illustrated portraits of Toad, Mole, Rat, and Badger set against a woodland scene

The Wind in the Willows

by Kenneth Grahame

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In contrast to his earlier stories and tales featuring human children, Kenneth Grahame used animal characters to express his feelings and often dichotomous views of his society. Their mother’s early death, followed by desertion by an alcoholic father, resulted in the Grahame children being shunted from family member to family member. Therefore, the concept of a stable, permanent home as a refuge from the world is important to each character. Food and shared meals also have symbolic pertinence.

Denied by his uncle the Oxford University education he assumed would lead to a literary career, Grahame entered the world of banking. Although he rose to become secretary of the Bank of England, he retained resentment against the mercantilism of the time. Always the repressed bohemian, he counteracted the real world of encroaching blight and social upheaval by creating an Arcadian world in which loyalty and friendship are paramount, evil is readily recognized and ultimately overcome, and tranquillity through connectedness with nature reigns supreme.

Several chapters are particularly relevant to understanding how Grahame worked out his inner conflicts in the novel. Attracted to the “Southern mystique,” he made many journeys to locales less strictly structured than his own. In “Wayfarers All,” Rat entertains a passing Sea Rat and, enthralled by the wanderer’s tales, is ready to start a new life by migrating. Mole, however, restrains him and effects a “cure” by encouraging him to write poetry instead.

“The Piper at the Gates of Dawn” is more complicated. Rat and Mole set out on the river to find Otter’s missing child, little Portly. Following the haunting music of pipes, they discover Portly sleeping between the hooves of Pan. They are in awe and actually “worship the Friend and Helper,” making clear Grahame’s deep spiritual commitment to pantheism.

Grahame, a partner in an unhappy marriage, found solace in his son, Alastair. It was for the child that he ostensibly created this book, especially the adventures of Toad. He makes somewhat satirical reference in “The Return of Ulysses” to Homer’s The Odyssey, with the arming ceremony to retake Toad Hall and the battle with the inferior creatures. This reference illustrates how Grahame’s creation goes beyond being a simple bedtime story.

A unique work, the book initially was not well received by critics. It has, however, remained a favorite of young readers whose imaginative powers enable them to identify with the adventures of the paternal Badger, the practical Mole, the dreamy Rat, and the irrepressible Toad. Furthermore, later critics, such as Peter Green in Beyond the Wild Wood: The World of Kenneth Grahame (1982), have recognized it as an accurate mirror of the tensions existing in post-Victorian society as cataclysmic social changes were stirring the wind in the willows.

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The Wind in the Willows