Monday, April 27, 2020

'The Wind in the Willows' by Kenneth Grahame

Meet little Mole, willful Ratty, Badger the perennial bachelor, and petulant Toad. Over one hundred years since their first appearance in 1908, they've become emblematic archetypes of eccentricity, folly, and friendship. And their misadventures-in gypsy caravans, stolen sports cars, and their Wild Wood-continue to capture readers' imaginations and warm their hearts long after they grow up. Begun as a series of letters from Kenneth Grahame to his son, The Wind in the Willows is a timeless tale of animal cunning and human camaraderie. 

Here is my choice for the Title which includes Nature category of the 2020 Back to the Classics challenge. Hibernation time is over and young Mole pops out of his burrow, fresh for adventure. He bumps into his friend Water Rat, aka Ratty, who invites him to be a permanent guest and enjoy life on the great wide river. They make successful friendship overtures to the wise but elusive Mr Badger, who hates society as a rule but has a soft spot for his little friends. And together the trio tries to curb the dangerous behaviour of Mr Toad, who has a serious addiction to fast vehicles, even though he's a terrible driver. Their attempts to stop him by sheer force are all to no avail, and he finds himself saddled with a hefty jail sentence, forcing him to shift his thirst for adventure into a crafty break-out.

Clearly many readers have a soft spot for reckless Toad, who shows us how to follow our passions wholeheartedly. We'd all like to live with a similar twinkle in our eye, knowing that we've milked life for all it's worth. He says, 'I'm not sorry. And it wasn't folly at all. It was simply glorious!' I've got to say, so is that line, Toad.  (More about Toad and his attitude here.)

But the dude has a fully developed case of FOMO syndrome. That's fear of missing out. For a short time he pours his heart and soul into the vehicle of the moment, then as soon as he sees anyone enjoying the next best thing, he abandons whatever he's doing to jump straight on board. And each time he declares that it's so amazing and great, he's going to devote the rest of his life to it. Toad is a prime example that FOMO is a self-defeating attitude. Because when we move on too quickly to master anything, or give it a fair chance, of course we cut short the pleasure of all it has to offer. If only he'd stuck to any one conveyance for longer, he might have developed more skill and not been such a menace to himself and others.

As a contrast we have Ratty, who was born with no curiosity or desire to explore the wider world at all, so satisfied is he in the knowledge that he's living his best possible life beside the lapping banks of his beloved river. He does succumb to a restless curiosity to discover what all the fuss is about when others get itchy feet, and lets the chatter of a couple of migratory birds get to him. But he soon comes to his senses, realising that what's right for others isn't necessarily a good fit for him. A basic theme of this book seems to be, 'To thine own self be true.'

There are plenty of beautiful, descriptive passages to contemplate, such as Mole's impression of the winter landscape. 'He was glad he liked the country undecorated, hard and stripped of its finery. He had got down to the bare bones of it, and they were fine, strong and simple.' And just to prove he's no respecter of seasons, we have this nice line about summer. 'A hot sun seemed to be pulling everything green and bushy and spiky up out of the earth towards him, as if by strings.'

It's not really what modern kids read, but that's not to say it shouldn't be. Perhaps early 20th century authors like Grahame gave children what they thought could benefit them, including slow, insightful reflections about nature. In the 21st century, in the true spirit of consumer culture, authors and publishers may kowtow to their audience, giving kids the upper hand and providing what they think they want; fast action and sparse description to suit their impatient, restless, ADHD little hearts. Or perhaps I'm just beginning to sound like the oldie I keep claiming not to be :)

There are sudden moments of strangeness that make us step back and say, 'Hey, come again?' I'm thinking of the chapter entitled, 'The Piper at the Gates of Dawn' in which Rat, Mole and Otter's baby son come face to face with the Greek god Pan. The writing is saturated in reverential awe, and it's difficult to figure out whether Kenneth Grahame was promoting pagan pantheism to his young readers. The thing is, this story's heroes are anthropomorphic little critters and Pan has been depicted as the protector of animals, so perhaps Grahame is inviting humans to substitute the deities of our choice. His theme here seems to be that we generally perceive no more of the supernatural world beyond our senses because we couldn't handle it if we did. Our minds would be completely blown. It's such an interesting chapter I'd like to return to.

I have to say at times I found my credulity stretched to snapping point. We're expected to believe that Toad can break out of jail and head straight home to Toad Hall without having the law straight on his webbed heels! But then I remember we're talking about a book full of inconsistencies, in which certain animals walk around in waistcoats and slippers, yet still eat others. So why not?

Toad meets a travelling gypsy along the road, and gobbles up loads of his succulent stew. 'It was indeed the most beautiful stew in the world, being made of partridges, and pheasants, and chickens, and hares, and rabbits, and pea-hens, and guinea fowls, and one or two other things.' What a tempting description for the meat lovers in our lives, but comes as a bit of a shock since Toad's friend Mole was talking to a couple of rabbits as fellow compatriots earlier in the book.

Overall, it's a great little book that gives us quite a cool taste of the early 1900s, including Toad's driving costume, with goggles, cap, garters, gloves and the whole works. Not my favourite kids' classic ever, but it's clear that Grahame wrote it with love in his heart. It's brimming over with home comforts, rustic beauty and simple joys that aren't too hard to find, and probably form the backbone of a life well lived.



  1. Great post. I wonder how many children do read this nowadays. My initial intuition is to agree that not too many do. However, sometimes such hunches are wrong and contemporary folks, young and do surprising things.

    Either way, I agree that this story is worth reading, even in our current times.

    1. Hi Brian,

      It sure does have a lot any 21st century reader can take on board. I'd like to talk to modern kids who have read it, to see what they make of it. They'd surely have some interesting feedback 😉

  2. Wind in the Willows is a joy to read. I tried to make my 4th grader read it, without reading it myself, and until I tried it for myself, I didn't know why he struggled. The vocabulary is challenging for a 21st Century 4th grader. But there is nothing wrong with a reading challenge.

    Anyway, I have since read this twice, and the chapter about Pan is my favorite chapter. At first I didn't feel comfortable about the ideas of a pagan god, but by my second read I had a different conception. Your explanation is interesting. Yes, I'd like to revisit that chapter again, too.

    1. Hi Ruth,

      I might return for my re-read of that chapter soon. Someone reminded me that The Piper at the Edge of Dawn' was a Pink Floyd album title. I never connected it with The Wind in the Willows 😮

      A challenging read for young people for sure, both in terms of vocabulary and movement of plot. Yet it remains well loved for year after year.

  3. Ah, Toad - that lovable rogue with a penchant for grand theft auto! This one really surprised me with its depth and complexity. I went in thinking "oh, kid's book, sure, knock it over in twenty minutes", but it really has a lot to it. I'd be curious to see what "kids today" (UGH, WE'RE NOT OLD!) think of it, too.

    1. Hi Sheree, yeah, there's such a lot in it! And what a lad he was, that Toad 😉 It's sure stood the test of time, but a lot of that's bound to be nostalgia from former readers, and it's easy to understand why.