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When Mole decides he has had enough tiresome spring-cleaning for one day, the scrappy nonesuch throws down his broom and bolts out of his house looking for fun and adventure. He quickly finds it in the form of the Water Rat, who takes the wide-eyed Mole boating and introduces him to the mysteries of life on the river and in the Wild Wood. Mole also meets Ratty’s good friends: the kindly, solid Badger and the irrepressible Toad. Soon, the quartet’s escapadesincluding car crashes, a sojourn in jail, and a battle with the weasels who try to take over Toad Hallbecome the talk of the animal kingdom.
Filled with familiar human types disguised as animals, Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, like all exemplary children’s literature, has always appealed greatly to grown-ups as well. Though first published in 1908, when “motor-cars” were new and rare, The Wind in the Willows presents surprisingly contemporaryand uproariously funnyportraits of speed-crazed Mr. Toad, generous Badger, poetic Ratty, and newly-emancipated Mole. And lurking all the while within the humor and good spirits, Grahame’s deeply felt commentary on courage, generosity, and above all, friendship.
Gardner McFall is the author of two children’s books and a collection of poetry. She teaches children’s literature at Hunter College in New York City.
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From Gardner McFall’s Introduction to The Wind in the Willows
What began as a bedtime story for Grahame’s son soon became a story for the child in himself and a compensatory site of reclaimed joy. Grahame turned from his life’s disappointments—his mother’s death, his abandonment by his father, his uncle’s refusal to send him to Oxford, his passionless marriage—and created an alternate reality, an animal fantasy set in a pastoral landscape, reminiscent of the one he’d loved as a child and marked by the strong bonds of male companionship. In this world, the animal characters who behave like people are sensitive to nature and each other; though danger lurks both in the Wild Wood and the Wide World, it is mastered or avoided altogether; and, significantly, death never intrudes.
For all the personal reasons Grahame had for creating The Wind in the Willows, the historical moment also exerted its force on him. A “mid-Victorian” (Green, p. 2), Grahame increasingly felt, as did many writers and artists of the day, the impact of the industrial revolution, with its loss of an agrarian economy and the ascendancy of a middle class dedicated to accumulating wealth. He felt that materialism and the accelerated pace of life had robbed man of a soul, had domesticated life’s miracles, and forced man to neglect the animal side of his nature, all themes he had previously explored in his essays. Ambivalent about social change, a reflection of which is perhaps found in Grahame’s pitting the Wild-wooders against the River-bankers, Grahame took refuge in his writing. Like other authors of the “golden age of children’s literature,” roughly the years from 1860 to 1914, he outwardly conformed to society’s standards. Though these were standards he criticized openly in Pagan Papers and indirectly in The Golden Age and Dream Days, in The Wind in the Willows he subsumed his critique in a fantasy whose rejection of everyday reality in favor of an alternate one can be read as a fundamental rebellion against the norms.
Like Edward Lear, Lewis Carroll, and J. M. Barrie, Grahame found solace in the world of fantasy he created out of recollected childhood memories, many of which were bound up with nature. Indeed he preferred the world of nature to that of people. Like Walt Whitman, who praised the virtues of animals in Leaves of Grass, a work Grahame knew and admired, he favored animals for what they could teach people about how to live in the world.
In The Wind in the Willows, the animal characters appear inherently superior to the human ones. They have more discriminating senses, as Mole shows in his keen ability to recognize his home through his sense of smell. Badger’s home, built upon the remnants of a human dwelling, implies the triumph of the animal kingdom over human civilization; it attests to the futility of man’s endeavors. As he tells Mole, “They were a powerful people, and rich, and great builders. They built to last, for they thought their city would last for ever. . . . People come—they stay for a while, they flourish, they build—and they go. It is their way. But we remain.” Grahame’s view of human folly, expressed through Badger’s conversation with Mole, is reminiscent of the Romantic poet Shelley’s in his famous sonnet “Ozymandias,” which Grahame would have known,
Explaining his preference for animals, Grahame once said, “As for animals, I wrote about the most familiar and domestic in The Wind in the Willows because I felt a duty to them as a friend. Every animal, by instinct, lives according to its nature. Thereby he lives wisely, and betters the tradition of mankind. No animal is ever temped to belie its nature. No animal . . . knows how to tell a lie” (First Whispers of “The Wind in the Willows,” p. 28).
We sense Grahame’s deep appreciation for his animal characters on every page of The Wind in the Willows. While Grahame borrowed certain characteristics from people he knew in creating them (Grahame himself has been identified with Mole and Alastair with Toad), much of Grahame’s sympathy for these animals comes from having observed them in the wild, as both a child and an adult. On one occasion, he rescued a mole and brought it inside in a box to show Alastair, only to have it escape during the night and die under the maid’s broom the following morning. In 1898, in his introduction to A Hundred Fables of Aesop (from the English version of Sir Roger L’Estrange with pictures by Percy J. Billinghurst), he objected to the use of animal characters for man’s moral, didactic purposes. Perhaps for this reason, though Grahame’s characters behave in anthropomorphic ways—boating on the river, enjoying picnics, driving motor cars—they also retain their animal features. Mole, Toad, and Rat, for instance, have paws, not hands; and the barge-woman reacts to Toad as a woman might to an unwelcome “horrid, nasty, crawly” amphibian, tossing him by a fore-leg and a hind-leg into the water.