Saturday, July 28, 2012

Kenneth Grahame

The most priceless possession of the human race is the wonder of the world. Yet, latterly, the utmost endeavors of mankind have been directed toward the dissipation of that wonder... Science analyses everything to its component parts, and neglects to put them together again... Nobody, any longer, may hope to entertain an angel unawares, or to meet Sir Lancelot in shining armour on a moonlit  road. But what is the use of living in a world devoid of wonderment?  ~~ Kenneth Grahame

Given the Olympics Opening Ceremonies having just aired, it seems fitting to do a post on Kenneth Grahame. In between reading some of my more serious, academic books I decided to revisit a couple of old childhood classics of his -- his famous The Wind In The Willows and maybe lesser known The Reluctant Dragon, a story originally featured in his 1898 book, Dream Days.

Grahame was born in Scotland in 1859, but sadly orphaned at an early age. Still a young child, he was moved to England to live in the care of relatives. He grew up to have a mix of jobs aside from writing, including being a social worker at night and the Secretary of The Bank Of England by day. He was also part of the London-Scottish Regiment. The shy-natured Grahame married Elspeth Thomson in 1889 who later gave Grahame a son, Alastair (who went by the nickname "Mouse").

"I write not only for children,
 but for adults who remember what it is like to be children."

How cute was he!

Wind In The Willows

This classic came about when Grahame brought home a mole as a pet for his son and the housemaid accidentally killed it. The stories started as a way to comfort Alastair and let him know that the mole would live on in the stories. Alastair enjoyed the stories so much, he begged his father to continue them in letters even when the young boy was sent on trips with his mother to visit family. The stories continued to grow through these letters between father and son. Grahame's wife, Elspeth (who had always encouraged her husband's writing) found the stories so adorable, she recommended that Grahame have them published as a book. The end result was The Wind In The Willows, published after Grahame retired from the Bank of England. Sadly, Alastair, who was sickly and blind in one eye (perhaps the reason for the side profile in the pic above?) battled depression, committing suicide at the age of 19 (the link under Alastair's pic will take you to an article discussing the sad story).  The pain of his son's death stayed with Grahame until his death in 1932 at the age of 73.  I've read elsewhere that excitable Frog who was always curious about "the next big thing" was based on Alastair's energetic and inquiring nature. 

1966 illustration of Toad by beloved children's illustrator
Tasha Tudor (my favorite of all the illustrators I've seen
tackle TWITW)

Re-reading this book as an adult, I am struck by how relatable the characters are, even now. Everyone knows someone like all of these characters. Have a friend always into the latest gadgets, fashions, trends? That's Toad. Rat is the one you might call very "granola", he loves the outdoors and simple living. Mole loves experiencing new things and meeting new people even if he has some trepidation in being outside of his comfort zone. He's ever curious about what's going on just over the next hill. See what I mean? Even the landscape, especially The Wild Woods... at least the way Rat describes it... sounds like that sketchy part of town you know to avoid as much as possible.  Perhaps that's part of the eternal appeal of this book, it just never gets old. 

BTW... There's a 1996 Terry Jones live action screen adaptation that's a nice mix of eerie and sweet and there was a really cute BBC / PBS Masterpiece Theatre aired version made in 2006. You can watch the whole thing (but in sections of course) on YouTube.

1996 Terry Jones adaptation:

2006 adaptation with Bob Hoskins & Matt Lucas

I also heard that yet another version was set to be released this year with Ricky Gervais doing the voice of Mole... does anyone know, did that project get shelved or is it still in the works? Just curious. 

The Reluctant Dragon

Perhaps not quite as famous as The Wind In The Willows, I think I first read The Reluctant Dragon when I was about nine years old. I recently found my old copy in a box of books in my mom's storage. I remember really liking the book but not much else so I figured it was time for a refresher. I think it took me maybe 45 mins to read (and I'm a slower reader), it's that short but so adorable! The dialogue is very fun and witty, making the story move very quickly. And I loved that the dragon spoke like "a perfect English gent"! This is the story of a dragon who makes his home on a hill above a quiet English village but instead of wanting to attack the villagers, he wants to be friends with them, recite poetry, eat delicious foods, and just bask in good friendship. How do you convince a bunch of medieval villagers of that though? There's one little boy (just known as The Boy) who lives in town who climbs up the hill every day, not showing a moment of fear around this dragon but instead is the first of the humans to offer up his friendship while explaining that the rest of the town won't be won over so easily. 

The Reluctant Dragon illustration by Ernest H. Shepard
"Do for goodness' sake try and remember that your a pestilential scourge or
you'll find yourself in a most awful fix."
The Boy to The Reluctant Dragon

The dragon has a pretty funny hashing out with St. George, the knight you may have read about in legends who was reputed to be quite the dragon-slayer. They calmly and sensibly discuss the terms of a faux battle to appease the riled up locals --  where George is allowed to strike the dragon, how much noise will be made, etc... all as if it were some business deal between friends!

Written in 1898, I wondered if this book was maybe the idea behind Disney's Pete's Dragon but it turns out Disney did a 1941 cartoon adaptation of this book, sticking with the book's title for the cartoon. Though I thought I had seen just about every old Disney movie out there, I can't seem to remember this one. 

The dragon has the characteristic high, squeaky voice of so 
many characters in early Disney movies. Not quite how I pictured 
the dragon in the book but still a cute clip:

and this was a little before my time, but I found this ABC-TV clip of a show where Grahame's characters The Reluctant Dragon and Mr Toad were given a show together... anyone see this when it was on?

"Banquets are always pleasant things, consisting mostly, as they do, of eating and drinking, but the especially nice thing about a banquet is that it comes when something is over, and there's nothing more to worry about, and tomorrow seems a long way off."  ~~ Kenneth Grahame's The Reluctant Dragon

Grahame uses a unique humor to teach kids the importance of really getting to know people before you judge them. People (or dragons) may seem scary or anti-social on the outside but maybe they really long for people to take an honest, non-judgemental interest in them. :-)