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'The Wind in the Willows' Revisited: Part One

A long time ago, I was transported to Australia from Yorkshire as a result of my father’s decision to take a huge risk and join thousands of other English families in the Australian government’s scheme to grow its labour force with workers from Britain during the 1960s. Consequently, I ended up attending a primary school in the Australian outback. There were few pleasures to be had for a very English eight-year-old boy who missed the running streams, green woods and beautiful landscapes of his home. I gravitated towards the library to escape the harsh external world.

In the case of school, the library was a hot, dusty wooden hut with a few dozen well-thumbed old paperback books. Among the gems I discovered there were Roger Lancelyn Greene’s The Adventures of Robin Hood, Helen Clare’s Merlin’s Magic (now sadly out of print) and The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame, illustrated by Ernest Shepard. These books took root in my heart and live there still. I recently re-read Grahame’s classic children’s tale, wondering if it would still have any charm for me, now that I have settled back in the green, rain-swept town from which I was removed over 50 years ago. The book had been a piece of England for me back then — had I unduly sentimentalised its qualities?

I needn’t have worried: from its opening paragraph, this book whispers, like the wind in its title, of beauty, charm, peace, humour and warmth.

Retiring early from his career at the Bank of England, Kenneth Grahame spent the early 1900s on the River Thames expanding on and writing out the bedtime stories he used to tell his illness-stricken son. This is the collection of tales that became known as The Wind in the Willows.

It’s quite a hotchpotch — a kind of coming-of-age story mixed with tales about homesickness, fondness for nature, character traits, moral fables, nature mysticism, travel and more, told from several different viewpoints.

Setting is key: Grahame lived on the banks of the Thames and had been introduced to boating at an early age. His initial protagonist, Mole, is likewise brought into that riverside world by the welcoming and dependable Water Rat. Mild-mannered homebody Mole leaves his home to emerge into a wider world:

The Mole had been working very hard all the morning, spring-cleaning his little home. First with brooms, then with dusters; then on ladders and steps and chairs, with a brush and a pail of whitewash; till he had dust in his throat and eyes, and splashes of whitewash all over his black fur, and an aching back and weary arms. Spring was moving in the air above and in the earth below and around him, penetrating even his dark and lowly little house with its spirit of divine discontent and longing.

That ‘divine discontent and longing’ is an underlying theme in the book: we perceive it in Mole, both at the beginning and later when Mole feels the pull of his old home; we feel it evoked in the Water Rat by another Rat who has travelled the world; we see it played out trivially with disastrous consequences by the capricious Toad; and we perhaps sense it most deeply when Mole and Rat have a fleeting encounter with their god, Pan.

The early part of the book is somewhat autobiographical: Grahame described his time after retirement as mostly spent ‘messing about in boats’, which is what Rat tells Mole he most enjoys. It’s clear from the beginning, though, that another strand running through the book is gentle English humour: Mole, having been acquainted with idle pleasures by his new friend, observes that, 'After all, the best part of a holiday is perhaps not so much to be resting yourself, as to see all the other fellows busy working.’

But another theme or thread that forms part of the tapestry of the book is less easy to describe or explain: Grahame creates a world in which the animals are anthropomorphised while also remaining essentially ‘animalistic’; there’s a class hierarchy in the society of animals which could almost be allegorical; and at the same time, there are episodes in which these distinctly beast-like creatures mix with the world of human beings without any apparent contradiction or creative friction — Toad is tried by a human court, locked up in a human prison, and escapes by disguising himself as a human washerwoman, for example, with no one in the tale remarking even in the slightest on any fictive difficulty with any of it.

The Mole, as an example of class allegory, learns that the Rat does not trust certain creatures, but this is also blended with an 'animal' perspective:

‘Weasels—and stoats—and foxes—and so on. They're all right in a way—I'm very good friends with them—pass the time of day when we meet, and all that—but they break out sometimes, there's no denying it, and then—well, you can't really trust them, and that's the fact.’

The Mole knew well that it is quite against animal-etiquette to dwell on possible trouble ahead, or even to allude to it; so he dropped the subject.

The ‘Wide World’ is referred to vaguely as an outer zone in which the unspoken implication is that human beings reign. Rat remarks ‘that's something that doesn't matter, either to you or me. I've never been there, and I'm never going, nor you either, if you've got any sense at all.’ Initially, then, it looks as though we have entered a quiet world of human-like creatures who are animals but possessed of human characteristics, and the reader goes along with that illusion, supposing that the author will skilfully keep the animal and human worlds apart.

But that is not what we get: soon, Mole and Rat dock their boat near the regal Toad Hall to visit one of Rat's friends, Mr. Toad, who is rich, welcoming and effusive, but also conceited and easily distracted and obsessed by fads. When they meet him, Toad is engrossed with journeying around the countryside in a horse-drawn carriage, and his enthusiasm somehow carries the two friends along with him until they find themselves doing just that. Then, to everyone’s surprise — not least the reader’s — they encounter a motor car, driven by humans, and Toad switches his obsession to that:

‘Glorious, stirring sight! The poetry of motion! The real way to travel! The only way to travel! Here today—in next week tomorrow! Villages skipped, towns and cities jumped—always somebody else's horizon! O bliss! O poop-poop! O my! O my!''

This obsession soon leads him into stealing a motor car from its human owners and becoming entangled in the human justice system (which completely overlooks his toadishness) and ending up in a maximum security prison (or its Edwardian equivalent).

Plot-wise and humour-wise, this makes sense and adds both drama and comedy to the story — but as a piece of world-building, it throws up some serious issues. As a reader, The Wind in the Willows came for me several years before Tolkien’s The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings, or any of those other fantasy creations in which the ‘inner consistency of reality’ (Tolkien’s term) plays a key role in convincing the reader of the story’s validity by grounding it in a different kind of verity. After Tolkien’s work (which I also adored and love still), one could argue that I became a more ‘sophisticated’ reader of fantasy — my expectations of what 'should' and 'shouldn’t' be done to make a fantasy story ‘work’ were transformed. But in the naivety of this younger time, what was going on in my mind, or in the mind of millions of other readers of Grahame’s book? How was this interaction between animal and human worlds rationalised?

The brief explanation is that it simply wasn’t and isn’t. At the time, I didn’t question Toad’s stealing of the car or arrest or exaggerated prison sentence or incarceration in gaol. I didn’t stop to think about how he disguises himself as a washerwoman and escapes to flee across the countryside by train and later barge. I didn’t even ponder why he somehow manages to avoid retribution at the end, when he returns home apparently unpursued any further by the forces of (human) British justice, nor did I wonder how reparations were made for the damages he had done along the way. These matters just didn’t enter my head. Why not?

Well, I think something else takes place in Grahame’s story, which has something to do with his larger theme of divine discontent and longing: I think that Grahame manages to evoke a sense of childlike cohesion or a reality in which such questions cease to matter. It’s almost as though The Wind in the Willows takes place in a Prelapsarian state when the world wasn’t yet divided into bits which then had to make sense logically, if you see what I mean — through a child’s eyes, the important things are that Toad is obsessed, that his obsession is getting the better of his reason, that such an overwhelming loss of reason has dire consequences, and that his continuing pride and self-centredness are wrong, and have tragi-comic consequences. In other words, the whole narrative of Toad is a morality tale and a story of a fundamental change of character, and its trappings — the human world, the prison, the police, the barge woman, the gypsies and all the rest of it — are mere accoutrements to the central thrust of that morality play. When Toad finally comes to terms with his own flaws of character, right at the end of the tale, the story’s main point is made: pride is bad. And, having made its main point, the story then ends, without attempting to 'tie up loose ends' because the loose ends are not what matters.

I know as a child that the apparent contradictions didn’t matter half as much to me as they might have done had I read it later in life. But the odd thing is that, having read it now as an old man, I hardly find them as significant as I expected them to be. They are not where the story places its emphasis, and consequently, they cannot so much be ignored and simply ‘blended in’ to the magic of the tale as a whole.

And there is quite a lot more magic in this tale, as we shall see in part two.


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