Archive for the ‘Kenneth Grahame’ Category

Adaptations, be they for the stage or screen, of favourite books are tricky things.  In the hands of a bad writer, the results can be horrifying.  But in the hands of a good writer who loves the source material as much as his intended audience, the final product can be magical.  Case in point: Toad of Toad Hall by A.A. Milne, a stage adaptation of Kenneth Grahame’s beloved The Wind in the Willows from 1929.

I was pretty confident going into my reading of the play that Milne would not disappoint.  He seldom does and the fact that this is really the only one of his plays still regularly performed seemed promising.  By focusing on the exploits of Toad, somewhat at the expense of the other characters, he doesn’t quite capture the spirit of the book but he still comes out with a product that is delightfully entertaining and which entirely lives up to magnificent of Toad.  Indeed, it seems entirely natural to have Milne’s recognizable dialogue coming out of Toad’s mouth; they are a perfect match.

There was a moment of panic for me very early on in the play when I saw that Milne had changed Rat’s most famous, most quotable remark on the joys of boats to a much more generalised statement about the pleasures of river-side living:

There is nothing – absolute nothing – half so much worth doing as simply messing about by a river.

How could he do that?  How dare he?  But I was willing to overlook this travesty – if Kenneth Grahame could, then so could I – and the rest of the play was a joy.

The other animals that I love so much in the books are paid scant attention here.  The wonderful relationship between Rat and Mole is barely touched on and Badger – oh, what Milne has done to Badger!  Instead of the gentle but stern paternal figure I love so much in the book, here he is presented as a doddering old man, more interfering than guiding.  As he despairs over Toad’s recklessness (“Alack!  Alack!  O, hapless Toad!  O, ill-fated animal…I knew his father, I knew his grandfather, I knew his uncle, the Archdeacon”) he loses all the authority with which Graham invested him.  He has great comedic value but he is not my Badger.  Instead, he seems rather like Mr. Woodhouse, happiest when allowed to moan about the ills of the world and lament the dangerous behaviour of others.  His attempts to help Toad don’t seem to reflect any legitimate concern or affection for that poor misguided creature, just a feeling that he owes it to Toad’s ancestors.  It works very well but the change in characterization takes a bit of time to get used to.

Toad of Toad Hall, as the title suggests, focuses on the Toad-centred episodes from The Wind in the Willows.  One of the cleverest things Milne does is incorporate Toad’s story into scenes where he hadn’t originally played a part.  In the book, when Mole finds himself lost in the Wild Wood, his fear comes more from the strangeness of his surroundings than from any visible threat.  But here, Milne installs a chorus of ferrets, weasels and stoats – the fearsome residents of the Wild Wood – who emerge from the darkness to sing their hatred of Toad.  Their vicious curses and rhythmic chant of “Down with Toad” give a much more immediate sense of terror and, as far as the narrative is concerned, successfully establish our villains.  It is a brilliant addition and I can only imagine how effective it must be when staged.

The highlight of the play has to be the lengthy courtroom scene, where Toad is brought to justice for his reckless behaviour.  Here Milne gets creative, creating new dialogue and characters, and the result is delightfully entertaining.  It is also the scene that proves just how wonderfully suited Toad is to Milne’s clever and flippant dialogue.  On being accused on insulting a police offer by calling him “fat-face”, Toad is all innocence in a speech only Milne could have written:

TOAD.  I didn’t mean him any more than any one else.  I just murmured the expression to myself.  It’s a way I have.  I’m that sort of person.  I murmur things to myself.  It’s the result of a highly strung temperament and an artistic nature.

But, of course, Toad’s contrition vanishes the moment the sentence comes down and his arrogance – the thing that has most attracted readers to him for all these years – returns:

JUDGE. Any last words or valedictory utterances?

TOAD (boldly). Yes.

JUDGE (kindly). Well, well, what is it?

TOAD. Fat-face!

JUDGE (aghast) Fat-face?  ME?

TOAD (wildly). All of you!  All the whole lot of you!  All fat-faces!  I am Toad, the Terror of the Highway, Toad, the traffic-queller, the Lord of the Lone Trail, before whom all must vie way or be smitten into nothingness and everlasting night.  I am the Toad, the handsome, the popular, the successful Toad.  And what are you?  Just fat-faces.

Oh, Toad.

Part of the fun of reading adaptations is admiring (or, in less successful cases, critiquing) how they are done.  By choosing to centre the story on Toad, Milne sacrificed the more subtle elements of The Wind in the Willows but, given how difficult it would be to do justice to them, it seems a clever choice.  He certainly succeeded in creating an entertaining comedy about the exploits of Toad and I can only imagine how fun it must be to see this show performed.

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Is there a cosier book in existence than The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame?  Written in 1908, the enviably close friendship between Rat and Mole, the comfortably paternal authority of Badger, and, most of all, the riotous adventures of Toad have been entertaining readers for over a century – though it was not, as A.A. Milne will remind you, as popular initially as it truly deserved to be.  Containing some of the most practical advice ever written down (‘Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing – absolutely nothing – half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats’), there are few reading experiences more comforting than opening the book for the umpteenth time on Mole’s spring cleaning, knowing that within a few lines he will abandon his whitewashing and head out into the wide world, where his soul mate the Water Rat awaits him.

This rereading was prompted by Alberto Manguel’s essay in the Summer 2012 issue of Slightly Foxed.  The friendship between Rat and Mole is the heart of the novel and, since there is no way that I could better Manguel’s description of it, I had to share his words:

Like Achilles and Patroclus, David and Jonathan, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, Ishmael and Queequeg, Sherlock Holmes and Watson, Rat and Mole reflect for each other discovered identities and contrasting views of the world.  Each one asserts for the other the better, livelier part of his character; each encourages the other to be his finer, brighter self.  Mole may be lost without Rat’s guidance but, without Mole’s adventurous spirit, Rat would remain withdrawn and far too removed from the world.  Together they build Arcadia out of their common surroundings…

It is an enviable relationship (as well as another reminder of how much I love Manguel).

In addition to creating such wonderful portraits of friendship (for, in addition to the complimentary relationship between Rat and Mole, there is the dependable support of Badger and the never-ending tolerance and protectiveness the other animals feel towards Toad), Grahame also wrote marvellous descriptions of the animals’ surroundings, particularly excelling at cosy interiors.  No where could be more perfectly suited to a snowy winter’s night than Badger’s home in the Wild Wood:

The floor was well-worn red brick, and on the wide hearth burnt a fire of logs, between two attractive chimney-corners tucked away in the wall, well out of any suspicion of draught.  A couple of high-backed settles, facing each other on either side of the fire, gave further sitting accommodation for the sociably disposed.  In the middle of the room stood a long table of plain boards placed on trestles, with benches down each side.  At one end of it, where an armchair stood pushed back, were spread the remains of the Badger’s plain but ample supper.  Rows of spotless plates winked from the shelves of the dresser at the far end of the room, and from the rafters overhead hung hams, bundles of dried herbs, nets of onions, and baskets of eggs.  It seemed a place where heroes could fitly feast after victory, where weary harvesters could line up in scores along the table and keep their Harvest Home with mirth and song, or where two or three friends of simple tastes could sit about as they pleased and eat and smoke and talk in comfort and contentment.  The ruddy brick floor smiled up at the smoky ceiling; the oaken settles, shiny with long wear, exchanged cheerful glances with each other; plates on the dresser grinned at pots on the shelf, and the merry firelight flickered and played over everything without distinction.

The Wind in the Willows is thought of as a children’s book but I can’t believe that children get any more pleasure from it than adults.  Grahame’s writing is simple but deceptively so; some of his metaphors seem a bit beyond the scope of the average eight year old, though perfect for his or her parents:

Nature’s Grand Hotel has its Season, like the others.  As the guests one by one pack, pay, and depart, and the seats at the table-d’hôte shrink pitifully at each succeeding meal; as suites of rooms are closed, carpets taken up, and waiters sent away; those boarders who are staying on, en pension, until the next year’s full reopening, cannot help being somewhat affected by all these flittings and farewells, this eager discussion of plans, routes, and fresh quarters, this daily shrinkage in the stream of comradeship.

And Toad – what to say of him?  He is, quite simply, the most memorable thing in the entire book.  How enraging to have him as a friend but how delightful to have him as a character whose misadventures we can follow without feeling any of the responsibility for him that Rat, Mole, and Badger do.  His passion for motorcars, his jaunty outfits, and, most of all, his ego, make him one of the most unforgettable characters in literature.  Here is a toad completely assured of his place in the world and absolutely certain that the world – human and animal – exists simply to delight and entertain him.  Toad is a hedonist, always full of enthusiasm for some new scheme or another, heedless of any possible negative consequences.  This passionate nature gets him into more than a few scraps but, like his friends, the reader can’t help but love him.  He may be hopelessly impractical, reckless to the point of endangerment, and dreadfully superior but he is Toad.  And he composes quite delightful songs (on the topic of his own magnificent, naturally):

The world has held great Heroes,
As history books have showed;
But never a name to go down to fame
Compared with that of Toad!

The clever men at Oxford
Know all that there is to be knowed.
But they none of them know one half as much
As intelligent Mr Toad!

And so on…

The Wind in the Willows is the perfect before bed book, whether you’re reading it to someone else or just to yourself.  The chapters have definite endings; there are no messy cliffhangers leaving you uncomfortably anxious.  A number of the chapters can be read independent of the rest of the novel – particularly the adventures of Toad – which is, I suspect, how many readers choose to reread the book.  A.A. Milne, for instance, adored Toad’s bits so much so that he turned them into the play Toad of Toad Hall (which I currently have checked out from the library and am eager to read).  But, much as I love Toad, I could never do without Badger’s reassuring presence or the inspiring example of Rat and Mole, who together are able to embrace the world around them with a confidence they never could alone.  It is as close to perfect, I think, as a book can be.

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