included a publisher in my acknowledgement here. I have four editions of the book if you count its inclusion in The Penguin Kenneth Grahame introduced by Naomi Lewis. I am particularly fond of the Methuen edition illustrated by Wyndham Payne. My copy, the 1930 thirty-third edition, cost 7/6 when it was, I presume, given to my mother. Her name is written in neat handwriting on the first free endpaper. This was the copy from which she read the story to me in 1956 when I was I suspect seriously ill. The other volume is the one she sent to me once I’d left home. It’s the 1970 reprint of the edition illustrated by E. H. Shepard in 1931. My other edition is The Annotated Wind in the Willow introduced by Brain Jaques and edited by Annie Gauger (Norton 2009). Any references unless otherwise noted will be from the edition illustrated by Shephard.

The Wind in the Willows has never been out of print and has been adapted for screen and stage several times. It is a book people seem either to love or hate, or love to hate. When I first met the work when I was a child, I became one of those who love it. Nevertheless, it is a work that my more analytical self sees as more than a little problematic especially in today’s world of increasing social inequity.

I would be avoiding an unpleasant truth if I didn’t admit that The Wind in the Willows is somewhat if not completely misogynistic and classist. On the one hand, it’s a paean to the life of the late Victorian rural leisured classes. On the other, it’s a picaresque novel celebrating friendship and redemption. It’s also a rather fractured book. Parts of it are highly lyrical and even mystical, especially the chapter where Mole and Ratty have their vision of the great god Pan in “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn.” The tone of this chapter is very different from the chapters detailing Toad’s descent into criminality. In his autobiography The Enchanted Places, Christopher Milne describes The Wind in the Willowsas “two separate books spliced into one. There are, on the one hand, those chapters concerned with the adventures of Toad; and on the other hand there are those chapters that explore human emotions—the emotions of fear, nostalgia, awe, Wanderlust [sic]” (1974. Penguin 1976, 160.)

In thinking about this apparent fracture, I couldn’t help but think that in some ways Grahame was entering the territory of later writers who experiment with form. When we think about Toad as a picaro, we tend to forget that Mole, too, is on a journey, leaving Mole End for the larger world of the River Bank. As Toad apparently learns to be less of a self-aggrandiser, Mole learns to expand his vision somewhat. Mole realises he is “an animal of tilled field and hedgerow, linked to the ploughed furrow, the frequented pasture, the lane of evening lingerings, the cultivated garden plot” (101). In other words, Mole is a creature of settled order. It is Mole with his talk of “the harvest that was being gathered in, the towering wagons and their straining teams, the growing ricks, and the large moon rising over bare acres dotted with sheaves. . . . reddening apples around, of the browning nuts, of jams and preserves and the distilling of cordials” (232) who soothes the Rat who has been on the verge of leaving everything to follow the sea rat. Grahame reiterates the necessity for an ordered quiet life. Both Toad and Rat must give up their dreams. Only Mole moves on, but only as far as the river bank.

Grahame trusts the enclosed, the pastoral, the ordered. Even as he hovers on the edge of possible modernity in his construction of narrative, he rejects the world of the future. Toad’s redemption involves his giving up his motor car, the Wild Wood is “successfully tamed” (319), and Toad Hall recaptured from the weasels, stoats, and ferrets. All is as it should be. Or is it? Jan Needle’s The Wild Wood (1981) retells the story from the point of view of the Wild Wooders. In his blog, Needle explains some of the genesis of his book:

Much as I had always loved Toad, it occurred to me one Sunday afternoon that if you looked at him through jaundiced left-wing eyes (God forbid!) he might turn out somewhat less lovable. I did, and he did too. A fat and jolly plutocrat, more money than sense, with friends who lived lives of idleness and eternal pleasure. From there, it was a small step to redreaming the villains of the Wild Wood as sturdy, starving heroes of the rural proletariat. (My God, we really need an exclamation mark there!) (

The Wind in the Willows is indeed a book of its time. Do we condemn it for so being? Is this a book that we enjoy as a guilty pleasure? It’s a strange book, very dependent upon the suspension of disbelief. How do a toad, mole, and rat handle a horse?  Ride in a train or drive a car?  Annie Gauger quotes Peter Greene’s biography of Grahame: 

When asked specifically (apropos the escape on the railway train) whether Toad was lifesized or train sized, he answered that he was both and neither: the Toad was train-size,the train was Toad-size, and therefore there should be no illustrations.    Green. Kenneth Grahame: A Biography. Qtd Gauger lxv.

Grahame’s apparent concern that there be no illustrations is interesting because for many readers the illustrations are part of the joy they experience from the book, but it certainly does raise that question of whether The Wind in the Willows is actually a book for children or a book for adults.

As the child heroine of another much loved children’s book comments, “what is the use of a book without pictures or conversations?” (Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.1865. Chapter 1). This situation might suggest that the book is intended for adults. However, just as the Alice books have their roots in a man telling stories to a child, The Wind in the Willows began as bedtime stories for Grahame’s son Alastair. You may be interested in this short passage extracted by Literary Hub from Peter Hunt’s book The Making of the Wind in the Willows

What The Wind in the Willows shares with theAlice books besides its resonances with both adults and children is the issue of size. Especially in Wonderland, Alice has to deal with animals who are sometimes larger than she and sometimes smaller. To a certain extent, Alice has some control over her own size, because she eats or drinks something. In The Wind in the Willows, it is the audience who must cope with car driving toads. In the world of the book, the animals move from boats to grand houses to trains, and we are given no explanation of how; we must accept what is, rather as we must accept what happens in dreams. For Alice, her adventures are revealed to be a dream. This is not the case with Grahame’s book. Neither a dream vision nor a fairy tale as Tolkien would define it, The Wind in the Willows remains enigmatic, and even elegiac. I imagine that for some it is this nostalgia for the way society once was that is most irritating; for those who love the book and forgive its social faults, what speaks to them is the magic of a world where moles wear smoking jackets, rats write poetry, and toads bargain with gypsies and steal cars: the magic of possibility, nostalgia for the imagination of childhood.


1You may find Needle’s 8 March 2019  post on his blog very interesting.



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