Kenneth Grahame (author) and Robert J. Lee (illustrator),
The Wind in the Willows
(Dell Yearling, 1969)
Kenneth Grahame (author) and Ernest H. Shepard (illustrator),
The Wind in the Willows
(Methuen Children's Books, 1979)
Kenneth Grahame (author) and Michel Plessix (adapter and illustrator),
The Wind in the Willows: Volume One, The Wild Wood
(NBM Publishing, Inc., 1997)
Kenneth Grahame (author) and Michel Plessix (adapter and illustrator),
The Wind in the Willows: Volume Two, Mr. Toad
(NBM Publishing, Inc., 1998)
Kenneth Grahame (author) and Michel Plessix (adapter and illustrator),
The Wind in the Willows: Volume Three, The Gates of Dawn
(NBM Publishing, Inc., 1999)
Kenneth Grahame (author) and Michel Plessix (adapter and illustrator),
The Wind in the Willows: Volume Four, Panic at Toad Hall
(NBM Publishing, Inc., 2001)
Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows [audiobook, read by Shelly Frasier] (Tantor Media, Inc., 2002)
The Wind in the Willows
and The Willows in Winter [narrated by Vanessa Redgrave] (Good Times Home Video, 1999)

The Wind in the Willows was originally published in 1908. Over the years it became and has remained a classic of children's literature. The characters, who seamlessly combine animal traits with all-too-human personalities, are people readers can identify with and want to know. (Theodore Roosevelt is said to have remarked: "Now I have read it and reread it, and have come to accept the characters as old friends.") There's Mole, happy and eager, meeting every adventure the world offers him with an open heart. Rat, a generous river-dweller, who enjoys the simple pleasures of food and gossip, but occasional succumbs to the urges of poetry. Toad, rich, good-hearted but thick-headed, irresistably drawn to every new fad. And Badger, the quiet steady friend who prefers his own company, but will always come and lend a paw if you need him.

The adventures these friends have together are by turns comfortable, amusing, frightening, mystical and ultimately satisfying. When the Mole first meets the Water Rat, Rat invites him on a picnic that has become, for many readers, the archetype of all picnics everywhere. It combines a burgeoning basket, a boat ride, the perfect spot by the river and the excitement of meeting a new friend who's well-spoken, kind and knowledgeable about all sorts of things the ground-dwelling Mole has never heard of. The picnic climaxes in an unexpected bath, as Mole tries his paw at the oars and dumps both animals -- and the (now fortunately mostly empty) picnic basket -- in the river, but the day ends happily by the Rat's fire.

Rat and Mole next go on a horse cart excursion with Toad, which ends comically. This simple adventure, however, is followed by Mole's frightening encounter with the Wild Wood, where he is chased in the dark by whispers and shadows and malevolent faces until he's rescued by the faithful Rat, who has experience and a stout stick on his side. They then spend the night with Badger, who lives by himself in the midst of the Wild Wood in an underground home; a home that's a strange fairy tale mix of cosy kitchen and vast halls that have stood empty for untold ages.

The book continues to unfold with episodes in this way, alternating between the pleasures and comedies of ordinary life in bylanes and fields, and the mysterious, oddly mystical moment. Perhaps the most mysterious is the early morning when Rat and Mole, searching for their friend Otter's lost baby, encounter the Piper at the Gates of Dawn, a Pan-creature straight out of folklore and legend.

"[I]n that utter clearness of the imminent dawn, while Nature, flushed with fullness of incredible colour, seemed to hold her breath for the event, [Mole] looked in the very eyes of the Friend and Helper; saw the backward sweep of the curved horns, gleaming in the growing daylight; saw the stern, hooked nose between the kindly eyes that were looking down on them humourously, while the bearded mouth broke into a half-smile at the corners. . . saw, last of all, nestling between his very hooves, sleeping soundly in entire peace and contentment, the little, round, podgy, childish form of the baby otter. . . 'Rat!' he found breath to whisper, shaking. 'Are you afraid?' 'Afraid?' murmured the Rat, his eyes shining with unutterable love. 'Afraid? Of Him? O, never, never! And yet -- and yet -- O, Mole, I am afraid!'"

While researching for this review, I came across a Web site which has this to say: "The major theme of the story is the struggle between the noisy, common way of life and the quiet and genteel. The Wild Wooders, including the stoats and the weasels, epitomize the former, while the River-Bankers, including Badger, Mole, Rat, and Toad, represent the latter. Toad is a lovable rebel who does not fit well into either camp. Structurally, the fantasy is a small epic in prose paralleling to some degree the events in Homer's Odyssey." Well, yes. That, too.

The 1969 Dell Yearling version of The Wind in the Willows, with illustrations by Robert J. Lee, is the first one I read, when I was ten years old. It's a sturdy paperback with no frills, geared toward the U.S. elementary school market. Lee's illustrations are simple black and white drawings, not deeply detailed, but full of expression, capturing the emotion of each scene adequately. I've had this book for more than twenty years, and I'm sure I'll have it for at least twenty more.

However, a few years ago I happened across the 1979 Methuen edition of the book, a green hardback with illustrations by Ernest H. Shepard (of Winnie-the-Pooh fame). Shepard's richly detailed ink drawings have become, for me, the best visual representations of the story I love so much. And there are a gracious plenty of them, scattered thickly every two or three pages throughout the book.

As you already know if you've seen Shepard's work in the Winnie-the-Pooh books and elsewhere, he possesses the happy gift of drawing anthropomorphic animal characters that look like real animals, while also conveying human expressions and attitudes. His Mole is clearly a mole, but still comes across in each successive picture as wistful or content or curious -- now that I think of it, very similar in personality to Pooh. The bulging eyes and comical grimaces of Toad are perfectly in keeping with his character.

When I bought this book, I thumbed through it eagerly to see what Shepard had done with the character of the Piper. Perhaps wisely, he chose not to draw Him. Instead, Rat and Mole stand side by side gazing into a bright light that we, viewing the picture, can only just glimpse as it fades off the edge of the page.

Michel Plessix is a French artist and cartoonist. He has undertaken to adapt The Wind in the Willows into a graphic novel of four volumes. Let me first talk about some of the wonderful aspects of this undertaking.

The books themselves are well-made picture books, each nine by twelve inches and roughly thirty glossy pages. They're sturdily bound and fall open easily in your lap. And Plessix's work is stunning. He combines cartoon characters with lush, dreamy backgrounds. I could wander endlessly through his landscapes. Seeing them, I feel as though I understand fully for the first time why Grahame takes up so much of his narration with loving description of the country side where his animal friends live.

Now for negative criticism:

I would have to call this, at best, a very loose adaptation. Plessix does at least follow Grahame's basic plot for the most part, but he takes liberties with the characters and other details that are, in my opinion, unnecessary and often distressing.

In Grahame's original, the Water Rat is described as follows: "A brown little face, with whiskers. A grave round face, with the same twinkle in its eye that had first attracted his notice. Small neat ears and thick silky hair." Plessix has drawn Rat with big, gawky ears, an angular face and rough, gray stringy fur. In other words, Rat looks like a Disney caricature of a common rat, not at all like the compact, silky, grave-natured water rat Grahame was thinking of. And the alteration extends to the Rat's personality as well. Plessix's Rat is bombastic, with a face full of teeth, given to jolly pronouncements. He's not at all Grahame's serious-but-pleasant bon vivant, with his calm nature punctuated by a poet's sudden intense enthusiasms.

Plessix's Rat, when he lugs the stuffed picnic basket out to the boat and the waiting Mole, says,

"Let's see. . . I've brought headcheese, pepper sausage, ham, pickles, a salad of boiled eggs -- potatoes, chives, vinaigrette, Brie, goat-cheese, chilled rosé, lemonade and stuff to make tea -- Do you think I brought enough?"
That's fine, but how does it compare to:

"'There's cold chicken inside it,' replied the Rat briefly; 'coldtonguecoldhamcoldbeefpickledgherkinssaladfrenchrollscresssandwichespottedmeetgingerbeerlemonadesodawater --'

'O stop, stop,' cried the Mole in ecstacies: 'This is too much!' 'Do you really think so?' inquired the Rat seriously. 'It's only what I usually take on these little excursions; and the other animals are always telling me that I'm a mean beast and cut it very fine!'"

This passage from Grahame's first chapter sent me into ecstasies when my teacher read it aloud to our class. Why did Plessix feel the need to change it? And why does he need to add to Toad's name "Lord Baron Tadpole"? Toad is a wealthy country gentleman. He doesn't need to be any more than that.

Plessix has Mole sketching his impressions and memories in "little pads." Grahame's Mole isn't artistic. He's eager, experiencing everything to the fullest, but he responds to it only with an incoherent enthusiasm -- it's Rat who's the poet. I think I may have found an explanation for this addition to the story in a note at the back of the first volume: "Thanks to Loic Jouannigot for his participation on the Mole's pads." If a friend came up with something Plessix thought was wonderful, I can see how he'd give in to the temptation to work it in, whether it fits the original story or not.

But he makes Badger silly somehow. This Badger gabbles in rhyming cant. "Rat! Dear old Ratty! And his friend Mole, potatoes and filet of sole!" he says, when they knock on his door in the midst of their Wild Wood night. Badger is my favorite character, and one of the reasons I love him is that he's quiet and plain-spoken; often stern, but always generous and kind. Here's Grahame's Badger in the same scene: "'This is not the sort of night for small animals to be out," he said paternally. 'I'm afraid you've been up to some of your pranks again, Ratty. But come along; come into the kitchen. There's a first-rate fire there, and supper and everything.'"

This four volume graphic novel, published by NBM, is an English translation (by Joe Johnson) from Plessix's French version. Perhaps we can blame two levels of translation -- from Grahame's English to Plessix's French, then back into English -- for some of these blunders. But certainly not for all of them!

Plessix has chosen to lay the books out more in the "graphic novel" style than the comic book style. That is, the text is juxtaposed with the pictures in narrative boxes, with the dialogue and narrative together. No dialogue balloons. Very nice, well-suited to the nature of the story, which is chiefly narrative.

The lettering, by CompuDesign, is beautiful. It's simple, graceful upper and lower case (not all uppercase as in most comic books) with a loose, handwritten style. Unfortunately, it's also miniscule, and almost impossible to read. I speculate that they decided to make it so small in order to accomodate more text without obscuring the pictures on each page. It doesn't work. It's very distracting and unpleasant to move between gazing enthralled at the beautiful artwork and pulling the book up to your nose to squint at the text.

However, given all I've said about the content of the text, perhaps you might as well ignore it (after a nod toward its pretty hand) and just gaze your fill of the pictures. They are truly worth every penny you'll spend on these books.

NBM Publishing, Inc., which focuses on graphic novels and their ilk -- including many fairy tales adapted into wonderful graphic novels -- has a Web site here. Their page for Plessix's The Wind in the Willows shows the four covers (just to get you drooling over Plessix's artwork) and gives lots of preview material. I found more than a few other Web sites referring to Plessix, but most of them are in French.

Tantor is a company that publishes unabridged classics on CD. The cover illustration for their CD set of The Wind in the Willows is taken from Beatrix Potter's Jeremy Fisher. While certainly a lovely picture, it does not bode well for the accuracy of what's inside. However, let's charitably assume that Tantor chose the picture to avoid messing about with copyright. It is what's inside that counts, and this is a solid offering.

We begin with a brief biography of Kenneth Grahame, and then the story starts. Six CDs, comprising six hours and 42 minutes of the unabridged thing. No music or sound effects, just the text, coming to you mediated only by Shelly Frasier's voice (an unidentified male voice announces breaks and the end of each CD).

Frasier's voice is plain and without distinction, squarely in the middle range. It's easy to listen to, if not entrancing. She uses clear diction and good pacing. She reads with a variety of emphasis, but not too much. Although she herself has no strong discernable accent, she does use a raspy, slightly gruff British accent when the characters speak. However, she doesn't provide much difference between each of the characters: Mole, Rat and Toad all sound basically the same.

Taken altogether, this is an excellent audiobook of the most basic sort. There aren't any frills, and the reading doesn't carry you away, but in a way that makes it easier to focus on Grahame's magnificent prose.

According to Calactors.com's Web page for her, Frasier is an actress with numerous credits on stage, in television and in movies. She also lists "English dialect" under her "special skills." Tantor Media, Inc., has a Web site here.

Good Times Home Video says on the back cover of their DVD edition of The Wind in the Willows and The Willows in Winter (originally produced by TVC London in 1994), "These family favorites are the definitive screen adaptations of the beloved books." Now, we all know that the folks who write the blurbs for the back covers of things have no compunction about making such sweeping statements on behalf of their own products. In this case, however, it has the added benefit of being true.

I am highly suspicious of adaptations, and especially abhor those which make changes that I deem unnecessary (as you may have guessed from my critique of Michel Plessix's work above). I've seen -- and hated -- Disney's ghastly version of The Wind of the Willows. My son will never see it in my house. I can't prevent him from seeing it at a friend's house, but if I find that he's done so, I may not let him go over to that person's house again. But I digress.

This version of The Wind in the Willows (and The Willows in Winter, the sequel written by William Horwood) is as far from Disney's travesty as it's possible to be. Remember how I said that Michel Plessix changed the natures and appearances of Grahame's characters? Here, they look and behave exactly as Grahame wrote them. The dialogue, in most cases, is word-for-word Grahame's own, and the cartoonists responsible for rendering Rat, Mole, Badger and Toad have done marvelous work. Rat's brown fur, neat, silky ears and white boating togs are delightful. When he makes gestures, they're graceful and close to his body. When he sits in his chair, gazing into space, eyes shining, surrounded by crumpled papers, you have no doubt that he's writing poetry. Toad gibbers, grimaces and hops about wildly, while attempting to involve "you chaps" in all his hare-brained schemes.

The animation is a smooth blend of deep, misty painted backgrounds and the more traditional "cartoon" characters in the foreground. Special effects make the river itself look like actual video footage of water, with light glinting off the ripples. The actors responsible for the voices of the characters are perfect choices for their parts, and play those parts to the hilt. Alan Bennett (The Madness of King George) plays the Mole, slightly adenoidal and always sweet; Rik Mayall (The Young Ones) gives Toad a genteel rasp combined with gleeful madness that's irresistably funny; Michael Palin (of Monty Python fame) is Rat par excellence, quiet but charming, drily witty and occasionally exasperated; Michael Gambon (the new Albus Dumbledore, for all you Harry Potter fans) rumbles and pronounces and orchestrates things as Badger.

The animated sections of each story are framed by the non-animated story of an aunt, played by the inimitable Vanessa Redgrave, who is telling the tales of Mole and Rat and their friends to her nieces and nephew. Ms. Redgrave is the natural choice for narrator here. Her voice is calm, lilting and interested without being overly bubbly or exclamatory. She opens the door for the stories to follow, then steps out of their way.

The music is just what movie music should be -- it's not memorable on its own, but fits and enhances each scene, bringing more depth or humor or pathos without overtaking the action. The opening and closing music, however, is memorable: there's a smooth, jazzy oboe that flows over and around the landscape slowly moving by on the screen, feeling very much like the flow of the river itself.

And there you have it. Two unabridged editions with illustrations by different artists. One graphic novel adaptation. One unabridged audiobook. One animated movie on DVD.

One wonderful story.

[Grey Walker]