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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Animals That Behave Like Humans?

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Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows is one of the first English examples of a novel using animals as protagonists. Using animals that talk and behave like humans in storytelling is by no means unique to Grahame; the tradition of using anthropomorphized animals dates back thousands of years, appearing in the mythology and tales of many ancient cultures. In Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, published more that forty years earlier, Carroll had a talking rabbit and a talking cat, among others. However, Grahame’s novel is distinct from Carroll’s in that the animals are the protagonists, with well-developed, complex personalities. They are the ones who move the plot along.

The lack of predecessors to rely on or imitate begs the question of why he chose to write such a book. What tools or advantages does he gain when it comes to the reader’s perception of the text? Kuznets, in her article, “Kenneth Grahame and Father Nature,” quotes Grahame as once saying that he wanted to write a novel “free of problems, clear of the clash of sex.” Many scholars argue that Grahame did not succeed in this regard, saying that there are still underlying class conflicts, age conflicts, as well as sex conflicts, despite the fact that there are very few characters specified as female and no major female characters. Bonnie Gaarden describes her initial reaction to this scholarship in “The Inner Family of The Wind in the Willows”:

The small but emphatic voice of my childhood reading insisted that these characters were like nothing so pedestrian as adult human males; they were the Rat, the Mole, the Toad, and the Badger—ageless, timeless, genderless.

Indeed, it is difficult for most readers to deny a certain light-hearted feel to The Wind in the Willows, even when Mole is lost in the woods, Toad is sentenced to jail, or the four main characters fight to liberate Toad Hall. The prose is free of many of the burdensome issues that come with having human protagonists. Kuznets, in her biography, Kenneth Grahame, writes, “Grahame derives from the [anthropomorphic] tradition a . . . sense of the possibilities of eluding both internal and external censors in using animals rather than humans.” The use of animal protagonists suppresses a reader’s tendency to question the credulity or quality of the work when certain inconsistencies and improbabilities occur, such as those relating to sex, age, and size. Grahame, however, does more than just fool our censors; he uses the advantages that these characters have as animals as well.

It would be scholastically irresponsible to say that the dearth of female characters in The Wind in the Willows is not noticeable. A substantial amount of criticism has been written addressing that very issue (and no doubt casual readers have also noticed this). I would venture, however, that it is less noticeable because the large majority of the characters are animals. Gaarden, writing in “The Inner Family of The Wind in the Willows,” proffers the following reason:

Grahame’s refusal to so much as name any female animal until the very last page of the book does not obliterate the feminine. Rather, it circumvents the reader’s habit of classifying individuals primarily by sex, and leads us to differentiate, instead, by species.

The casual observer generally cannot identify the sex of most animals. With some it is more obvious, but certainly not with Rats, Moles, Badgers, and Toads, especially if they are solitary, i.e., without the opposite sex with which to compare. This can lead to an impression that animals are sexless as well as a tendency to...

(This entire section contains 1479 words.)

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give animals a default gender. It the case ofThe Wind in the Willows, it is male.

There are a number of inconsistencies having to do with age throughout the text. Rat, for example, is usually portrayed as an adult, but not always, as when Toad remarks, “My! won’t he catch it when the Badger gets back!” This puts Badger in the role of the father figure, and reduces Rat to a child who has done something wrong. Mole, on the other hand, usually takes on the role of the child, or the “good child” as Gaarden describes him in her article “The Inner Family of The Wind in the Willows. He is dependant on Rat for rescue and emotional support, he overestimates his capacities, he has fits of impatience, and he is full of wonder. However, with the very first page of the novel, Mole is “spring-cleaning his little home.” Children do not own their own homes, and they generally refrain from cleaning their own rooms, much less an entire house, without being asked. This flexibility in age, like sex, may go unnoticed by readers because of an ageless quality animals seem to possess. Even more than sex, age is very difficult to determine in animals. On the other hand, humans are quite aware of their own life cycle and what each of its stages entails. A human child that owns a home would be much more perplexing to readers.

The sizes of the animals are not so much inconsistent, but rather, incorrect. No toad in the world is large enough to drive a car. No mole is tall enough to walk with its head “beside a horse’s head.” A badger is vastly larger than a toad. Again, Grahame is drawing on the anthropomorphic tradition. Readers willing to accept talking animals are also willing to accept that they are about the same size as humans, regardless of what kind of animal it is. However, Grahame does more than give animals human qualities. He also takes advantage of their animal abilities, as Cynthia Marshall explains in “Bodies and Pleasures in The Wind in the Willows:

Indeed, so successfully does Grahame effect the bond between readers and characters on the basis of shared pleasures that on those rare occasions when the beastly status of a character does receive explicit mention, we feel our own senses expanding to encompass the experience.

One of the more poignant examples of “our own senses expanding” is when Mole encounters the smells of home:

We others, who have long lost the more subtle of the physical senses, have not even proper terms to express an animal’s intercommunications with his surroundings, living or otherwise, and have only the word “smell,” for instance, to include the whole range of delicate thrills which murmur in the nose of the animal night and day, summoning, warning, inciting, repelling. It was one of these mysterious fairy calls from out the void that suddenly reached Mole in the darkness, making him tingle through and through with its very familiar appeal. . . .

Not only do the readers get to perceive the world though animal sensitivities, they are also allowed to enjoy closeness to nature without the burdens that go along with it. There is a strong sense of home, and the comforts of home, throughout the story. Yet the characters spend most of the time outside or in holes or along riverbanks or in a wood. It would be difficult to write such a story about humans without the connotation of effort. At best, the characters might enjoy the comforts of a nice, long camp out. Since animals always live in the wild, and since people are not always aware of what they must do for survival, it is easier to believe that they live effortlessly in their holes along the river and in the woods.

In “Bodies and Pleasures in The Wind in the Willows,” Marshall writes:

At once beast and human, small and large, the characters move easily between radically discontinuous positions, partaking of the delights available to all and the troubles germane to none. The animal characters are undifferentiated, unrestrained

Many scholars argue that Grahame did not achieve a story either clear of problems or free of the clash of sex. Their reasoning is often quite sound, and I agree with some of it. The Wind in the Willows is certainly not rid of all the cares of the world. Subtextual layers of the cultural context in which it was written can be unearthed. Signs of Grahame’s own personal troubles and his family’s dysfunction may be detectable. Still, he is able to draw on the anthropomorphic tradition as well as his own imagination in order to find a space for a story that is somewhat uncluttered by the rules of sex, size, and age. He constructed a sort of imperfect umbrella under which he could shelter his captivating novel from many of the burdens of the world. He did this so that he might entertain his disabled son Alastair with stories at the age of four. He has done it for countless other children.

Source: Daniel Toronto, Critical Essay on The Wind in the Willows, in Novels for Students, Thomson Gale, 2005.

Of School and the River: The Wind in the Willows and Its Immediate Audience

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The Wind in the Willows is most innocently appreciated as nostalgic animal fantasy: a pastoral celebration of animal life along the riverbank, where the four primary “animal gentlemen” Mole, Rat, Badger, and Toad enjoy a series of picaresque adventures that often involve “messing about in boats” but always end with a return to their snug and comfortable homes. The novel’s episodes promote friendship, courtesy, competence, courage, and generosity in an idyllic world where sex, work, violence, and death are beyond the horizon. Experienced readers contextualize the story in various ways. For Humphrey Carpenter the riverbank constitutes an Arcadia, one of the secret gardens characterizing the Golden Age of children’s literature. Kenneth Grahame’s biographer Peter Green sees the novel as a psychological escape for its author, Grahame’s refuge from his disastrous marriage and his mundane, if well-compensated, job in the Bank of England. Lois Kuznets points out the mock-epic Odyssean theme and structure. Peter Hunt sees the novel as animal idyll, Bildungsroman, sociological document on class warfare, anarchist comedy, burlesque, nostalgia, sexist conservative tract—“by fits and starts, all of these” (97).

The novel richly repays all such readings, but here. I would like to head back to the text’s origins, curiously neglected by most interpreters of the book and warranting examination of the sort Marilyn Butler calls for when she observes, “The writings of the past ask for an educated reading, as far as possible from within their own discourse or code or cultural system” (43). It is particularly worth remembering that the narrative involves not only a specific author but also a specific addressee. The Wind in the Willows began as a series of bedtime stories that Grahame told his son Alastair in 1904, evolved into story letters when the two were apart in 1907, and finally took published form in 1908. In this essay, I contend that what Grahame wanted to pass down to Alastair, from father to son, from public-school old boy to future new boy, is material designed to inform the child about his future education, presented in a form meant to be palatable and accessible to the four-year-old audience of the oral stories and the seven-year-old on holiday with his governess. The story of the neophyte Mole, who makes friends, acquires knowledge and skills, and widens his world, is specifically applicable to the situation Alastair was shortly to face. Though The Winds in the Willows serves admirably as a general guidebook to the ways of that interesting young animal the English schoolboy, its fictive and rhetorical strategies specifically reflect the particular anxieties and circumstances of its author and its addressee. In that sense, this obliquely cautionary and educational tale written by an initiate of the system is schoolboy lore customized to meet the needs of a one-boy audience.

Interestingly, the one piece of schoolboy fiction we are sure Grahame read, Tom Brown’s Schooldays (1857), resulted from the identical impulse: Thomas Hughes wrote the novel as he pondered what to tell his eight-year-old son Maurice about entry into the world of school. But if Alastair— eccentric, overemotional, physically handicapped, precocious, maternally dependent—were to meet and recognize himself in late-Victorian realistic schoolboy fiction, he would see his prototype mocked, bullied, and tagged with a derisive effeminate nickname, such as “Molly” or “Fluff.” Such misfits, in fiction, faced the torment of being tossed in a blanket or held over a fire—or in the real-life case of Lewis Carroll at Rugby, might have books defaced with such a taunt as “C. L. Dodgson is a muff.” The Wind in the Willows’s covert resemblances to classic school stories suggest that rather than frighten Alastair by modeling his work on the available realistic novels and periodicals (The Captain, The Boy’s Own Paper), Grahame chose a more oblique and palatable form for dispensing schoolboy survival tips.

The choice to present material through animal fantasy rather than school story would have been heartily endorsed by C. S. Lewis a near contemporary of Alastair Grahame’s, had he read The Wind in the Willows in childhood rather than first encountering it in his twenties. In “On Three Ways of Writing for Children,” Lewis articulates his dislike of the realistic schoolboy fiction he had read as a child. Lewis’s hostility centers on the disappointing illusions of realism: “I never expected the real world to be like the fairy tales. I think that I did expect school to be like the school stories. The fantasies did not deceive me; the school stories did” (1078). Such stories gripped him with the longing to be a popular, athletic, and successful schoolboy; they returned him to his own world “undivinely discontented” (1078). This discontentment, perhaps the natural lot of the ordinary many, would be a still greater risk for a boy carrying Alastair Grahame’s extraordinary burdens.

In his excellent biography of Kenneth Grahame, Green reports that “Alastair Grahame was born, prematurely, on 12th May 1900; and to his parents’ intense distress, proved to have congenital cataract of the right eye, which was completely blind, together with a pronounced squint in the left—which was also ‘over-sighted’” (227). The delicate child of unhappily married parents, Alastair “became the recipient of both his parents’ thwarted emotions” (227). To say that he was spoiled would be an understatement. Carpenter comments on Alastair’s “precocious, cheeky manner which nauseated Grahame’s friends” (152). Green deplores Elspeth Grahame’s refusal to recognize her son’s physical handicaps and mental instability and argues that she created a fantasy of his physical prowess and mental brilliance: “The boy’s whole life became a struggle to live up to the impossible ideal she set him; and in the end the strain proved too great” (228). Kenneth Grahame did not share his wife’s illusions about Alastair. As a former public-school boy himself, Grahame knew from experience what his overindulged and overpraised son would face. As he was writing the story-letters to the seven-year-old Alastair in 1907, he must have been agonizing over the ordeal that according to upper-middle-class convention lay ahead: departure from the cocoon of mother’s adoration and nanny’s cosseting to the harsh male world of the English public school.

Grahame himself had enjoyed success in this overwhelmingly masculine world, where boys slept five or six to a room, the teachers were all men, and there was only the rarest contact with woman in the form of Matron, who helped the smaller boys and sometimes dispensed treats in the kitchen to the homesick and dispirited. After early experiences with the arbitrary and bizarre ways of the schoolmasters at St. Edward’s School, Oxford, he learned to conceal or indirectly present his own ideas while winning prizes for Divinity and Latin prose in 1874 and the Sixth Form Class Prize in 1875. He earned the respect of his fellow students through gaining First Fifteen colors for Rugby, making the second eleven in cricket, and serving as Senior Prefect (head of school). He wrote essays for the school paper and spoke in the Debating Society. But despite his successes, Grahame clearly remembered the pain of his own entry into the world of the public school. In an essay called “The Fairy Wicket,” published in The National Observer in 1892, he sketches the vivid image of “a small school-boy, new kicked out of his nest into the draughty, uncomfortable outer world, his unfledged skin still craving the feathers where into he was wont to nestle.” Green reports Grahame’s belief that “the ordeal of school is unavoidable; henceforth one must live in the enemy’s camp, wear his colors, and mouth his public shibboleths. What is more insidious is the possibility that one may come to believe in them” (32).

Most written records of school days, autobiographical and fictional alike, fall into one of several categories, depending on the writer’s attitude. Royston Lambert identifies five distinct types of schoolboy, three of whose attitudes are likeliest to result in written accounts: the conformist, who believes in both the ends and the means of his particular school’s system; the innovator, who seeks reform and improvement; and the rebel, who rejects the institution outright (358). The attitude Grahame expresses comes closest to fitting into the category Lambert calls “ritualist,” that of a boy who follows school rules without accepting them. As a ritualist and as a parent who seems to have understood his son’s particular circumstances, Grahame apparently found none of the usual direct methods of instruction appropriate for Alastair but instead encoded the lore necessary for schoolboy survival in the anthropomorphic animal story that became The Wind in the Willows. It may be, then, that one reason Grahame did not directly offer advice about schoolboy life was an ambivalent reluctance to either ally himself with the “enemy camp”—the world of arbitrary, dogmatic adults—or directly attack the system propounded in that camp, a system under which he himself had done well. Another reason might be his understanding that Alastair would never excel at sports requiring hand-eye coordination and stamina and his tactful reluctance to draw attention to his own successes in such schoolboy endeavors.

Whatever his reasons, Grahame’s strategy involved doing what is implicit above in such previously quoted phrases as “kicked out of the nest” and “unfledged skin.” He transmuted school into the Riverbank, schoolboys in general into animals, Alastair in particular into Mole, who, involved in explicitly domestic doings as chapter one of Wind in the Willows begins, says “Hang spring-cleaning,” leaves his dark hole, and scratches his way upward into the sunlit meadow. The choice of a mole as the story’s new boy is particularly well calculated given its immediate audience, the partially blind Alastair. But any new boy at school might, to a lesser extent, be a mole of sorts—obliged to leave the dark, womblike confines of home and nursery for enlightenment. Like the mole (if we are to take his animal nature with any seriousness), the new boy ejected from his nest cannot at first see the spring charms of his new environment. He must learn the ways of the Riverbank (or school); get along with the other animals (or boys); find a particular ally to protect, instruct, and befriend him; and win the respect of his comrades through athletic endeavor.

In making the place of learning a river and its environs, Grahame appropriates an accessible and popular metaphor. As land-dwelling humans find, water is an alien element but one to which they can, with practice and instruction, grow accustomed. Horace Annesley Vachell’s The Hill, a 1905 novel about contemporary Harrow, begins with a didactic passage based on this likeness: “You’re about to take a header into a big river. In it are rocks and rapids, but you know how to swim, and after the first plunge, you’ll enjoy it.” Besides being alien, “not-home,” a river is dynamic. Like school, it is not simply a place but a means of taking those who embark away from home or back again, a motif Christopher Clausen delineates in “Home and Away,” his comparison of The Wind in the Willows and Huckleberry Finn. Finally, the river is a distinctively congenial choice for Grahame’s immediate audience. The Grahame family lived on the Thames, at Cookham Dene in Alastair’s childhood, later at Pangbourne. Interestingly, the primary sport in Wind in the Willows, boating, was Kenneth Grahame’s favorite recreation; and Alastair, despite his visual impairment, was a competent boater and swimmer.

Having found his way to the riverbank and met one of its habitués, the Water Rat, Mole candidly admits that he has never been in a boat or lived the jolly river life. Rat takes the neophyte under his wing, as an older boy might a younger, and shares the lore of the world that is, in his words, “brother and sister to me . . . and company, and food and drink. . . . It is my world, and I don’t want any other. What it hasn’t got is not worth having, and what it doesn’t know is not worth knowing.” Rat smooths Mole’s way with introductions to other members of his set. He warns Mole away from undesirables, notably the animals of the Wild Wood: “weasels—and stoats—and foxes and so on. They’re all right in a way—I’m very good friends with them—pass the time of day when we meet and all that—but they break out sometimes, there’s no denying it, and then—well, you can’t really trust them, and that’s a fact.” Some critics read the Wild Wooders as projections of Grahame’s bourgeois social fears (proletarians, socialists, radicals); but in the context of life at school they are equally apt representations of the bounders, blighters, and cads a keen schoolboy loathes, those who are not “our sort” once the process of indoctrination has taken hold. Such indoctrination is a staple of realistic schoolboy fiction, where, for instance, it takes the form of feuds between classical and modern students (“our sort” and “cads” respectively) in Talbot Baines Reed’s The Cock House of Fellsgarth (1891) and Compton Mackenzie’s Sinister Street (1913).

The Wind in the Willows begins this process by offering a series of object lesson for Alastair, or any other new-boy-to-be. In one such instance, Mole

began to feel more and more jealous of Rat, sculling so strongly and easily along, and his pride began to whisper that he could do it every bit as well. He jumped up and seized the sculls so suddenly that Rat . . . was taken by surprise and fell backwards off his seat. . . . “Stop it you silly ass!” cried the Rat, from the bottom of the boat. “You can’t do it! You’ll have us over!” The Mole flung his sculls back with a flourish, and made a great dig at the water. He missed the surface altogether, his legs flew up above his head, and he found himself lying on top of the prostrate Rat.

The immediate result may be humiliation for the rash and untutored new boy—Mole has to “brush away a tear or two with the back of his paw” while Rat “kindly looked in another direction”—but the more enduring result is Rat’s transmitting to Mole the lore of river life, and “very thrilling stories they were, too, to an earth-dwelling animal like Mole.”

Having met the friend who will be David to his Jonathan, Mole makes the acquaintance of authority as it exists for the Riverbank animals—Badger, who resembles nothing so much as a gruff but kindly headmaster of the Arnoldian type. As Grahame’s text describes 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.” Literally the eminence grise of the story, Badger embodies moral authority; his purpose is to encourage, exhort, and, if necessary, reform those under his protection. Mole’s first sustained encounter with Badger begins as he and Rat, frightened and exhausted, knock at Badger’s door. Badger’s initially sharp and suspicious response turns quickly to fatherly concern: “He looked kindly down on them and patted both their heads. ‘This is not the sort of night for small animals to be out,’ he said paternally. ‘I’m afraid you’ve been up to some of your pranks again, Ratty.’” after taking care of their physical comforts—a fire, dry clothes, supper— Badger assumes the place of adult authority “in his armchair at the head of the table” and evokes Rat and Mole’s explanation of the suspected “pranks.” He “nodded gravely at intervals as the animals told their story, and he did not seem surprised or shocked at anything, and he never said, ‘I told you so,’ or ‘Just what I always said,’ or remarked that they ought to have done so-and-so, or ought not to have done something else” (the last two things Badger left unvoiced are clear echoes of the Anglican prayerbook’s General Confession). Avoiding heavy-handed didacticism, Badger allows the two animals to examine their own behavior and mistakes and to draw conclusions for themselves—rather like Mr. Rastle’s gentle guidance of Stephen Greenfield in Reed’s The Fifth Form at St. Dominic’s (1871). This lighter approach that trusts to Rat’s and Mole’s essential good instincts, however, will not be Badger’s way with the fascinating bad boy of the River, Toad of Toad Hall. Hearing of Toad’s latest outrageous behavior, Badger announces, “Well, we’ll take Toad seriously in hand. We’ll stand no nonsense whatever. . . . We’ll make him be a sensible Toad.” When Rat and Mole inquire about Badger the next morning, the two young hedgehogs (who from their deferential behavior might be seen as representatives of lower school or a lower class) inform them, “The master’s gone into his study, Sir . . . and on no account wants to be disturbed.” Remote or nurturing, gruff or sympathetic as circumstances demand, patiently attentive, decisive but not judgmental, morally upright but not censorious, Badger is the ideal headmaster for the Riverbank “school.”

The attempted reform of Toad is perhaps Badger’s greatest pedagogical challenge, variously referred to as “taking in hand,” “rescue,” “conversion,” and “mission of mercy.” Because of his particular status, Toad must change for his own good and for the good of Riverbank society. Arguably the most memorable character in the novel, Toad is rich, self-centered, charming, and driven by the impulse of the moment. No discreet and dutiful member of the middle class, he never delays gratification, pursues fad after fad to comically catastrophic conclusions, and brags about his home, wealth, wit, and good looks. Along with Mole and Rat, Toad can be seen as a recognizable type of schoolboy: like Flashman of Tom Brown’s Schooldays or “Demon” Scaife of The Hill, Toad is a flamboyant narcissist, a sort likely to run into trouble at school. Indeed, when Carpenter speculates humorously on the animals’ educational backgrounds, he says, “One could imagine Toad enjoying a brief period at Eton or Harrow before being expelled.”

Toad’s determination not only to break ranks but to go out-of-bounds into the Wide World of society— and women—sets him apart from the school community. Claudia Nelson points out that “of all the animals, Toad has the greatest affinity with the human (adult and—worse—female) world” (167). His passion for motor cars has an undoubted sexual quality and brings him into contact with nurses, jailer’s daughters, washerwomen, and the dreaded bargewoman. As The Wind in the Willows demonstrates, to follow the errant path of a character like Toad invites disaster. His unfettered individualism is personally harmful; but worse, in the eyes of Rat and Badger, it lets the side down. Toad “has been corrupted by modern gadgets; he has made a public fool of himself; he is conceited and irresponsible and a spendthrift; he has disgraced his friends” (Green 245). It is worth noting how this catalogue of sins blends the personal and the collective. Toad’s self-indulgence not only hurts him but also rends the fabric of riverbank society. His downfall enables the disreputable stoats and weasels to invade Toad Hall and, ensconced there, to mock the respectable animals of Toad’s set. In the cautionary case of Toad, Grahame lays down for a son encouraged to think too much of himself the foundation of public school spirit: loyalty to the group. Observing the perils of Toad, Mole and Alastair learn the importance of team spirit: never, never let the side down. Or in the words of the Eton Boating Song (performed in situ suo just a few miles down the Thames from the Grahames’ house or the riverside prototype of Toad Hall, Mapledurham House), “Yes we’ll still swing together / And swear by the best of schools.”

In Mackenzie’s Sinister Street, an experienced older boy, Rodber, gives the young protagonist, Michael Fane, some good advice about school life: “‘Look here,’ said Rodber, ‘I don’t mind telling you, as you’ll be a new kid, one or two tips about school. Look here, don’t tell anybody your Christian name and don’t be cocky’” (87). Shortly thereafter, Sinister Street’s narrator wryly characterizes the practical schoolboy virtue of anonymity: “Michael congratulated himself that generally his dress and appearance conformed with the fashion of the younger boys’ dress at Randall’s. It would be terrible to excite notice. In fact, Michael supposed that to excite notice was the worst sin anybody could possibly commit” (92).

Adults may come to learn that several sins are worse than notoriety, but the schoolboy lore that Grahame passes down through The Wind in the Willows concurs with that offered in Sinister Street. As we have seen, the cockiness of Toad never goes unpunished. We never learn what Rat, Mole, or Toad may have been christened, for the characters never address one another except by surname or the generic “old chap”—only the younger of the hedgehogs, Billy, and Portly, Otter’s young son, have the juvenile feature of Christian names, which signal that they are still at home with mother. Conversation in the novel is stylized to the point of impoverishment, in Kuznets’s phrase “full of colloquial expressions, some of them juvenile taunts and insults, rather hackneyed in its use of descriptive adjectives like ‘jolly’ and ‘stupid’” (113). (For proof that such adolescent reductiveness transcends cultures, classes, and decades, one need only cite the contemporary equivalent to Mole and Rat’s “jolly” and “stupid”: Beavis and Butthead’s division of all things into what is “cool” and what “sucks.”)

As all these conventions would suggest, The Wind in the Willows, like other schoolboy fiction, stresses giving up eccentricity and individuality in order to become part of a community. Much of Mole’s essential “moleness” is left behind as the novel proceeds. He gives up his underground hole, though, like a schoolboy on holiday, he is allowed a return for Christmas before leaving, presumably forever. Becoming a Riverbanker, he puts aside childish ways. After chapter five we hear no more of his tears; by chapter nine he feels confident enough to persuade Rat against becoming a Wayfarer; and at the conclusion he joins Badger, Rat, and Toad in the mockepic battle to regain Toad Hall from the stoats and weasels. With Mole’s “insider” status solidified, the novel’s last image is of the four animals linked together as heroes of their generation, much like Stalky, Beetle, and M’Turk at the end of Kipling’s Stalky & Co. (1899).

As many nineteenth- and twentieth-century British novels and memoirs testify, schooldays were, or at least were considered, the crucially formative time of a ruling-class man’s life. In the Duke of Wellington’s memorable pronouncement, “The Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton.” Cyril Connolly, an Eton contemporary of Alastair Grahame’s, wrote more negatively of the school’s potent influence in Enemies of Promise:

In fact were I to deduce any system from my feelings on leaving Eton, it might be called The Theory of Permanent Adolescence. It is the theory that the experiences undergone by boys at the great public schools, their glories and disappointments, are so intense as to dominate their lives and to arrest their development. From these it results that the great part of the ruling class remains adolescent, schoolminded. . . . Early laurels weigh like lead and of many of the boys whom I knew at Eton, I can say that their lives are over. (251–52)

A feminist reader might see indoctrination of the sort Connolly describes and Wind in the Willows enacts as the cultural weaning of ruling-class males. Trained to detach themselves from and subsequently to idealize, corrupt, or mystify the influence of mothers, aunts, sisters, and (female) lovers-to-be, Connolly’s Etonians and Grahame’s Riverbankers remain, like Bertie Wooster and the other Drones of P. G. Wodehouse’s fiction, perpetual schoolboys and bachelors at heart. Literary descriptions of their state generally have more charm than do its actual consequences.

Idyllic though its story may be for many readers, whether children, permanent adolescents, or adults, The Wind in the Willows held some dark ironies for its immediate audience of one and its author. When it proved enormously successful, Grahame resigned from the Bank of England to devote himself to writing, but he never produced another book. And if he wrote The Wind in the Willows with the primary goal of advising Alastair on the attitudes, behavior, and language that would lead to success in one of England’s famous public schools, his narrative failed to achieve its desired effect. Rather than send Alastair away at the customary age of eight (Grahame’s own age when he started at St. Edward’s), the family kept the child at home with a governess until he was ten. Then, with trepidation, they sent him to prep at the Old Malthouse School in Dorset. Luckily, it was a cheerful and permissive place. Alastair was not so fortunate when in 1914 he went from his prep school to Rugby, one of the “great schools” and his mother’s unrealistic choice. “Rugby,” writes Alison Prince, “was a tough school, ruthless in its dealings with any boy who put on airs or who seemed in any way odd or less than a ‘good sport.’ Alastair, full of airs and debarred by his poor sight from all sports except swimming, had been thrown into a life which was, by his standards, little short of hell” (285). He was desperately unhappy and resigned within months. In January 1915 the Grahames got him into Eton, where he managed to stay a little more than a year. Alastair completed his education under private tutors at home and eventually entered Christ Church College, Oxford. His contemporaries at university recalled that he always seemed miserable. Struck by a train, Alastair died, a probable suicide, at the age of twenty. He seems never to have adjusted to the schoolboy world whose lore is so memorably encoded in The Wind in the Willows.

Source: Kathryn V. Graham, “Of School and the River: The Wind in the Willows and Its Immediate Audience,” in Children’s Literature Review Association Quarterly, Vol. 23, No. 4, 1998–1999, pp. 181–86.

The Wind in the Willows and the Plotting of Contrast

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All readers or listeners know that there are really two stories in The Wind in the Willows: that of the madcap, adventurous Toad the Gaol-breaker; and that of friendship, home life, the simple joys of “messing about in boats,” the story of Mole, Rat, and Badger. The story of Toad-of-the-Highways is centrifugal, an outgoing, Odyssean song of the open road; the other is centripetal, a riverbank idyll of domestic, pastoral pleasure. And because the values of the dusty road and the riverbank seem so opposed, readers naturally tend to align themselves with one of these stories at the expense of the other.

Roger Sale, for example, has a distinct predilection for the homely adventures of the River Bank; for him, the book as a whole is “‘about’ coziness,” while Toad belongs “over to one side” (174, 185). William W. Robson also finds the finest insights in the friendship of Rat and Mole, with the Toad chapters playing “a scherzo in the symphony” of quiet domestic life (98). And Humphrey Carpenter, though he grants that Toad “has a certain energy,” maintains that the idiom of adventure was not the author’s forte and that Toad lies outside the “heart of Grahame’s Arcadian dream” (Gardens 154, 161). Such priorities were not, of course, shared by the work’s first audience, Alistair Grahame, who responded enthusiastically to his father’s original stories in which “Toad played the principal part” (Carpenter and Prichard, Oxford Companion 573). Most other child readers remain devoted to the Toad, as we may deduce from adaptations of Grahame’s story: A. A. Milne’s unifocal dramatization of the story in “Toad of Toad Hall”; the 1949 Disney film, which claims that for children Toad is “the most fabulous character in English literature”; and more recently, the Nederlander Theater’s production, promoted with buttons that read “I Toad You So.”

This split between child and adult sensibility, between what Geraldine Poss calls the mock-heroic and arcadian impulses within the text, has itself been the focus of considerable criticism. Peter Green was perhaps the first to refer to the “double theme” of the book (Grahame 202), while Carpenter asserts that “there are really two separate books” (Gardens 229n). Peter Hunt has taken this position to its logical end, arguing that “if there are two texts in The Wind in the Willows,” they are structurally autonomous: “Mole’s serious story once resolved, we can go on to Toad’s more farcical one” (116). Criticism, then, has tended to separate the two stories, as if the contrasting impulses that motivate the narrative action operated independently. I will argue, however, that the clash between two such natural instincts as domesticity and romantic enthusiasm generates the special richness of the text as a whole. Instead of separating the two stories and devaluing one, I examine how Grahame not only juxtaposes but interlaces his two different plots and values.

The question of narrative structure becomes all the more provocative when we remember that the oscillation between the two stories resulted from careful engineering. Peter Green has argued plausibly that Grahame composed the Toad sequence first, the episodes of the River Bank and the Wild Wood second, and the two set pieces, “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn” and “Wayfarers all” last (Beyond the Wild Wood, chap. 11). In the final . . . 1908 copy, however, Grahame steadily alternated between the stories of the open road and those of the woodlands, an alternation that I will argue functions as a narrative dialectic between the “contrary states” of individualistic hedonism and communal affection. As the plot progresses, Grahame advances ever more subtle variations of this dialectical argument. It is my intention, then, to explore Grahame’s dialectic by paying close attention to the plotting of the work (the narrative order in which the simple chronology of the two stories is rearranged) and especially to the relation between adjoining chapters and groups of chapters. This method should clarify embedded contrasts and parallels that require the reader to activate their meaning by filling in lines of connection only suggested by the text. Ultimately, this formal, comparative effort will clarify the structural subtlety and interdependence of the two contrasting stories and states.

The first two chapters of the book can be read as companion pieces that illustrate Grahame’s comparative method of plotting. In both we find what myth critics refer to as “the call to adventure” (Campbell 49–58). In the first chapter, Mole is busy with spring cleaning at Mole End, deep in the earth, when the call of “something up above” overpowers his commitment to routine and regularity and draws him up into a pastoral world filled with “the joy of living and the delight of spring without cleaning.” In this mock-heroic episode of rebirth or “emancipation,” the humble hero, “bewitched” by the “imperious” call of nature, happily subordinates mundane responsibility to the pleasure principle. The Mole, then, is the first character to express the romantic, centrifugal pole of Grahame’s dialectic. Once emancipated, however, Mole is quickly “absorbed” by the aimless, epicurean life of the River Bank, enjoying the domestic bounty of the Water Rat’s picnic. But the idyll is threatened by the sense of intoxication that such pleasure engenders. On his way back from the picnic with Ratty, Mole impetuously grabs the oars and overturns the little scull, almost losing the beautiful picnic basket in the bargain. This scene echoes an earlier incident in which the Rat, waxing rhapsodic, steers the boat into a bank, causing “the joyous oarsman” to flip onto his back in the bottom of the boat, “his heels in the air.” By such repetitions and parallels Grahame stresses the nature of his contrary states.

Along the River Bank, however, a sense of moderation and community tempers the excesses of individual adventure, so that the Mole quickly recognizes his mistake and apologizes for his “foolishness and ungrateful conduct.” In this world, passion is no excuse for incivility. The threat posed by excess finds additional, emblematic expression in a small vignette characteristic of Grahame’s technique. Just after the narrator has introduced the Toad as a rower “splashing badly, and rolling a good deal,” we glimpse “an errant May-fly [swerving] unsteadily athwart the current in the intoxicated fashion affected by the young bloods of May-flies seeing life.” In the next sentence, the fly is eaten and disappears without comment by the narrator, and we are left to contemplate the relation between this event and the activities of our other intoxicated adventurers. The same technique on the macroscopic level juxtaposes chapters and blocks of chapters to dramatize contraries. Once the initial sense of “divine discontent and longing” in chapter 1 is reinforced by the related impulse toward the open road in chapter 2, the note of concern sounded in the mayfly incident will become considerably more significant.

In “The Open Road,” Toad expresses the same longing for adventure, for “travel, change, interest, excitement!” that animated Mole in the first chapter. But the impulse that is controllable in the Mole is excessive in the Toad, as indicated by a change in the means of adventure and emancipation. Mole gives himself up to the spirit of the season and “the joy of running water,” both of which bring him into closer contact with nature. But for Toad, boating has become a “silly, boyish amusement,” the river “dull” and “fusty.” His boats hung up in a deserted boathouse, he now longs for “the dusty highway” and the chance to see “camps, villages, towns, cities!” The desire for adventure may be the same, but the path that desire takes in Mole and Toad is perilously different. As Mole and Rat arrive at Toad Hall, their host easily convinces them to join him in a gypsy caravan in pursuit of the “Life Adventurous.” The trio soon meets disaster “fleet and unforeseen . . . disaster momentous”; once again, impetuosity capsizes its victims. In chapter 1, when Mole grabs the oars of the scull, Rat cries, “Stop it, you silly ass . . . You’ll have us over,” and the damp, repentant Mole quickly acknowledges, “Indeed I have been a complete ass, and I know it.” By contrast, when the Toad sits overturned in the road, “spellbound,” it is the Mole who says, “O stop being an ass, Toad.” The “crazed” Toad can only dream of renewed risks “on my reckless way.” By changing the initial order of composition and placing Mole’s springtime adventure of emancipation first, Grahame establishes a dominant mood of temperate indulgence alongside of which the overheated, midsummer’s extravagance of the Toad, while charming, seems nonetheless an aberrant response to the call.

Kenneth Burke writes of the “categorical expectations” with which we approach literary form, and which lead us to expect, for example, Pope’s couplets to rhyme and epics to begin with an invocation (126–27; see also Philip Stevick). In extended narrative, our expectations are in part chronological; we ask “What happens next?” And when, in a work as lovingly devoted to natural processes as The Wind in the Willows, we skip in chapter 3 from midsummer to the depth of winter, we reasonably ask why. The answer, of course, is that while nature may be sequential, art is patterned and thematic. We skip seasons here in order to develop through the Mole the temperate chord of natural instinct rather than the discord of extravagant impulse. The break in our chronological expectations draws our attention to contrast and helps us distinguish between the Toad’s summertime intoxication and the Mole’s natural desire to explore. Even more important, the shift from summer to winter announces a transition to the text’s second movement, a block of three chapters (3–5) that introduces the other pole of Grahame’s dialectic, the homing instinct. Devoting an extended sequence to the River Bank friends at this early point in the action effectively links the reader’s angle of vision to the Mole’s-eye-view and to the powerful claims of home and community. Toad’s subsequent adventures may be diverting, even enthralling, but to the reader alert to the thematic resonance that formal juxtaposition can create, they will also seem exorbitant, even “crazed,” the escapades of a charming but “silly ass.”

This second movement begins with a shift in attention from the gregarious, exhibitionistic Toad to the reserved yet hospitable Mr. Badger. It also begins with repetitions of formal motifs from the two previous chapters: as in chapter 1, the Mole is seized by the impulse to explore, and as in chapter 2, he is excited by the desire “to make the acquaintance of” a new friend. Unlike his springtime excursion, however, Mole’s adventure here is not seasonal; for in winter the dominant animal activities are sleep and story-telling. That Mole breaks this natural pattern may explain his eventual difficulties. In the barren winter landscape, Mole initially believes that “he had never seen so far and so intimately into the heart of things.” Here is the crystallizing vision of the romantic adventurer, or so we briefly think; but just as Toad’s lark on the open road led to unforeseen danger, Mole’s excursion soon leads him to “the Terror of the Wild Wood.” And just as he and Rat had to rescue the crazed Toad in chapter 2, the Rat must rescue Mole here. This third parallel narrative reinforces a pattern of impulse/adventure/calamity/ rescue. Cumulatively such repetitions force our recognition of what we might call the wages of adventure: its tendency toward calamity and the absolute dependence of the impulsive upon the aid of their friends. The Mole’s excursion into the Wild Wood is distinct in that it is solitary and thus more intense than its predecessors. A winter’s tale in darkening tones, it makes the contrary state, the snug hospitality of the Badger’s den, all the more satisfying and meaningful. At this moment, when the two storm-driven friends find safe anchorage with Badger, Grahame’s dialectical narrative swings decisively from the call of adventure to the lure of home.

At the Badger’s (and later at Mole End), the movement “up and outward” reverses to a centripetal drive: the lure of the burrow. The seasonal changes of the River Bank and the dust of the highway yield to the permanence and warmth of the underground haven. Generically, ironic romance turns to low-mimetic comedy. In a counterpoint to the adventurous values of the first two chapters, Mr. Badger’s home offers the very security and tranquility that adventure undermines—a place “to eat and talk and smoke in comfort and contentment.” In a characteristic parallel, Grahame introduces two young hedgehogs who, like Rat and Mole, have also been lost in the snow and who also happen across Mr. Badger’s back door. The repetition emphasizes the never-ending need for domestic security, and the enduring shelter of home.

For the Mole, the “domestic architecture” of the Badger’s home has special psychological significance. Like Badger, “an underground animal by birth and breeding,” the Mole immediately responds to the Badger’s domain: “once you’re underground, you know exactly where you are. . . . You’re entirely your own master.” The self-containment and domestic virtues glorified here look forward to the pleasures of the Hobbit-hole; for just as the quiet stability of domestic life nourishes the mild heroism of Tolkien’s epic, so does the insulated, centered existence in the burrows of the Wild Wood allow Mole and Badger, like Bilbo and Frodo, to develop the reserves necessary to redeem their world from threat. Returning home, the Mole clearly recognizes that he is by nature an animal of confined spaces: “For others the asperities, the stubborn endurance, or the clash of actual conflict. . . . He must be wise, must keep to the pleasant places in which his lines were laid and which held adventure enough, in their way, to last for a lifetime.” In light of the battle for Toad Hall, this is not, of course, the last word on Mole’s abilities; but we realize the appropriateness of Mole’s recognition at this point because the new ethic has been juxtaposed so dramatically against its counterpart.

Whereas the relation between preceding chapters has been one of contrast, the winter journey of chapter 5 intensifies the ideas of chapters 3 and 4. Although there is a temporal break between “Mr. Badger” and “Dulce Domum,” the same animals reenact a snowbound journey that again climaxes with the unexpected discovery of safety. In this parallel narrative, Grahame corroborates the power of the homing instinct and the satisfactions of the “magic circle.” Moreover, since the journey is one of return, not departure (as in “The Wild Wood”), and since the place the travelers return to is not just a friendly haven (like the Badger’s) but Mole’s own home, the instincts on display are all the stronger. The chapter begins with the two friends, Rat and Mole, coming across a village. Unlike the Toad, Rat and Mole “did not hold with villages, and their own highways . . . took an independent course.” Still, they happen to pass a cottage, and in a well-known vignette, Grahame shows us the two looking in on “the little curtained world” of a bird cage from which “the sense of home” pulsates. This episode forms a counterpoint to Ratty’s earlier rescue of an overturned bird cage and “its hysterical occupant” from the demolished caravan. Through this reference to an earlier image, Grahame fills out the differences between the homing instinct and its opposite. However, repetition rather than contrast is the dominant note here, as once again the Mole stumbles across a safe haven; once inside all is warmth, dryness, full larders, and merry friendship; instead of hedgehogs, there is a choir of field mice; and instead of Badger, the Rat now plays the gracious “general.” The effect of this parallelism is to enhance the potency of the countertheme, a theme repeated because the lure of home is less dramatic than the call of the Life Adventurous. Through such formal emphases, Grahame shifts the weight of his argument from “fresh and captivating experiences” toward “that small inquiring something which all animals carry inside them” and which inevitably leads home. Formal arrangement thereby continues to orient our allegiances.

T. S. Eliot writes that “home is where one starts from,” and with “Dulce Domum” we return to Mole’s home, the starting point of these adventures and the close of the narrative’s second movement. To recapitulate the progress so far: the first movement shows the up-and-down curve of the Life Adventurous (chaps. 1 and 2). The outward drive of these chapters is natural, but it can also be unpredictable and even disastrous. When the drive recurs in chapter 3, a new theme is added: beyond the calamity and exhaustion of adventure lies the contrasting attraction of home. Chapter 3, therefore, functions as a narrative link between the two sets of chapters (1 and 2, 3 through 5) as it begins with adventure but ends with the exhausted friends on the doorstep of “the contrary state.” Instead of the up-and-down swing of the first movement, the second set of chapters moves out and back, as the Mole sets out from one home, rests at another, and returns in the end to his own. The initial sense of adventure is decisively offset by a repeated emphasis on the appeal of home. Having introduced the theme and countertheme in these first two movements, Grahame next refines and expands that dialectic through a series of ever more distinct juxtapositions. In the next four chapters, from “Mr. Toad” through “Wayfarers All,” he explores the conflict that the romantic impulse to explore and the instinctual need for the magic circle can create within his characters, most of whom quite naturally long for both. Here again, the formal juxtaposition of individual chapters articulates a complex debate. By alternating allegiances Grahame allows his contrary states to interact and reverberate without destroying either the gentle humor of his book or the balance of his argument.

We return to Grahame’s formal strategy of contrast in the adventure of “Mr. Toad” (chap. 6), which deals not with the discovery but with the escape from home. It is summer again (the season of the Toad), and Badger arrives to take Toad “in hand.” Mole chimes in that “we’ll teach him to be a sensible Toad,” indicating that as a result of his own experience, Mole is a thorough convert to common sense and domestic practicality. Badger’s position is that “independence is all very well, but we animals never allow our friends to make fools of themselves beyond a certain limit,” a limit the Toad has reached. However well-intentioned, this point of view is restrictive, even despotic; it casts Toad in the role of the recalcitrant adolescent and invites us to contemplate the potential tyranny of parental, communal strictures. The Mole goes so far as to assert that his friend will be “the most converted Toad that ever was before we’re done with him.” As a result, we are partly in sympathy with the Toad’s resistance when the friends set themselves up as a tribunal to defend the norm in opposition to individual expression. Ignoring his friends’ concern, escaping by a rope of knotted sheets, and “marching off light-heartedly,” Toad is at this point the champion of freedom and the willingness to venture forth.

Within moments, however, the narrator establishes the dangers of Toad’s rebelliousness. Unlike Mole in “Dulce Domum,” who struggles to subordinate his own longing for home to his loyalty to Rat, when Toad sees the motorcar, he immediately surrenders to “the old passion.” As a result, he is transformed into “Toad the terror, the traffic queller, the lord of the lone trail, before whom all must give way or be smitten into nothingness and everlasting night.” The hedonistic egocentrism of this role represents the dialectical extreme of adventurism: Toad is “fulfilling his instincts, living his hour, reckless of what may come,” which turns out to be a sentence of twenty years in jail. Our recognition of Grahame’s indictment of the Toad’s excess is in part obscured by all the fun along the way and by the inevitability of his escape. Yet as the entire chapter swings back and forth between exuberance and despair, we realize that Toad’s irrepressibility has become a form of enslavement, not an expression of freedom.

The transition from chapter 6 to “The Piper” could hardly be more jarring: we go directly from Toad’s confinement in the “grimmest dungeon” in the “innermost keep” of the “stoutest castle” in England to the Mole languorously stretched out on the riverbank in the “blessed coolness” of midsummer’s eve. Even more important, we shift from the Toad’s isolation to an all-encompassing network of mutual aid. Such implicit contrasts require the reader as intermediary to bring the two stories into meaningful interplay. “The Piper” also provides the first significant indication that the domestic and romantic impulses can be resolved. This act of accommodation begins as Rat and Mole go out in search of Portly, the son of Otter, who is always getting lost because “he’s so adventurous.” Again a desertion from the magic circle leads to a rescue. In the process, however, an ordinary event becomes an extraordinary one: the two rescuers become entranced and transported, emotions that chapters 1 and 2 connected with the excitement of adventure. Yet adventure here is of a different kind, for Pan, the source of their excitement, has revealed himself to them “in their helping.”

The desire to help may not seem a spectacular virtue, but for Grahame its power resides in its ability to harmonize the contraries: to put adventure (the willingness to “‘do’ something,” as the Mole has it) at the service of friends and family. This blend of opposite instincts produces what Ratty calls “this new divine thing,” powerful yet affectionate, ordinary yet awesome. Indeed the whole chapter provides supporting analogies to this fusion of contraries: the epiphany takes place on a small island, which mingles the important images of river and earth; it happens in the “imminent dawn,” which brings together night and day; it is presided over by Pan, the satyr, who is both man and beast; it engenders a state between dreaming and intense wakefulness; and the experience itself, says Ratty, is “something very exciting . . . yet nothing in particular has happened.” Only when individual power and friendly helping coincide does such fusion take place; and yet, as we now begin to realize, such moments occupy central positions in this narrative, as when the well-armed Rat rescues Mole from the snowdrift or when the friends join together for the siege of Toad Hall. This episode, when the Rat and Mole are vouchsafed their vision of “ ‘power at the helping hour,’” marks the essential moment in Grahame’s narrative argument when friendship, home, and helping take on some of the allure of romantic individualism, and when we as readers become alert to the middle ground in Grahame’s dialectic.

When we turn from Pan to “Toad’s Adventures,” we again switch “stories” and move back from the pastoral idyll to the sirens’ song of adventure. Grahame, however, continues to explore the middle ground; for if in “The Piper” helping becomes heroic, in chapter 8 heroism needs and elicits a good deal of friendly help. Throughout these adventures, the Toad entertains by his machinations, but he is not quite the Toad of “surpassing cleverness” he takes himself to be. By contrast with the reverence of “The Piper,” the playful irony deflates and amuses. Most thoroughly deflated is the “handsome, popular, successful Toad,” who on closer inspection betrays the “horrid, proud, ungrateful animal” the gaoler’s daughter accuses him of being. Yet Toad, despite his mock-heroic escapades, is constantly in need of help—first from the gaoler’s daughter, then from the washerwoman, and finally from the train engineer, who says to Toad, “you are evidently in sore trouble and distress, so I will not desert you.” In this narrative world, adventure most often leads to “trouble and distress” and adventurers like Toad or Portly invariably depend on the quiet, domestic types to rescue them. This chapter, then, is an ironic complement to its predecessor, and it expands our notion of “helping” as a bridge between the contraries.

And yet, in the dialectical progress of Grahame’s argument, no synthesis is permanent. Our emotions and instincts are seasonal, subject to “the other call” that in its own time is as “imperious” as the community of friends. No chapter expresses this emotional mutability more poignantly than “Wayfarers All.” Once again, a total break shifts the action from the Toad alone, cold, and hungry to the Rat strolling through “late-summer’s pomp” among his many friends preparing to migrate. Though he protests that he cannot understand how the swallows can leave “your friends who will miss you and your snug homes that you have just settled into,” he too begins to feel “that chord hitherto dormant and unsuspected .. . this wild new sensation.” He is musing on “the wondrous world . . . and the fortunes and adventures . . . out there beyond” when he encounters his cousin, the seafaring rat. This jaunty mariner praises the domestic bliss of the woodland life; but, like Tennyson’s Ulysses, he is now leaving it because he has had his own call, heard his own “wind in the willows” and is heading out on the road to “his heart’s desire.” His stories make the Water Rat feel the “somewhat narrow and circumscribed” nature of the riverbank; they ask us to reconsider our estimation of “the best life.” Despite all the trouble upon the open road, the call to adventure still intoxicates. Like the Mole before him, Rat can feel that impulse so contradictory to his essential nature, and he almost capitulates—until, that is, Mole wrestles him to the ground, talks to him of the “hearty joys” of home life, and the spell is broken. Our comparative method suggests that this episode is especially significant because it happens to the Rat. For shortly before, the Rat heard most clearly the “glad pipings” of Pan and concluded that this melody and its inscrutable message was “the real, the unmistakable thing.” On this later day and in this different season, Rat decides that, like his friends the swallows, his own blood now dances to different music. Pan’s gift of forgetfulness may explain the Rat’s present temptation; nonetheless, after the break of only a single chapter, we find the Rat not only “restless” but actually distressed with the boundaries of his own life. This polarity of supreme satisfaction on the one hand and querulous discontent on the other suggests that despite the hint of accommodation in chapter 7, the contraries continue to make their antithetical claims on our allegiance. And indeed, Grahame argues through the dialectical structure of his plot that both calls must be recognized in their “due season.”

Ratty’s temptation and the migration of the swallows appear just at a time when the Toad’s profligacy might incline us to see the call to adventure as vain and injurious; their instincts lead us to recognize just how imperious that call can be. Similar impulses call the Mole, lure the baby otter, and claim the helpless Toad. Repetition again deepens and universalizes our understanding. Nevertheless, the allure of this drive is affected substantially by the fact that its most attractive presentation (in “Wayfarers All”) is bracketed by the excesses of Toad’s own adventures. This compromise results from a deliberate artistic choice on Grahame’s part: not only is “Wayfarers All” interjected into the chronological order of Toad’s adventures, but its late-summer setting, as opposed to the early-summer date of Toad’s travels, also breaks the seasonal rhythm and specifically directs our attention to the shift in narrative focus. We are led once again by form to reflect upon the synchronic relationships of the plot as opposed to the linearity of the simple story; we are led, that is, to recognize the interplay between the “two stories” and the need for compromise.

The return to Toad’s adventures in chapter 10 marks a transition to the fourth and last cycle of the tale, which focuses primarily on the Toad, making this section (chaps. 10–12) the companion piece to the earlier focus on the Mole (chaps. 3–5). In spite of the title “Further Adventures,” the narrative motive here is no longer the expansive, explorative impulse of Toad’s earlier forays; instead, the centripetal motive to return home dominates. Narrative juxtaposition suggests a comparison between Rat’s spell, which is severe but temporary and which he effectively sublimates, and the manic oscillations of the Toad, who exhibits a hysterical instability totally alien to the seasonal, temperate impulses that affect the swallows, the Sea Rat, and the Mole. One moment Toad is fearless, confident, Odyssean in his resourcefulness; the next he is “sinking down in a shabby, miserable heap.” This careening back and forth between vanity (“the cleverest animal in the world”) and self-deprecation (“what a conceited ass I am! What a conceited, heedless ass!”) exhibits more than just the comic fluctuations of a flimflammer on the loose. Unlike Rat’s response to the universality of the call to adventure, which is essentially in tune with the seasonal change around him, Toad’s mercurial oscillations show the romantic iconoclast reaping the harvest of his lack of orientation. The vehicles of adventure in chapter 10 (a boat, a caravan, and a motorcar) repeat those of chapters 1 and 2, a parallel suggesting that Toad is still caught up in the same round of excesses. The schizophrenic adventurer can only hope that (like Mole, or Portly, or Rat before him) he will be rescued from himself. It is Grahame’s ultimate irony (and insight) that this rescue and the Toad’s redemption are the heroic work of those who have chosen to remain at home.

With Toad’s rescue by Rat (at the opening of chapter 11) the two stories finally dovetail. Indeed, Grahame connects the stories of Toad and Mole through an explicit repetition of wording: when Mole meets Ratty in chapter 1, he notices first “a dark hole” with a “twinkle” in its depths, then a “brown little face,” “grave” and “round,” with “neat ears and thick silky hair”; “it was the Water Rat!” Toad’s rescue by Rat in chapter 11 recapitulates every detail of the original scene, in the original order and almost in the original languages. Grahame in this way insists upon the parallel: Toad is welcomed back into the family of friends in the same way that Mole was introduced to the “splendid spaces” of the River Bank by the Rat; only Mole was coming out, while the Toad is going back. After this introductory allusion to the text’s own opening, the two stories continue to coalesce, as the reunited friends resolve to retake Toad Hall from the weasels and stoats, a consolidating motive that will call up heroic adventurism in the service of the pastoral home.

But before this final, unifying siege, a polite though significant skirmish between Rat and Toad contrasts the two world views they represent. In authority throughout the beginning of “Summer Tempests,” the Rat adheres to his position with much greater constancy than he did in chapter 2, when Toad proposed the adventure of the gypsy cart. The returning Toad repeatedly tries to inflate himself by narrating his exploits, while Rat answers him first with “gravity and firmness” and then with a detailed indictment of his foolishness. In response, Toad continues to wax and wane between the extremes of “puffing and swelling” and disingenuous apology. Still unable to control his impetuosity, he runs off to see Toad Hall for himself and narrowly misses being shot. Moments later, in another illconceived plan, he succeeds in sinking Ratty’s favorite boat. This time the Rat strictly censures him, most specifically for the anticommunal sin of ingratitude. This episode finally brings the two contrary states into direct and extended debate; what before had been presented as a series of alternations between chapters and subtle variations in the dialectical presentation of the contrary states is now a gentlemanly but direct confrontation. Toad’s utter inability to recognize his own behavior as disastrous suggests that for Grahame romance and impetuosity make an unending series of claims on common sense, and that impulse always whispers “mutinously” in one’s inner ear. The chapter resolves the debate by making Toad the subordinate member of the cast of heroes, a role that indicates the ultimate place of volatile impulse in Grahame’s scheme of values.

Toad’s contribution to this scheme should not, however, be totally dismissed. For when the eversympathetic Mole finally allows Toad to boast of his adventures and relate much that belonged “more properly to the category of what-might-havehappened,” the narrator adds, “and why should [such stories] not be truly ours, as much as the somewhat inadequate things that really come off.” As a purely imaginative mode, the longing for adventure and the vision of what-might-be can be both compensatory (as is the case with Rat the poet and, we suspect, with Grahame the banker) and inspiring. Certainly Toad’s adventures have their effect on the Mole; for this most domestic of animals proves capable now of the highly imaginative scheme of dressing himself in the washerwoman’s outfit and reconnoitering among the stoats on sentry at Toad Hall. Whereas Toad chafed in egotistical shame at having to wear such a costume, Mole assumes the disguise effectively because his motives are not self-serving. Naturally, the success of Mole’s exploit drives the Toad “wild with jealousy”; but we may plausibly assume that Toad is the model for Mole’s adventure. Imagination and derring-do in fact have a place in the life of the River Bank as long as they do not threaten the communal order of things. Once again, then, in the dialectical interplay of the contrary states there are really no absolutes; Toad can be “the best of animals” and the Rat possessed by wanderlust. The fact, however, that the Mole could prove both clever and courageous goes an especially long way toward correcting our conventional view of the domestic, pastoral life by suggesting that there is more at home than we might have guessed, and less to be gained on the open road alone.

It has been argued that the final episode—“The Return of Ulysses”—is not much more than an adventurous tag, a grand finale that forgets the more subtle themes of the River and the Woodland chapters. Close attention to the dialectics of the text, however, would indicate that the climactic episode enlists the adventurous impulse in the recapture of the magic circle and so provides an appropriate knitting together of the novel’s contrary states. Certainly, the problem that the friends face is intimately connected with the homing instinct, for the Wild Wooders have usurped the Toad’s ancestral home and extended his own bad habits to the point of profligacy. But the problem is not simply Toad’s exile from home but also whether or not the magic circle is to be cut off from all approach. For “in their helping,” Mole and Badger, those quintessential homebodies, have moved into Toad Hall, been evicted, and are now being forced “to camp out in the open . . . living very rough by day and lying very hard by night.” The critical question, then, is whether the Wild Wooders, who are prone “to break out sometimes” and who represent that impulse antithetical to the spirit of “dulce domum,” should inherit Toad Hall. It is a question that Grahame shared with contemporaries like John Galsworthy, Arnold Bennett, and E. M. Forster. Grahame responds, however, in the manner of Robert Louis Stevenson. For in the midst of this “civil war,” the day is won by a desperate display of heroism and valor: “the mighty Badger” brandishes a great cudgel, Mole terrifies his enemies with “an awful war-cry,” Rat brings an entire arsenal to bear upon his foes, and Toad, “swollen to twice his ordinary size” by excitement, takes out after the Chief Weasel. All this is very comic and is over in a page; nonetheless, in taking back the home ground, the domestic corps exhibits the courage and power we conventionally associate with romantic, adventurous heroes who—like Ulysses—spend most of their time on the open road. In the siege of Toad Hall, we are invited again to reject as extreme the view that the love of one’s home and the capacity for heroic achievement are irreconcilable, and to contemplate the successful accommodation of contrary states of feeling.

The distinction between these events and the epiphany of “The Piper” is important. In their rescue of Little Portly, Rat and Mole were essentially witnesses to the “‘power at the helping hour’” and were overwhelmed by it. In the retaking of Toad Hall, the friends become warriors rather than bystanders, exemplars of that special power. Such a heroic victory does not, of course, belie the fact that theirs is essentially a triumph for domesticity, for good food, clean sheets, and hand-written dinner invitations; nor does the victory mean that Toad is now a convert and that the seasonal impulse to break out has been tamed. Once again, the Toad must be taken into “the small smoking room” and talked to, and once again he protests. And yet, in what may be his own middling reversal, Toad begins to see how modesty, not bombast, can make him “the subject of absorbing interest.” What is clear is that our original view of this snugly domestic world has been corrected and that by the close of Grahame’s narrative argument “messing about in boats” and feeling the call of “home” do not seem quite so pedestrian. For we are shown something heroic in defending one’s own ground, in fighting for domestic values, and in achieving the balance and consistency that only come by recognizing the omnipresence of temptation and the siren call of adventure. In the end, it is the “bijou riverside residence” that breeds the heroes of legend, and the life this side of the “well-metalled road” that “holds adventure enough.”

Source: Michael Mendelson, “The Wind in the Willows and the Plotting of Contrast,” in Children’s Literature, Vol. 16, 1988, pp. 127–44.


Critical Evaluation


Critical Overview