'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 anima