washingtonpost.com
The Sweet Ache of Existence
Unearthing the stories behind Rat, Mole, Toad and Mr. Badger.

By Michael Sims
Sunday, June 14, 2009

THE ANNOTATED WIND IN THE WILLOWS

By Kenneth Grahame

Edited by Annie Gauger | Norton. 384 pp. $39.95

THE WIND IN THE WILLOWS

An Annotated Edition

By Kenneth Grahame

Edited by Seth Lerer | Harvard Univ. 273 pp. $35

Kenneth Grahame's revered children's book "The Wind in the Willows" is celebrating two anniversaries. Last year was the centennial of its publication, and 2009 is the sesquicentennial of its author's birth. As a consequence, we find ourselves with two annotated editions -- both oversize, both beautifully designed and illustrated.

Seth Lerer is a renowned scholar, author most recently of a magisterial history of children's literature. Annie Gauger's "Willows" is her first book. She says it occupied 10 years of research, which raises the question: How much annotation does a text require? It's a nerdy sport, this collecting of footnotes, and not for everyone. But I'll cite my own childhood as evidence that annotated volumes do have worth beyond academia. William S. Baring-Gould's "Annotated Sherlock Holmes," which I received for Christmas when I was 14, showed me how a cosmos of history and biography lies fossilized in every work of literature. Victorian England unfolded out of those pages like a pop-up book and later blossomed into my love for Lewis Carroll, Charles Dickens and Thomas Macaulay.

Gauger's and Lerer's books perform the same magic. They demonstrate how much of a writer's life can wind up distilled in a stack of paper -- in this case, how Kenneth Grahame's daydreams, fears, heartbreak, upbringing, era and locale all sneaked into a fanciful children's book about talking animals. In what other book can you find slapstick auto theft, a dirge for lost arcadia and a numinous encounter with that pagan refugee and mascot of the Edwardian neo-romantics, the great god Pan?

Apparently Grahame turned to animals, after writing largely about children, because he feared and barely understood much of the adult world. He found safety and romance in animal characters -- not real creatures, but hybrid beasts cavorting in a mythic habitat where they are neither Us nor Them. "I love these little people," Grahame confessed to illustrator Ernest Shepard; "be kind to them."

Each of these editions has its advantages and defects. The introduction to Gauger's volume, by Brian Jacques, author of the popular children's fantasy series, Redwall, wastes eight pages on nostalgic twaddle recalling his youth and nominating various pieces of music as soundtrack for scenes in "Willows." Lerer's preface, in contrast, is a thoughtful and elegant survey of the biographical and literary context for this beloved book.

But when it comes to the main text -- unpacking the allusive, lushly textured story of poetical Rat and proletarian Mole, of manic Toad and Mr. Badger, that solemn lord of the manor whose burrow twines among Roman ruins -- Gauger has unpacked more, dug further, worked longer and harder.

For example, where Lerer provides a sentence about a reference to mulled wine, Gauger gives us a paragraph and a recipe. Like Peter Rabbit and Dr. Dolittle, Grahame's characters first emerged in letters to a child; Gauger provides them. She includes a wonderful array of illustrations throughout. Lerer's book is excellent, but Gauger's is more exhaustive.

Like Grahame's biographers, both editors suggest that the tragedy of his life lies in the paradoxical choices he made. He disliked cities but worked for decades in London. He distrusted the business world but became secretary of the Bank of England. Fearing women, he married; with little interest in children, he fathered a son. He is not the sort of author from whom we ought to expect self-knowledge. And, indeed, he seems to have never mapped the emotional headwaters of the river that meanders through his writing.

To my first glance, many years ago, "The Wind in the Willows" seemed to lack the substance and humanity of the great children's books -- less metaphorically profound than Alice's tour, less emotionally engaging than the death of Charlotte. But then I experienced Grahame's direct channeling of the sweet mysterious ache of existence. It is worth remembering that the word "nostalgia" means "the pain of returning." Behind Grahame's lusciously textured scenes portraying the thrill of messing about in boats, the joy of sharing a meal with a friend and the medieval sanctuary of a roaring fire, we hear sad background music. It sounds to me like Kenneth Grahame's wail of regret -- a lament both for the particular choices he made and for the adult problem of having to make choices at all. --

Michael Sims is the author of "The Annotated Archy and Mehitabel" and, most recently, "In the Womb: Animals," the companion book to a National Geographic Channel series.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company