Grahame, Kenneth. The Wind in the Willows. 1908.
You will notice that I’ve not included a publisher in my acknowledgement here. I have four editions of the book if you count its inclusion in The Penguin Kenneth Grahame introduced by Naomi Lewis. I am particularly fond of the Methuen edition illustrated by Wyndham Payne. My copy, the 1930 thirty-third edition, cost 7/6 when it was, I presume, given to my mother. Her name is written in neat handwriting on the first free endpaper. This was the copy from which she read the story to me in 1956 when I was I suspect seriously ill. The other volume is the one she sent to me once I’d left home. It’s the 1970 reprint of the edition illustrated by E. H. Shepard in 1931. My other edition is The Annotated Wind in the Willow introduced by Brain Jaques and edited by Annie Gauger (Norton 2009). Any references unless otherwise noted will be from the edition illustrated by Shephard.
The Wind in the Willows has never been out of print and has been adapted for screen and stage several times. It is a book people seem either to love or hate, or love to hate. When I first met the work when I was a child, I became one of those who love it. Nevertheless, it is a work that my more analytical self sees as more than a little problematic especially in today’s world of increasing social inequity.
I would be avoiding an unpleasant truth if I didn’t admit that The Wind in the Willows is somewhat if not completely misogynistic and classist. On the one hand, it’s a paean to the life of the late Victorian rural leisured classes. On the other, it’s a picaresque novel celebrating friendship and redemption. It’s also a rather fractured book. Parts of it are highly lyrical and even mystical, especially the chapter where Mole and Ratty have their vision of the great god Pan in “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn.” The tone of this chapter is very different from the chapters detailing Toad’s descent into criminality. In his autobiography The Enchanted Places, Christopher Milne describes The Wind in the Willowsas “two separate books spliced into one. There are, on the one hand, those chapters concerned with the adventures of Toad; and on the other hand there are those chapters that explore human emotions—the emotions of fear, nostalgia, awe, Wanderlust [sic]” (1974. Penguin 1976, 160.)
In thinking about this apparent fracture, I couldn’t help but think that in some ways Grahame was entering the territory of later writers who experiment with form. When we think about Toad as a picaro, we tend to forget that Mole, too, is on a journey, leaving Mole End for the larger world of the River Bank. As Toad apparently learns to be less of a self-aggrandiser, Mole learns to expand his vision somewhat. Mole realises he is “an animal of tilled field and hedgerow, linked to the ploughed furrow, the frequented pasture, the lane of evening lingerings, the cultivated garden plot” (101). In other words, Mole is a creature of settled order. It is Mole with his talk of “the harvest that was being gathered in, the towering wagons and their straining teams, the growing ricks, and the large moon rising over bare acres dotted with sheaves. . . . reddening apples around, of the browning nuts, of jams and preserves and the distilling of cordials” (232) who soothes the Rat who has been on the verge of leaving everything to follow the sea rat. Grahame reiterates the necessity for an ordered quiet life. Both Toad and Rat must give up their dreams. Only Mole moves on, but only as far as the river bank.
Grahame trusts the enclosed, the pastoral, the ordered. Even as he hovers on the edge of possible modernity in his construction of narrative, he rejects the world of the future. Toad’s redemption involves his giving up his motor car, the Wild Wood is “successfully tamed” (319), and Toad Hall recaptured from the weasels, stoats, and ferrets. All is as it should be. Or is it? Jan Needle’s The Wild Wood (1981) retells the story from the point of view of the Wild Wooders. In his blog, Needle explains some of the genesis of his book:
Much as I had always loved Toad, it occurred to me one Sunday afternoon that if you looked at him through jaundiced left-wing eyes (God forbid!) he might turn out somewhat less lovable. I did, and he did too. A fat and jolly plutocrat, more money than sense, with friends who lived lives of idleness and eternal pleasure. From there, it was a small step to redreaming the villains of the Wild Wood as sturdy, starving heroes of the rural proletariat. (My God, we really need an exclamation mark there!) (http://www.janneedle.com/novels/wildwood.php)1
The Wind in the Willows is indeed a book of its time. Do we condemn it for so being? Is this a book that we enjoy as a guilty pleasure? It’s a strange book, very dependent upon the suspension of disbelief. How do a toad, mole, and rat handle a horse? Ride in a train or drive a car? Annie Gauger quotes Peter Greene’s biography of Grahame:
When asked specifically (apropos the escape on the railway train) whether Toad was lifesized or train sized, he answered that he was both and neither: the Toad was train-size,the train was Toad-size, and therefore there should be no illustrations. Green. Kenneth Grahame: A Biography. Qtd Gauger lxv.
Grahame’s apparent concern that there be no illustrations is interesting because for many readers the illustrations are part of the joy they experience from the book, but it certainly does raise that question of whether The Wind in the Willows is actually a book for children or a book for adults.
As the child heroine of another much loved children’s book comments, “what is the use of a book without pictures or conversations?” (Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.1865. Chapter 1). This situation might suggest that the book is intended for adults. However, just as the Alice books have their roots in a man telling stories to a child, The Wind in the Willows began as bedtime stories for Grahame’s son Alastair. You may be interested in this short passage extracted by Literary Hub from Peter Hunt’s book The Making of the Wind in the Willows https://lithub.com/the-wind-in-the-willows-isnt-really-a-childrens-book/.
What The Wind in the Willows shares with theAlice books besides its resonances with both adults and children is the issue of size. Especially in Wonderland, Alice has to deal with animals who are sometimes larger than she and sometimes smaller. To a certain extent, Alice has some control over her own size, because she eats or drinks something. In The Wind in the Willows, it is the audience who must cope with car driving toads. In the world of the book, the animals move from boats to grand houses to trains, and we are given no explanation of how; we must accept what is, rather as we must accept what happens in dreams. For Alice, her adventures are revealed to be a dream. This is not the case with Grahame’s book. Neither a dream vision nor a fairy tale as Tolkien would define it, The Wind in the Willows remains enigmatic, and even elegiac. I imagine that for some it is this nostalgia for the way society once was that is most irritating; for those who love the book and forgive its social faults, what speaks to them is the magic of a world where moles wear smoking jackets, rats write poetry, and toads bargain with gypsies and steal cars: the magic of possibility, nostalgia for the imagination of childhood.
1You may find Needle’s 8 March 2019 post on his blog very interesting.