An absolutely wonderful novel by Kenneth Grahame. It tells the story of Mole, Rat, Badger, and pompous Mr. Toad as they explore The River. Previous to analyzation, it seems just like an extraordinarily well-written novel about friendship. When you get into it, however, it's a sarcastic parody of British society, with each of the friends representing a different class of person.

Published in 1908, it was Grahame's only novel and originated as a series of bedtime stories told to his son, Alastair.

The Wind in the Willows is about a golden age of peace and leisure; it is about home and the familiar fields and woodland and waterways around home; it is about adventure and danger and unfriendliness far away from home, and the dream and desire and romance of far prospects; and it features animals who are both adults and at the same time children who have never grown up. It is comic and poignant, unforgettable, much loved.

Kenneth Grahame told the story in parts for his young son Alastair from 1904, with later episodes in letters. It was published in October 1908 by Methuen, and is by far his most famous and enduring work. A.A. Milne made a stage adaptation called Toad of Toad Hall.

The main characters are four, the Mole, the Rat, the Toad, and the Badger. Most of the time each one is the sole representative of his species: there are no families or communities of these animals, though the world of the River-bank abounds with animals. There are hedgehogs, otters, stoats and weasels, field-mice, all in large families or packs; but there are very few allusions made to there being any other Rat or Toad or Badger. The Rat, by the way, is the native rat, the Water Rat or vole, not the immigrants of bad repute. There are also people. There is also a higher power.

Simply messing about in boats

It begins with the Mole doing his spring cleaning. He has a small, poky burrow, and is not of high station in life. He sniffs the spring air, and decides, blow it, he'll go out and about and see a bit of the world. He comes to the river bank and meets the Water Rat. Evidently they already know each other, but the Rat, who loves boating, invites him to cross the river; and this is extended to a picnic and finally an indefinite stay.

The animals are animals: they have burrows and behave like their kind, except that Mr Toad lives in a big brick house of some elegance; but they are also strikingly leisured gentlemen, with nothing that even by 1908 standards could be called real-world cares. Mole simply leaves his house for the best part of a year. Ratty does nothing but mess about in boats, and have picnics, and read the paper. Toad has money: Toad is rich, he has pocketfuls and drawers full of money, he inherited wealth and property from his father; the other three have none of this, and the Mole is positively poor, but none of them has anything like a job or an occupation or anything more pressing than reading the paper. There is a newspaper: it seems to be delivered every day; by whom is completely unknown. Beetles is my guess. Ratty packs a picnic hamper with food from his pantry, and he's the only one in his burrow... except that the bell rings to announce dinner is now ready. Beetles again? There is this constant odd dislocation between realism and fantasy jostling up against each other.

The Mole is flustered and often doesn't quite understand what's going on. The big world, even the river world of the Rat, is a bit too much for him. The Rat is comfortable in his world. One day a traveller rat comes down the road, one who has been on boats in the Mediterranean and gone from port to port, and Ratty is stirred to desire far distant places and strange things and new tastes. This intoxication is briefly on him, to the sadness and bewilderment of the Mole who watches, but it passes, and the Rat stays in his own domain.

Poop-poop!

The world has held great Heroes,
   As history-books have showed;
But never a name to go down to fame
   Compared with that of Toad!

The clever men at Oxford
   Know all that there is to be knowed.
But they none of them know one half as much
   As intelligent Mr Toad!

Toad is the comic hero of the book: a silly ass, vain, conceited, pompous, foolish, cowardly, and obsessed. He has constantly got a bee in his bonnet. His river-bank friends try to restrain him, but know that the latest fad just has to burn itself out. He used to be interested in boats; now he pooh-poohs them. He has acquired a beautiful gypsy caravan, and is proposing to travel the open road with this. He persuades the Rat and the Mole to join him. By his folly it is overturned when a motor car passes by. This is 1908. Motor cars are new, fast, devilish, alien, exciting.

Poop-poop!

Mr Toad is hooked. All he can do is sit in the dust staring at the car that knocked him down, making poop-poop noises, in sheer delight at the discovery. He has his new obsession. Being rich he can afford to keep buying cars and crashing them. He steals one from a car park when its owners (people) are inside. This act brings down the wrath of the law, and he is sentenced to twenty years in prison.

The law is people: that is, people as opposed to animals. It is out in the wide world of towns and big houses and bright lights, where little woodland animals hesitate to go, but the Toad negotiates the two worlds, and orders dinners in inns. The gaol he is taken to is a Gilbert and Sullivan affair, with dungeons and warders, and he is cast into the furthest and deepest cell.

About half the book is his adventures. He gets to know the kind-hearted daughter of the gaoler, and she taking pity on him suggests a way of escape by making a deal and exchanging clothes with her aunt, a washerwoman, as she and the Toad are about the same size. The Toad galumphs around the country dressed as a washerwoman, trying to wring pity out of those he is trying to dupe, leaping from locomotive to horse to barge to motor car, until he makes it back to the vicinity of his ancestral Toad Hall.

The Wild Wood

The River and its environs are like a microcosm of Tolkien's Middle-earth. The Wind in the Willows is a playful and touching beast fable that sometimes approaches the eternally serious. Tolkien inverted the proportion: the Shire is a beleaguered remnant, and evil is everywhere, and deep; but around the River-bank all is good and peaceful except just a little bit, the Wild Wood, where the trees and snows are hard and here dwell vicious weasels and stoats, cowardly but treacherous.

But here too dwells the Badger, an old and grumpy and wise creature, a bit of Bombadil and a bit of Gandalf, though without the magic as such. When Mole gets lost one night in the Wild Wood, the Rat goes out to seek him, and they eventually stumble across the Badger's front door scraper. Later the Badger is the one who most deprecates the Toad's frippery behaviour, and decides they have to do something about it, by giving him a good talking to.

Later still Badger organises the retaking of Toad Hall. While Toad was in gaol for ever and ever, the wicked low-class weasels had moved in and squatted in his property, causing much nuisance. Mr Badger leads a carefully prepared raid of himself, Ratty, Moly, and Toad, into the hall, and routs the occupiers.

The Piper at the Gates of Dawn

Amid this there is one extraordinary, unclassifiable episode. Portly, the little son of the Otter, is missing. The other animals worry about him, look for him. Ratty and Mole prowl the waterways at night. They come to a quiet, still place, near dawn, drawn by a kind of music, a piping, and the world seems to change. It opens up, they feel a Presence. They feel a protector of animals, the Great God Pan, the Piper at the Gates of Dawn, and discover the sleeping Portly at peace. The episode lends a kind of luminance to the whole book: it is not comedy alone, nor beast fable, nor simple nostalgia, but it has in it a praise of nature for all the beauty and regularity of life, and a bitter sadness at the transience of it all.

You must read this book; but more importantly far, your children must grow up with it, in the receptive years; that these golden memories may become an ineffaceable part of them.

The Hope of the River Bank

“You knew it must come to this, sooner or later, Toad,” the Badger explained severely. “You've disregarded all the warnings we've given you…. Independence is all very well, but we animals never allow our friends to make fools of themselves beyond a certain limit; and that limit you've reached.” (Grahame 80)

In Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows, a tight-knit group of curiously humane animals live upon the enchanting River Bank, where each day is leisurely and idyllic and no one ever suffers from want. Good food and money always seems to flow freely, much like the waters of the River, and there is always someone overjoyed to welcome you into their home. But those luxuries do not come magically, however transcendent their world is from ours. The animals, known as River-Bankers, which include memorable characters like Water Rat, Mole, Toad, and Badger, all uphold an unspoken code of generosity and hospitality.

“The Mole knew well that it is quite against animal-etiquette to dwell on possible trouble ahead, or even to allude to it; so he dropped the subject.” (Grahame 10)

“No animal, according to the rules of animal-etiquette, is ever expected to do anything strenuous, or heroic, or even moderately active during the off-season of winter.” (Grahame 49)

The River-Bankers generally follow their customs without falter. If someone does overstep themselves, like Toad is deemed to have when he wrecks car after car, gallivanting about with his fathers slowly dwindling inheritance, then another animal confronts him for giving the community a “bad name”. (Grahame 80) In this instance it would be Badger, who serves as an informal authority figure within the community. As he explains: “Any friend of mine walks where he likes in this country, or I'll know the reason why.” (Grahame 57) Everyone has a role to play in the balance of the community, their unique traits all filling a niche.

"Rat is the cautious, judgmental teacher; Badger, the philosopher who hates society but likes people, and Toad, the incorrigible playboy: conceited, careless, and always in trouble." (Magill 7161-7162)

Badger, along with Rat and Mole, visit Toad at his infamous and appropriately named Toad Hall, the very seat of excess. While there, they attempt to correct his unruly behavior, browbeating him and keeping him under a form of house arrest until he emerges 'repentant' (of course, remorse is only a temporary condition for the cunning Toad, but that is beside the point).

Without any governmental authority, vices could easily destroy their pristine little community. It is the will of the River Banker that separates them from the Wild Wood, which is full of rowdy animals: weasels, stouts, and foxes, amongst others. Grahame portrays the Wild Wood as dark and chaotic, everyone fending for only themselves. Noticeably absent are any of the traditional signs of civilization: maintained roads, homes, lights, farms, etc. Toad simply represents the self-indulgent drive existing within all of us that can subvert any free system. The inability of the Wild Wooders to work together prevents them from enjoying the comforts the River-Bankers do. Instead of building off each other, they feed off each other.

In fact, the only semblance of civilization existing within the Wild Wood is Badger's House, which Rat and Mole take much solace in when they discover its doorstep while lost in the foreboding forest. Badger, a highly respected animal already well acquainted with Rat, gladly takes them into his sprawling den, providing them with a warm meal and soft bed. That is just typical of the River-Bankers world, where everything is shareable and no one seems to have a want go unmet.

A grand showdown occurs between the River-Bankers and the Wild Wooders after Toad is finally imprisoned for his irresponsible and freewheeling ways, which included crashing over seven cars and grand theft auto. The conniving Wild Wooders use the opportunity to forcibly seize the decadent Toad Hall with all manners of weapons, completely trashing the place in a chaotic revelry. During their occupation they are completely negligent towards the property, caring only for their own enjoyment, which is all done at the expense of the house. When Toad finally escapes from jail and returns to the River Bank, his friends (Rat, Mole, and Badger) hatch a plan to recapture Toad Hall, stipulating that they will only follow through if Toad finally reforms himself and becomes an upstanding citizen. Toad consents and the four liberate the hall through clever manipulation and planning, showing how a few well organized 'people' (as it were) can conquer a throng of distrustful and individualistic anarchists out only for their own good.

"Animals in the story, especially Water Rat, live according to a codified standard of existence. In this standard, the reader finds an implied, but not explicit, correspondence between the codes of conduct in the story and those normally taught to children … maturity emerges as the ability to recognize oneself realistically." (Magill 7161)

The River-Bankers operate under a sort of anarchocommunism, where no state exists and inhabitants laterally share their bounty out of their own free will. In his landmark book, The Communist Manifesto, author Karl Marx outlined the types of government humans had, in order, developed: anarchy, tribalism, despotism, democracy, and communism. The next step from there, Marx believed, was a world where government no longer existed. With all of our accumulated knowledge, perhaps finally we could have the maturity as a species needed to govern ourselves. It is all still very much a dream, but it is a noble one definitely worth striving for.

Grahame believes that by wholeheartedly adopting the simple yet pure values preached to children, we may finally actualize that ideal future. How often do we tell children they should share or help one another when in need, like the River-Bankers do with their code, and yet how often do we consequently ignore those same values when we conduct ourselves as adults? Grahame, with the River Bank, imagines a different world. By accepting childhood morals, instead of deeming them as puerile, the inhabitants have almost paradoxically reached a level of ultimate maturity, where everybody lives in peace.

"And what a play summer had been! Drowsy animals, snug in their holes while wind and rain were battering at their doors, recalled still keen mornings...." (Grahame 33)

Their relaxed lifestyles are embodied in the laziness of summer, which they look forward to with all the enthusiasm of a bunch of giddy schoolchildren on the eve of June. It is the world we could create if perhaps only we could wholeheartedly accepted the fables and other moral stories read to us a kids; days of fun and relaxation, with time to do anything we really wanted to. Maturity breeds freedom. If everyone conducted themselves with dignity and respect, then we would have no need to try and create states, institutions, or laws to try and police each other with strange rules and ideas that may not apply well to others. We are still awaiting that time, when the fruits of change finally spring forth and herald the coming of summer, taking us away from the cold winter-like world we live in today.

"People come - they stay for awhile, they flourish, they build - and they go. It is their way. But we remain. There were badgers here, I've been told, long before that same city ever came to be. And now there are badgers here again." (Grahame 56)

Grahame illustrates that we cannot rely on the systems we have developed forever. We cannot depend on any politicians or celebrities to save us. Cultures are eternal, but individuals come and go. Instead of pinning our hopes and desires on authority, Grahame's characters show that the most effective way to attain the change you want is to embody it. Toad exemplifies this at the end of the story when he finally repents and gives up his self-serving ways.

"There were some knockings on the tables and cries of 'Toad Speech! Speech from Toad! Song! Mr. Toad's Song!' But Toad only shook his head gently … and … managed to convey to them that this dinner was being run on strictly conventional lines. He was indeed an altered Toad!" (Grahame 189)

Thus, the book ends with a hope for redemption. Despite how unrepentant Toad seemed, even he could be convinced to follow the communal system of his fellow River-Bankers. Like Toad, we can always turn over a new leaf, regardless of how deep our roots are burrowed in the ways of the past.

Sources:
Grahame, Kenneth. The Wind in the Willows. New York: The Heritage Press, 1966.
Magill, Frank N. Master Plots, Revised Edition Vol. 12. Englewood Cliffs: Salem Press Inc., 1976.
McGillis, Roderick. Utopian Hopes: Criticism Beyond Itself. Children's Literature Association Quarterly 9, no. 4, winter 1984-1985. 184-186.
Watkins, Tony. Making a Break for the Real England. Children's Literature Association Quarterly 9, no. 1, spring 1984. 34-35.
Price, Juanita. "Kenneth Grahame's Creation of a Wild Wood." AB Bookman's Weekly 81, January 25, 1988. 265-271.

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