The Wind in the Willows
is about a golden age
of peace and leisure
; it is about home
and the familiar fields and woodland
s 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 animal
s 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.
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
, 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.
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 weasel
s and stoat
s, 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.