I love CS Lewis and I love The Wind in the Willows and I love children’s books. This delightful excerpt from Lewis’ essay On Stories combines all three of these loves.
“Does anyone believe that Kenneth Grahame made an arbitrary choice when he gave his principal character the form of a toad, or that a stag, a pigeon, a lion, would have done as well? The choice is based on the fact that the real toad’s face has a grotesque resemblance to a certain kind of human face — a rather apoplectic face with a fatuous grin on it. This is, no doubt, an accident in the sense that all the lines which suggest the resemblance are really there for quite different biological reasons. The ludicrous quasi-human expression is therefore changeless: the toad cannot stop grinning because its ‘grin’ is not really a grin at all. Looking at the creature we thus see, isolated and fixed, an aspect of human vanity in its funniest and most pardonable form; following that hint Grahame creates Mr Toad — an ultra-Johnsonian ‘humour’. And we bring back the wealth of the Indies; we have henceforward more amusement in, and kindness towards, a certain kind of vanity in real life.
But why should the characters be disguised as animals at all? The disguise is very thin, so thin that Grahame makes Mr Toad on one occasion ‘comb the dry leaves out of his hair‘. Yet it is quite indispensable. If you try to rewrite the book with all the characters humanised you are faced at the outset with a dilemma. Are they to be adults or children? You will find that they can be neither. They are like children in so far as they have no responsibilities, no struggle for existence, no domestic cares. Meals turn up; one does not even ask who cooked them. In Mr Badger’s kitchen ‘plates on the dresser grinned at pots on the shelf’. Who kept them clean? Where were they bought? How were they delivered in the Wild Wood? Mole is very snug in his subterranean home, but what was he living on? If he is a rentier where is the bank, what are his investments? The tables in his forecourt were ‘marked with rings that hinted at beer mugs’. But where did he get the beer? In that way the life of all the characters is that of children for whom everything is provided and who take everything for granted. But in other ways it is the life of adults. They go where they like and do what they please, they arrange their own lives.
To that extent the book is a specimen of the most scandalous escapism: it paints a happiness under incompatible conditions — the sort of freedom we can only have in childhood and the sort we can have only in maturity — and conceals the contradiction by the further pretence that the characters are not human beings at all. The one absurdity helps to hide the other. It might be expected that such a book would unfit us for the harshness of reality and send us back to our daily lives unsettled and discontented. I do not find that it does so. The happiness which it presents to us is in fact full of the simplest and most attainable things — food, sleep, exercise, friendship, the face of nature, even (in a sense) religion. That ‘simple but sustaining meal’ of ‘bacon and broad beans and a macaroni pudding’ which Rat gave to his friends has, I doubt not, helped down many a real nursery dinner. And in the same way the whole story, paradoxically enough, strengthens our relish for real life. This excursion into the preposterous sends us back with renewed pleasure to the actual.
It is usual to speak in a playfully apologetic tone about one’s adult enjoyment of what are called ‘children’s books’. I think the convention a silly one. No book is really worth reading at the age of ten which is not equally (and often far more) worth reading at the age of fifty — except, of course, books of information. The only imaginative works we ought to grow out of are those which it would have been better not to have read at all. A mature palate will probably not much care for creme de menthe: but it ought still to enjoy bread and butter and honey.”
Someday I’ll write a blog post listing all my favorite books – many of which are “children’s” literature – most of which I purchased and read as an adult… But for now I feel the need to revisit the world of Ratty and Mole and Toad. Don’t you?