Kenneth Grahame wrote his fantasy-allegories, including The Wind in the Willows, while employed as Secretary of the Bank of England. His animal characters belong to the same world in which human beings live; the same foibles and excesses and the same motives and loyalties possess them. Nevertheless, it is an optimist’s world as well, where hope exists and where the visionary experience reveals “The Friend and the Helper.”
Whether or not The Wind in the Willows is a children’s book is a moot question. Mole’s discoveries parallel a child’s explorations in the world. The story, however, has wider appeal, for Mole learns, as all human beings must, to live in the larger world outside his home. When he returns to the familiar scents and the simple welcome of his home, Mole realizes that, although it is an important part of his life, home is no longer his entire life. He returns to the world of sunlight and further discoveries. Together with his friends—Rat, Badger, and Toad—he learns to live in the world they call the “Wild Wood.”
The theme of escape, therefore, is quite important in the novel. Mole desires to escape from the boredom of maintaining his home and his everyday existence; Badger’s escape is from society. Although he does not succumb, Rat is strongly intrigued by the stories of the Wide World told by Sea Rat, and Toad desires to elude every trace of responsibility to the rest of the world. Children’s story or not, Grahame’s book contains a certain amount of didacticism. Animals in the story, especially Rat, live according to a codified standard of existence. In this standard, the reader finds an implied but not explicit correspondence between the codes of conduct in the story and those normally taught to children. The reader is encouraged to reach for one’s potential but not to exceed it—a difficult concept to explain to adults, let alone children. Nevertheless, maturity emerges here as the ability to recognize oneself realistically.
Grahame combines gentle satire with a keen understanding of the psychological realities that lie behind his characters’ actions. Rat is the cautious judgmental teacher; Badger is the philosopher who hates society but likes people; and Toad is the incorrigible playboy, conceited, careless, and always in trouble. Along with Mole, the four represent an example of true friendship. By banding together, they retake Toad Hall from the weasels and restore the place to order with clean bed linens and fresh bars of soap.
The meaning of the song of the wind in the willows is revealed only to Rat and Mole. Badger survives through his philosophical stance, Toad with his indomitable will to have fun. Rat and Mole, however, need a vision. Like modern-day Everymen, Rat and Mole are allowed to see the pantheistic “Friend and the Helper,” the horned, hook-nosed creature who plays panpipes at dawn and smiles benevolently through his beard. The vision is a moment when Rat and Mole fear neither death nor life, and, as they drop into the sleep of forgetfulness, their faces keep a blissful smile of peace.