Kenneth Grahame Essay - Critical Essays

Grahame, Kenneth


Kenneth Grahame 1859-1932

Scottish novelist, short story writer, and essayist.

Grahame established an early reputation as a writer with his short stories about children and their imaginative worlds, but he is remembered by succeeding generations primarily for the novel The Wind in the Willows. This animal fantasy has proven highly popular with readers of all ages since its initial publication in 1908 and has received increasing critical attention for its satire, its social commentary, and its treatment of rural and Arcadian themes.

Biographical Information

Grahame was born in Edinburgh and spent the first five years of his life with his family in Scotland. Following the death of his mother in 1864, Grahame's father sent him and his siblings to live with their maternal grandmother in Cookham Dene, Berkshire, on the Thames, and it was here that Grahame first reveled in a new-found world of English meadow and riverbank. In 1866, however, Grahame was removed from this pastoral setting when his grandmother was forced to move far from the Thames. The same year an attempt to reunite the Grahame children with their father—now suffering from the advanced stages of alcoholism—proved futile. Grahame subsequently attended St. Edward's School, Oxford, from 1868 through 1876, and although he hoped to enter the University, his uncle, upon whom he was financially dependent, forced him into a clerkship with the Bank of England. Grahame remained with the bank while pursuing writing as an avocation; a collection of essays attracted some notice, but his short stories, later collected in The Golden Age and Dream Days, brought him much greater popularity. Grahame married Elspeth Thomson in 1899, and the couple had one child, Alastair. The bedtime stories Grahame invented for his son eventually grew into his masterpiece, The Wind in the Willows, a novel which recreated the idyllic world the author himself had glimpsed as a child. Following the publication of The Wind in the Willows, Grahame traveled widely but wrote very little. He died in Pangbourne, England, in 1932.

Major Works

Grahame's first articles were published anonymously as early as 1888, but subsequent works appeared under his own name in such periodicals as the conservative National Observer and the decadent Yellow Book. The collection Pagan Papers drew mixed reviews, but when Grahame extracted the book's introduction and its five short stories and added a dozen more, publishing them under the title The Golden Age, he secured his reputation. This volume and its sequel, Dream Days, displayed an unsentimental view of childhood and a wry, unflattering view of adulthood; while the children in the stories thrive by indulging their imaginations, the adults—known as Olympians—are preoccupied by mundane matters. Although The Wind in the Willows first dismayed readers and critics who expected more stories about children, the episodic novel about a band of animals—Mole, Toad, Badger, and Rat—who live along a riverbank near the Wild Wood has eclipsed Grahame's other works in popularity.

Critical Reception

While Grahame's short story collections have receded into obscurity over the years, The Wind in the Willows continues to enjoy a huge following. Young readers are enticed by its sharply drawn animal characters, gentle satire, and whimsical plot. Adults, on the other hand, find a more complex work which parodies traditional literary forms, celebrates the natural world while making full use of its symbolic potential, mourns the passing of English rural life, and acknowledges a yearning for an archetypal Golden Age.

Principal Works

Pagan Papers (essays) 1893

The Golden Age (short stories) 1895

Dream Days (short stories) 1898

The Headswoman (short story) 1898

The Wind in the Willows (novel) 1908

The Cambridge Book of Poetry for Children [editor] (poetry) 1916; revised edition, 1932

Fun o' the Fair (essay) 1929

The Reluctant Dragon (fairy tale) 1938

First Whisper of 'The Wind in the Willows' (short story and letters) 1944

Bertie's Escapade (short story) 1949


A. A. Milne (essay date 1920)

SOURCE: "A Household Book," in Not That It Matters, E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc., 1920, pp. 84-8.

[In the following essay, Milne expresses his enthusiasm for Grahame's The Wind in the Willows.]

Once on a time I discovered Samuel Butler; not the other two, but the one who wrote The Way of All Flesh, the second-best novel in the English language. I say the second-best, so that, if you remind me of Tom Jones or The Mayor of Casterbridge or any other that you fancy, I can say that, of course, that one is the best. Well, I discovered him, just as Voltaire discovered Habakkuk, or your little boy discovered Shakespeare the other day, and I committed my discovery to the world in two glowing articles. Not unnaturally the world remained unmoved. It knew all about Samuel Butler.

Last week I discovered a Frenchman, Claude Tillier, who wrote in the early part of last century a book called Mon Oncle Benjamin, which may be freely translated My Uncle Benjamin. (I read it in the translation.) Eager as I am to be lyrical about it, I shall refrain. I think that I am probably safer with Tillier than with Butler, but I dare not risk it. The thought of your scorn at my previous ignorance of the world-famous Tillier, your amused contempt because I have only just succeeded in borrowing the classic upon which you were brought up, this is too much for me. Let us say no more about it. Claude Tillier—who has not heard of Claude Tillier? Mon Oncle Benjamin—who has not read it, in French or (as I did) in American? Let us pass on to another book.

For I am going to speak of another discovery; of a book which should be a classic, but is not; of a book of which nobody has heard unless through me. It was published some twelve years ago, the last-published book of a well-known writer. When I tell you his name you will say, "Oh yes! I love his books!" and you will mention So-and-So, and its equally famous sequel Such-and-Such. But when I ask you if you have read my book, you will profess surprise, and say that you have never heard of it. "Is it as good as So-and-So and Such-and-Such?" you will ask, hardly believing that this could be possible. "Much better," I shall reply—and there, if these things were arranged properly, would be another ten per cent. in my pocket. But, believe me, I shall be quite content with your gratitude.

Well, the writer of my book is Kenneth Grahame. You have heard of him? Good, I thought so. The books you have read are The Golden Age and Dream Days....

(The entire section is 1086 words.)

Geraldine D. Poss (essay date 1975)

SOURCE: "An Epic in Arcadia: The Pastoral World of The Wind in the Willows," in Children's Literature: Annual of the Modern Language Association Seminar on Children's Literature and The Children's Literature Association, Vol. 4, 1975, pp. 80-90.

[In the following essay, Poss examines pastoral themes in The Wind in the Willows.]

Throughout Kenneth Grahame's two collections of short stories, The Golden Age and Dream Days, his narrator writes fondly of the romantic characters that he, his brothers, and his sisters read about during their childhood. The children liked to choose roles and act out the Arthurian romances, and on the particular day...

(The entire section is 4644 words.)

Laura Krugman Ray (essay date 1977)

SOURCE: "Kenneth Grahame and the Literature of Childhood," in English Literature in Transition: 1880-1920, Vol. 20, No. 1, 1977, pp. 3-12.

[In the following essay, Ray compares Grahame's The den Age to works about childhood by William Wordsworth and Charles Dickens.]

Although Kenneth Grahame's current reputation rests entirely on his classic children's book, The Wind in the Willows, it was the appearance of The Golden Age, a sequence of stories about childhood, some thirteen years earlier in 1985 that made Grahame an immediate literary celebrity. Swinburne called this work "well-nigh too praiseworthy for praise," a judgment ratified by the British...

(The entire section is 4422 words.)

Roger Sale (essay date 1978)

SOURCE: "Kenneth Grahame," in Fairy Tales and After: From Snow White to E. B. White, Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1978, pp. 165-93.

[In the following essay, Sale surveys The Wind in the Willows and considers its place within the "cult of childhood."]

When I took a studio at No. 4 St. George's Square, Primrose Hill, the outgoing tenant said "Let me introduce you to Dr. Furnivall. He will ask you if you can scull. If you say 'No,' he will take you up the river to teach you. If you say 'Yes,' he will take you up the river to keep you in practice. He will take you anyhow." …

I could not help smiling as,...

(The entire section is 11488 words.)

Michael Steig (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: "At the Back of The Wind in the Willows: An Experiment in Biographical and Autobiographical Interpretation," in Victorian Studies, Vol. 24, No. 3, Spring, 1981, pp. 303-23.

[In the following essay, Steig examines what he perceives as a veiled eroticism in The Wind in the Willows, using his own childhood reading of the book as a springboard for his discussion.]

One does not argue about The Wind in the Willows. The young man gives it to the girl with whom he is in love, and if she does not like it, asks her to return his letters. The older man tries it on his nephew, and alters his will accordingly. The book is a test of...

(The entire section is 8160 words.)

John Anderson (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: "Kenneth Grahame (1920)" in Art & Reality, Janet Anderson, Graham Cullum, Kimon Lycos, eds., Hale & Iremonger, 1982, pp. 157-61.

[In the following essay, Anderson discusses the characteristics of Grahame's prose style.]

Kenneth Grahame's writing belongs to what might be called the literature of the countryside. Not only does it deal with the significance of common things, of growth, of open-air delights; it draws attention to the way in which the countryside is significant in history. These qualities are to be found also in Chesterton and Belloc, the latter of whom has enshrined them in the poem at the end of The Four Men:


(The entire section is 2126 words.)

Carlee Lippman (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: "All the Comforts of Home," in The Antioch Review, Vol. 41, No. 4, Fall, 1983, pp. 409-20.

[In the following essay, Lippman considers the notion of "comfort" as it applies to The Wind in the Willows.]

There are times in life when innocence seems very far away, like something once dreamed and long forgotten. Almost forgotten. That residue in us that reminds us of another time, another state, never really vanishes, but lives to prick and disturb. The disturbance takes the form of a yearning for the simpler, the gentler, the aimless day, the cricket-loud back porch, the meadow more green and more yellow than nature herself planned. Idealized memories long since...

(The entire section is 5020 words.)

Neil Philip (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: "Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows: A Companionable Vitality," in Touchstones: Reflections on the Best in Children's Literature, Vol. 1, Children's Literature Association, 1985, pp. 96-105.

[In the following essay, Philip provides reasons why The Wind in the Willows remains a favorite book of both children and adults.]

"Vitality—that is the test," wrote Kenneth Grahame, in his introduction to Aesop: A Hundred Fables (1899). It is a test The Wind in the Willows passes, for Grahame's best-known book possesses in abundance that quality by which Ezra Pound defined the true classic: "a certain eternal and irrepressible...

(The entire section is 4227 words.)

Humphrey Carpenter (excerpt date 1985)

[In the following excerpt, Carpenter addresses Grahame's interest in a pastoral paradise and his vision of it in The Wind in the Willows.]

SOURCE: "Kenneth Grahame and the Search for Arcadia" and "The Wind in the Willows," in Secret Gardens: A Study of the Golden Age of Children's Literature, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1985, pp. 115-25, 151-69.

Anyone studying Grahame's life and work will quickly find himself indebted to Peter Green's immensely skilful biography of him (1959), arguably the best book ever written about an English children's author. Nevertheless, Green may be wrong in one of his major conclusions. Chiefly on the evidence of Grahame's two books...

(The entire section is 13637 words.)

Lesley Willis (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: "'A Sadder and a Wiser Rat/He Rose the Morrow Morn': Echoes of the Romantics in Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows," in Children's Literature Association Quarterly, Vol. 13, No. 3, Fall, 1988, pp. 108-11.

[In the following essay, Willis traces the influence of English Romantic literature on The Wind in the Willows.]

The Seafarer, refreshed and strengthened, his voice more vibrant, his eye lit with a brightness that seemed caught from some far-away seabeacon, filled his glass with the red and glowing vintage of the South, and, leaning towards the Water Rat, compelled his gaze and held him, body and soul, while he talked. Those...

(The entire section is 3106 words.)

Mary DeForest (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: "The Wind in the Willows: A Tale for Two Readers," in Classical and Modern Literature, Vol. 10, Fall, 1989, pp. 81-7.

[In the following essay, DeForest explains the similarities between Toad in The Wind in the Willows and Homer's Ulysses.]

First published in 1908, Kenneth Grahame's masterpiece, The Wind in the Willows, has appealed to readers of all ages. The child who hears the story enters its cozy river world with its pleasant inhabitants, Mole, Ratty, and Badger. In counterpoint to the peaceful charm of this world are set the lunatic adventures of Toad, who has successfully shaken off the trammels of responsible behavior. The adult who...

(The entire section is 3016 words.)

John David Moore (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: "Pottering About in the Garden: Kenneth Grahame's Version of Pastoral in The Wind in the Willows," in The Journal of the Midwest Modern Language Association, Vol. 23, No. 1, Spring, 1990, pp. 45-60.

[In the following essay, Moore argues that the Arcadian world portrayed in The Wind in the Willows is actually an "uneasy Eden. ']

In his introduction to what has become accepted as Kenneth Grahame's classic of children's literature, A. A. Milne writes:

One does not argue about The Wind in the Willows. The young man gives it to the girl with whom he is in love, and if she does not like it, asks her to return...

(The entire section is 7780 words.)

Further Reading


Chalmers, Patrick R. Kenneth Grahame: Life, Letters and Unpublished Work London: Methuen & Co., 1933, 321 p.

The first biography of Grahame, relying unduly upon the saccharine and sometimes unreliable reminiscences of Grahame's widow, Elspeth.

Graham, Eleanor. Kenneth Grahame. London: Bodley Head, 1963, 72 p.

A brief biographical and critical study from a noted children's writer.

Green, Peter. Beyond the Wild Wood: The World of Kenneth Grahame, Author of The Wind in the Willows. New York: Facts on File, 1983, 224 p.

An abridgement, in larger format and with new...

(The entire section is 626 words.)