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.
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.