Rat. As in, “You dirty rat.” As in vermin. The carrier of disease, plague, and death. Destroyer of walls, denizen of the sewers. I hope never to deserve the name “Rat.”
At the same time, I pray to be worthy of the name, “Rat.”
In the October 2009 issue of First Things, Wheaton College professor Alan Jacobs reviewed two new editions of Kenneth Grahame’s masterpiece, The Wind in the Willows, a book that Jacobs remarks, “is surely the most beautifully written of all children’s books.”
After reading the review, there was only one obvious next step so I found my well-worn copy and dove again into the world of the river, the riverbank, the Wild Wood, and Toad Hall.
For me The Wind in the Willows is first and foremost a book about friendship and at the center is the very best of friends, the Water Rat.
The book opens deep under the earth. The Mole was doing his spring-cleaning, but as he dusted and swept and whitewashed:
Spring was moving in the air above and in the earth below and around him, penetrating even his dark and lowly little house with its spirit of divine discontent and longing. It was a small wonder, then, that he suddenly flung down his brush on the floor, said “Bother!” and “O blow!” and also “Hang spring-cleaning!” and bolted out of the house without even putting on his coat.
Smittened with spring fever, Mole dashed through the countryside till he arrived at the river. As he looked at the swift water, “The Mole was bewitched, enchanted, fascinated.” Gazing across from one bank to the other, he saw a dark hole, some creature’s home. There was a glint in the hole and an eye appeared and then “a small face began gradually to grow up round it, like a frame round a picture.”
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.
It was the Water Rat.
The two animals, Grahame tells us, “regarded each other cautiously,” but nonetheless, Rat’s immediate impulse was to invite Mole across the river and into his home, rowing the Mole across the river in his boat, “painted blue on the outside and white within.”
And so the friendship began and in that friendship, Rat demonstrates at least three qualities of friendship that I want to show to my friends as well.
First, Rat is generous. After helping Mole into the boat and across the river to his house, Rat ran inside “and after a short interval reappeared staggering under a fat, wicker luncheon-basket.”
“What’s inside it?” asked mole as the basket was loaded aboard the boat.
“There’s cold chicken inside it,” replied the Rat briefly; “coldtonguecold hamcoldbeefpickledgerkinssaladfrenchrollscressandwidgespottedmeat gingerbeerlemonadesodawater —”
That is, he packed a magnificent picnic for himself and his new friend. And after stowing it in the boat and casting off, he introduced the Mole to the river, its banks, the neighborhood, and the wonders of boating. “Believe me, my young friend,” he told him, “there is nothing — absolutely nothing — half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.”
In the afternoon, after accommodating the Mole’s premature desire to row, the Rat fished the wet Mole, the swamped boat, the empty luncheon-basket, and himself out of the river. And he did so with good cheer and warmth. Once he rowed them home, he “made a bright fire in the parlour, and planted the Mole in an arm-chair in front of it, having fetched down a dressing-gown and slippers for him.”
After supper, “a terribly sleepy Mole had to be escorted upstairs by his considerate host, to the best bedroom” where, the story indicates, he stayed on as a guest for many, many months.
His lunch, his boat, his parlour, his clothes, his best bedroom — the Rat’s idea of friendship included extravagant generosity.
Second, Rat was loyal to the Mole. He willingly faced danger to protect him even though it was the Mole’s impetuousness and indiscretion that created the problem to begin with.
As the days of autumn along the riverbank pushed toward winter, Mole became increasingly curious about a neighbor he had yet to meet, the Badger who lived in the middle of the Wild Wood. Despite the Rat’s assurances that they would meet sooner or later and despite the Rat’s warnings about the Terror of the Wild Wood, the Mole became impatient.
As winter came “the Rat slept a great deal, retiring early and rising late.” Bored, curious, and, as I said, impatient, Mole slipped out of the Rat’s house on “a cold still afternoon with a hard steely sky overhead” to explore the Wild Wood.
Rat, asleep at home, took no notice, but the weasels and stoats who inhabited the Wild Wood all took notice. In the tangle of trees, bushes, branches, and brambles, with the weasels and stoats pattering in the shadows around him, Mole became hopelessly lost and increasingly frightened.
Meanwhile, Rat awoke from his nap to discover Mole’s galoshes prints “running along straight and purposeful, leading directly to the Wild Wood.”
Rat looked very grave, and stood in deep thought for a minute or two. Then he re-entered the house, strapped a belt around his waist, shoved a brace of pistols into it, took up a stout cudgel that stood in a corner of the hall, and set off for the Wild Wood at a smart pace.
Not only did he find the Mole and rescue him, he did so without anger and without reproach. He loyally protected his friend, sharing the danger — in spite of Mole’s recklessness.
Third, the Rat demonstrated sensitivity.
Returning home from the Badger’s house (they did manage to get there), Rat and Mole walked in the December twilight. The Rat hurried, yearning for supper by the fire in his snug hole on the riverbank.
Suddenly the Mole “stopped dead in his tracks, his nose searching hither and thither in its efforts to recapture the fine filament, the telegraphic current that had so strongly moved him.” Not knowing quite where he was, Mole nevertheless sensed his long forgotten, partially whitewashed home. It was somewhere beneath his feet.
He called to the Rat who was well ahead to come back. “‘O, come along, Mole, do,’ replied the Rat cheerfully, still plodding along.”
Torn between his home and his friend, the Mole followed haltingly and with difficulty, calling out for a change of plans. Finally they stopped and through his tears Mole told Rat about his longing for home.
The Rat stared straight in front of him, saying nothing, only patting Mole gently on the shoulder. After a time he muttered gloomily, “I see it all now! What a pig I’ve been! A pig — that’s me! Just a pig — a plain pig.”
Then, with renewed vigor, Rat got to his feet and began walking away from his home and toward the Mole’s where he would lavish compliments, prepare supper, and provide food for the field-mice who arrived singing Christmas carols.
Mole had a need for his home and his friend, once he understood, was sensitive to that need and cheerfully went with him.
Generosity, loyalty, and sensitivity are not the only characteristics of a good and lasting friendship, but I cannot imagine a friendship existing without these. Grahame illustrates them in the person of — of all things — a rat.
If you have never read The Wind in the Willows, you are blessed beyond those of us who have. You get to be enchanted by the Rat, the Mole, the Badger, the Otter, Mr. Toad, and “the Piper at the Gates of Dawn” for the first time.
The beauty of the friendships in the book, however, remain fresh reading for the first time or the 20th time. And I find fresh wonder in the friendships in the book and pray that one day my friends will say, “Thank you for being such a Rat.”
Copyright 2009 James Tonkowich. All rights reserved.