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Kenneth Grahame in 1910

Kenneth Grahame in 1910

It was only a few years after Peter Pan made his debut on stage that there appeared yet another still celebrated children’s book in the mode of fantasy. This was Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, again a singular achievement, though he wrote other books too. He also achieved distinction of another sort, in working for the Bank of England, where he rose to the position of Secretary to the Bank, before retiring under not entirely happy circumstances when he was not yet 50.

The Wind in the Willows, published in the year in which he retired, is a woodland tale, with hardly any humans in it, and none of consequence. The animals who are its heroes are unusual ones, not the lion or fox or deer or squirrels that children could admire or love. Rather the book begins by introducing Mole and the Rat he befriends, two apparently settled bachelors, who are quite content to potter about doing nothing, ‘simply messing about in boats’, as they put it, so long as they have enough to eat and a comfortable place in which to sleep. But they also make friends with the extravagant Mr Toad, who lives in Toad Hall, and enjoys nothing better than showing off. The only person who might be able to control him is the wise old Badger, and even he is not always successful.

 

The book is soon taken over by Mr Toad, and goes into a romp. He acquires a motor car which he does not know to drive, since he is under the impression that the purpose of a motor car is to speed along while hooting his horn, so that everyone can see him. This entirely human trait leads to the usual consequences, encounters with the law as well as accidents. Toad’s efforts to escape from prison involve dressing up as a grotesque washerwoman, a travesty that allowed several illustrators a field day. Toad’s effrontery, like Billy Bunter’s, is generally successful, only to be undone by yet another act of boastfulness on his part.

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Rajiva Wijesinha

September 2010
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