The Willows and Beyond
Attitude: Positive → Edifying
In Brief: A quiet story contemplating the autumn of one's life, and highlighting the value of what's gone before without losing sight of the future. Quiet companionship and unspoken generosity. The responsibility of the older generation for the younger, and vice versa.
Series: Tales of the Willows
Published in: 1996
Age Range: Children+
Period: Early 20th C
Setting: The Riverbank
- Mole, now older, is still the staunch but less active friend of the Water Rat. While Mole's Nephew is now established on the Riverbank, this story sees the appearance of Young Rat, a competent and self-effacing waterman like the Rat himself, who joins Grandson and Master Toad as the younger generation of Riverbankers as Badger and Mister Toad, and the Wild Wood itself pass away.
The Water Rat senses that the River is disturbed, just as he receives notice of a delivery for him in the town, at the same time as the Badger hears of plans to tear down the Wild Woods to build new houses.
This concluding episode in the additional three books by William Horwood based on the original Wind in the Willows brings to a fitting conclusion the extended trials and escapades of Mister Toad, the quiet and constant friendship between Mole and Ratty, and the persevering help and companionship of Otter and Badger. Very skilfully, throughout the series, the author has left each of the main characters a younger self, someone of the next generation to whom to pass on the baton.
The Riverbankers are, for the most part, eternal bachelors, or so it seems. They are Edwardian gentlemen, content in their quiet companionship, happy with their simple pleasures (except for Toad who's happy with his expensive pleasures). This author has caught the very essence of the characters created by Kenneth Grahame and somehow extended them without disturbing the picture. This book sees them nearing the end of their days, yet still ready to put up a fight... and to lose. For me, that last point is almost the most admirable of the book and possibly of the series. This story is about fighting, and knowing when to stop fighting and to start moving on.
Mister Toad — now guardian of the young French nobleman known as Master Toad — is comically shown to have achieved a sense of responsibility, as Mole and badger shared “a certain amusement in watching Toad's battles with his ward, and enjoyed the irony of watching an arch-poacher in the department of vanity and conceit struggling to turn gamekeeper.” Yet Toad is generous to a fault with his own wealth and possessions, and recognises the — often exasperated — friendship of his fellows. But he still can't resist making a speech.
Mole, older now, is deftly helped by his Nephew, introduced in The Willows in Winter, as Badger is by his Grandson, the result of an unknown part of Badger's family history told in Toad Triumphant. Otter, as always, has the increasingly ill-named Portly by his side, and this story sees the Water Rat take charge of Young Rat, son of the Sea Rat who visited the Riverbank so many years before in The Wind in the Willows.
That visit is the stimulus for one of the most moving scenes in the book. The Water Rat falls prey to severe indigestion and, believing him to be dying, Mole sobs out his regret at having persuaded the Water Rat to stay by the River against his will, when the Sea Rat left that time before. And the Water Rat admits frankly that he has struggled against that urge often and often, and that he busies himself about the River to avoid dwelling on what might have been. It's a beautiful and unusual scene between two “men” who have been friends for years but who have never spoken about this one moment of difference between them.
Finally, the developers move in, and the Riverbankers are forced to consider their future. Which they do with courage and, for the most part, cheerfulness. Certainly this is a parable of Greedy Man besieging Nature. But this is also a story of moving on realistically when you've tried all you can. Ultimately, one by one, the younger generation take over the roles — and the names — that the older ones have held for so long. And the book closes as Mole and Ratty set off down the River one last time.
One more comment: appealing and readable as the book is, it would not be quite the same without the illustrations by Patrick Benson. From the poetic front cover, to the images of Mister Toad in his many moods, to the sight of Nephew and Young Rat looking out of Toad's enormous windows at Christmas, they all bring the characters and places to life.
- Death as a natural conclusion to life
- Love in friendship without sentimentality
- Appreciation of raw nature
In the days and weeks following the Rat's sudden indisposition grey mists hung almost continually over the fields and dikes about the River, and the days grew dull and tedious. It was not yet as cold as that sudden snap of ice and snow at the start of November, but the feeling persisted that winter would show its harsher face again before too long.
That the Rat's sudden and alarming “illness” had proved to be nothing more than a severe bout of indigestion brought on by Young Rat's exotic cuisine was naturally a source of some amusement up and down the River Bank. The Mole was not so easily fooled, however, nor sanguine about those matters which in his hours of greatest discomfort the Rat had so frankly raised.
Wednesday 12th July 2006