The Plot (Magill's Guide to Science Fiction and Fantasy Literature)
The Wind in the Willows relates the adventures of four characters in a series of chapters, each of which forms a complete story focusing on one or more of the four. Together, the chapters, whose plot lines sometimes intermix, follow the adventures of Toad.
Mole, a main character, abandons spring cleaning to stroll along the riverbank, where he meets the friendly Water Rat, who shows him the joys of “messing about in boats.” After some time, the two friends become involved with the third character, Toad, the rich owner of the palatial Toad Hall.
The eccentric Toad persuades Mole and Rat to accompany him on a journey in his well-appointed gypsy caravan. This, however, is overturned when the horse pulling it bolts at the sight and sound of a motorcar. Mole and Rat are happy to return home safely; Toad, though, has acquired a fixation with motorcars.
Across the river is the Wild Wood, inhabited by creatures that are vicious, except for the gruff, reclusive Badger, who lives underground in this area. Mole, exploring the Wood, gets lost, but he and his rescuer, Rat, find shelter with Badger.
Toad’s adventures begin to appear in alternating chapters, forming a complete story of their own. Enamored of expensive motorcars, he wrecks one after another until his friends lock him in his bedroom to cure him of his mania. Through trickery, he escapes; he then steals a car and drives it off.
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Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
River. Fictional river in England that flows to the sea past meadows, woods, and towns and which serves as the focus of the novel. The river, never named in the story, is modeled after the rivers of southern England well known to Kenneth Grahame throughout his life. It gurgles along its course between banks covered with rushes, flowers, reeds, and trees—silver birch, alder, and willow trees. As the novel progresses, it is the setting for Rat’s patient tutelage of Mole, Mole’s growing skill as a boatman, Otter’s despair over the disappearance of his son, Toad’s near-drowning following his escape from prison, and Rat and Mole’s mystical encounter with Pan.
Riverbank. Rat’s home, a multichambered hole in the muddy riverbank just above the water line. It is a marvel of cozy domesticity with its parlor where armchairs are pulled close to the fireside, its kitchen which supplies the food for the table and picnic baskets, and its bedrooms offering rest in their soft sheets and blankets.
Toad Hall. Toad’s home, a large English country house with lawns sloping down to the river. In keeping with his bombastic character, Toad’s home is a grandiose establishment. In addition to an imposing brick manor house it includes a banqueting hall, a coach house and stable-yard, and a boathouse. Toad, careless in so many ways, is equally careless in appreciating all...
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Grahame was born during the Victorian Era, when the British Empire was at its peak. Its financial institutions were strong and stable. Their manufacturing industries were ever-growing. However, right about the time the first major tragedies were occurring in Grahame’s life—the death of his mother at age five and his father’s desertion of his family when Grahame was eight—Britain found that its stable roots were being shaken. The Crimean war with Russia from 1854 to 1856 had already cast doubt on England’s military strength. Threats of war with Germany, France, Russia, and even the United States compromised overall confidence in the Empire.
British society was also stressed by unrest and fluctuation. In 1870, educational reform brought literacy to the working classes, allowing them to expand their awareness within the political, intellectual, and literary arenas, shifting focus and power away from the old land-owning families. The Trade Union Amendment Act of 1876 gave legal sanction to trade unions, leading to dissatisfaction among industries and major strikes in the 1880s and 1890s. In the beginning of the twentieth century, laborers found a major political voice with the formation of the Labour Party, which is still one of the two main political parties in England to this day. Education reform continued with the founding of the Worker’s Education Association in 1903. The roots of the Irish independence movement were also established around...
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The Wind in the Willows is set in the English countryside along the banks of the River in a locale similar to that of Cookham Dene. Mole leaves his underground home and moves in with Water Rat whose snug burrow fronts the River. Nearby, at Toad Hall, lives the wealthy and eccentric Toad whose elegant country estate has been handed down to successive generations of Toads. Within walking distance is the mysterious Wild Wood, once the site of a large city but now overgrown with a dense stand of trees and inhabited by hostile creatures such as weasels and stoats. The Wild Wood is also the place where the levelheaded Mr. Badger makes his home. The setting is clearly pastoral, and the only reminders of the industrial age that intrude are the motor car and the railroad, both of which land Toad in trouble.
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Golden Age of Children’s Literature
The Golden Age of children’s literature has been defined as lasting from the publication of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in 1865 until World War I. Before that time, literature written for children was primarily considered a didactic tool, leaving little room for the imagination. During the Golden Age, the imaginative aspect of children’s literature blossomed. The works within the genre were more readily enjoyed by children.
Scholars consider The Wind in the Willows to be a contributor to the Golden Age, published near the period’s end. Though it may be valued for the examples the animals provide to children with their loyal friendships and displays of hospitality and compassion, its primary purpose is to entertain, in true Golden Age form.
The tradition of using anthropomorphized animals in both oral and written storytelling is quite old and worldwide spread. Up until the Golden Age, its usual form was the animal fable: short tales in which anthropomorphized animals are used to parody or otherwise criticize human failings. These were often archetypal characters with one or two dominant attributes. One of the most common archetypes is the trickster, an example of which is the Big Bad Wolf from the story of Little Red Riding Hood. The...
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The Wind in the Willows is told in the style of many children's bedtime stories. The tales can function as separate stories or be read as a more lengthy account of the adventures of Rat, Mole, Badger, and Toad in the world alongside the River. Like A. A. Milne's tales of Winnie the Pooh and Christopher Robin, these are certainly more than tales about cute animals who lead a jolly life. Grahame is interested in what it means to be a friend, what "home" really is, and how people express their loyalty to friends and home. He explores these topics by placing his characters in predicaments and letting them find their own solutions, as when Mole does not heed Ratty's warning and gets lost in the Wild Wood or when Toad becomes the victim of his automobile obsession. Although his stories take the form of bedtime narratives, they do more than just entertain, they also explore human nature.
There are three chapters in The Wind in the Willows that are particularly interesting for their sophisticated literary form: "The Piper at the Gates of Dawn," "Wayfarers All," and "The Return of Ulysses." The first two chapters serve as pauses between the animals' adventures. In "The Piper at the Gates of Dawn" Grahame explores the beauty of the coming sunrise and poetically describes the woods and animals during this momentary pause between night and dawn. Grahame draws on the myth of Pan in the form of the mysterious goat-footed piper who lulls Rat and Mole with...
(The entire section is 490 words.)
There is very little in The Wind in the Willows that could cause even the youngest reader difficulties. What little violence there is is handled in a humorous way; in fact, no one suffers more than a few bruises, as in the banquet hall scene in the book's final chapter. The dangers that do threaten the characters, such as Mole's near drowning, are handled so that the character comes to no real harm, but learns a valuable lesson about prudent behavior. The characters are honest, simple folks who eventually learn from their mistakes, even Toad. And they certainly provide examples of what it means to be a loyal friend and a trusting companion. Grahame is not a didactic writer; in fact, he prefers to let his characters learn from experience, clearly believing that it is impossible to tell someone how to behave correctly if that person refuses to see the correctness of the advice, as in the case of Toad who only learns to be less boastful and self-centered after experiencing a series of humiliating adventures. All the telling on the part of Rat, Badger, and Mole were to no effect. Toad had to learn his lesson himself, in his own time.
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Compare and Contrast
1908: The speed limit for automobiles is 20 miles per hour (mph) in England. Automobiles are found mostly in Western Europe and North America.
Today: The speed limit for automobiles in England is as high 70 mph, though it is not uncommon for the flow of traffic to move at 80 mph. Automobiles are found in virtually every country in the world.
1908: The population of the Great Britain is approximately 40,000,000.
Today: The population of Great Britain is approximately 60,000,000. While this is a 50 percent growth, roads and urban development have increased at a drastically higher rate, countered by a sharp decrease in cultivated and undeveloped land.
1908: Women in Great Britain do not have the right to vote and have little political power in general, especially with the death of Queen Victoria in 1901 and the ascension of King Edward VII to the throne.
Today: Women over the age of thirty have had the right to vote since 1918 with women over the age of twenty-one gaining the right in 1928. Women occupy many high level political positions, including seats in the parliament. Margaret Thatcher was elected prime minister in 1979. The monarchy is again occupied by a woman, Queen Elizabeth II.
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Topics for Discussion
1. In "The River Bank" what was it that enticed Mole into the open air? Why was he so enchanted by the outdoors?
2. What kind of person is Water Rat? What things are especially important to him?
3. How does Grahame make the reader visualize what the Wild Wood is like? Why would he pick these particular details to set the scene? What effect did he attempt to create by including them?
4. Toad does not seem to be someone who is content with his life. Why is he not content to stick with one hobby? What is it about the yellow gypsy cart, and then the automobile, that attracts him?
5. Why would Grahame use creatures like weasels and stoats to be the ones who take over Toad Hall?
6. Why did Toad's father tell Badger not to tell his son about the secret tunnel under Toad Hall? When did he say that it would be all right to tell Toad about the passage?
7. How does the seafaring rat differ from Ratty?
8. Why would the Piper in "The Piper at the Gates of Dawn" purposely make the animals forget that they had seen him?
9. What does Mole learn about the history of the Wild Wood from Mr. Badger?
10. Grahame discusses a particular seasonal event in the chapter "Wayfarers All." What is it and how does he feel about it?
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Ideas for Reports and Papers
1. Grahame seems to believe that the countryside is a better place to be than the city. How do the stories in The Wind in the Willows support this belief?
2. When all of the birds are preparing to migrate for the winter, what effect does their talk have on Ratty? Why is the seafaring rat's talk also appealing to him? What does he believe that his life lacks?
3. In the boating accident in the chapter "The River Bank" Mole learns an important lesson. What was it and how did he learn it?
4. In the chapter "The Wild Wood" Grahame makes a distinction between the summer and winter seasons. How do the activities of the animals differ?
5. In the chapter "Dulce Domum," which means "Sweet Home," why did Mole feel ashamed of his home? How did his home differ from that of Rat's?
6. In Toad's adventure with the gypsy cart we learn a lot about what kind of character he is. Based on his behavior in that chapter ("The Open Road"), how would you describe him? What specific actions led you to draw those conclusions? Why?
7. Many people say that the animals in The Wind in the Willows are just like people. What specific characteristics (behavior, personality, and so on) would lead them to form that opinion? Do you agree? Why or why not?
8. Mr. Toad never seems to learn his lesson. It is not until the chapter "The Return of Ulysses" that his behavior changes for the better. What alterations...
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Topics for Further Study
Grahame focuses on the mammals, and one amphibian, that live in and around a river. What else can be found in a riverbank ecosystem? Write a 500-word essay considering Grahame’s depiction of a riverbank as it compares with actual river ecology.
Read Animal Farm, by George Orwell. How does his use of anthropomorphized animals differ from that of Grahame’s? How are they similar? What sort of literary devices does each take advantage of through the use of animals?
Read or attend a performance of A. A. Milne’s Toad of Toad Hall. Milne did not cover the events of all the chapters in The Wind in the Willows. Identify a chapter that was omitted by Milne. Write a stage version of that chapter and direct a performance of it.
What literary work is Grahame referring to when he titles the final chapter of The Wind in the Willows The Return of Ulysses? What parallels can be made between Toad and the protagonist of this literary work?
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Although Kenneth Grahame wrote only one novel, The Wind in the Willows, he published three collections of his essays: Pagan Papers, The Golden Age, and Dream Days, all of which contain material on childhood. Grahame believed that the ages between four and seven were the most important years in the formation of any person's nature. During those years, Grahame felt, children develop their power of imagination. This idea was not popular at the time, and most people believed that an overactive imagination led only to wasteful daydreaming and that fairy tales and myths did more harm than good. Grahame, on the other hand, thought that adults whose imaginations had been properly nurtured during childhood would be able to turn to their imaginary childhood world for spiritual rejuvenation.
Like many of his contemporaries—Robert Louis Stevenson, Walter de la Mare, Sir James Barrie, Mark Twain, Joel Chandler Harris, Rudyard Kipling, and Beatrix Potter—Grahame believed that adventure, fantasy, and entertainment were worthy goals for children's literature. In fact, in his essays Grahame warned parents and teachers that their refusal to expose children to this type of literature would seriously hinder the child's healthy development. In fact, he repeatedly insisted that nature, dreams, fantasy, and the memory of these things added significantly to a child's intellectual growth.
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In 1930, A. A. Milne wrote a successful musical stage version called Toad of Toad Hall, which focuses on the adventures of Toad. A. A. Milne is most well-known for his Winnie-the- Pooh books.
Numerous animated film adaptations have been made of The Wind in the Willows. One of the earliest and most interesting is the 1949 Disney version entitled Ichabod and Mr. Toad, which also included stories from Washington Irving’s Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon. A recent popular version was produced by HBO Studios in 1996.
Several audio versions of The Wind in the Willows have been recorded, including one produced by Naxos on Audio CD in 2002.
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What Do I Read Next?
Grahame’s The Golden Age (1895) is a collection of stories about five imaginative children retreating from their repressive families and into their own fantasies. This work made Grahame famous.
Dream Days (1898) is another collection of stories by Grahame. It is the sequel to The Golden Age, involving the same five children. It furthered Grahame’s success as a writer.
Charlotte’s Web (1952) by E. B. White, like The Wind in the Willows, is a novel featuring animal protagonists. In it a pig is saved from being slaughtered through the efforts of a spider who writes words in her web.
Redwall (1986) by Brian Jacques is an animal novel that tells a magical and adventuresome story in which a civilization of rats plays out the age-old conflict of good versus evil. This is the beginning of an entire series of books.
Several abridged versions of The Wind in the Willows have appeared over the years. Joan Collins adapted it into a fifty-two-page “retold for easy reading” version, which was published in Britain in 1983 by Ladybird Books. Bob Blaisdell adapted it into a slightly longer version, which was published in 1995 by Dover publications.
Several sequels were written by William Horwood, which are entitled The Willows in the Winter (1993), Toad Triumphant (1995), and The Willows and Beyond...
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For Further Reference
Chalmers, Patrick. Kenneth Grahame: Life, Letters, and Unpublished Work. London: Methuen, 1933. Early account of Grahame's life and work, both as an education reformer and as a writer of essays and The Wind in the Willows.
Grahame, Eleanor. Kenneth Grahame. New York: Walck, 1963. Grahame's widow recounts his life and work.
Green, Peter. Kenneth Grahame, A Biography. London: Murray, 1959. Discusses Grahame's life, career, his theories of education, his work as an essayist, and his children's books.
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Gaarden, Bonnie, “The Inner Family of The Wind in the Willows,” in Children’s Literature: Annual of The Modern Division of Children’s Literature and The Children’s Literature Association, Vol. 22, 1994, pp. 43–44, 46.
Grahame, Kenneth, The Wind in the Willows, Grosset & Dunlap, 1966, p. 11-221.
Green, Peter, Kenneth Grahame: A Biography, World Publishing, 1959, p. 1.
Hunt, Peter, “The Wind in the Willows”: A Fragmented Arcadia, Twayne Publishers, 1994, pp. 5, 6, 13.
Kuznets, Lois R., Kenneth Grahame, Twayne Publishers, 1987, pp. 2, 4, 15, 97, 124, 126.
—, “Kenneth Grahame and Father Nature, or Whither Blows The Wind in the Willows?” in Children’s Literature: Annual of The Modern Division of Children’s Literature and The Children’s Literature Association, Vol. 16, 1988, p. 175.
Marshall, Cynthia, “Bodies and Pleasures in The Wind in the Willows,” in Children’s Literature: Annual of The Modern Division of Children’s Literature and The Children’s Literature Association, Vol. 22, 1994, p. 60.
Bate, Roger, and Keith Hartley, Saving Our Streams: The Role of the Anglers’ Conservation Association in Protecting English & Welsh Rivers, Institute of Economic Affairs, 2001. Bate and...
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Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Carpenter, Humphrey. “The Wind in the Willows.” In Secret Gardens: A Study of the Golden Age of Children’s Literature. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1985. Carpenter, coauthor of The Oxford Companion to Children’s Literature, concludes that, of all the subjects in his study, only Grahame managed to create a utopian world. For Carpenter, it is the level at which The Wind in the Willows explores the artistic imagination that gives it coherence.
Chalmers, Patrick R. Kenneth Grahame: Life, Letters, and Unpublished Work. London: Methuen, 1933. This biography, appearing a year after Grahame’s death, sentimentalizes the genesis of The Wind in the Willows. Valuable in its extracts from Grahame’s letters to his son documenting the development of the story, and from correspondence between Grahame and his readers and publishers.
Green, Peter. Kenneth Grahame 1859-1932: A Study of His Life, Work, and Times. London: John Murray, 1959. Considered a groundbreaking study. Presents as in-depth analysis of the psychological undercurrents, social context, literary sources, and creative method that produced The Wind in the Willows.
Kuznets, Lois R. Kenneth Grahame. Boston: Twayne, 1987. Cogently discusses the work’s thematic and formal complexity, from its mock-epic structure...
(The entire section is 258 words.)