The Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Grahame - Essay

Kenneth Grahame

The Wind in the Willows Analysis

  • The Wind in the Willows is Kenneth Grahame's beloved children's book about the adventures of Mole, Rat, Badger, and Toad, four animals living in the English countryside. Mole is the main character, but Toad often steals the show with his wild, reckless behavior. Over time, the four animals become close friends and learn how to live in peace with nature.
  • The Wind in the Willows is structured around Mole's spiritual journey as he comes to understand the true meaning of the wind in the willows. On this journey, Mole has a series of smaller adventures with his friends, in the course of which he learns how to swim and sees the world for the first time.
  • Friendship is an important theme in the novel. Mole first meets Rat while standing on a riverbank, gazing out at the rushing waters. Mole and Rat become fast friends and do everything together, including going on adventures that bring them into contact with Badger and Toad. Soon, all four animals become friends and find peace and happiness together.


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

The Wind in the Willows Kenneth Grahame

Scottish novelist, short story writer, and essayist.

The following entry presents criticism of Grahame’s novel The Wind in the Willows (1908). See also Kenneth Grahame Criticism.

Published in 1908, The Wind in the Willows is regarded as a classic children's novel. Originating from a series of bedtime stories Grahame told his son, Alastair, the book chronicles the adventures of a group of plucky animals, led by the impulsive and childish Mr. Toad. The Wind in the Willows remains one of the most popular books for children in England and the United States and has been translated into several different languages. In addition, it has been adapted for film, television, and the stage many times and inspired several sequels written by different authors.

Plot and Major Characters

The Wind in the Willows focuses on the adventures of a group of four animal friends that exhibit human behavior: Mole, Badger, Rat, and Toad. Commentators note that the book consists of three narratives placed together: the adventures of Toad, the tale of the friendship of Rat and Mole, and the two lyrical chapters on nature entitled “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn” and “Wayfarers All.” The story begins when Mole abandons the spring cleaning of his underground home to take a walk along the riverbank. He meets Rat, and the two become friends. Mole also becomes friends with Toad, the rich owner of Toad Hall. Toad convinces Rat and Mole to take a trip on his gypsy caravan, but during the ride they are forced off the road by a speeding automobile. Entranced, Toad abandons the caravan to follow the car. Rat and Mole return home. Later, Mole gets lost exploring the area across the river known as the Wild Wood. Rat rescues him, and the two find refuge in the safe and warm home of the Badger. Meanwhile, Toad has become obsessed with automobiles and has crashed several cars. Concerned about his young friend, Badger asks Rat and Mole to help him convince Toad to be more responsible. Their appeal to him fails, and Toad is caught stealing a car and is sentenced to twenty years in jail. Toad escapes jail and has many adventures on his trip home. When he finally arrives back at Toad Hall, he finds it overrun with weasels, stoats, and ferrets from the Wild Wood. With the help of his friends, they are able to run the squatters out of the house and enjoy a celebratory banquet. The story ends with Toad resolving to reform.

Major Themes

Commentators have identified one of the major thematic concerns of The Wind of Willows as the journey; in the story, various characters feel the pull of wanderlust and the need to explore space outside of their home region. Yet most of these journeys result in danger and homesickness. Several critics perceive The Wind in the Willows as nostalgic for a long-ago England, before industrialization began to alter the British landscape and customs. Grahame's antagonism toward industrialism has also been detected in Toad's dangerous obsession with automobiles. Toad's pretentiousness and foolishness is a ripe subject for Grahame's humor; therefore, the story is viewed as a comment on England's rigid class system. The beauty of the natural world is another dominant theme in The Wind in the Willows. Reviewers have examined the anthropomorphic nature of the characters: Toad, Rat, Mole, and Badger are archetypal character types who act like human beings.

Critical Reception

Crticial response to The Wind in the Willows was mixed, but opinion eventually improved as a result of its surprising and enduring popularity with children. In fact, Theodore Roosevelt was disappointed by the novel at first, but when his children urged a second reading, he became a fan of The Wind in the Willows. Many critics praised the stylistic variation, slang-filled dialogue, and the repeated comic devices in the story. Commentators maintained that the foolishness and charismatic appeal of Mr. Toad, whose adventures are broken into short sequences, was effective for small children. Reviewers discussed the satire in the novel, particularly the mock-heroic epic section “The Return of Ulysses,” which satirizes the Greek epic poem The Odyssey. They also commended Grahame's attention to detail and power of description, and considered the appeal of Grahame's novel as universal and timeless. The Wind in the Willows remains one of the most beloved children's books in the world.

Principal Works

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Pagan Papers (essays) 1893

The Golden Age (short stories) 1895

Dream Days (short stories) 1898

The Headswoman (short story) 1898

The Wind in the Willows (novel) 1908

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

Fun o’ the Fair (essay) 1929

The Reluctant Dragon (fairy tale) 1938

*First Whisper of ‘The Wind in the Willows’ (short story and letters) 1944

*This collection includes the short story “Bertie’s Escapade.”

Nicholas Tucker (essay date 1969)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Tucker, Nicholas. “The Children's Falstaff.” In Suitable for Children?: Controversies in Children's Literature, edited by Nicholas Tucker, pp. 160-64. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1969, Tucker examines the continuing fascination children have with the character of Toad in The Wind in the Willows.]

Although The Wind in the Willows was written over sixty years ago, there are still no signs of its popularity waning with today's children and parents. It is now in its 105th edition, has a huge annual sale, and every Christmas A.A. Milne's adaptation Toad of Toad Hall is put on in the West End to full houses.

There are many enchanting things in this great work, but undoubtedly part of its continual fascination for children lies in the character and adventures of Toad. For Kenneth Grahame too, Toad was the first inspiration for the whole work. It is in letters to his son, Alastair, that we first hear stories about “this wicked animal”, long before mention of the other riverbank characters. Although, of course, these early adventures of Toad were later absorbed into the main body of the book, they still stand virtually on their own in two of the main chapters, and certainly contain some of the funniest and most exciting episodes.

It says a great deal about children's reading tastes that they should so take to this “bad, low animal”, in Grahame's own words, rather than to some of the more exalted characters that have appeared in children's books. In many ways, of course, Toad is the personification of the spoilt infant and is generally shown to glory in this, despite naggings from Badger and others. Adults who look to children's books for their generally improving qualities will find very little support in this character, which is perhaps why children enjoy him so. With his abundant flow of cash, Toad revels in his own omnipotence, buying house-boats, caravans and motor cars at will, just as in any childish fantasy, and for good measure steals on impulse as well. He is, as Piaget says of infants in general, in the classical egocentric stage; self-willed, boastful, unable to share the limelight, but basically insecure in strange situations, as in the fearful Wild Wood. He is a skilful liar too, but again, like so many infants, Toad seems almost to believe in his own fantasies, and perhaps cannot help treating the truth in such a relative way. When corrected, Toad can be quite genuinely sorry, but his sobs never last for very long, and cannot disguise his basic single-minded obstinacy. Indeed, this can result in the most violent infantile tantrums, where it takes two other animals to haul him upstairs to bed in disgrace, after having been rude and defiant to the stern parent-figure, Mr. Badger.

There is one especially interesting way in which Toad comes close to the hearts of today's children, and in a manner that Grahame could hardly have predicted. Toad was, perhaps, the first of the demon car drivers, or in his own phrases: “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.” Children still warm to this fearful example far more than to any respectable puppet or policeman demonstrating the canons of road safety. Whatever the frightening statistics and the extra menace since Grahame's day, children's sympathies still seem to belong basically with the law-breaker in this tragic...

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Tony Watkins (essay date spring 1984)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Watkins, Tony. “‘Making a Break for the Real England’: The River Bankers Revisited.” Children's Literature Association Quarterly 9, no. 1 (spring 1984): 34-5.

[In the following essay, Watkins views the enduring popularity of The Wind in the Willows as a result of nostalgia for a long-ago England.]

On January 1st, 1983, The Wind in the Willows came out of copyright. A month or two later, the English Tourist Board ran a series of double-spread magazine advertisements featuring The Wind in the Willows prints by Nicholas Price. The advertisements, which depicted Toad, Mole or Rat riding in a vintage car or consulting a map on their way...

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Roderick McGillis (essay date winter 1984-1985)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: McGillis, Roderick. “Utopian Hopes: Criticism Beyond Itself.” Children's Literature Association Quarterly 9, no. 4 (winter 1984-1985): 184-86.

[In the following essay, McGillis offers conservative, radical, and visionary perspectives on The Wind in the Willows.]

“Teaching literature is impossible; that is why it is difficult.”

—Northrop Frye

You will remember in the “sort of fore-court” outside Mole's front door in The Wind in the Willows there are a number of brackets carrying “plaster statuary.” Kenneth Grahame identifies three of the plaster statues as...

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Lois R. Kuznets (essay date 1987)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Kuznets, Lois R. “The Mythological Present of The Wind in the Willows.” In Kenneth Grahame, pp. 97-122. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1987.

[In the following essay, Kuznets provides a thematic and stylistic analysis of The Wind in the Willows, focusing on mythological aspects of the children's book.]

Grahame's many readers waited nearly a decade for yet another sequel to the stories about the five Golden Age children. The Wind in the Willows, appearing in England in October 1908, disappointed them; the manuscript had also disappointed Grahame's English editor, John Lane, who would not chance it, and the American magazine,...

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Juanita Price (essay date 25 January 1988)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Price, Juanita. “Kenneth Grahame's Creation of a Wild Wood.” AB Bookman's Weekly 81 (25 January 1988): 265-71.

[In the following essay, Price traces the origins of The Wind in the Willows.]

One of this century's beloved children's books, popular on both sides of the Atlantic, originated in a series of letters the author wrote to his young son.

What Kenneth Grahame wrote as The Wind in the Willows was a single work of the highest artistry to which any child or adult can return at different times and derive fresh aesthetic joy and revelation. His book is one by which a reader can measure a part of himself—that part which has an...

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Barbara Wall (essay date 1991)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Wall, Barbara. “The Approach of Modernity.” In The Narrator's Voice: The Dilemma of Children's Fiction, pp. 133, 138-42. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1991.

[In the following excerpt, Wall discusses Grahame as a children's author and The Wind in the Willows as a children's book.]

The contribution of Kenneth Grahame (1859-1932) to the evolution of a modern voice in the narration of fiction for children is not easy to assess, in spite of the fact that The Wind in the Willows (1908) is generally regarded as one of the two most celebrated English children's classics, the other being Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Lois R. Kuznets selected...

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Maureen Thum (essay date fall 1992)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Thum, Maureen. “Exploring ‘The Country of the Mind’: Mental Dimensions of Landscape in Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows.Children's Literature Association Quarterly 17, no. 3 (fall 1992): 27-32.

[In the following essay, Thum explores the theme of journeys—mental and physical—in The Wind in the Willows.]

In a 1913 essay entitled “The Fellow that Goes Alone,” Kenneth Grahame speaks of the “country of the mind,” a place to be found during his long, solitary walks in the countryside (Green 6).1 It is a magical territory where ordinary reality can and often does undergo a transformation or transfiguration. In the...

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Peter Hunt (essay date 1994)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Hunt, Peter. “Main Streams and Backwaters: Narrative and Structure.” In The Wind in the Willows: A Fragmented Arcadia, pp. 25-47. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1994.

[In the following essay, Hunt analyzes the narrative structure of The Wind in the Willows, contending that “we cannot separate structure from symbol, symbol from character, or character from language.”]

The Mole was bewitched, entranced, fascinated. By the side of the river he trotted as one trots, when very small, by the side of a man who holds one spellbound by exciting stories; and when tired at last, he sat on the bank, while the river still chattered on to him,...

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Deborah Stevenson (essay date fall 1996)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Stevenson, Deborah. “The River Bank Redux?: Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows and William Horwood's The Willows in Winter.Children's Literature Association Quarterly 21, no. 3 (fall 1996): 126-32.

[In the following essay, Stevenson discusses William Horwood's The Willows in Winter as a sequel to The Wind in the Willows.]

Children's literature has for some time been interested in the sociohistorical forces of literature, the text as reflection and catalyst of culture. Though “new historicism” is a broad term, covering a variety of critical approaches, the method is indispensable for examining the relationship between...

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Mark I. West (essay date 1999)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: West, Mark I. “Narcissism in The Wind in the Willows.” In Psychoanalytic Responses to Children's Literature, edited by Lucy Rollin and Mark I. West, pp. 45-51. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Co., 1999.

[In the following essay, West asserts that Grahame's portrayal of Toad in The Wind in the Willows could almost be an illustration of narcissistic personality disorder.]

Of the four major characters in The Wind in the Willows, Toad has always been the favorite of young readers. This was true even before the book existed as a completed manuscript. Toad, along with Mole, Rat, and Badger, first appeared in bedtime stories that Kenneth...

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Further Reading

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)


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

The first biography of Grahame, relying on the reminiscences of Grahame's widow, Elspeth.

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

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

Green, Peter. Kenneth Grahame, 1859-1932: A Study of His Life, Works and Times. London: John Murray, 1959, 400 p.

Argues that Grahame was far more complex than critics and readers realized, and identifies a number of late...

(The entire section is 401 words.)