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An image of the bookcover for The Wind in the Willows


The Wind in the Willows (1908)


Kenneth Grahame

Like Montgomery, Grahame was raised by his grandmother after the death of his mother. His father became an alcoholic and abandoned his four children. Also like Montgomery, Grahame developed fond memories of the rural countryside around his grandmother’s house.

During Grahame’s lifetime, he saw the huge demographic shift from the countryside to the cities. The river became an important symbol for him, a place of last refuge from the speed and mechanization which he saw taking over the countryside. (His grandmother’s house was near the river Thames.)

Grahame had an amazing memory of his own childhood. He was quoted as saying, “I feel I should never be surprised to meet myself as I was when a little chap of five, suddenly coming round  corner. . . .  The queer thing is, I can remember everything I felt then, the part of my brain I used from four till about seven can never have altered.”1

Grahame’s writing

Kenneth Grahame is remembered for only one novel today. During his lifetime, two books of short stories were considered minor classis. But today The Golden Age and Dream Days are dated works which would not appeal to modern readers.

The Golden Age of children’s literature

The Wind in the Willows was published in 1908, in the heart of what has been called the “Golden Age of children’s literature.” This period extended from the end of the 1860s to the end of the 1920s. This era has also been termed “the great age of children’s illustrators,” a time when lavishly illustrated books were produced.

Click here for examples of classic books and illustrators from this era.

Introduction to the story

Over 100 editions of The Wind in the Willow have been produced. The average annual sales of the novel are 80,000 copies a year, an amazing figure for a book published a century ago.2

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The novel traces the light-hearted adventures of Mole and his three friends: Rat, Toad, and Badger. The story is humorous and engaging; the characters, memorable and convincingly portrayed.

Animal characters

The book is an animal fantasy in which animals talk and behave like humans. Except for Badger, the characters are all very childlike. Their nicknames – Ratty, Moly, Toady – highlight their similarities to young children.

Why would Grahame use animals rather than children? Animal characters can be more memorable and distinctive than human characters. Although they share some qualities, the fact that animals and humans are “fundamentally different can be exploited in a variety of ways. The gap between humans and animals can be used to make moral points clearer by analogy, to say strong things with a degree of protection, and to provoke laughter and ridicule.”3 For example, Grahame satirizes the pretensions of humans and the impulsiveness of young children through the funny and memorable Toad.

Wise parental figure

Badger is the wise, dependable parental figure in the novel. As Grahame notes, when the characters “were in any fix, they mostly went to Badger.”4 The wise authority figure in children’s classic novels takes a number of different forms, from kindly neighbour (Susan Sowerby in The Secret Garden) to all-knowing wizard (Gandalf in The Hobbit, Professor Dumbledore in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, and Ogion in A Wizard of Earthsea).

The plot and organization of the novel

The novel is organized in a variety of ways that provide coherence and unity.

  1. Two separate plots are interlaced: Mole/Rat’s story and Toad’s story

The book revolves around two distinct sets of events: those belonging to Mole and Rat, and those belonging to Toad. The novel moves back and forth between the two stories. What is the advantage of using two plots? It adds interest and variety to the story. It also reinforces the central theme of the novel – home versus adventures on the road— by showing it in different guises.

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  1. The four animals and their homes form a continuum.

Mole, Rat, Toad, and Badger each inhabit a house that reflects the personality of its owner, and suggests different degrees of security and protection.

  • Badger’s house is set deep underground. Mole extols its virtues: “Once well underground, you know exactly where you are.  Nothing can happen to you, and nothing can get to you.”5 
  • Mole’s home, although also underground, does not have the same feeling of security as Badger’s hole. Mole leaves the protection of his house but is ambivalent about doing so. He gets homesick and returns home.
  • Rat’s home is just above the water’s edge. He is more willing to take risks than Mole.
  • Toad’s home is above ground, out in the open. Toad is the ultimate adventurer and traveller in the novel. The last chapter is called “The Return of Ulysses,” and Toad is an Odyssean character who returns home after adventuring.

The push and pull of home, which is so dominant in the lives of children, helps account for the continued popularity of the novel. Mole, Rat, and Toad all undergo the same conflict; each of them must decide between home and the road. By the end of the novel, all the animals are comfortable venturing into the Wild Wood, and have taken important steps on the road towards adulthood.

Notes

1. Quoted in Peter Green, Kenneth Grahame 1859-1931: A Study of His Life, Work and Times (London: John Murray, 1959), 17.

2. Green, Kenneth Grahame, 1.

3. David Whitney, John Foster, and Suzanne Rahn, “Animals in Fiction,” in The Cambridge Guide to Children’s Books, ed. Victor Watson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 32.

4. Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows (1908; Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Puffin Books, 1983), 71. 

5. Grahame, The Wind in the Willows, 73.