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Return to the Willows : Sequel to Grahame's children's classic fails to carry on his vision : THE WILLOWS IN WINTER, By William Horwood . Illustrated by Patrick Benson (St. Martin's Press / A Thomas Dunne Book: $18.95; 295 pp.)

November 13, 1994|Michael Cart | Formerly Director of the Beverly Hills Public Library, Michael Cart is now a full-time writer and observer of the children's book world. His first two books will be published in 1995

Like Grahame before him, Horwood begins his book with Mole, though not in the midst of spring housecleaning, this time, but at his ease in front of a fire in the dead of winter, instead. While Horwood's principal characters are Grahame's own, he has taken the liberty of introducing a new character, Mole's young nephew, whose only purpose--aside from suggesting the possibility of a sequel to the sequel--seems to be to venerate Mole and by his attitude to invest that small animal with almost mythical largeness. This, it seems to me, is one of Horwood's first mistakes. For if you consider the quartet of Grahame's chief characters to be a family, Badger would be the stern but benevolent father; Rat, the oldest, resourceful brother; Toad, the egocentrically solipsistic infant, and Mole, the middle brother--always loyal but sometimes naive and sometimes timid, too. By pushing him ahead in the pecking order, Horwood has violated the integrity of Grahame's neatly ordered family world. And so when Mole --through misunderstanding--believes Rat to be in danger, he boldly sets off, at night, in the middle of a blizzard to rescue him. Instead, he disappears, and the first part of the book tells of the other animals' fruitless search for him. Toad and his flying machine are impressed into service but Toad--through an awkwardly plotted stratagem--escapes to his own (mis)adventures and the plot then moves back and forth between him and the other animals, following essentially the same structure that Grahame used, though Grahame's narrative is punctuated--some critics would say interrupted--by a number of gorgeously written chapters that offer quiet reflection on the comforts and emotional importance of home ("Dulce Domum"), a salute to the siren song of the South ("Wayfarers All") and a panegyric to Pan, the Helper and Healer of small animals in distress ("The Piper at the Gates of Dawn"). There is little of this in Horwood's book, his narrative being more continuous and swiftly paced and more agreeable, thus, to impatient modern readers. And yet this absence of the reflective is the chief reason for the relative failure of Horwood's book.

Understand that Grahame was a deeply conflicted man. Superficially he was a professional success--an Establishment figure, the youngest secretary in the history of the Bank of England, starchy, well-to-do and respected. Yet deep within him lived another Grahame--the child who, at 7, suffered the death of his mother and abandonment by his alcoholic father. Along with his brothers and sister, he was remanded to the emotionally distant care of his grandmother who lived in Berkshire. It was that beautiful countryside which, when he retired there 40 years later, provided both the setting and emotional catalyst for the creation of his great classic childhood. Never entirely comfortable with the "real" (i.e., adult) world, burdened by an unhappy marriage that he escaped at every occasion to flee, alone, to the "South" (usually Italy), befriending Bohemian companions (not unlike Toad!) but denied the freedoms of their lives; dismayed by the inroads of the Industrial Age, which were so destructive to the comfortable, established, clubby order of his world, Grahame retreated to his fiction where all of this subterranean material emerged, in symbol and allegory.

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Two examples from "Wind": first, the terrifying stoats and weasels of the Wild Wood--the personifications of the impersonal terrors of the Machine Age--invade and take over Toad Hall, the ancient and ancestral home, when the Establishment animals are distracted by Bohemian Toad's peccadilloes. Horwood has made the mistake of domesticating these Wild animals, even of having them assist in the search for Mole, just for the sake of an invitation to Badger's tea party! Secondly, Grahame had a deeply pantheistic veneration for the natural world and an attendant interest in the neo-pagan movement (his first book was even titled The Pagan Papers). This devotion inspired the mystical chapter "The Piper at the Gates of Dawn." Horwood tries to emulate this by giving both Mole and Rat near-death experiences and a vision of "Beyond" (paradise) yet his "vision" is tepidly New Age and totally lacking in the primal power of Grahame's intensely personal vision.

Because "The Wind in the Willows" is such a personal book, no other author--even a talented one like Horwood--can hope to capture more than its superficial style; its essence is forever elusive.

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