'The Wind in the Willows' Revisited Part Two
In Part One, we looked at Kenneth Grahame’s unique blend of creativity which resulted in the odd mixture of animal and human worlds — and we found that it worked and continues to be effective, making The Wind in the Willows a peculiar but very potent work of fiction. In fact, there is so much in this book that it would probably be possible to write a book about it — but there are just two further points I wanted to cover in this review.
Astute and widely-read readers will be aware that throughout the history of fiction there appear sets of archetypes which are used by authors all over the world and in any genre as the bases for what we normally refer to as ‘characters’. These can be defined as seven in number, as outlined in my book, How Stories Really Work: they are namely (and in order of what they represent) the Wise Old Figure, the Fool or Comic Companion, the Warrior or Emerging King, the Protagonist, the Submerged Queen, the Shadow Protagonist and the Antagonist. I have elaborated elsewhere at great length about these archetypes and their roles in fiction from myth to modern thriller, from drama to poetry. All we need to consider here is that they exist — and that Grahame deals with them masterfully and in such a way that his book becomes an immortal work of literature rather than just a ‘story’.
The Wise Old Figure in The Wind in the Willows is quite obviously Mr. Badger. His reclusiveness, knowledge, power and wisdom are all true to type:
The Mole had long wanted to make the acquaintance of the Badger. He seemed, by all accounts, to be such an important personage and, though rarely visible, to make his unseen influence felt by everybody about the place.
Rat warns Mole that ‘Badger hates Society, and invitations, and dinner, and all that sort of thing,’ and that Mole would be better off waiting for Badger to visit them instead, but Mole doesn't listen and instead sets off alone for Badger’s home in the middle of the Wild Wood. This behaviour on Mole’s part also serves to illustrate other points about Grahame’s handling of archetypes: Mole does not behave as a ‘standard protagonist’ in the sense that he does not retain the reader’s point of view throughout the story (we are ‘switched’ to Mr. Toad — the Fool archetype — for a large section of the story and to Ratty — the Warrior archetype —on occasion) but nor does he always behave as either junior to those around him nor as obediently sensible — he grows and develops like a protagonist in the tale, though, mostly ‘off stage’: on setting out to seek Badger, he becomes quickly lost in the wood:
The whole wood seemed running now, running hard, hunting, chasing, closing in round something or—somebody? In panic, he began to run too, aimlessly, he knew not whither.
But we see him towards the end exhibiting some maturity and independence of action, and earning Badger’s praise in doing so.
However, to return to Badger himself: as an anti-social recluse, he behaves contrary to expectations when Mole and Rat find themselves on his snowbound doorstep and is accommodating, opening up his spacious, warm home to the pair. But he returns to type when he explains the history and sociology of the Wild Wood:
‘Animals arrived, liked the look of the place, took up their quarters, settled down, spread, and flourished. They didn't bother themselves about the past—they never do; they're too busy...The Wild Wood is pretty well populated by now; with all the usual lot, good, bad, and indifferent—I name no names. It takes all sorts to make a world.’
Badger, as the Wise Old Figure, is concerned for the well-being of nature, and about the effect mankind has on the natural environment. As that archetype, he also has possession of a wider view:
‘I see you don't understand, and I must explain it to you. Well, very long ago, on the spot where the Wild Wood waves now, before ever it had planted itself and grown up to what it now is, there was a city—a city of people, you know. Here, where we are standing, they lived, and walked, and talked, and slept, and carried on their business. Here they stabled their horses and feasted, from here they rode out to fight or drove out to trade. 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. There were badgers here, I've been told, long before that same city ever came to be. And now there are badgers here again. We are an enduring lot, and we may move out for a time, but we wait, and are patient, and back we come. And so it will ever be.’
It is Badger who leads the companions to victory over the antagonist weasels and stoats, guiding Mole, Rat and Toad to the secret tunnel of which only he knows (naturally) and outlining the strategy which drives the enemy from Toad Hall. It is he who takes charge of Toad and tries to bring about a change of character in that animal — but again, as with all of Grahame’s characters, Badger isn’t just a neatly ‘cut from pattern’ figure: he fails with, and is deceived by, Toad.
In this way — by having his characters perform slightly outside their expected stereotypes, Grahame adds depth and roundedness to them throughout the story.
Even Toad, most obviously a comic figure whom we are supposed to see through and laugh at, is at the end changed for the better, not through any persuasion or duress brought to bear externally, but more profoundly by an inner change of heart.
From the very first page, Grahame captivates his readers not only through this mastery of character or by the ingenuity of his mix of animal and human but through the poetry of his language. Indeed, about thirteen years ago, I attempted to read the book to a classroom of 13-year-olds. I wanted to introduce them to the delights of a children’s classic, and one of my favourite books — a book which, by the way, I had had no trouble reading without assistance many years earlier. But I was faced with an uproar: every sentence contained words and expressions which were totally unfamiliar to my audience. Simple words like ‘parlour’, ‘weirs’, ‘pike’, ‘a-field’, ‘escorted’, ‘considerate host’ and so forth met with blank faces. Part of it was a shift in life-experience — children were spending more time indoors, less time out in the countryside by then: many had never seen a weir, even though there was one just down the road from the school where I was teaching. But the vocabulary was overwhelming in many other ways: ‘lapping’, ‘emancipated’, ‘ripening’, ‘reed-stems’, ‘revelation’, ‘pitch in’ and many more expressions completely eluded these teenagers. My attempts to continue with the book faced open rebellion; lessons became spent largely buried in dictionaries, until each and every term was grasped. But by then I had come to realise that the general decline in vocabulary had robbed that generation of the joys of such works as Grahame’s. It was a great shame but incontrovertible.
Grahame’s poetic language is something that perhaps reaches its peak when Mole and Rat find themselves, in their quest for the baby otter called Little Portly, on a small island mid-stream:
Perhaps he would never have dared to raise his eyes, but that, though the piping was now hushed, the call and the summons seemed still dominant and imperious. He might not refuse, were Death himself waiting to strike him instantly, once he had looked with mortal eye on things rightly kept hidden. Trembling he obeyed, and raised his humble head; and then, in that utter clearness of the imminent dawn, while Nature, flushed with fullness of incredible colour, seemed to hold her breath for the event, he looked in the very eyes of the Friend and Helper; saw the backward sweep of the curved horns, gleaming in the growing daylight; saw the stern, hooked nose between the kindly eyes that were looking down on them humorously, while the bearded mouth broke into a half-smile at the corners; saw the rippling muscles on the arm that lay across the broad chest, the long supple hand still holding the pan-pipes only just fallen away from the parted lips; saw the splendid curves of the shaggy limbs disposed in majestic ease on the sward; saw, last of all, nestling between his very hooves, sleeping soundly in entire peace and contentment, the little, round, podgy, childish form of the baby otter. All this he saw, for one moment breathless and intense, vivid on the morning sky; and still, as he looked, he lived; and still, as he lived, he wondered.
This passage and the chapter ‘The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn’, perhaps more than any other, capture Grahame’s theme of divine discontent and longing.
The Wind in the Willows remains a children's story that lives in the hearts and minds of its readers well into adulthood, despite the vocabulary barrier that arises for many. Its true joy is the image of an English life: Edwardian, middle-class, with countryside blessed by mild seasons, in which time can be spent idling by the riverside, watching the world go by. It is comforting, familiar and yet very potent. Grahame’s characters are completely humanised, while retaining essential animal characteristics; his world is drawn together by a theme of divine discontent and longing grounded in satisfaction and homeliness. There is no doubt in my mind, having re-read it after decades, that it is and will always be a masterwork.