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The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame is perhaps my favorite book, or at least in my top ten. I rarely re-read books, but this one is an annual read for me, and only recently did I think to explore why I have loved and continue to love this story so much.
Over the years since I discovered it, I’ve grown to love the characters, the settings, the language, and the respectful grace Grahame imbues into his story. But the thing that brings me back time and again to this book is not just the characters but the longings they experience—longings that resonate within me more profoundly on each read. The twin longings for adventure and for home draw me in and create the central joys and tensions of the book, but a third longing soon takes their place.
Mole is our entry-point, from the very moment he departs his home at the summons of the upper world. Through his eyes we encounter not just the wild excitement of new environs, but the great gift of camaraderie to be had with those who are rooted in the land—the poetic Water Rat, the curmudgeonly Badger, and yes, even the flagrantly conceited Toad—and ultimately the power of home and adventure upon embodied creatures.
In “Dolce Domum,” Mole is completely mastered by the smell of his old home, a longing so potent in supposed opposition to his friendship with Rat that Mole breaks down and weeps. He has “lost what he could hardly be said to have found.”
Here the grace of Rat is revealed—that he would affirm Mole’s home in such a way that Mole himself is brought to realization and acceptance of the grace of going home. They tidy, they feast, they welcome others in, and then they rest. In the end, it is not the quality of the place that makes it meaningful, but the familiarity of it.
[Mole] saw clearly how plain and simple—how narrow, even—it all was; but clearly, too, how much it all meant to him, and the special value of some such anchorage in one’s existence. He did not at all want to abandon the new life and its splendid spaces, to turn
his back on sun and air and all they offered him and creep home and stay there; the upper world was all too strong, it called to him still, even down there, and he knew he must return to the larger stage. But it was good to think he had this to come back to; this place which was all his own, these things which were so glad to see him again and could always be counted upon for the same simple welcome.
Rat, however, is assailed by an opposing longing. From the start, Rat is the sensible (if sentimental) one. He is Mole’s fast friend and guide. It is the tactful Rat who introduces Mole to the river, to Toad and Badger, to the basic layout of all that he needs to know and understand of this new world—up to a certain point. When Mole asks about the Wide World, Rat immediately shuts it down.
“That’s something that doesn’t matter, either to you or me. I’ve never been there, and I’m never going, nor you either, if you’ve got any sense at all. Don’t ever refer to it again, please.”
But then, in “Wayfarers All,” Rat is seized by a nearly impenetrable desire to migrate out into the Wider World. The migratory tendencies of little creatures are not denigrated here, but there is a sense in which it would be against all natural reason for Rat specifically to answer that call, regardless of its peculiar persuasion and beauty. Here Mole extends grace to Rat, speaking of the beauty and delights of home, and leaves Rat, pen in hand, to turn his poetry to the hearth instead of the pathway.
These twin longings are for all of us. The longing to go, the longing to stay—they war within us as only they can, within those who live in the tension between pilgrimage and home. We are set in a place designed to be our home, but marred by our willfulness. And we are journeying ever nearer to the distant shores of Heaven itself—that which our home, this earth, could have been.
In equal measure, we see the attractions of home and adventure in Badger and Toad. Mole’s first encounter with the Wild Wood emphasizes its fearsome nature, but even here, there is shelter to be had: Badger’s simple, rustic home. It is a haven for all those lost in the snow, a den very similar to its owner in its rough-about-the-edges practicality. Badger is philosophical about the origins of his home.
“People come—they stay for a while, they flourish, they build—and they go. It is their way. But we remain. There were badgers here, I’ve been told, long before that same city ever came to be. And now there are badgers here again. We are an enduring lot, and we may move out for a time, but we wait, and are patient, and back we come. And so it will ever be.”
Badger is a practical creature, and his home is exactly what and where it should be. The allure of it comes not from its trimmings or tidiness, but from its enduring nature. A true home is loyal. It is a place we can come back to and know it will be the same.
These twin longings are for all of us. The longing to go, the longing to stay—they war within us as only they can, within those who live in the tension between pilgrimage and home.Chris Wheeler
For his part, Toad is the antithesis of enduring. Each new obsession of his involves motion, from taking his home on the road in a canary-colored cart to his disastrous motor vehicle escapades. We are carried along with him (like his long-suffering friends) on adventure after adventure, willing to put up with him because he makes life so darn interesting.
When in the depths of despair, however, it is the smell of home that lifts him from his stupor and breathes new life into a singular purpose: to return to Toad Hall.
The smell of that buttered toast simply talked to Toad, and with no uncertain voice; talked of warm kitchens, of breakfasts on bright frosty mornings, of cosy parlour firesides on winter evenings, when one’s ramble was over, and slippered feet were propped on the fender; of the purring of contented cats, and the twitter of sleepy canaries.
Say what you will about Toad (and there is plenty to be said), but his motivations begin and end with longing—the longing for adventure and the longing to return home after said adventures. Upon his sodden return to find Toad Hall invaded by ruffians, it is not solely Toad that takes it back but his company of loyal friends, all of whom are utterly convinced of the necessity of reclaiming their home.
Each character may reveal new aspects of these twin longings, but it is in the central chapter, “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn,” that we discover a third longing, one which generates and eclipses the others.
The call of this third longing can be found throughout the book, a through-line from the very first chapter: “With his ear to the reed-stems he caught, at intervals, something of what the wind went whispering so constantly among them.” In “The Piper,” we discover the source of this whisper.
Rat and Mole are out searching for a lost otter cub when the call comes to them.
Rat, who was in the stern of the boat, while Mole sculled, sat up suddenly and listened with a passionate intentness. Mole, who with gentle strokes was just keeping the boat moving while he scanned the banks with care, looked at him with curiosity.
“It’s gone!” sighed the Rat, sinking back in his seat again. “So beautiful and strange and new! Since it was to end so soon, I almost wish I had never heard it. For it has roused a longing in me that is pain, and nothing seems worthwhile but just to hear that sound once more and go on listening to it forever…”
Grahame unfolds for us here a sense of Someone beyond these animals who not only sustains and protects them, but creates unimaginable beauty to draw them to himself. This Someone’s parting gift to them is the grace of forgetfulness—that rather than remember the fullest longing they have yet received and pine away for heavenly reality, the fullness of it would pass from their minds and linger only in whispers in the reeds.
We too, encounter this longing. We who are in great need of a Savior have a Savior who comes to us and reveals himself, and grants that we would ever be longing for full communion with him, and ever experiencing it only in part. We long to journey to him, and we long to rest in him, our final home, because in him is perfection. Only in him are we truly satisfied. For now, we only have glimpses that create in us a thirst for more.
So we sense him in the company of saints, in the Word that nourishes us, in fresh and recurring displays of his creative glory, in our own creative passions, along the path and beside the hearth. We are Mole and Rat and Badger and Toad—forever sniffing out the source of longing, often errant in our passion or conceit, fiercely protective of those places which carry the burden of that longing. We are always drawn to him. We are always seeking him. And in this longing we find hope to face our days.
This is the gift of story, and the gift of The Wind in the Willows—to stir up that longing within us and to let it slip away again, leaving us breathless on the edge of wild adventure, sending us home into our familiar places, full of faith that someday, someday soon, he will return again and longing will be overshadowed by reality.