From Ecstasy to Enchantment: Two Lists in Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows

by Martha Rust

To have read Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind and the Willows (1908) is to know and love the riverside community of Toad, Ratty the Water Rat, Mole, and Badger along with all of their wisdom, foibles, and delicate sensibilities. For lovers of lists, the novel also presents a veritable banquet, or perhaps we should call it a picnic, of mouth-watering lists of food, in the form of lists of the contents of picnic baskets. We might also call it a feast for the senses–for sound and vision in particular–in the form of the wayfaring Sea Rat’s list-filled after-lunch account of his travels. A pairing in this post of a food list and a travel list takes us from an instance of the ecstasy of a list, properly restrained for the benefit of the ongoing narrative, to a demonstration of the enchantment of a list, which threatens to rupture the entire fictional world of The Wind in the Willows

A delicious example of a food list appears early in the novel’s opening chapter, “The River Bank,” shortly after Mole boards Ratty’s boat for the first time. When Ratty asks Mole to push a basket under his feet, Mole naturally wants to know what’s in it. Ratty replies, “There’s cold chicken inside it … coldtonguecoldhamcoldbeefpickledgherkinssaladfrenchrollscresssandwichespottedmeatgingerbeerlemonadesodawater——.”[1] The list breaks off when, “in ecstacies,” Mole pleads, “O stop, stop … This is too much!” Strictly speaking, the quantity of food Ratty lists is what causes hungry Mole’s ecstasy, which he attempts to keep within the bounds of politeness by declaring it to be too much. For us readers, the line of words without spaces between them provides a clear visual impression of just how packed with provisions Ratty’s basket is. We readers and Mole alike, however, might also find ourselves pleasurably overwhelmed as much by the prospect of so much food to eat as by the list itself, with its cornucopia of concrete nouns to savor. In that case, our response, “O stop, stop … This is too much!” would be an expression of brave and virtuous resistance to the burgeoning list out of respect for the story. We know that lists stop story lines and therefore must be stopped before they become too much.[2] This list of food items must end, lest we be carried away by it, leaving the fictional world of the river bank behind.

What would it look like if a list did sever a story line, causing characters and readers to succumb to its governance rather than to the rules of narrative? Something like that happens towards the end of the novel in the chapter “Wayfarers All” when Ratty comes under the spell of the Sea Rat and his list-filled description of his travels. We take up this episode just after Ratty and the Sea Rat have eaten lunch (and after we readers have enjoyed another food list). Lists are in italics:

… the Seafarer, refreshed and strengthened, his voice more vibrant, his eye lit with a brightness that seemed caught from some far-away sea-beacon, filled his glass with the red and glowing vintage of the South, and, leaning towards the Water Rat, compelled his gaze and held him, body and soul, while he talked. Those eyes were of the changing foam-streaked grey-green of leaping Northern seas; in the glass shone a hot ruby that seemed the very heart of the South, beating for him who had courage to respond to its pulsation. The twin lights, the shifting grey and the steadfast red, mastered the Water Rat and held him bound, fascinated, powerless. The quiet world outside their rays receded far away and ceased to be. And the talk, the wonderful talk flowed on—or was it speech entirely, or did it pass at times into song—chanty of the sailors weighing the dripping anchor, sonorous hum of the shrouds in a tearing North-Easter, ballad of the fisherman hauling his nets at sundown against an apricot sky, chords of guitar and mandoline from gondola or caique? Did it change into the cry of the wind, plaintive at first, angrily shrill as it freshened, rising to a tearing whistle, sinking to a musical trickle of air from the leech of the bellying sail? All these sounds the spell-bound listener seemed to hear, and with them the hungry complaint of the gulls and the sea-mews, the soft thunder of the breaking wave, the cry of the protesting shingle. Back into speech again it passed, and with beating heart he was following the adventures of a dozen seaports, the fights, the escapes, the rallies, the comradeships, the gallant undertakings; or he searched islands for treasure, fished in still lagoons and dozed day-long on warm white sand. Of deep-sea fishings he heard tell, and mighty silver gatherings of the mile-long net; of sudden perils, noise of breakers on a moonless night, or the tall bows of the great liner taking shape overhead through the fog; of the merry home-coming, the headland rounded, the harbour lights opened out; the groups  seen dimly on the quay, the cheery hail, the splash of the hawser; the trudge up the steep little street towards the comforting glow of red-curtained windows.

The question the narrator raises in this passage–was the Sea Rat’s discourse “speech entirely”?–points to the possibility, brought up in Listology’s inaugural post, that a list is indeed something different from speech, entailing a something that lends it a power to entrance. In the case of the Sea Rat’s lists, that power of enchantment may hinge on the way words in a list, loosened from the strictures of grammar as well as plot, may become a heady blend of sound, rhythm, and mental images, thus transporting Ratty to realms–and narrative spaces–far away from his river bank home–realms of “fights … escapes … and gallant undertakings,” to name a few.

In his book, Enchantment: On Charisma and the Sublime in the Arts of the West, C. Stephen Jaeger remarks that charismatic art conveys “a sense of living a heightened form of life … promising to transport the viewer into that world.”[3] Setting aside for now the question of whether lists may be charismatic, we may recognize a transportive effect in this one. In fact, as the Sea Rat’s account concludes, Ratty is so transported that he readies himself to follow in his footsteps, physically transporting himself out of the life he has known and into the heightened world the Sea Rat has conjured with his lists. Luckily–luckily, that is, for the integrity of the world of The Wind and the Willows–Mole catches his friend before he gets far and sees him safely back to his home on the river bank, where “the magic of the Seafarer’s hundred reminiscences” gradually wears off. Interestingly, part of the Mole’s wise cure for Ratty is to set him to work at one of his hobbies, writing poetry. The domain of poetry is perhaps safer for Ratty than the seductive worlds of lists, for the last lines of “Wayfarer’s All” give us a glimpse of him wrapped up in his writing while snug at home: peeping in on Ratty, Mole finds him “absorbed and deaf to the world; alternately scribbling and sucking the top of his pencil. It is true that he sucked a good deal more than he scribbled; but it was a joy to the Mole to know that the cure had at least begun.”

[1] Quotations from The Wind and the Willows are from the Project Gutenberg edition, Illustration by Nancy Barnhart, in Kenneth Grahame, The Wind and the Willows (New York: Charles Scribner, 1913), 238.

[2] On lists’ stopping stories, see Krystal, Arthur. “The Joy of Lists.” New York Times. 3 Dec. 2010.

[3] C. Stephen Jaeger, Enchantment: On Charisma and the Sublime in the Arts of the West (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012), 3.

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