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.

The last part of the story deals with his efforts to reverse the consequences of his folly in leaving his house and going adventuring. As his wiser friends had predicted, the house has been taken over by stoats and weasels, who are presented as the horrid creatures of the woodland, in comparison with whom Mole and Rat are positive lambs. Badger has to conduct a council of war to plan the retaking of Toad Hall and finally, after many mishaps owing to Toad’s refusal to do what he is told, the friends succeed in driving away the interlopers. Success naturally is followed by a feast, at which Toad celebrates his own heroism and strategic brilliance in the battle.

The book, as can be seen, has really not got much of a plot, and this perhaps has led to speculation that it should be read as an allegory, of the sort of adventure that was to befall Europe in just a few years. Britain and her friends were the gentle innocent creatures of the woods, with scoundrels waiting to slither in and take over. Such a reading however does not do justice to Mr Toad, who has few redeeming features (except for not being a weasel or a stoat), but is still quite clearly the hero of the book. Of course it could be suggested that he represented one of Britain’s more preposterous allies – the French for instance, known in those days as the Frogs, though whether this was because of alliteration or eating habits or national character has never been clear. However, apart from such an interpretation causing even more confusion, as to who was what (no Britisher would have wanted to be the wise old Badger, mentoring the young, but neither would they have wanted to be mentored by anyone else), it also made no sense to suggest that the French, or indeed anyone else, had caused a crisis by abandoning their own fortress.

 

Since rich political allegory then could not be the reason for the enduring appeal of the book, it has been suggested that it celebrates the calm of the English countryside. That however is equally fanciful, and owes something I suspect to what Tolkien did later, in his depiction of the homely shires, against which evil wizards plot. In The Wind in the Willows however, evil does not come from outside to disrupt any idyll, rather ordinary life itself is seen as having its good and bad moments, and good guys and bad guys.

On the contrary, the charm of the book lies I think simply in its being a fun tale, on the lines of the fables we enjoy so much in childhood, but with a cutting edge of characterization in the character of Mr Toad. The calm Mole and the fussy Ratty are quite human in their responses, and Badger is both admirably wise and stern enough for us to feel that being rebuked by him would not be fun. The few humans of whom Mr Toad falls foul are caricatured quite entertainingly, since we see them from the Toad perspective, the one positive character among them being the gaoler’s daughter who helps Toad to escape. This provides an instructive parody of a situation we find in other books where handsome some young men are jailed unfairly. In the end though, none of the other characters would I think have been remembered had it not been for the larger than life bumptiousness of the hero.

Grahame obviously intended all this, for it seems that the character was drawn from his son Alistair, a tragic figure who committed suicide as an undergraduate at Oxford, but who at the age of eight was a rumbustious little boy. Conversely his father had not been able to go to university because, after the early death of his parents, his guardians thought Oxford would have been too expensive, and so sent him to work when he was quite young. Given his abilities, Oxford would obviously have suited him, so one has visions of him nursing his desire to have cut a more public figure, and transforming this into Mr Toad

But such speculations are as idle as the efforts to see symbolism in the book. One should I think simply enjoy this, the singular achievement of the last English writer to make a name for himself in the run up to the First World War. And perhaps one might wonder at the fact that, though stories about animals have been rife since the telling of stories began, this is about the only book that adults as well as children can read with equal satisfaction, in which the protagonists are animals, and not the sort of animal that stars in other stories.

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