Year of Important Books: If Only They Could Talk, by James Herriot

 

You may have noticed by now that animals feature large in this series of blog posts in which I am returning to books that were important to me in childhood. The Wind in the Willows, The Yearling, Winnie the Pooh, and Watership Down all are about animals in one form or another. It is true that many children books are about animals, so it is no wonder that many of my favourites contain four-legged characters. But it is also true that although I read a lot of books as a child, the ones with animals were invariably my favourites. Yes, I loved Peter Pan, and The Swiss Family Robinson, Huckleberry Finn, and other non-animal classics. But the animal stories have always risen to the top of my faves.

So as I thought about what to include in my reading list this year, I just couldn’t go without including a James Herriot book. I discovered these charming tales about a 1930s Yorkshire vet when I was somewhere around ten or eleven, I think, as books I brought home from the school library. And luckily Herriot was still writing new books during those years, and so I got the joy of reading his new releases as I got older.

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My slightly battered James Herriot collection, bought in 1984. But it’s not complete – I’m missing The Lord God Made Them All (1981) and Every Living Thing (1992). Methinks a new collection is in order!

 

James Herriot is the pseudonym of James Alfred “Alf” Wight (1916-1995), a Scottish veterinarian who practiced in and around the Yorkshire Dales during the 1940s to the 1970s. The books were semi-autobiographical in nature, and he began writing them in 1966 when he was 50 years old, at the urging of his wife. He had always wanted to write books, but in the early years his busy practice did not allow any time for writing, but thankfully he listened to his wife and began to put pen to paper.

His first few stories on other subjects such as football were rejected, but then he turned to what he knew best: being a vet in a rural country practice, and his first book, If Only They Could Talk, was published in 1970, followed by It  Shouldn’t Happen to a Vet  in 1972. But the books were not runaway successes. It wasn’t until American publisher Thomas McCormack (St. Thomas Press, New York) read the books and decided to bundle them together into one volume and publish them under the title All Creatures Great and Small in 1972, that Wight became a bestselling author.

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James “Alf” Wight, aka James Herriot. Doesn’t he have a kind face? Photo from biography.com

There is more to these stories than a collection of tales about a rural country vet. But If Only They Could Talk is certainly that, told with a dry humour that is one of the appealing characteristics of the books. In this opening volume of the series we get introduced to the main characters – James Herriot, a newly minted vet looking for this first position, his employer Sigfried Farnon, owner of a practice in the fictional town of Darrowby in Yorkshire, and Sigfried’s younger brother Tristan, a ne’er-do-well, charming young man who is bent on doing the least work he can do and yet still graduate from veterinary school.

But underlying the well-drawn and likeable characters in this book and in the ones that followed is the obvious love and respect Wight had for the people whose animals he looked after, and for the place itself – the wide, wild upswept moors of the Yorkshire Dales, and the picturesque valleys between them.

I love the interactions between James, Sigfried and Tristan, and suffered along with James as he was presented with one baffling case or strong-willed farmer after another, but a lot of my love for these books is tied up with passages like these:

We took a steep, winding road, climbing higher and still higher with the hillside falling away sheer to a dark ravine where a rocky stream rushed headlong to the gentler country below. On the top, we got out of the car. In the summer dusk, a wild panorama of tumbling fells and peaks rolled away and lost itself in the crimson and gold ribbons of the Western sky. To the East, a black mountain overhung us, menacing in its naked bulk. Huge, square-cut boulders littered the lower slopes. 

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Rolling hills in the Yorkshire Dales National Park, scenery that would have been very familiar to Alf Wight. Photo from photeverywhere.co.uk.

This wild country is populated with tough, hardy farmers.  Not an easy bunch to impress but Herriot manages to gain their respect as he shows his willingness to come out to their isolated farms at any time of the day or night, summer or winter, roll up his sleeves, and get to work. His respect for these people and their way of life is evident, giving us a glimpse of the last days of farming in England before the horse disappeared all together and was replaced by machines.

A lot of the humour in the book comes from Herriot’s ability to laugh at himself and the sometimes absurd situations he finds himself in. For example, in this particular book my favourite scene is where James is assisting another vet, Angus Grier, whom Sigfried warns James, can be vindictive if you cross him. James innocently says the wrong thing on the way out to the farm, and Grier gets his revenge by getting  James to don a calving outfit he is carrying around in his trunk.

The outfit turns out to be a heavy rubber suit which obviously had been designed by someone who had never been calving and is more like a scuba diving suit that almost immobilizes James once Grier zips James into it.

When he had finished he stood back admiringly. I must have been a grotesque sight, sheathed  from head to foot in gleaming black, my arms, bare to the shoulders, sticking out almost at right angles. Grier appeared well satisfied. “Well, come on, it’s time we got on wi’ the job.”He turned and hurried towards the byre; I plodded ponderously after him like an automaton. 

Our arrival in the byre caused a sensation. There were present the farmer, two cowmen and a little girl. The men’s cheerful greeting froze on their lips as the menacing figure paced slowly, deliberately in. The little girl burst into tears and ran outside. 

…Grier was working away inside the cow and mumbling away about the weather, but the men weren’t listening, they never took their eyes away from me as I stood rigid, like a suit of armour against the wall. They studied each part of the outfit in turn, wonderingly. I know what they were thinking. Just what was going to happen when this formidable unknown finally went into action. Anybody dressed like that must have some tremendous task ahead of him. 

The intense pressure of the collar against my larynx kept me entirely out of any conversation and this must have added to my air of mystery. I began to sweat inside the suit.

As it turns out the only task James has is to hand Grier a tin of ointment.  I will admit to laughing out loud at this scene, the picture he paints is so excruciatingly embarrassing and ridiculous you can’t help it.

I should perhaps start another series of blog posts, entitled,  “Places I Have Visited Because of Books, ” because, just like the Reichenbach Falls was basically the reason we went to Switzerland, when my hubby and I went to England the first time together I insisted on going to Yorkshire to see the Dales and the places so vividly described in these books.

We went to the small town of Thirsk, which is one of the places Wight lived and was one of the towns upon which he based his imaginary town of Darrowby. But best of all, we took a drive up the fells above the town, up to the high country, and spent a marvellous afternoon exploring this beautiful and remote landscape.

And even though I was there in the mid-eighties, some fifty years after the books were set, I would think that mostly it is the same. Beautiful and rugged, with a sense when you are up there that you are on top of the world.

I can see why Wight loved it so much. And I’m so glad he finally took some time to put his pen to paper and share with us these wonderful tales of the people and animals he served there.

Year of Important Books: Watership Down, by Richard Adams

This book, published in 1972, will forever be associated with the taste of malted chocolate Easter eggs in my mind. My parents had a tradition of giving us a small gift at Easter, often a book, and happily in Easter of 1975 I found Watership Down, by Richard Adams, propped up at the foot of my bed as I awoke on Easter morning. After searching through the house on the Easter egg hunt, I happily settled down with my new book and my favourite Easter treat – “robin’s eggs”, malted chocolate eggs covered with a hard candy shell, speckled to look like eggs.

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This book has seen a lot of love, as you can see. 

The other books I have read in my series thus far were classics long before I got to read them. With Watership Down I got in on the ground floor, so to speak, as this book has since become a literary classic, beloved by many. I’m not sure exactly why my mum picked this book for me, but I can guess at two reasons. One being that the cover featured a picture of a rabbit, which seemed to fit the Easter theme, I suppose.; and secondly, in order to forestall my never-ending quest to get a dog my parents had relented a few years previous and allowed me to keep the baby bunny the neighbours had given me. So naturally they would have assumed a tale about rabbits would appeal to me.

And they were right. As I ate my Easter candy and began to read this story of Hazel, Fiver, Pipkin, Bigwig, and the rest, I quickly got caught up in the tale and after that first reading went on to re-read it many, many more times.

Adams was born in 1920 in England, and yes, he is still alive! At the time of this writing in 2016 he is 96 years old. Watership Down was his first book. The genesis of this book, like so many of the others I have read this year, was in tales told to his daughters, who then begged him to write them down. But this beloved book did not have an easy time of it. Four publishers and three writing agencies turned down the book before Rex Collins took a chance on it and published it in 1972, and the rest is history. The book went on to win two of the most prestigious British book awards: the Carnegie Medal and the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize.

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Richard Adams reading from Watership Down at a 2008 exhibition of paintings by Aldo Galli, which illustrated a special anniversary edition of the book. Photo by Andrew Reeves-Hall

The book follows the adventures of a group of rabbits who leave their warren on the promptings of a prophetic rabbit named Fiver who has forebodings of disaster to come if they stay put. Hazel, the sensible rabbit who becomes the group’s steadfast and courageous leader, gathers the small number of rabbits who are willing to listen to Fiver’s warnings and together they leave the warren, heading for the hospitable terrain of Watership Down, some 4 miles away. Not a long journey for a man, but for a group of rabbits out in the open, without holes to bolt into at the first sign of danger, it is a long and harrowing trek, dodging men and their snares and guns, predators and even other rabbits. But through their journey the group becomes a tight knit group of companions, and arrive at Watership Down relatively unscathed. But danger lurks there, too, as they soon discover.

In a bid to obtain some does for their warren (the ones who leave with Hazel are all bucks), they encounter the strange warren of Efrafra, ruled over by the foreboding and dictatorial General Woundwort. Suffice to say that Hazel quickly realize their task will not be easy, and that they must draw on all their strength and courage, and a little rabbit trickery besides, to achieve their goal.

On the back of my copy of the book there is a quote from The Times in London, which states, “Mr. Adams wanted to write ‘a proper grown-up novel for children’, and this is what he has achieved.” This is a marvellous summary of this book. It is a children’s book, but it is so much more.

Right away, in the opening paragraph of the book, Adams grounds his rabbits in a realistic setting.

The primroses were over. Towards the edge of the wood, where the ground became open and sloped down to an old fence and a brambly ditch beyond, only a few fading patches of pale yellow still showed among the dog’s mercury and oak-tree roots. Not he other side of the fence, the upper part of the field was full of rabbit-holes. In places the grass was gone altogether and everywhere there were clusters of dry droppings, through which nothing but the ragwort would grow. A hundred yards away, at the bottom of the slope, ran the brook, no more than three feet wide, half-choked with king-cups, water-cress and blue brook-lime. The cart-track crossed by a brick culvert and climbed the opposite slope to a five-barred gate in the throne hedge. The gate led into the lane. 

The May sunset was red in clouds, and there was still half an hour to twilight. The dry slope was dotted with rabbits – some nibbling at the thing grass near their holes, others pushing farther down to look for dandelions or perhaps a cowslip that the rest had missed. 

There are many passages and details like this in the book – so many flower and trees and trees are named that at times I felt like I needed to stop and Google-search them all. But this realistic portrayal of a particular, small piece of British countryside, a hill in the north of Hampshire, England, where Adams himself grew up and obviously knew intimately, adds immediate realism to the more fantastical parts of the book – Adams’ imaginative take on rabbit society, language, and myths.

Adams researched the life and habitats of rabbits, and in particular pays credit in the introduction to Watership Down to a book by R. M. Lockley called The Private Life of the Rabbit as a book that gave him particular inspiration. Indeed there are times in the book where Adams quotes from Lockley’s book directly. Therefore the rabbit behaviour in Watership Down is very accurate and gives the readers a whole bunch of fascinating information about rabbits that they likely didn’t know.

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The book that Adams relied on for his research, by Welsh ornithologist and naturalist Ronald Lockley. Adams and Lockley were friends, and subsequently introduced Lockley as a character in Adams’ later novel, The Plague Dogs. 

But it is not just factual information about rabbits that Adams presents to the readers in his book, he invents a whole language (called Lapine), social structure, and mythology for rabbits as well. And this is what makes the book really come alive. In particular, the legends and tales of the rabbits’ legendary hero and founder, El-ahrairah, which are interspersed in the book, serve to make this rabbit society one with great depth and complexity.

There is no doubt that this book can be frightening and disturbing to children at times. The animated film based on the book, released in 1978, has been responsible for many a nightmare and complaints by parents, who thought they were taking their children to see a Disney-esque movie about bunnies. The rabbits in this book are in great danger, and some of them die. For myself, it was the depiction of Bigwig in the snare that really haunted me.

But the menacing figure of General Woundwort and his rule of the cowed rabbits of the Efrafra warren is the largest shadow that looms large over the idyllic life that Hazel builds for his rabbits at Watership Down, and the plot to best Woundwort and steal some does away from Efrafra is the highly entertaining and suspenseful climax to the book. I was just as caught up in this during my read of the book as an adult as I was when I was younger.

Interestingly enough, the BBC and Netflix are teaming up to produce a new animated mini-series adaptation of the book, to air in 2017, with actor James McAvoy as the voice of Hazel. Their hope is to do a faithful adaptation of the book but to tone down the scary parts which made the earlier animated film so disturbing to children. I am very much looking forward to seeing this, and will write a review on it once it airs.

I really enjoyed re-visiting this book again, and highly recommend it to upper elementary aged children and up.

 

 

 

 

 

Year of Important Books: Winnie-The-Pooh, by A. A. Milne

Winnie-The-Pooh, by the English author A. A. Milne, was published in 1926, and charmingly illustrated by E.H. Shepard. It was Shephard’s illustrations in last month’s Wind in the Willows that helped me decide to read Pooh next, as looking at Mole and Rat I was reminded of Christopher Robin and Pooh, and I happily settled into a lovely re-visit of my friends in the Hundred Acre Wood.

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My well-loved copy, a 1950 edition, given to my older siblings in 1951 and discovered by me on the bookshelves sometime in the 1960s….

“Settled” is a good description. Reading this book is like wrapping yourself up in a big cushy blanket while you are sipping tea and sitting by the fire. This book is warm, comforting, gentle, and kind, and I very much enjoyed my time immersed in it once again.

Besides reading the books themselves, one of the things I have enjoyed the most about my series this year is the opportunity to find out more about the authors. In doing a bit of Google-searching on Alan Alexander Milne I found out the following fun facts:

  • One of his teachers in the small public school he attended (which was run by his
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    A.A. Milne in 1922. Photo from Wikicommons

    father) was H.G. Wells (The Time Machine, War of the Worlds)

  • He played on an amateur cricket team with J. M. Barrie (a playwright he greatly admired, author of Peter Pan) and Arthur Conan Doyle (author of the Sherlock Holmes stories)
  • Like Lewis Carroll, he also was a mathematician, and graduated with a degree in Mathematics from Cambridge.  My worldview just doesn’t fit with wonderful writers who are also good with numbers….what gives??
  • Christopher Robin Milne was his only child, and of course is a main character in the Pooh books (I knew this, but perhaps you didn’t?)
  • Besides Winnie-The-Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner (published 1928), Milne wrote novels, poetry, short stories, articles, non-fiction books, and a great deal of plays. He became annoyed by the Pooh books, as their success hampered his previous freedom to write widely and be accepted in other literary endeavours. Although he continued to write and publish up until the 1950s nothing gave him the same success as the Pooh books.
  • He wrote the first stage adaptation of The Wind in the Willows, called Toad of Toad Hall, in 1926.

In 1925 Milne bought a country home a mile north of Ashdown forest, in East Sussex, and he and his wife Dorothy and their son Christopher spent many happy hours in this place, getting away from the city on weekends and during the summer. Ashdown Forest is the setting for the Hundred Acre Woods, many of Shepherd’s illustrations are actual views of the landscape, with slight alterations here and there.

Speaking of E. H. Shepherd, like John Tenniel’s work in Alice of Wonderland, these illustrations are a perfect marriage to the author’s words. Shepard was an illustrator at Punch magazine, and he was recommended to Milne by another Punch staffer. Initially Milne was dubious, but once Shepard illustrated Milne’s poetry book, When We Were Very Young, which was published in 1924 and Milne saw their quality, he insisted on Shepard illustrating the Pooh books as well.

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Wow. These are Christopher Robin’s actual stuffed toys which E.H. Shepard used as the basis for his illustrations. Except, and importantly, for Pooh. The Pooh bear in the books was modelled after Shepard’s son’s teddy bear, named Growler. The bear pictured here was Christopher Robin’s though, the original Winnie The Pooh.These are on display in the Main Branch of the New York Public Library. Another place to add to my bucket list! Picture from Wikicommon

170px-Harry_Colebourne_and_WinnieThere is a wonderful Canadian connection to the books. Christopher Robin’s teddy bear was named Winnie, after a real bear he saw at the London Zoo. This had been bought for $20 in Ontario and surreptitiously brought into England by Canadian Lieutenant Harry Colebourn while on route to serve in the First World War. He named her “Winnie” after his hometown of Winnipeg, Manitoba, and left her at the zoo while he served in France, eventually donating her to the zoo as her permanent home.

 

Well, onto the book itself.  Like Wind in the Willows, this is a series of small vignettes about Pooh and his friends and the little adventures they have in the Hundred Acre Wood. These are very little adventures, mind you, as is appropriate for young children.

The book begins by Christopher Robin coming down the stairs dragging Pooh by the leg behind him (bump-bump-bump) and asking for a story about Pooh. Thus follows the tales of the Silly Old Bear, as Christopher calls him, and his friends, namely Piglet, Owl, Rabbit, Eeyore, Kanga, and Roo.

Pooh himself, although described as a Bear of Little Brain, is humble, silly, kind and steadfast. He is inordinately fond of honey (hunny) and always wanting a snack. This gets him in to trouble as he ends up being stuck in Rabbit’s door after eating too much while on a visit, and eating all the honey out of the pot he was taking to Eeyore as a present. But nothing is too disastrous for too long in this book, the various adventures the friends have are resolved without too much scary stuff happening.

As I read the book I was struck by how clever Milne was as a children’s author. He gets the right balance here, I think. He doesn’t necessarily write down to children, he uses fairly big words at times (like “expedition”, which Pooh pronounces “expotition”) and allows his characters to be in some danger here and there (Pooh and Piglet hunt for Heffalumps and Woozles, there is a flood in which Piglet gets stranded, Roo falls into a river). There is just enough suspense to keep children interested but not so much that it is frightening. And when things get too hard or difficult for Pooh or the others they always call on Christopher Robin, who helps them sort things out. Every child sees themselves as Christopher Robin, and so it gives them a way to feel useful and smart and brave as they see Christopher in the book help the characters out.

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The “Expotition” to the North Pole

I’m hard-pressed to say which character is my favourite. Probably Pooh, but I have a soft spot for Piglet as well, because in a lot of ways I can remember identifying with him the most as a child. As the youngest in the family, I often, like Piglet, felt uncertain, scared, and in over my  head as I tagged along behind the rest.

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Pooh and Piglet hunting Woozles

And then there is Eeyore. The original “Debby Downer”! You can’t help but feel sorry for him, though, when his tail is lost, or when his birthday is forgotten, and it’s so lovely to see the other characters rallying around him when these bad things happen. This comforting sense of friendship and community is an underlying theme of the book, and it is one of the reasons why it appeals so much to children and adults alike.

Unfortunately Tigger doesn’t come along until The House at Pooh Corner, and Pooh and Piglet don’t play Poohsticks until that book as well, so I missed revisiting those two special parts of Milne’s creations this month. Drat.

I closed Winnie-The-Pooh with reluctance, but I am very much eager to start next month’s book. I am going to read a book that was my very own, not one that was a hand-me-down, and it arrived in my life on Easter day in 1975.

It is Watership Down, by Richard Adams, and I can’t wait to read it again!

 

 

 

 

 

Year of Important Books: The Wind in the Willows

The Wind in the Willows, by Kenneth Grahame,  was published in 1908, and has been in print ever since. I’m not sure exactly why this book, a collection of loosely-tied together stories about a Water-Rat, a Mole, a Badger, and a Toad, was held with such affection by me, although the popularity of the book tells me I am not alone.  I was very curious to read it again, to see if I could tease out the reason why it was one of those books I read and re-read numerous times.

And I’m not sure I can answer that! I didn’t finish the book with a sense of wonder and enchantment, which is the emotions that are stirred up by the memory of reading it as a child. But I did enjoy it, just the same. And I came away from it with a few thoughts.

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Sadly, I can’t find my beloved “old” copy of Wind in the Willows. This is the 1999 edition I gave to my daughter to read as a child. I’m glad to see it a little worn around the edges. 

First of all, the descriptions in the book, especially in the first chapter, are lovely. I can appreciate them now with a writer’s eye, much more than I did at the time. We are introduced to Mole, diligently cleaning his underground home, the patient and kind Rat, and the landscape, which is described with great beauty and affection. The reader is immediately drawn into this world. I love the picture of Mole getting fed up with cleaning and abandoning it to go to the surface and delight in the spring-time beauty he finds there. Soon he stumbles across the River, and here is Graham’s beautiful picture of what he sees:

Never in his life had he seen a river before – this sleek, sinuous, full-bodied animal, chasing and chuckling, gripping things with a gurgle and leaving them with a laugh, to fling itself on fresh playmates that shook themselves free, and were caught and held again. All was a-shake and a-shiver–glints and gleams and sparkles, rustle and swirl, chatter and bubble. The Mole was bewitched, entranced, fascinated. By the side of the river he trotted as one trots, when very small, by the side of a man who holds one spellbound by exciting stories; and when tired at last, he sat on the bank, while the river still chattered on to him, a babbling procession of the best stories in the world, sent from the heart of the earth to be told at last to the insatiable sea.

Grahame himself loved rivers and the natural world, according to the preface by Susan Cooper in the edition I read, and you can tell. He lived at the turn of the century, when the green England of his boyhood was being caught up in the Industrial Revolution and the introduction of the motor car, and his writing captures some of the nostalgia he felt for the peaceful days of yore. In fact he wrote a collection of stories which were published in 1895 called The Golden Age, and it was this book that made his name as an author.

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Kenneth Grahame, 1910, from WikiCommons

When Grahame was nine years old he was sent to a boarding school in Oxford, and was very happy there. His preference would have been to go to University in Oxford and live and work beside the River Thames there. Sadly, his rather severe guardians (his mother had died when he was five and his alcoholic father gave him up to the care of his relatives) sent him to live and work in London instead, away from his beloved peaceful countryside.

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The river by Oxford, where Kenneth Grahame found such delight. Public Domain. 

It wasn’t until 30 years later, in 1906, that he was able to move back to the countryside, along with his wife and sickly child, Alastair. The Wind in the Willows first arose as stories told to his fretting son in 1904, and was completed after his move to the country. It was originally published without illustrations, but various illustrators have illustrated it since.

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Mole and Rat, illustrated by Ernest Shephard. These illustrations were done for the 1932 edition of the book. Shepherd met Grahame before beginning the work, who told him, “I love these little people, be kind to them!” Sadly Grahame did not live to see the illustrations Shephard did. 

Secondly, In this re-visit of one of my favourite childhood books I discovered that the parts I Ioved and the parts I didn’t enjoy as a child were still the same today.

What didn’t I like then, and now? In a word, Toad. I can remember not liking this character as a child. This boasting, self-centred, pompous, selfish and pleasure-loving animal wasn’t my cup of tea as a child and still isn’t today. Although I think I have a little more sense of humour about him now then I did then, which you would have thought would be the other way around!

Interestingly enough, the “Toad” parts of the book were the ones  Kenneth Grahame wrote first in his initial compilation of the stories he told to his son. The parts about Mole and Rat and Badger came later, after he moved back to the countryside. Thank goodness, I say!

But the my two favourite chapters (well, three, if you include the first one) remained the same, the ones entitled Dulce Domum, and The Piper at the Gates of Dawn.

In Dulce Domun (Latin for “Sweetly at Home”) Mole and Rat are returning to Rat’s riverside home, where Mole has been staying since leaving his own home months before. It is mid-December, and chilly, the night closing in and a storm approaching. They are hurrying across the countryside when Mole is suddenly stopped short by a familiar smell, the scent of his old home.

Now, with a rush of old memories, how clearly it stood up before him, in the darkness! Shabby indeed, and small and poorly furnished, and yet his, the home he had made for himself, the home he had been so happy to get back to after his day’s work. And the home had been happy with him, too, evidently, and was missing him, and wanted him back, and was telling him so, through his nose, sorrowfully, reproachfully, but with no bitterness or anger; only with a plaintive reminder that it was there, and wanted him. 

Anyone who wanders for any length of time can relate to this, this sudden longing for home, which can catch you quite unawares. Mole tries to tell Rat that he wants to stop, to find his home, but Rat doesn’t hear him, and presses ahead, eager to get out of the approaching snow and back to his own riverside home. And dear Mole loyally follows his friend, even though his heart is nearly breaking at leaving his home behind. But his grief is too much, and Rat, noticing Mole’s lagging steps, finally sits him down for a rest, prompting Mole to finally burst out in sobs. Astonished, Rat asks Mole what is the matter.

….it was my own little home – and I was fond of it – and I went away and forgot all about it – and then I smelt it suddenly – on the road, when I called and you wouldn’t listen.  Rat – and everything came back to me with a rush – and I wanted it! – oh dear, o dear! and when you wouldn’t turn back, Ratty – and I had to leave it, though I was smelling it all the time – I thought my heart would break. – We might have gone and had one look at it, Ratty – only one look – it was close by – but you wouldn’t turn back, Ratty, you wouldn’t turn back! 

Poor Rat, faced with this paroxysm of grief, pats Mole on the arm and assures them that they will turn back, and find Mole’s home, even though it is now full dark, and cold. And so they do, and Mole finds the scent again, and at last they arrive at Mole’s underground home, named Mole End. The place is in disarray and dusty after Mole’s long absence, prompting great despair by Mole once more, but Rat bustles around, cleaning the place up and Mole, heartened, joins him. Soon a nice fire is laid on the hearth, and supper –  bits and pieces from Mole’s larder – is put together, and they are just about to settle in when they hear noises from the door. Lo and behold a group of field mice are there, to do their yearly carolling.

Oh, how I love this chapter. It always brought tears to my eyes as a child, and it did again! The longing for home, the loyal Mole following Rat even though he wants nothing more than to turn aside, the equally loyal Rat insisting they turn back to find Mole’s home, and the friendship shown by Rat as he fixes up the place, complimenting Mole all the time on his snug little house, settling Mole’s torn heart. And to top it off, the lovely little field mice, come a-carolling. This is Christmas at it’s finest, beautiful gifts of friendship given and received. I admit that I never have participated in carolling without thinking of this chapter, and the little field-mice singing their hearts out.

 The Piper at the Gates of Dawn begins on an ominous note, with Mole and Rat, looking for their friend Otter’s son Portly, who has gone missing. They begin at night, while it is still dark, both of them wanting to get going on the search as soon as possible. The moon rises, lending her light, then falls, and then dawn approaches Suddenly Rat hears a song, “The merry bubble and joy, the thin, clear, happy call of the distant piping!” Entranced, he directs Mole to follow it, and soon Mole hears it too, and falls equally under its spell.

Grahame’s descriptions of the burgeoning dawn as they follow the song bring the reader right into the enchantment with Mole and Rat. Eventually they come to a small island, and mooring the boat, they go ashore.

Then suddenly the Mole felt a great Awe fall upon him, and awe that turned his muscles to water, bowed his head, and rooted his feet to the ground. It was no panic terror – indeed he felt wonderfully at peace and happy – but it was an awe that smote and held him and, without seeing, he knew it could only mean that some august presence was very, very near. 

That presence is Pan, the god of the animals, and sleeping at his feet is the missing Portly.

This chapter, with its beautiful descriptions and its flawless depiction of the experience of the sacred and numinous, quoted above, was probably the first description I had read of an experience of the holy. Many years later I read C.S. Lewis’ The Weight of Glory, and he summed up exactly the impact this passage had on me:

Apparently, then, our lifelong nostalgia, our longing to be reunited with something in the universe from which we now feel cut off, to be on the inside of some door which we have always seen from the outside, is no mere neurotic fancy, but the truest index of our real situation. And to be at last summoned inside would be both glory and honour beyond all our merits and also the healing of that old ache…At present we are on the outside of the world, the wrong side of the door.

My final discovery  about The Wind in the Willows as I read it again is that I now realize it was an introduction to me to the types of books I turned to again and again in my childhood years – novels about animals, written from their points of view. I couldn’t get enough of these books, and I devoured them: Black Beauty, Charlotte’s Web, White Fang, The Call of the Wild, and many, many more.

My love of these books all trace back to these stories of a Mole and a Rat, their friendship and adventures, and the idyllic countryside that they call home.

 

A Year of Important Books: Alice In Wonderland

The actual name of this book is Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and it was published in 1865. The author was Lewis Carroll, which is the pen name for Charles Lutwidge Dawson. The book was written three years before, after the author and the Reverend Robinson Duckworth rowed in a boat up the river Isis with the three children of Henry Liddell, the Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University and Dean of Christ Church. During this five-mile voyage, which began at Oxford and ended in the village of Godstow, Dawson told the children – Lorina (age 13), Alice (age 10) and Edith (age 8)–a story about a girl named Alice who goes looking for adventures. The girls loved it, and wanted him to write it down for them. He began working on the manuscript the next day, and further elaborated the story in another boat trip the next month. It was at the urging of the author  George MacDonald’s children, who also loved the stories,  that he finally decided on publication. Originally  he did all the illustrations himself, but once he decided to publish the book, he turned to John Tenniel, who was very well-known at the time as being the political cartoonist for Punch magazine. And with that, the perfect marriage of words and illustrations was born.

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A 1863 portrait of Lewis Carroll, by Oscar G. Rejlander, on WikiCommons. He was a mathematician as well as an author, which is unusual! He was also a fairly well known photographer in his early years. And finally, he was quite an inventor, and along with many practical objects invented an early form of the game which eventually became Scrabble! 

I returned to this book with a great deal of anticipation. This, like all the books in my series this year, was a well-loved and much-read book. My  Alice book was one of a matched set of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. They were special editions published in 1946, and contained the wonderful Tenniel illustrations beautifully coloured by Fritz Kredel.

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Who could resist picking up and reading a book that looks like this? Not me! 

The story has been well enmeshed into our popular consciousness. It begins with a little girl sitting by the side of a river, getting  bored while her older sister reads a book, is suddenly distracted by a white rabbit running by wearing a waistcoat and muttering, “Oh dear! Oh dear! I shall be too late!” Alice runs after the rabbit and crawls into his rabbit hole under a hedge after him and quickly finds herself falling down,, down, down….falling so long that she almost falls asleep, and then she finally  hits the ground and finds herself in Wonderland.

It’s pretty difficult to detail the plot from here on in, as all who have read the book will understand. It’s a jumble of events, none of which really make any sense. “Curiouser and curiouser”, as Alice says. She spends some time shrinking and growing by consuming the appropriately labelled cake (“Eat Me”) and drink (“Drink Me”), all the while trying to get through a small doorway into a garden, which she eventually succeeds at doing. There she encounters the Cheshire Cat, the Mad Hatter and his tea party, and, most memorably the incredibly grumpy Queen of Hearts (“Off with her head!”) and her court, who are all actually a pack of playing cards.  There is a strange croquet game with flamingos as croquet bats and hedgehogs as balls, an encounter with the Mock Turtle and a Gryphon in which they demonstrate the Lobster Quadrille for Alice, and a trial in which the Knave of Hearts is accused of stealing the Queen’s tarts.

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The Lobster Quadrille. I love the muted tints in these illustrations. 

To my regret, some of my favourite characters and scenes that I remember from the Alice books are not in Wonderland, but appear in Through the Looking Glass. In particular I was very much looking forward to the Jabberwocky (‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves, did gyre and gimble in the wabe, All mimsy were the borogoves, and the mome raths outgrabe…”) which I can never read without feeling a little giddy with delight. I might just have to fit that book into my schedule further along the year, just for that poem alone.

Looking at Wonderland now, from an adult’s eye, I’m not sure I would have liked it very much if I had never read it as a child, which surprised me some, as the delight with which I read the Alice books is firmly entrenched in my mind. I pondered this some, and came up with these reasons as to why I think this book featured so large in my childhood imagination:

1). Alice herself – oh, I can see myself in Alice. A little girl, alone, trying to figure out the world. I spent long periods of time by myself as a child, especially in the two years after my sister went to school and I was left behind. Alice is by herself, and she has only herself to rely on to navigate this strange world. And this world, with its maddening refusal to make sense, is so very like the adult world to the eyes of a child. Things happen, and you have to cope. And those things that happen don’t make sense to you, even though all the other characters around you (the adults, in real life) have no difficulty navigating this world. You just have to play along and hope you don’t mess things up too badly.

2) The dream-like quality of it all – at the end of the book all of Alice’s adventures are revealed to be a dream. I had forgotten this! But it makes perfect sense, of course. Carroll captured the dream-world so very perfectly. Alice keeps encountering strange events, starting with the White Rabbit, which don’t seem to faze her at the time. This is so true of our dreams, right? I am a very vivid dreamer, and often remember my dreams, and laugh at the absurdity of it all, from this side of wakefulness. But in the dream world, well, it all somehow fits together, even as at the same time you know it doesn’t make sense at all. This strange suspension of reason is captured so very well in this book. All that growing and shrinking, the odd conversations, the times when Alice tried to recite poems she knows very well and yet they refuse to come out “right”, even the menacing Queen with her cries of “off with her head” and the grumpy Duchess with her pointed chin digging into Alice’s shoulder – these are all details that through Alice’s dream-eyes make sense but don’t make sense, and it is a wonderful depiction of that odd country we can find ourselves in when we drift off to sleep.

3) The illustrations – were there ever book illustrations that fit the words so perfectly than Tenniel’s fit Lewis Carroll’s words and descriptions? They have become iconic for good reason. Tenniel drew Alice normal enough for us to relate to her, but made the other characters just strange enough to perfectly capture the weirdness of the story.

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Self-portrait of Sir John Tenniel (public domain, on WikiCommons)

Interestingly enough, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass are the only two books Tenniel illustrated. Carroll approached him to illustrate another project, but Tenniel declined.

It was fun to re-visit Wonderland this month. It was actually a lot weirder than I remember it to be! But I’m glad I went back to make my acquaintance of Alice and the Rabbit, the Mad Hatter and the Queen.

Next month, I’m diving back into a book that I approach with a great deal of love and happiness: The Wind in the Willows, by Kenneth Graham.