From The Wind in the Willows

It is certainly one of the biggest cliches in the literature of boating. What the Water Rat said to the Mole: “Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing–absolutely nothing–half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.”

But here’s a little tip. Any purportedly literate mariner who quotes that little snippet of Kenneth Grahame‘s classic The Wind in the Willows at you (it appears very early on, in Chapter 1, The River Bank) probably hasn’t bothered to read the entire book. Because the very best bit–the part any cruising sailor, at least, will most readily relate to–doesn’t appear until much later in Chapter 9, Wayfarers All.

This is where the Water Rat, after bantering with some swallows who are preparing to migrate south for winter, meets up with the worthiest wayfarer of all, the Sea Rat, who has abandoned his comfortable life on an inland farm to answer the call again.

From The Wind in the Willows
Illustration by Ernest H. Shepard

What he says to the Water Rat speaks directly to the heart of anyone who has ever dreamed of sailing south for the winter:

There, sooner or later, the ships of all seafaring nations arrive; and there, at its destined hour, the ship of my choice will let go its anchor. I shall take my time, I shall tarry and bide, till at last the right one lies waiting for me, warped out into midstream, loaded low, her bowsprit pointing down harbour. I shall slip on board, by boat or along hawser; and then one morning I shall wake to the song and tramp of the sailors, the clink of the capstan, and the rattle of the anchor-chain coming merrily in. We shall break out the jib and the foresail, the white houses on the harbour side will glide slowly past us as she gathers steering-way, and the voyage will have begun! As she forges towards the headland she will clothe herself with canvas; and then, once outside, the sounding slap of great green seas as she heels to the wind, pointing South!

And you, you will come too, young brother; for the days pass, and never return, and the South still waits for you. Take the Adventure, heed the call, now ere the irrevocable moment passes! ‘Tis but a banging of the door behind you, a blithesome step forward, and you are out of the old life and into the new! Then some day, some day long hence, jog home here if you will, when the cup has been drained and the play has been played, and sit down by your quiet river with a store of goodly memories for company. You can easily overtake me on the road, for you are young, and I am aging and go softly. I will linger, and look back; and at last I will surely see you coming, eager and light- hearted, with all the South in your face!

The sad part, of course, is that the Water Rat does not heed the Sea Rat. Instead he lets that miserable Mole talk him into spending yet another cold winter on the riverbank, shivering in his hole.

Some food for thought, I hope, as the autumn leaves swirl about us once again.

Plus, it raises a question that (perhaps) deserves some serious debate: Are Mole and Rat gay?

Please discuss.

Related Posts

18 Responses
  1. Fiona

    The Wind in the Willows celebrates an entirely pre-Freudian men’s club sort of world, where the question of sexuality was entirely absent ( as, thank god, it is in all children’s classics…) we look at it now with sophisticated eyes, but this question simply wouldn’t have occurred to Kenneth Grahame. Like all great classics, it is endlessly open to interpretation and re- reading and will, I’m sure, survive it.
    Interestingly, I am totally with the Rat and the domestic choice and, even as a young child, rejected the idea of adventure. What I loved about TWITW was the cosines and the idea of home; I didn’t have a very happy one. I made a happy, cosy home where I am happy to stay and my daughter, brilliantly, is the adventurous and lives on a boat on the Thames.

    1. Toby Lindo

      No doubt you are are correct. Gay they were I believe, but gay as the boys were in the tavern in Heidelberg when Kathie enters singing “Let’s all be gay boys!” in the Student Prince.

      Anyway who cares?

  2. Charlie

    @Fiona: What a fabulous comment. Thanks so much! You are exactly right about the book: it celebrates and revels in domesticity. Rat’s refusal to succumb to the call of adventure. The great battle to recapture Toad’s home. Very glad you found this blog from the safety of yours.

  3. JohnnyJohnnyoooohh

    If like me you have a job which includes large amount of motorway driving as part of your weekly routine, then please take some advice from me: Scour eBay and find yourself a copy of the “talking book” of Wind in the Willows read by Derek Jacobi on CD. Then when the tail lights in front turn red and the traffic starts to tail back slip the disc into the player and feel your tension and despair gradually ease away as DJ transports you from your asphalt hell into the sparkling waters and dark woods of WITW. Before you know it, you will be arriving home, there will be a smell of adventure in the air and you will greet your family as a better person.

  4. cheryl

    I, too, am troubled by Mole’s behavior as he prevents Ratty’s escape to adventure. Granted, the Sea Rat had bewitched Ratty, and therefore Ratty wasn’t making a conscious choice… but I do hope that if he were to *decide* that he wanted to runaway to sea that his *friends* would wish him well.

  5. Toby Lindo

    No doubt you are are correct. Gay they were I believe, but gay as the boys were in the tavern in Heidelberg when Kathie enters singing “Let’s all be gay boys!” in the Student Prince.

    Anyway who cares?

  6. robert j walker

    at 73i fail to see how a passage contemplating death in old age negates the “messing about in boats bit

  7. Mr Nobody

    Why ruin a nice commentary with modern-day inference?

    Gay this & gay that have infiltrated normal sensibilities and to ask the question is to destroy the camaraderie that men enjoy without sexual overtones.

    “Woke” ruins everything it touches and causes revulsion to normal people. It deserves to be shoved under a rock where it belongs to avoid interference in our lives where it need not be. Who cares? Why even ask?

    1. Oren

      Great commentary on boats, and chapter 1 versus the deeper comment on going out upon the ocean (pun intended….deeper)

      As for gay? Ha, who cares, were we not talking about boats and friendship?

      Oh maybe they are bi … either way, they care for one another

  8. Murph

    As has been suggested, the two quotes are about different things: messing about in boats and taking off on an adventure. I’ve owned only one sailboat but always enjoyed messing about in and with boats more than actually taking one out for a long sail. Truth to tell, I was happiest when upgrading the battens, cleats or line guides. varnishing the brightwork, generally keeping in my boat shipshape. Yes, and sometimes doing a little sailing.

    I’m a retired woodworker, and I now have a set of plans for another boat. I’m no kid and may not get to it, but nothing — including, I’d say, a sailing adventure — would make me happier than building a boat. The shorter quote fits me fine.

  9. Ryan

    I can say as a mariner, including beautiful wooden sailing ships, the sea rat is referring to the beauty of sailing to foreign countries, seeing new lands, and the experiences of sailing far.

Leave a Reply



Please enable the javascript to submit this form

Facebook Pagelike Widget


Google Ads