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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The Wind in the Willows The Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Grahame

  • 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.

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Nicholas Tucker (essay date 1969)

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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 field, and the following report from the Belfast Telegraph, although not recent, is still typical in this:


(This entire section contains 1466 words.)

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1,000 Belfast school children were shown a series of films dealing with road safety in the Ritz cinema this morning. … The children's reactions to the pictures were worthy of note. They cheered the accidents, and laughed when an elderly cyclist wobbling over the road caused a collision ending in the death of one boy and the maiming of another.

Indeed, one can almost imagine Toad, with his seven smashes and three bouts in hospital under his belt, joining heartily in the fun.

Finally, of course, Toad renounces his old self, just as his audience one day will have to turn away from childhood. But typically, and consistent with Toad's almost irrepressible high spirits, this personal transformation is only wrung out of him extremely unwillingly after a final fling where Toad shows that he has no intention at all of learning any lessons from his previous bad behaviour.

Indeed, young readers sometimes wonder how long this change of personality is really going to last, and answering one such inquiry later on. Grahame himself wrote, “Of course Toad never really reformed; he was by nature incapable of it. But the subject is a painful one to pursue”.

In his admirable biography, Kenneth Grahame, Peter Green traces the origin of Toad to Grahame's son, Alastair, along with touches of Horatio Bottomley and Oscar Wilde in Toad's penchant for loud clothes, after-dinner speaking and final downfall and imprisonment. There is also a certain ludicrous resemblance to the adventures and return of Ulysses. But there is surely another literary origin that must be mentioned, both in his likeness to Toad's actual shape and in his general effect upon the other characters. Grahame himself was for some time Honorary Secretary to the New Shakespeare Society, and Shakespeare was always one of his favourite authors: surely, when writing about Toad the image of Falstaff must have had some influence over him too. As it is, both characters have an intimate, although enforced, connexion with laundry, which finally results in their being thrown into the Thames. They each dress up as somebody else's aunt, and make a presentable, if finally unsuccessful, shot at passing off as an elderly lady. But more importantly, of course, through both of them runs the spirit of personified Riot, a perpetual and irrepressible threat to the status quo both of their friends and of the rather stuffy society outside that condemns them so freely. Falstaff torments the Lord Chief Justice, while Toad, never short of repartee, receives fifteen years' imprisonment for his “gross impertinence” to the rural police. Although Grahame described The Wind in the Willows as “Clean of the clash of sex”, Toad alone has an eye for the women and takes it for granted that the Gaoler's daughter has fallen in love with him, in spite of the social gulf that also separates Falstaff from Doll Tearsheet. Toad's version of his escape from prison improves with each telling very much like Falstaff's Gadshill exploits, and while Falstaff is renounced at the end of the play, the riverbank animals renounce the old Toad, and the book itself goes on to assure us, as opposed to Grahame's letter quoted earlier, that the new Toad goes on to win the universal respect of all local inhabitants around him. Falstaff, in spite of or possibly because of what Tolstoy described as his “Gluttony, drunkenness, debauchery, rascality, deceit and cowardice”, is probably Shakespeare's most popular comic character; Toad, that “dangerous and desperate fellow”, has always been an especial favourite with children.

In fact, so far as adults were concerned, The Wind in the Willows had a cool reception to begin with, and was memorably condemned by The Times, which found that “As a contribution to natural history, the work is negligible”. Opinion soon changed, however, often through the enthusiasm of children. The American President Theodore Roosevelt, for example, was persuaded by his family to give the book a second reading, and overcame his initial disappointment to become an enthusiastic convert. For children themselves, The Wind in the Willows, and especially the adventures of Toad, constituted one of those few books written not at them but for them. Toad himself was a character who dared do and express many of the things they may often have felt like doing, and such children could both feel superior to Toad's obvious deficiencies and excesses and also revel in them at the same time. With any amount of opportunity for moralizing, Grahame leaves the field mercifully clear to a few, largely unsuccessful efforts by the other riverbank animals to get Toad to mend his ways.

In fact, all the characters Grahame created are real and alive and in Toad he gave us a character who was even larger than life and in this sense, surely, becomes the children's Falstaff, whether Grahame consciously intended the connexion or not. We do not find in these pages any of those miserable creations who are merely the mouth-pieces for an adult's stereotyped vision of what is considered to be especially suitable for children. And in this, as in so many other things, The Wind in the Willows continues to be an object lesson for many of those who are writing for children today.


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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.

Tony Watkins (essay date spring 1984)

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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 to a castle, bore the slogan: “The Real England: Make a Break for it.” The ads invited us to explore a “real England” of ancient monuments and of small villages virtually untouched by social and economic change: an England that is timeless, mysterious and yet, simultaneously, small, rural, comfortable and domestic; made up of communities with pastoral and comic-pastoral names like: “Sheepwash,” “Badger's Mount,” “Butterwick” and “Buttocks Booth.” They promise, “Hidden just beyond the noise of the motorway you'll find secret places that have barely changed for hundreds of years:” the real England, the nation's real home.

This series of advertisements sent me back to re-read The Wind in the Willows and to think about the relationship between such established works of children's literature and history: both the history from which the text emerged and the history into which it is received by us as readers. What accounts for the extraordinary popularity of this novel, seventy-five years after its publication?

As commentators have pointed out, The Wind in the Willows consists of three narratives welded (some would say “pasted”) together: the adventures of Toad, derived from bedtime stories and letters from Grahame to his son Alistair, the tale of the friendship of Rat and Mole, and the two lyrical celebrations of nature mysticism, “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn” and “Wayfarers All.” What holds these disparate narratives together? Part of the answer is supplied by two articles, one by Geraldine Poss and the other by Lois Kuznets, that appeared in issues of the Association's annual, Children's Literature. Geraldine Poss's exploration of recurrent pastoral images in the novel and the parallels between Toad's adventures and The Odyssey leads her to describe The Wind in the Willows as “the sweet epic in Arcadia.” Lois Kuznets' article is even more important: she uncovers the significant structural pattern of oppositions in the novel that cluster around “wanderlust” at one pole and “homesickness” at the other. Using Gaston Bachelard's concept of “topophilia,” Lois Kuznets argues that a sense of felicitous space appears in Grahame's

leisurely, almost languid descriptions of the general landscape of The Wind in the Willows and in the attention he pays to particular habitats of his main characters. A search for felicitous space … permeates the structure of The Wind in the Willows.

There is no doubt about the crucial importance in the novel of the tension between a longing for travel and “nostalgia” (homesickness). The latter is the predominant feeling, experienced as loss combined with either an intense longing for home as a place to be regained (Mole End and, to some extent, Toad Hall), or a strong feeling of home as a place to celebrate for its welcome and reassuring continuity (in particular, Badger's kitchen). As Lois Kuznets suggests, such images and feelings certainly relate to both Grahame's own psychology and the appeal the book has had for children and adults. But images of home and the “topophilic” landscape can be related not only at the individual level to the author's or reader's biography, but also at the social and cultural level to the nonconscious structures of the period within which the text was produced or within which it is received. As the geographers D. W. Meinig argues, a landscape can acquire a symbolic status as “an image derived from our national experience, which has been simplified, beautified and widely advertised so as to become a commonly understood symbol.” Further, such landscapes can be “most influential at the national level” as symbols of idealized communities.

The shape of what Raymond Williams calls the “structure of feeling” within which The Wind in the Willows was written is a complex ones. According to Jan Marsh, the collapse of agriculture in the 1870s and the visible decline of the countryside “prompted a sudden rush of nostalgia for rural life. … Pastoral attitudes were reasserted with intensity” among, in particular, “the professional and the rentier classes.” They were the only ones who, “cushioned financially by the proceeds of the hated industrial system,” could afford either to move to the country or holiday there in weekend cottages or gypsy-style caravans. Grahame himself, as a late entrant to such classes, tended to overrate their ideals. The attraction of such a life was partly religious, partly political. Pantheistic Nature worship offered a substitute for a Christianity undermined by Darwinism (articulated in The Wind in the Willows most clearly in the chapter, “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn.”). According to Peter Green, riots in the cities produced among the middle-classes, “terror of revolution and mob violence, the supposed dangers latent in an anarchic, industrialized, no longer rural-subservient proletariat.” In The Wind in the Willows, such a threat comes from the stoats, weasels and ferrets of the Wild Wood; but they are driven back by what Jules Zanger calls representatives of the ordered world of nineteenth century England:

thinly disguised types: Water Rat as private gentleman with a touch of Oxbridge still lingering about him, Badger as bluff country squire, Toad of Toad Hall as landed aristocrat, Mole as emerging Mr. Polly”

The roles and types described here are, perhaps, too schematic, but the description does illuminate our understanding of one dimension of the social and political concerns of the novel. After all, it is Toad who “lets the side down,” betrays the leisured life of the River-Bankers through his addiction to the new attractions of the motor-car. He squanders the money left him by his father, gives the other animals a bad name, and is responsible for letting the insurgents take over Toad Hall. However, Toad Hall is cleansed through the collective efforts of the River-Bankers; the “self-contained gentleman's residence dating in part from the 14th century,” with “handsome Tudor window” and banqueting hall, “but replete with every modern convenience;” “the handsome, dignified old house of mellowed red brick,” part of the heritage of the River-Bankers, is saved. The aristocratic, heroic values are simultaneously mocked and lauded. But, above all, what is restored at the end of the novel is a vision of the good life: order, tranquility, harmony: the virtues that men like Ruskin believed were being destroyed by industrial progress. But it is utopia of a particular social group: the River-Bankers. A way of life that Peter Green has described as “the rentier's rural dream,” with the countryside not as a place of work but redefined as an Arcadia of rural leisure.

What is important for us is the way that version of utopia has come to occupy a dominant place in the cultural myth of “the English way of life.” It has become part of the “real England,” a national felicitous space, our home, for which many express intense nostalgia. That “real England” co-exists with an actual England that is far from ideal; the real is “hidden away,” “just beyond the noise of the motorways.” Through the agency of romance fantasy, ordinary reality can be transformed.

What was formed in the latter half of the nineteenth century as a result of specific social, economic and industrial changes, was a set of cultural representations (inscribed within actual social activities) which has come to constitute a kind of National Heritage. This Heritage has, through tourism, forged a link with leisure. According to Michael Bommes and Patrick Wright, it depicts utopia as

a dichotomous realm existing alongside the everyday. Like the utopianism from which it draws, National Heritage involves positive energies which certainly can't be written off as ideology. It engages hopes, dissatisfactions, senses of tradition and freedom, but it tends to do so in a way that diverts these potentially disruptive energies into the separate and regulated space of leisure.

National Heritage is predominantly rural, pre-industrial and apparently classless and timeless. It stands above history. Yet it has an ambivalent relationship to Toad's pride and joy—the motor-car. Automobiles are both a threat to the utopia offered and the means by which people may find it. Thus, the images have been sustained over the years by such contradictory groups as the National Trust, the Shell Oil Company and now, the English Tourist Board.

National Heritage seems closely related to what Fredric Jameson calls a “protonarrative,” to which a more recognizeable narrative—The Wind in the Willows—can be articulated. The images can be drawn upon by the English Tourist Board because there is a remarkable compatibility between the nostalgia of Grahame's book and that of the “protonarrative” of National Heritage, the “real England.” Both are simultaneously utopian and ideological.

The continuing popularity of the novel may be due not only to the resonances of homesickness it evokes in individual readers. It can be argued that texts of any kind are never offered to readers in isolation: they are offered through the institutional practices of various kinds within a specific historical context. The texts of children's literature are offered through the practices and discourses of criticism and through the cultural institutions of the family and education. The “meanings” of a work are offered to children and adults within a specific social context. Rereading The Wind in the Willows in the context of nostalgia for the “real England” may help us understand a little more about the space occupied by the category “children's literature” in our culture.

Works Cited

Bachelard, Gaston, The Poetics of Space, trans. Maria Jolas. New York: Orion, 1964.

Bommes, Michael, and Patrick Wright. “‘Charms of Residence:’ the Public and the Past, in Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, Making Histories. London: Hutchinson, 1982.

Green, Peter. “The Rentier's Rural Dream.” Times Literary Supplement, Nov. 26, 1982, 1299-1301.

Jameson, Frederic. The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act. London: Methuen, 1983.

Kuznets, Lois R. “Toad Hall Revisted,” Children's Literature 7 (1978), 115-128.

Marsh, Jan. Back to the Land: the Pastoral Impulse in England from 1880 to 1914. London: Quartet, 1982.

Meinig, D. W. The Interpretation of Ordinary Landscapes: Geographical Essays. New York: Oxford, 1979.

Poss, Geraldine D. “An Epic in Arcadia: the Pastoral World of The Wind in the Willows,Children's Literature 4 (1975), 80-90.

Williams, Raymond. The Country and the City. London: Paladin, 1975.

Zanger, Julius. “Goblins, Morlocks and Weasels: Classic Fantasy and the Industrial Revolution,” Children's Literature in Education 8,4 (1977), 154-162.

Principal Works

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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.”

Roderick McGillis (essay date winter 1984-1985)

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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 Garibaldi, the infant Samuel, and Queen Victoria. None of these three were literary critics, but had they been, each of their critical perspectives would have been quite different from the others'. I feel somewhat in the position of the infant Samuel, if for a moment we can imagine him as a critic called by the voice of theory. The voice called Samuel three times, but three times he was unable to respond because he did not know his subject; the fourth time the call came, Samuel responded, but being young and inexperienced he feared to repeat what he had heard. The voice of theory must call each of us, but like Samuel I am not sure I understand what it says. Unlike the voice Samuel heard, the voice of theory is not single and revelatory, but multitudinous and bewildering.

The topic addresses this multitudinous and bewildering voice: critical perspectives on children's literature. Perhaps the topic is actually the problem, since we have no lack of critical perspectives and most, if not all, of them have the frustrating tendency of coming between the reader and his experience. We are so quick to theorize, to classify, to articulate structural principles, to moralize, or to defend a point of view that the experience of literature, the experience of what Georges Puolet calls “interiority,” the mutual possession of reader and text, is lost. I suspect that much of what is wrong with the teaching of literature to the young stems from the belief that something called “literary competence” is to be achieved through the early and systematic study of what we now refer to as the “grammar” of literature, or from the opposite notion that since all knowledge is subjective we ought to encourage the student to emote, to say whatever comes into her head when we ask her to comment on a text. If we must situate ourselves somewhere between these two extremes, I presently lean to the subjective approach, because it offers a means of circumventing criticism in order to return the reader to the text. Of course, there is no way to circumvent criticism; either we remain in innocence or we enter the land unknown and look for its secrets.

Many students I have known look, like Thel, with hesitant, timorous, and decidedly reluctant gaze, on the critical landscape; a few others become good little clods of clay. But surely criticism need not become, as it has for so many academic readers, more important than the literature it takes for its raw material. I fear descending into cliché, but the “experience of literature itself” should be our goal, and this experience is available to all readers. If criticism is to help us share our experience of literature, it must do so by pointing beyond itself, and to point beyond itself criticism, as Northrop Frye suggests, “needs to be actively iconoclastic about itself” (77).

The land unknown that I referred to with allegoric briskness in the last paragraph is that formidable structure of words that criticism attempts to make sense of: literature. An example of the secrets literature has is the plaster statuary I mentioned when I began. In a book about a group of amiable animals who live near an English river, who rarely travel beyond the sound of the current's ripple, and who have an allegiance to the great god Pan, why do we have statues of a biblical prophet in his infancy, the Queen of England, and one of the most famous mid-century radicals? I have for a long time considered these statues as the keys to the book's meaning, but for my purpose here I will suggest that they may also present us with three ways of reading The Wind in the Willows, and by implication of reading any book. At the risk of being shamefully reductive, I will call these ways of reading the conservative, the radical, and the visionary. All three have as an ultimate aim the furtherance of utopian hopes, but my contention is that only the last, refusing as it does the quest for power and the voice of authority, preserves the integrity of these hopes.

A conservative approach to The Wind in the Willows might well look on the book with nostalgia, and find the emphasis on the sweetness of home, on the simplicity of life, and on the order of society convincing and attractive. The “inner myth” of the book, as Peter Green calls it, suggests a middle-class view of the world. A critic approaching the book from what I am calling a conservative perspective would allow himself to indulge in affective assertions. For example, he might write, as Roger Sale has in fact written, that the pleasure of The Wind in the Willows “is the pleasure of enclosed space, of entering a charmed circle, of living in a timeless snugness” (168). If the critic's concern is with children, he might argue that the child reader can identify with the characters and that the value structure of the book, built as it is on such attractive ideas as “home,” “friendship,” “experience,” and “nature,” offers security and reinforcement for the young reader. We are warmed, Rebecca Lukens notes, “by discovering among other things that one loves one's home where one's belongings are, and that even the most contented finds faraway places alluring” (50).

The emphasis on “home” is especially important. Here is Fred Inglis on Grahame's evocation of home:

Badger's kitchen unselfconsciously embodies continuity: the magic reverberance of the word ‘home’ and all its rich cognates tingle in the plenitude of the ceiling hung with ‘bundles of dried herbs’ and ‘nets of onions’ … All that home means in Kenneth Grahame has since undergone a sharp attenuation under the minute, relentless bombardment of the doctrines of mobility, obsolescence, and acquisitiveness.


The values of the River Bank society are dear to this critic, who concentrates his reading of the book on the first five chapters. When he does allude to the politics of social inequality, he does so to slight this aspect of the book. He writes: “It is not a trivial point that they are insurgent working-class weasels and stoats who are thrown out of Toad Hall at the end but the point does not touch the heart of Grahame's matter; the recovery of home is as important there as it is when Mole finds Mole End again one snow-threatening Christmas Eve. … Quite simply, Grahame creates a Utopia … and its outline is visible today” (122-123). For Inglis, Grahame offers the reader “an image of happiness perfectly combined with innocence, and all of us would wish our children to feel the strength of such an image” (119-120). I hope it is apparent that readings of this kind function on the belief that literature can sustain us, warm us, reassure us, make us better people, perhaps even quieten us.

It is worth noting that such impressionistic and affective commentary has its formal complement. The same critic who states that The Wind in the Willows warms us, also uses the book as an example of a work with an “episodic plot.” This kind of plot differs from the “progressive plot” in that the pattern of action does not lead through the “rising action to the central climax,” but rather it proceeds through discrete episodes (Lukens, 57). This is the approach I experienced when I was in elementary school years ago. Memorize the structures of literature and you will have acquired essential knowledge for living. I hated it. To be chocked full of literary competence was to transform you into an educated, cultured individual prepared to assume your station in society. Besides knowing that The Wind in the Willows has an episodic plot (even here it is perhaps truer to say that the book uses both episodic and progressive plots), you might also know that it has a pastoral vision and that it contains a parody of the heroic quest. This last point, understated or not, will be important to the conservative critic because the hero as adventurer threatens society; the critic will wish to see Toad as a converted toad fixed firmly within the society he had once threatened through his irresponsible individualism. In this book, the group, the community itself is heroic.

Such a view of The Wind in the Willows will leave some readers uneasy. From the formal and emotional perspective is not Grahame's vision, as winsome and warm as it is, regressive? Do we not miss much of the point if we ignore the tensions in the book, tensions that derive from the historical moment? Is it not misleading to find values of permanent relevance in the pastoralism of The Wind in the Willows? Instead of the “Thames-side Shangri-La of simple pleasures” that Peter Green sees in the book's pastoralism (xvii), might a better account read something like this:

[Pastoral] offers a political interpretation of both past and present. It is a propagandist reconstruction of history. … An audience is lulled into a false sense of empirical security by being told relatively unimportant things that are demonstrably true. Topographical details work well like this. Then the ‘great lie’ is smuggled in among such a collection of platitudes. The ‘great lie’ in pastoral concerns its presentation of change. Economic change in rural society is invariably presented as an external agency, despite the fact that rural society carried the seeds of its own destruction within itself. Capitalism was really quite at home in both the long and the short grass of rural England … pastoral endorsed the essentially aristocratic codes of conspicuous consumption, idle ease and languid leisure. Oaten reeds merely disguised aristocratic deeds. … Before you become too nostalgic about the merry old days of rural England, it is worth thinking about which groups have a vested interest in such nostalgia.


Such a view of pastoral is historical and overtly political, and although the writer—Roger Sales—concerns himself with the period 1780-1830, we can easily relate his account of Romantic pastoral to The Wind in the Willows. Whereas the conservative critic will find the first five chapters of Grahame's book the most satisfying, a radical critic would most likely concentrate on the rebellious stoats and weasels and their storming of Toad Hall, that symbol of conspicuous consumption, idle ease, and languid leisure. I say “most likely” because, to the best of my knowledge, we do not have a radical reading of The Wind in the Willows. Were we to have one, it would conform to Terry Eagleton's dictum that a radical commentary “will contribute to the strategic goal of human emancipation, the production of ‘better people’ through the socialist transformation of society” (211). The return of Toad Hall to its aristocratic owner, the vision of society neatly and securely ordered in a class system, and the assertion that Toad is indeed “altered” will seem retrograde. Grahame's anxiety over social and technological change will seem escapist and anything but utopian. Grahame's Arcadian vision cannot compete with the vision of Utopia as a city which reflects man's ascendancy over, rather than his harmony with, nature. Instead of looking backward, the utopia looks forward to the proper end of social progress. The defeat of the stoats and weasels, the dismissal of the motor car, are signs of a mole-like retreat from social reality. The difficulty I have with this approach is that the call to action of a radical theory merely inverts the encouragement to inaction of a conservative theory. The literary imagination, as Frye remarks, “is less concerned with achieving ends than with visualizing possibilities” (The Stubborn Structure, 116).

And so how do we read The Wind in the Willows: We might begin with the reminder that the “primary function of education is to make one maladjusted to ordinary society” (The Stubborn Structure, 5). It seems to me that The Wind in the Willows is educative in just this way: it removes easy certainties and directs our attention to a society that is not ordinary, not actual. The Wind in the Willows can teach us that society, that reality, exist in our imaginations. Let me take one example from the book: the home. All commentaries I know take the Dulce Domum of chapter 5 literally: the home is sweet, safe, stable; in short, it is felicitous space, to use Lois Kuznets' term. A less sympathetic reader might focus on Toad Hall as a house that represents social inequality. In either case, the home is both a place and a value that we might wish to realize in our lives or that we might wish to overturn. Both reactions are, from an imaginative point of view, misguided. The home in The Wind in the Willows is both an anchor and a trap, both an escape and a prison. On the first page Mole “bolts” out of his house and then scrapes, scratches, scrabbles, and scrooges his way to the sunlight. Space is less than felicitous when it has to be dusted, swept, and whitewashed.

But the test case is chapter 5: Dulce Domum. The vision of Mole's “our little home,” his “anchorage,” beckoning, welcoming, and warming him and his guests on a cold Christmas eve is compelling. It is also incomplete. The clue is perhaps at the beginning of the chapter, when Mole and Ratty plod home through the cold and the snow. They come to a village and spend a moment observing and contemplating the interiors of the cottages, most of whose “low latticed windows were innocent of blinds.” On the one hand, the contract between interior and exterior signifies the goodness of these home in which the people

gathered round the tea-table, absorbed in handiwork, or talking with laughter and gesture, had each that happy grace which is the last thing the skilled actor shall capture. … Moving at will from one theatre to another, the two spectators, so far from home themselves, had something of wistfulness in their eyes as they watched a cat being stroked, a sleepy child picked up and huddled off to bed, or a tired man stretch and knock out his pipe on the end of a smouldering log.

This vision of the comforts of home appears sweetness itself. But note the cat. The home fires might well be something to yearn for, but there is a price for such cosiness as we see in these homes. The next paragraph moves to “one little window, with its blind drawn down, a mere blank transparency on the night.” Clearly visible behind the white blind is a bird cage with a sleeping bird. As Ratty and Mole watch, “the sleepy little fellow” wakes, raises his head and yawns “in a bored sort of way.” Surely we have here a reminder that an animal's freedom is lost when domestication comes its way. And yet, domestication has its allurements.

Allurements are exactly what the home offers. Critics are fond of noting that The Wind in the Willows is, as Grahame wished, free of the “clash of sex,” but they are wrong. Those “mysterious fairy calls” that reach Mole in the darkness as he and Ratty proceed on their way are a vamp's temptation. Here is the passage: “Home! That was what they meant, those caressing appeals, those soft touches wafted through the air, those invisible little hands pulling and tugging, all one way.” The sexual metaphor has its complement in a metaphor of capture: “And now [his old home] was sending out its scouts and its messengers to capture him and bring him in.” The language suggests the paradox of a home that both satisfies and dissatisfies. By the end of the chapter, Ratty has successfully brought Mole to the “frame of mind” in which he sees clearly how plain, simple, and narrow his home is; he does not wish to “creep home and stay there.” Yet his home is of “special value;” his “anchorage” is more idea than place. Home has become an imaginative possibility, something not left behind but forever there ready for recreation. This vision of imaginative fulfillment, its possibility yet its ever receding movement, is everywhere in the book suggesting that neither travel nor home, neither energy nor indolence can finally fulfill. The only true home is an imaginative one built, like Badger's, on the foundation of history, and serving as shelter for heroes or harvesters. Its fires should play over everything “without distinction.”

Just as the homes in The Winds in the Willows are vulnerable to change, so is the society itself. Despite the quiet ending, we know that the taming of the Wild Wood continues because of fear. We also know that the motor car and the steam train will not go away: the pre-industrial Arcadia of the River Bank will pass into history, although as an imaginative possibility, as the English Tourist Board realizes, it endures. As long as it does endure we must strive to recreate it, and our striving is a reflection of our freedom. We remain free only so long as we remain maladjusted to ordinary society. Criticism offers us a power to fend off the loud world; this power is both personal and communal. I said earlier that a visionary criticism refuses the quest for power and the voice of authority. What I meant by this is that the true critical voice seeks not control, not possession, but detachment. It seeks not the limitation of meaning, nor does it seek to abandon intellect. As teachers we must, and again I echo William Blake, stain the waters clear. The true act of teaching, like the true voice of criticism, is to detach our students from us, to liberate their imaginations and we can only do this if we touch them with ours.

So how do we teach our students that The Wind in the Willows is a visionary book, a book that tells us we can travel much farther in our imaginations that we can on foot or by train or boat? Well, we do not. What we try to do, I hope, is to strengthen the student's own response by directing him or her to the book's poetry, to that aspect of writing students most often learn to pass by. I am speaking, of course, about language and metaphor, those things we ignore when we rush to introduce young students to plot structures and character types. These things they will learn anyway, but their spontaneous love of language, of poetry, of rhythm and the activities of the singing school too easily are lost. Before we begin to systematize we must have, as Shelley says, the strength to imagine that which we know, and we know the energy of poetry sings in all young hearts. I am calling for an impossibility, but without the belief in a community of readers, each singing in his own voice and yet in harmony, utopian hopes will descend into the arena of the actual. We must continue to believe in that nowhere our language in its imaginative capacity creates and recreates.

The dignity of our enterprise should be to liberate our students from the stock response, and for those who work with children this should be a joy, since the younger the child the freer she is from stock responses. For those students who are older, who want us to provide the certainty of meaning, who tell us, as Mole tells Ratty, “You hear better than I. … I cannot catch the words,” we can do no better than leave them in Mole's position at the end of “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn”: understanding the silence.

Works Cited

Eagleton, Terry. Literary Theory: An Introduction. Oxford: Bassil Blackwell, 1983.

Frye, Northrop. The Stubborn Structure. Ithaca, NY: Cornell, 1970.

Green, Peter. “Introduction,” Wind in the willows. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983.

Inglis, Fred. The Promise of Happiness. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981.

Kuznets, Lois R. “Toad Hall Revisited,” Children's Literature 7 (1978):115-128.

Lukens, Rebecca J. A Critical Handbook of Children's Literature. Glenview, IL: Scott, Foresman, 1976.

Poulet, Georges. “Criticism and the Experience of interiority,” The Structuralist Controversy, ed. Richard Macksey and Eugenio Donato. Baltimore: John Hopkins, 1972. 56-72.

Sale, Roger, Fairy Tales and After. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1978.

Sales, Roger. 1780-1830: Pastoral and Politics. London: Hutchinson, 1983.

Lois R. Kuznets (essay date 1987)

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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, Everybody's, which, through Constance Smedley, had first solicited the new work. Methuen in England and Scribner's in America thus took a gamble, the latter at the urging of the recently won-over Teddy Roosevelt. This was a gamble neither publisher had reason to regret in later years.

Contemporary critics were not as lucky in the eyes of posterity. Their rather biting remarks about this “animal fable” show little perception of the true nature of the work and poor judgment about the standards to apply to it.1 However, to give them sympathy if not credit, The Wind in the Willows, as a novel-length animal fantasy for children, had no clear generic predecessor on which they could lean. Although both had their influence on Grahame's work, Richard Jefferies's anthropomorphizing tale, Wood Magic (1881), was far more clearly allegorical than Grahame's, as was Carroll's earlier Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865). Moreover, a child protagonist was central to these earlier books, as it was to Grahame's own “The Reluctant Dragon,” while The Wind in the Willows shifted the identification of the reader to the animal characters themselves. The first adult readers of Grahame's The Wind in the Willows showed little adaptability to this identification, which seemed to come quite naturally, however, to the first child readers—tested as it were on Alastair Grahame, otherwise known as Mouse.


The plot of The Wind in the Willows is generally simple and easy to follow. The structure becomes only somewhat complex in the middle of the book when chapters begin to alternate between the experiences of the stay-at-home characters, Rat and Mole, and the adventures of Toad, who is out in what Grahame calls the Wide World.

One spring day Mole pops his head out of his hole and decides to abandon the spring cleaning of his underground home for a stroll along the riverbank. Here he meets the friendly Water Rat and is quickly introduced by him to the joys of “messing about in boats” and lavish picnics (chapter 1). Although Mole does not understand Rat's penchant for writing poetry, their friendship develops rapidly. Mole remains with his new friend for more than a year, learning river lore and meeting another river dweller, the rich and faddist Toad, owner of Toad Hall. The latter persuades them to hit the open road with him in his well-appointed gypsy caravan, drawn by a much protesting horse who finally upsets the contraption when forced off the road by a speeding, “poop-pooping” motor car. The car entrances Toad, who abandons the caravan without a backward glance; Rat and Mole are happy to get back home in one piece (chapter 2).

As the year goes on, Mole is anxious to explore more, including the area across the river known as the Wild Wood, inhabited by creatures considered unreliable by Rat, except for the gruff and rather unsociable Badger, who lives underground in its center. Exploring alone, Mole becomes lost and terrified; Rat finds him, but the two friends are endangered by an early snowstorm until they stumble upon Badger's doorstep and find refuge with him (chapter 3). Badger's underground hospitality is welcome and warming (chapter 4), just as is Mole's underground home when, later, close to Christmas, he and Rat wander back to it and Mole has the opportunity to become reacquainted with its charms. Reassured by its continued existence, he is able to leave his home once again (chapter 5).

Meanwhile, however, Toad has been indulging in his motorcar mania, wrecking car after car. When he wakes from his winter nap, Badger, who takes a paternal interest in Toad, the son of a dead friend, insists that Rat and Mole must help him to “persuade” Toad to reform. They do this finally by locking him into his bedroom and guarding him. Through trickery, Toad escapes, finds another motor car to steal, is caught, tried, convicted, and sentenced to jail for twenty years (chapter 6). While Toad is gone, Rat and Mole have several other experiences together; the first is a mystical one when they go searching for the lost son of Otter, Portly, and, late on a summer night, find him on an island in the middle of a weir, under the protection of Pan, the nature god (chapter 7).

Toad, jailed and in despair, nevertheless develops some semblance of his old self under the ministrations of the sympathetic jailer's daughter, who also arranges for him to escape in the clothing of her aunt, the jail's washerwoman. His escape is much complicated by this disguise, although he uses it upon occasion to gain sympathy. First going to a railway station, he finds himself without money and papers. He prevails upon the engine driver, however, to take him on. When they are chased by another engine bearing the forces of law and order, Toad manages, with the connivance of the engine driver, to jump from the train (chapter 8).

During this period, Rat, back at home, also experiences wanderlust when he sees all of his friends packing to go south for the winter. A passing Sea Rat enchants him with tales of far-off places and almost persuades him to come along. Mole has forceably to restrain him and return his attention to writing poetry (chapter 9).

Toad, still in washerwomen's clothes, is having further adventures trying to get home; he hitches a ride on a barge from which he is thrown off by the bargewoman when he cannot wash her clothes; he steals the barge horse and trades it to a Gypsy for pocket money and a meal; he is picked up by and attempts once more to steal the same motorcar he stole before. He finally is chased into the river, from which he is hauled out at Rat's doorstep (chapter 10).

All the main characters come together again at this point in order to help Toad regain possession of Toad Hall, which in his absence, despite the efforts of his friends, has been taken over by weasels, stoats, and ferrets, the untrustworthy inhabitants of the Wild Woods. Under Badger's direction, the four animals plan a successful invasion through underground passages, rout the false inhabitants, cleanse the hall, and enjoy a triumphal banquet. Throughout, Toad is forced to take a modest backseat, despite his efforts to dominate at each stage of the affair and then his exhibitionist plans for the banquet. The book ends with this gala celebration of the somewhat dubious reformation of Toad and the maintenance of the status quo effected by his good friends (chapters 11-12).

Even given in the above detail, the plot may seem simpler and more trivial than it appears upon careful examination. Beneath its surface is a unity and subtle thematic structure that have fooled some readers even up to the present day; they describe the novel too facilely as episodic. Such readings assume that Grahame was still writing as he did about the five children in his previous two books. He was not. In various ways, over these years of relative silence, Grahame acquired a sense of total form that he did not exhibit in any of the three earlier works and only previously mastered in the relatively short The Headswoman and “The Reluctant Dragon.”

To some extent, this sense of form was already built into the story in its first written manifestation, the letters that Grahame sent to his son during their periods away from each other from early May through September of 1907.2 With certain notable exceptions, these fifteen letters preserved by Miss Stott, Alastair's governess, feature Toad's adventures in outline much as they appear in the book in chapters 6, 8, and 10-12. They provide the basic outline of the mock-epic plot of The Wind in the Willows, with Toad taking the part of a mock Odysseus or Ulysses in his journey back to a home which has been invaded by alien presences and must be cleansed of them. (These invaders, of course, replace the Odyssean suitors in a world without the faithful Odyssean wife, Penelope.) When writing the book, Grahame made perfectly clear the allusion to the Odyssey in the title of its last chapter—“The Return of Ulysses”—and, in a number of more subtle ways, stylistic and otherwise, echoes the Greek poem. Moreover, although in the case of the taking of the hall Badger and Mole seem to be the ones who display the military strategy for which Ulysses was famous, Toad's essential character, even at his most comical, is like that of Ulysses in one trait that has also been emphasized by classical scholars: that is, Ulysses is a trickster. Throughout his misadventures, Toad, like Ulysses with Cyclops and others, is a successful con man.

Grahame adopts also the traditional twelve-part epic structure, including within its boundaries many other incidents that do not affect or include Toad in any way. This is because Toad, colorful as he is and clearly beloved of the child audience, is not the only Odyssean protagonist. Those who ignore the parts played by Rat and Mole in particular fail to grasp the totality of the book. For this and other reasons, A. A. Milne's theatrical adaptation, Toad of Toad Hall, for example, successful as it may be as a play, fails to do justice to the novel. The special quality that holds the book together and knits the beginning of the book thematically with its ending is Grahame's stripping down of the Odyssean adventure to a certain bare essential meaningful to him personally—the search for one's true home—and his repeating it for three main characters—Mole, Rat, and Toad. He ignores the incidents involving Penelope. Yet at the same time, partly through the adventure of the little otter Portly, he manages to highlight the Telemachan aspect of the Odyssey, the unfortunate separation of father (Ulysses) and son (Telemachus). The structure of The Wind in the Willows is, therefore, composed of variations on the Odyssean theme of departure from and return to home: one strongly accented motif in the development of this theme is the relationship between fathers and sons; one repressed motif is the relationship between husbands and wives.


In order to examine adequately Grahame's development of this theme one must pay particular attention to his use of setting and time, or, more specifically, space and season. The playwright Graham Robertson, Grahame's friend and one-time London neighbor, once overheard Grahame saying to his wife, “You like people. They interest you. I am interested in places!3 Grahame certainly proves himself too much a master of character to be taken as unobservant of people. Yet his interest in place in both life and literature is unusually strong, even for one so influenced by the English romantics. Not nature alone but all types of settings, interior and exterior, take a foreground rather than a background position in his work, influencing and supporting the thematic structure and the nature of character development itself in The Wind in the Willows.

The work of Gaston Bachelard, who, in a book called The Poetics of Space, examines literary images of space in the poetry of Baudelaire and Rilke, can provide key terms for what Grahame seems to be expressing in his declaration, “I am interested in places!4 Bachelard describes such a stance as “topophilic” (partaking of love [Greek philia] of place [Greek topos]), and claims that a display of such topophilia in a work of art is usually associated with remembrance and evocation of a “felicitious space,” often taken from early childhood. In Bachelard's terms, felicitous space is found in a place, interior or exterior, where one feels secure enough to allow one's imagination freely and safely to roam and play without fear of being psychically stifled or physically endangered.

Grahame implied such an affinity for the Mount, Cookham Dene—the large house and the surrounding Berkshire countryside, with its river and downs—when he spoke to Constance Smedley about those years that were largely spent there. He said of the years when he was four to seven years old that they were formative in the development of his consciousness.5 Two of these years were spent in Cookham Dene, to which he returned in 1906. This setting gave him, at least for the duration of its composition, the imaginative freedom to shape and complete his masterpiece of topophilia. He obviously felt that he had somehow succeeded in finding here his true home, from which he had departed so long ago. He celebrated this return in the variations on the Odyssean pattern in The Wind in the Willows, examining over and over again various images of felicitous space and his characters' changing relationships to them.

Grahame does this partly by having Rat, in a discussion with Mole in the first chapter of the book, distinguish what he considers to be felicitous space in the simplified geography that he projects. Three divisions of space exist in Rat's mind: the River and its Bank, the Wild Wood on one side of it, and the Wide World that surrounds both. As far as Rat is concerned, only the first is truly felicitous space, for the River to him is “brother and sister … and aunts, and company and food and drink, … It's 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” (W, [The Wind in the Willows,] 10). The Wild Wood, in contrast, is filled by untrustworthy creatures and, to Rat, the Wide World simply “doesn't matter” (W, 11). This particular division of felicitous and infelicitous space is essentially confirmed by the developments in the book, although not without some serious questioning.

Like Charles Dickens in Our Mutual Friend and Mark Twain in Huckleberry Finn, Grahame takes the image of the river, which has archetypal associations with the flow of life and time itself, and emphasizes those aspects of it that will best confirm the particular view of life he means to convey (quite a different view from that of either Dickens or Twain). In The Wind in the Willows, this means ignoring what is actually happening along the Thames, already polluted in Grahame's day, and envisioning the water as pure and life-enhancing (only occasionally invaded in a rather jolly way by a bottle thrown off a pleasure boat). This river provides not only all of life's necessities but most of its pleasures, both physical and emotional. The River is clearly considered to be imagination-enhancing, like all of the felicitous space that Bachelard recognizes. Rat's poetry is inspired by it. Almost immediately, Mole, not at all the poet, also senses this quality in his first exhilarating encounter with the River. By page 4, Mole is “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, a babbling procession of the best stories in the world, sent from the heart of the earth to be told at last to the insatiable sea” (W, 4).

Such bodies of water are archetypically associated with females and maternity, but Grahame, as can be seen from the description of Mole's enchantment, firmly establishes his own paternal theme in association with the river. This theme is further developed in chapter 7 in the scene with Pan, a scene that suggests that some space can be too marvelous to be felicitous, at least in Bachelard's terms. When Rat first outlines his revealing geography, he is unaware that an island exists in the middle of the Weir, an island on which Pan resides. Rat's and Mole's discovery of the island, while helping Otter search for his lost son Portly, provides each with his own characteristic epiphany and vision of a heavenly home for which neither earthly creatures is yet ready. Young Portly, meanwhile, has an experience of a heavenly father who is only standing in temporarily for his own father waiting anxiously at home for him.

Portly's sojourn on the island is a death that has no sting, but the space seen here, secure and beautiful as it is, is not immediately desirable: Grahame (unlike some early writers for children) is not ready to send his childlike characters to their heavenly home prematurely. In addition, the inspiration the Piper at the Gates of Dawn (as he names Pan in the chapter heading) and his music afford is too ethereal to be conveyed in earthly poetry. Rat, therefore, although the most affected by the vision, will be able to remember it no more than will Mole or Portly, and will continue to find his inspiration in the River and its mundane life, just as Portly will be satisfied with his good-enough father, Otter.

What makes this mundane life pleasant rather than boring is that Grahame's characters first of all do not have to grub for their livings. These small woodland creatures do not represent farmhands who toil from morning to night for their bread. Like such rural workers, however, they are allowed to live by a pastoral clock in a world whose modernity is signaled largely (and perhaps fatally) by the motor car. Time, like the River, flows past in the book, marked not by hours and obligations but by diurnal and seasonal rhythms. The characters take the best they can out of a pastoral world, where daytime activity and nighttime rest, summertime boating and picnicking outdoors, wintertime dozing and telling stories by the fire are made equally appealing. Contentment with diurnal and seasonal rhythms is enhanced by the depiction of evening and winter as the times in which emotion can be recollected in tranquillity and imagination transposed into art; these are the times when images of felicitous space take shape in “river stories” and the like (W, 21).

With this emphasis on imaginative recreation comes a concomitant emphasis on the domestic space that shields the storytellers from the dark and the cold. Interiors are examined minutely for anthropomorphic details of comfort, reminding us of the narrator's consuming interest in arrangements of the Rector's study in Grahame's Golden Age story, “The Harvest.” Beyond this, however, four major domiciles are contrasted: Badger's elaborate and ancient underground home; Mole's modest abode, just under the surface of the earth; the accessible riverbank dwelling of Rat; and the elaborate ancestoral mansion inherited by Toad.

While the elderly and stubbornly unchanging Badger seems to have found a perfect and stable match in his dwelling, each of the three major protagonists has a crisis in some way associated with his home and how close it comes to satisfying his personal needs.6 In the depiction of these crises one can discern a major tension that seems to arise from Grahame's underlying recognition, if not direct admission, of the fact that finding a true home may force the individual psyche into an uneasy compromise between an individual's need for security and tranquillity and his often conflictual need for freedom and adventure, a need that cannot always be satisfied by the imagination. From those whose need for adventure is high, even the relatively free and little onerous domesticity lauded here can exact a psychic toll that may be the opposite of truly felicitous.


The degree to which the characters in this work are realistically delineated as animals, except in name, is debatable. Grahame's anthropomorphizing goes much farther than that of his contemporary, Beatrix Potter, for instance. She may dress Peter Rabbit up in a jacket, but sends him out to steal vegetables, not motor cars, an adventure quite in keeping with his rabbit nature. In addition, Potter strictly observes realistic scale in both her drawings and the interaction of her characters with natural or man-made objects.

In contrast, one can observe from the beginning of The Wind in the Willows that Grahame's Mole is not blind and that Grahame in his writing takes no pains to scale Rat's rowboat or his picnic basket to size (causing problems for his illustrators). These objects seem the very accoutrements of a creature whose nature is that of a gentleman poet and intellectual of independent means—which is what Rat is. Grahame could certainly have depicted his animals more naturalistically had he so wished. He nevertheless did not choose to limit himself in this way, achieving results that suggest that he was really more interested in people, even people with problems, than in animals or nature per se.

While all of the four major characters in The Wind in the Willows are ostensibly animals, they are also ostensibly adult. Those who are familiar with Grahame's earlier writing will recognize that these grown-up animals, Rat and Mole in particular, bear some resemblance in manner to the imaginative, childlike men—the Rector, the Artist, the funny man—whom Grahame created earlier; good, courteous fellows, often dreamers, still always ready to participate in those activities that are of interest to children. More clearly, however, than these exemplary Olympians, the animal characters are burdened by neither sexual longings nor professional ambitions. Moreover, the animals are free from the immediate domestic restraints that Grahame envisions as hampering either children or adults: parents, aunts and uncles, wives, domineering housekeepers, and stingy relatives. The animals also have no adult need to work for a living and submit to the other restraints that work entails. They thus live in a state of idyllic grace, relieved of many animal and human limitations. Yet Grahame also makes it clear, both explicitly and implicitly, that the major animal characters also live within a narrow range of the class system governing British social relationships in Grahame's day.

Mole, Rat, and Toad are created as recognizable middle-class types, ranging from lower middle-class to highest middle-class respectively. Badger's class is less certain; to some he seems close to an older breed of country squiredom, whose potential for antisocial gruffness and boasting ignorance or, alternatively, benevolent naiveté was immortalized by Fielding in the figures of Squire Western and Squire Allworthy in The History of Tom Jones, A Foundling (1749). To others, he seems more like an old family retainer. At any rate, all four of them own their own homes and, although the invisible hands of the servant class are never alluded to, even Mole, who seems to live under the most humble circumstances, can leave his spring-cleaning and return to find his house ship-shape. (When questioned in a letter about this seeming inconsistency, Grahame lightly suggested that a “charmouse” had come to help out!)7

External conflict. The slight differences in class and wealth among the companions tend to enhance their companionship rather than cause conflict; none seems envious of another's characteristics or possessions. When one of their number is challenged in his position, as is Toad, they unite to defeat what amounts to an insurrection from the lower classes (as the inhabitants of the Wild Wood are clearly depicted) and to retain the inherited wealth of their less-than-responsible peer.

A major conflict among members of this band of friends does arise, however, over the refusal of Toad to adhere to the desired behavioral standards of his class. That conflict is played out in interesting ways. When Toad's waywardness, threatening to disgrace his family and class, comes to Badger's attention and the time is right, Badger moves in with more evangelistic fervor than was ever displayed by any of Grahame's human Olympians. In chapter 6, the moral suasion of admonitory sermons quickly gives way to physical restraints. Toad's friends, even Mole and Rat, do not hesitate to keep Toad prisoner in his own house. Mole uses similar physical restraints on Rat in chapter 9 to stop Rat from wandering away from his home. Apparently friends may behave violently toward each other in order to keep one of their number within the confines of the felicitous space established by Rat at the beginning.

On the surface of the story then, resolutions of these clashes of individual will, like the resolution of the fight over Toad Hall, favor those who restrain rather than those who rebel. Grahame, however, paints the middle-class rebels, Toad and Rat, in their wanderlust, as much more attractive than the inhabitants of the Wild Wood; he is also permissive toward Mole, whose restlessness is relatively confined. Thus, while Grahame's attitude toward class conflict is negative and unambivalent, his attitude toward individual rebellion is less clear. Characters' inner conflicts are certainly handled sympathetically, even if development and growth seem primarily directed toward very minor changes in circumstances, while general conformity and acceptance of one's place in life seem the desired goals.

Inner conflict. As a number of recent readers have remarked, of all the characters, Mole is the one who is permitted the most freedom for growth and development, growth that begins when he first pops out of his hole on that fateful spring day.8 A whole new world opens up to him, and he takes advantage of it and is allowed to take advantage of it, going through a series of tests that begin with his hubristic upset of Rat's boat and end with his demonstration of military strategy as virtual second in command to Badger in the retaking of Toad Hall.

In the course of this testing, Mole too is punished for wandering out of his proper sphere. His trip into the Wild Wood on his own initiative, and his experience of the Terror of the Wild Wood—a trip that also reminds us of the obligatory trip of Odyssean heroes to Hell and back—is enough to prevent this epic hero from further solitary adventures. But Mole's experience on return to his own home is different from that of Rat and Toad. He alone of the three Odyssean protagonists is allowed to break out of the circle of departure and return.

One can only speculate about the reasons for Mole's greater freedom to leave home, return to it, and leave home again. Chapter 5, where Mole's return and new departure are acted out, calls attention to its concern with place in its Latin title, “Dulce Domum”—equivalent to “Home, Sweet Home.” Mole certainly has a crisis of homesickness on the wintery day when he and Rat find themselves in the vicinity of Mole's End. He is pulled home not by his friend but by his own inner voices. Yet his one night at home is enough for him, filled as it is with recognition of all the familiar objects painstakingly gathered and cozy arrangements thoughtfully made, all of which Rat encourages him to explain. Even the feast that he and Rat manage to provide to Christmas-caroling field mice does not make him feel that he should remain. Mole wants to hang onto this place, but he recognizes it as “plain and simple … narrow even,” and he wants also to return to the “upper world” and “the larger stage” (W, 103).

The degree of latitude permitted Mole is perhaps part of the carefully controlled balance that Grahame tries to achieve between security and adventure in the definition of felicitous space. In the previous chapter, Badger, sensing a fellow underground lover, has waxed eloquent to Mole on the virtues of the underground life, secure from the hazards experienced by those who live on the edge of the River. Badger's home is large and ancient in a very special way. It is, according to Badger, a sunken human city, long since abandoned by humans, who “come and go” in a way that Badger scorns. However, Mole's choice of above ground, his “new life and its splendid spaces” (W, 103), suggests that Badger's underground security is too restrictive.

The limited nature of Mole's home seems one reason why he is granted relative freedom to leave it behind. Mole's character, temperament, even class position, also seem to make it possible to grant him more freedom. Mole's modest need for adventure, so effectively controlled by his trip into the Wild Woods, is approved because it is so modest. He is allowed also to develop his somewhat limited potential precisely because it is limited, imaginatively and otherwise, and does not threaten to get out of control. Indeed, Mole's potential can be used to aid the forces of control in the external conflict between Toad's colleagues and the intruders. Mole's development produces a good second lieutenant out of a lower middle-class householder who suddenly feels a longing for “higher things.” Unlike the creatures of the Wild Woods, whom he seems to know how to handle—using a mixture of cunning, sternness, and camaraderie—Mole can be trusted to remember and keep his own place—coming back to Mole's End in the end.

Those who have a greater imagination or more money to spend threaten more seriously to upset the balance between freedom and security in the felicitous space around the riverbank. Even Rat, who seems by placement of his home and by temperament to appreciate this balance, can be lured away from it by the force of his own imagination. In chapter 9, Mole forces Rat, who has previously participated in the unsuccessful first attempt to control Toad, to recognize his proper place and to sublimate his desire for adventure into the writing of poetry.

As his delineation of the geography would suggest, Rat is normally a contented, rather cautious chap, happy with his life on the riverbank and quite willing to act as mentor to Mole, who, at first, seems to respect everything about his new friend, except perhaps his tendency to wax poetic about ducks and other familiar creatures. Nevertheless, Rat can be tempted to follow the siren call of the Sea Rat, who, dropping by on his way out to sea, tells such wonderful tales of fun on ship and in port that Rat, acting nearly as obsessed as Toad with the motor car, packs his satchel and takes off after his new acquaintance. Mole, as ignorant as he may be of the sources of Rat's poetic urge, is yet able to recognize that one way he can turn Rat away from this new temptation is to force him to sit down with pencil and paper. Writing will reopen the channels of imagination through which Rat filters his experience of his own familiar felicitous space.

Chapter 9, called “Wayfarers All,” a title that evokes the image not merely of travel, but of life as a pilgrimage, is perhaps the most ambiguous chapter of the whole book in terms of maintaining the delicate balance between security and adventure that Grahame fosters. The ending of the chapter, with Rat, apparently content, “absorbed and deaf to the world; alternatively scribbling and sucking the top of his pencil” (W, 188), rights the balance toward security. Grahame, nevertheless, makes the Sea Rat's call extremely attractive. He uses his own experience of Mediterranean port towns to add a note of authenticity to the description of the wandering life. Rat's vulnerability to the Sea Rat's stories is enhanced by his earlier conversations with his avarian neighbors, who are packing to go south, since it is fall. Their reactions to Rat's complaints of desertion paint an attractively natural picture of the biyearly urge to migrate from North to South and back again. The reasons why Rat should not share this migratory urge are not made entirely clear (Grahame at this point can hardly claim to be naturalistic). Should Rat not, like Mole, desire a “larger stage”? Apparently not. Mole is sure enough of this to wrestle with Rat and to lock him in; Rat's experience is, in the end, described as if it were a fit of insanity.

“Wayfarers All” is a curious chapter, into which, no doubt, Grahame poured much of his own longing for a less responsible, “Southern” life, expressed hitherto in essays like “The Long Odds.” That essay, too, expresses his resolution to continue “the fight” on his own native ground. The sublimatory role of writing in this struggle between need for security and need for adventure is here made about as explicit as Grahame ever makes it: even space as felicitous as the riverbank can only be kept so in the imaginative mind by deliberate exercise of the imaginative faculty.

In Rat's case, this brief but violent departure and return, along with its opposite balancing extreme of the trip to the island in the middle of the Weir, constitutes his Odyssean journey. On both occasions, Rat is seduced through his ears, first by Pan's ethereal flute that lures him to a heavenly but static place and then by the Sea Rat's tales, which lure him to exotic and constant change. In the first case, Pan himself acts as a deafening agent and, in the second, Mole must assist Rat in figuratively tying himself to the mast of his everyday life, as Ulysses did to his boatmates in order not to heed the Siren call. The allusion to the Sirens helps buttress the ultimate decision made by both Rat (and Grahame himself) to stick to the River and Downs. Unlike even Mole, Rat must not depart from his home to follow a path that could possibly lead to still greater personal development and growth. Not only is the riverbank too felicitous to leave, but Rat is too imaginative to be permitted adventure elsewhere. In future scenes with Toad, Rat behaves, as he did on the occasion of Toad's first incarceration, just as if Rat himself had never experienced this obsessive urge to wander.

Looking back on Rat's role throughout the book, we can see that this warmhearted, generous, poetic, somewhat intellectual and modest creature is the catalyst for a network of friendships along the riverbank, a network in which he makes a place for Mole. But his central place is not only muted by Toad's colorful actions, he is virtually shoved aside and somewhat ridiculed in the last chapters, where his mock-epic compulsion for arming the warriors to the very teeth is followed by a putdown on Badger's part, when Rat attempts to correct his grammar. It is not the Riverbankers but the Undergrounders who prove themselves in the combat. By enlisting them in the external conflict against the Wild Woods, not only Toad, the misbehaving man of means, but Rat the intellectual poet, loses power. The sense of relief from the Wild Wooders is so great that the question of what the ascension of the Undergrounders might do to this felicitious space goes unasked in the supposedly happy-ever-after ending.

In Toad, whom Grahame describes as “a sanguine, self-satisfied animal,” the childlike becomes childish. Toad does not merely imagine adventure, he acts out all his fantasies and, as a creature of adult means far greater than the others, can afford to do so. He becomes so much the center of the external conflict of the book and is apparently so unreflective that the notion of inner conflict and of development and growth may seem inappropriately applied to him. Indeed, viewed as an adult, he can be seen, as he is by Peter Green, as the embodiment of the manic-depressive personality, ricocheting between wild kleptomaniacal flights and utter despair.9 Of all the characters, his creation alone, however, is firmly tied to the continuing bedtime and epistolary narrative that formed a bond between Grahame and his son. This genesis suggests that one might view Toad slightly differently from the others—as a projection not only of those childish impulses still operative in many adults, even to pathological extremes, but also as a projection of a real child. Toad can fruitfully be seen as representative of a child struggling to control his impulses and tailor his needs to the demands of society (and as acting out in a way that can offer catharsis to a young listener).

Viewed in this way, Toad's wild departure and return not only has all the Odyssean overtones, but also takes on a circular pattern that begins when he escapes out of the window of his bedroom and ends, not with the taking of the Hall, or even the banquet at which he is not allowed to officiate. The true ending or crisis in this pattern of development takes place back in his bedroom again when he sublimates his need to display himself by playing out the banquet scene as he would have liked it to be: with himself as star in a performance of the triumphantly solipsistic ballad, “Toad's Last Little Song,” with its topophilic refrain, “When the Toad—came—home!”

From the standpoint of class and of the societal ethic that Grahame preserves in this tale, Toad Hall belongs to Toad by inheritance and ought, ideally, to be his felicitous space and his true home. By participating in the cleansing, even in a lowly manner, he in some ways earns his right to return. However, no child or adult reader could be absolutely convinced of Toad's true reform (or perhaps even desire it, since it would be a dull book without his antics). His reform is dubious because, viewed as an adult rather than a child, Toad is simply the opposite of topophilic man. When he sees the motor car, he realizes its potential for movement from place to place. He rhapsodizes in a topophobic vein in chapter 2: “The poetry of motion! the real way to travel! The only way to travel! Here today—in next week tomorrow! Villages skipped, towns and cities jumped—always somebody else's horizon … !” (W, 38).

Even Toad can be touched by homesickness. In prison, in response to the request of the jailer's daughter to tell her something “real” about his home, he waxes eloquent about it. His true sense of it as felicitous space is centered on the banquet hall and the exercise of his rights as host to entertain guests. He is, of course, not going to be allowed to retain this concept of his felicitous space, but is going to have his crisis in his own room—the place where middle-class children generally have theirs. Within this limited space, Toad seems to have made some real progress in self-control. He makes his bedroom felicitous space by using it himself as a place to get past the censors who want to repress his self-aggrandizing needs. This is the same bedroom in which he had been locked by his friends and, before his escape, reduced to lining up chairs and pretending he was driving a car. In the second bedroom scene, he goes voluntarily to his room to do his acting out in private, rearranging these same chairs to serve as an audience for his irrepressible song. His demure and modest (some would say disingenuous) silence at the banquet becomes possible only because he has made this somewhat shaky step toward finding a true home in his own house.

The relationship of Toad and Badger enhances this depiction of Toad as a child rather than an adult. Badger, despite rough mannerisms, is as Olympian as they come in The Wind in the Willows; he and Toad are at opposite poles in the need for security and the need for adventure. Badger's badgering makes security doubtfully attractive to the reader, in spite of the charm that one might find in Badger's underground hospitality. As a protector, Badger, unlike Pan, requires conformity to society's norms. His friendship with Toad's father brings to the fore the question of generational conflict that often prevails in the relationship between fathers and sons. His treatment of Toad at the end suggests that not all prodigal sons get served the fatted calf on their return home. Portly's reunion with his father has suggested all that is warm and welcoming about father's relationships with their sons; Badger's welcome to Toad is limited and demanding—the other side of the picture of the father-son experience, the side more familiar to Grahame himself.

Within its total context, Toad Hall emerges as space not entirely felicitous, for it becomes a symbol of responsibility to place that, for all its luxury, may become onerous. Rat's modest dwelling is still large enough for entertaining and seems even at the end confirmed as true felicitous space, as it was in chapter 1 where Mole first spots it as “a nice snug dwelling place … for an animal with few wants and fond of a bijou riverside residence, above flood level and remote from noise and dust” (W, 4-5).


A dense prose style is one that, through various stylistic devices, manages to convey more than one level of meaning and imply more than one type of audience. Like many of the classic English children's books of the late nineteenth century, The Wind in the Willows may be said to exhibit a “density” of style quite foreign to most modern writing for children, at least in the United States. There are probably now few American children who can understand and enjoy The Wind in the Willows without its being introduced to them by an interested adult whose own enthusiasm (and oral reading ability) will bring out its varied charms.

Those episodes that involve Toad are likely to be most intriguing to the young on first reading. This should come as no surprise, since Toad, in particular, was shaped to suit the child audience, and his adventures, at least in outline, come into the book almost unaltered. Indeed, a useful way of reaching an understanding of the density of style that prevails in the book is to examine the original fifteen letters still available in First Whispers of “The Wind in the Willows,” to see how they are at first written in that less dense style that we may consider most suitable to children. One can notice how the stylistic changes that Grahame made in enclosing the Toad incidents in his wider context seem deliberately to expand the audience to adult readers—fairly sophisticated adult readers at that—while still maintaining some contact with the child audience.

The book maintains this contact largely through the dramatic dialogue and inserted songs, which have changed little from the original letters. Even in those chapters written later, the way in which the characters speak to each other is consistently simple and close to school-boyish: full of colloquial expressions, some of them juvenile taunts and insults, rather hackneyed in its use of descriptive adjectives like “jolly” and “stupid,” with a tendency toward onomatopoetic ejaculatives like “poop, poop,” and an occasional memorable, but still colloquial phrase, like the famous “messing about in boats.” Grahame uses no particular dialect to distinguish any of his characters from any other, but does attempt to make Badger speak gruffly and ungrammatically.

When Grahame came to write the later chapters in the book he obviously, then, made a conscious or unconscious decision to keep the dialogue at a level very accessible to children. None of the characters, for instance, though obstensibly adult, employs the courtly, but sometimes obscure language to which even pleasant Olympians in the Golden Age stories are sometimes prone (although Toad can wax rather pompous in the Wide World). The greatest change came in the manner of narration, not only in terms of expansion of details and addition of whole scenes, but in terms of sentence structure and vocabulary—all of which move away from the general simplicity of the epistolary narration, which, however, itself begins to expand and become more dense as the letters continue through the 1907 summer of separation of father and son.10

Much of the material in the early original letters is covered in what is known as the “paratactic” style, one variety of which is the “run-on” sentence, common to child and unsophisticated narrators in general. In the first of the letters that Miss Stott saved, dated 10 May 1907, we read for instance that Toad “got out of the window early one morning & went off to a town called Buggleton, & went to the Red Lion Hotel & there he found a party that had just motored down from London & while they were having breakfast he went into the stable-yard & found their motor-car & went off in it without even saying Poop-poop! And now he has vanished & everyone is looking for him, including the police. …”11

Although parataxis has a certain effectively breathless quality, this was certainly not the quality which Grahame was willing to retain in chapter 6, where these incidents are expanded to some two-and-a-half pages, forming a central but small part of the whole of the chapter, inserted between new scenes. The transformation which this run-on sentence has undergone includes not only expansion of detail and extended use of metaphor, but a movement toward the density that a more complex and varied syntax conveys. The insertion of modifying phrases, extended metaphor, and subordination of various kinds transforms the phrase “& went to Buggleton” to the following meandering discourse: “Meanwhile, Toad, gay and irresponsible, was walking briskly along the high road, some miles from home. At first he had taken bypaths and crossed many fields, and changed his course several times, in case of pursuit; but now, feeling by this time safe from recapture, and the sun smiling brightly on him, and all Nature joining in a chorus of approval to the song of self-praise that his own heart was singing to him, he almost danced along the road in his satisfaction and conceit” (W, 118). This paragraph is followed by another—rendering one of the many self-congratulatory soliloquies that Grahame gives to Toad—before Toad finally reaches the Red Lion.

As the letters go on, however, they do get longer and longer and include more and more of the material that will go in the final chapters. Moreover, the narrative style, while retaining “and” as a major connective, becomes syntactically more like the final product, so that changes in the book form become mainly those of vocabulary, rather than of substance and syntax. Grahame's characteristic later vocabulary alterations serve two purposes: to make sentences more alliterative and to substitute literary for colloquial expressions. For instance, “Down with the Toad” in the eighth letter becomes “Down with the desperate and dangerous Toad” in chapter 10; “a bad pain in his tummy” in the seventh letter becomes “a sickening pain in his interior” in chapter 10. These are surface effects and do not necessarily increase the density of the prose which was already becoming more complex in the later letters.

This increased density of the letters themselves over the course of the summer may have two sources operative in the final version of the book as well: one, Grahame is no longer directly focusing on a child audience alone, as he might be forced to do while telling bedtime stories, and two, because he is actually writing rather than telling, he begins to compose in the written rather than the oral mode. Increased dramatic complexity toward the end of the letters, where several characters are speaking at once, points also to a written rather than a spoken story.

Certainly, when Grahame came finally to think in terms of a book and compose for it, his prose became consistently more dense, even in the dialogue. In at least one later added scene, where Toad's three friends come on their self-styled “mission of mercy” to rescue him from his motor car mania, Grahame manages to convey an extra layer of meaning through his choice of words. The language of both the narration and the dialogue in the beginning of chapter 6 is shot through with the kinds of words that missionaries and tractarians use in order to save their backsliding brethren from the fires of hell; unfavorable light is cast on the friends' outspoken wish to “convert” Toad, simply by association with such zealousness.

Parody, in general, becomes a stronger and stronger element in the style; this parody is not limited to the Homeric scenes or the extended similes, sometimes used seriously, but often as part of the mock-epic nature of book. The two scenes that follow Toad's theft of the motor car in chapter 6, both new to the book, are, for instance, parodic in differing ways: the courtroom scene makes mockery of local justice by distorting legal language. The scene where Toad is carried off to jail and brought struggling to the “grimmest dungeon that lay in the heart of the innermost keep” employs language known to the nineteenth- or twentieth-century reader largely through popular approximations of “medieval” English (W, 124-25). These scenes are playful and largely decorative, adding little to the plot, but much to the density of the effect; their appeal seems likely to be limited, in the first case, to the adult and to the child who know something about the legal system (enough to distrust it), and, in the second case, to the adult and the child who have read much popular historical fiction (and are fond of phrases such as “Odds bodikins!”).

The parodic element serves far deeper purposes in The Wind in the Willows than just allusion to Homer or humorous effect, or even the capture of an adult audience. This aspect of Grahame's prose would lend itself well to a much fuller application of the techniques of modern critical scrutiny, such as “deconstruction,” than can be undertaken here. One might fruitfully examine such passages as the one quoted earlier, where Mole first sees Rat's home, in chapter 1. Mole first catches sight of it as “a dark hole in the bank opposite”; his musing about its probable qualities moves quickly from one level of reality to another, converting the dark hole “to a nice snug dwelling place for an animal with few wants.” The imaginative transition between these two levels is not difficult for even a child to make, but here the sentence continues, still describing the “animal with few wants” but designating him as “fond of a bijou riverside residence” (W, 4-5). Only the sophisticated reader might make sense of, let alone find special meaning in, this last phrase. The notion of a “bijou residence,” that is, a treasure of a home, comes from first the already affected language of the late nineteenth-century aesthetes, and then from its almost simultaneous debasement into real-estate advertisements; it adds a special parodic note to this description.

The passage just examined conveys its primary layer of meaning—the felicitous nature of Rat's home—at first quite straightforwardly. A reader of any age could therefore choose to ignore the end of the sentence. However, the way in which the passage toys with the notion of a hole in the riverbank being a home and then reflects on the ways in which men choose to think about their dwellings, including writing about them for the purpose of influencing others, demonstrates Grahame's complex manipulation of language and his use of stylistic devices to convey multiple layers of meaning, some of them self-reflexive and not all of them readily accessible to the child reader.


The standard reference work for the “sources” of The Wind in the Willows is First Whispers of “The Wind in the Willows,” edited by Elspeth Grahame, Kenneth Grahame's wife. The small book contains valuable material, but is limited. Not unnaturally, Elspeth Grahame's bias was to find her husband's inspiration largely within the family circle. She includes anecdotes about both a maid and then a guest overhearing Grahame's telling of a bedside story to Alastair about animals; Toad came into outside notice as early as May 1904. She relates an encounter with an actual mole in the garden: Grahame rescued it from a fight with a robin but, before he could show it to his son the next morning, it was probably killed by the housekeeper, who mistook it for a rat. Elspeth Grahame plays up Alastair's special gifts as a listener and sensitivity and creativeness in general. She reprints the story of “Bertie's Escapade,” which Grahame wrote in 1907 for the newspaper produced by Alastair and a young friend, as well as the letters saved by Miss Stott. However, she minimizes Constance Smedley's part in encouraging the final version of The Wind in the Willows. Mrs. Grahame is also rather shaky on dates; she thinks The Headswoman was published in 1890. While the texts that she includes are valuable, her understanding of literary sources and analogues lacks depth. Grahame's official biographer, Chalmers, is hardly more analytical.

One must go to Peter Green for an in-depth analysis of the psychological underpinnings, contemporary references, and literary sources and analogues of The Wind in the Willows. He finds that Grahame had a “Coleridgean method” of composition, in the process of which Grahame, like Coleridge, allowed a number of “associated motifs and fragmentary memories” to gather in the “well of the subconscious,” and then to reemerge “transmuted” by the “creative imagination.”12 Green takes his terminology and method of analysis from John Livingston Lowe's The Road to Xanadu, the groundbreaking book Lowe devoted to tracing the sources of Coleridge's Rime of the Ancient Mariner and “Kubla Khan.”

In this similar, but more limited analysis, Green finds Grahame to be still struggling with those contrary forces in his makeup that have been present throughout his adult life: his mid-Victorian sense of duty is in conflict with his aesthetic and intellectual leanings, which scorn the institutions the Victorians revere. In Green's eyes, Grahame's marriage upset the delicate balance that Grahame managed to achieve by the late nineties. Grahame can no longer write hopefully of a realistic solution to this conflict when he “grows up,” yet he is still unable outwardly to rebel. When Grahame turns to a animal fantasy in an Arcadian setting he can project a simpler life, relatively free from restraint. Nevertheless, as Green recognizes, although Grahame has succeeded in artificially eliminating (or, as some suggest, sublimating) “the clash of sex,” he has not succeeded in blanking out completely societal pressures from above, below and all about. Indeed, the strength of the book comes from the fact that Grahame is writing ambivalently about things that matter deeply to him, however lighthearted he wishes to appear.

As Grahame does so, Green finds that Grahame projects parts of himself—and to some extent of his son Alastair—into all the characters in book. But he also uses friends like Atkinson, the carefree Fowey bachelor and sailor, as one of several real life models for Rat, just as he uses Dr. Furnivall, “a compulsive but harmless exhibitionist,” as one of Toad's progenitors. According to Green, Grahame's method is eclectic. Both the Thames, so much a continuing part of Grahame's life, and the Fowey rivers provide models for the riverbank. Nor are Grahame's nature descriptions or character types simply taken from his own experiences alone—literature as well as life implements his composition. Green singles out passages about the river that are very similar to those of Richard Jefferies's nature writing and points out the likeness of Rat in certain ways to an “Old Water Rat” in Oscar Wilde's story, “The Devoted Friend,” published in The Happy Prince in 1888.

That particular likeness is a striking one. Wilde's Water Rat is introduced in this manner: “One morning the old Water-rat put his head out of his hole. He had bright beady eyes and stiff grey whiskers, and his tail was like a long bit of black indiarubber. The little ducks were swimming about in the pond … and their mother … was trying to teach them how to stand on their heads in the water.”13 This bright-eyed creature, watching the ducks “up tails all” as Rat does in the beginning of chapter 2, also seems superficially like Rat in his life-style. Wilde has him say, “I am not a family man. In fact I have never been married, and I never intend to be. Love is all very well in its way, but friendship is much higher. Indeed, I know nothing in the world that is either nobler or rarer than a devoted friendship.”14

If one reads on further, one discovers that Wilde's Water-rat has a rather limited ideal of friendship that is tested and fails to meet the test. Nevertheless, the strong similarities as well as the even greater differences between the two water rat characters support Green's contention that Grahame uses his sources in an organic way. All of his sources—psychological conflict, life experiences of people, places, objects, and literary material—are transformed and integrated in patterns individual to Grahame himself.

The same seems true of another possible influence. The atmosphere in Dickens's The Posthumous Papers of The Pickwick Club (1837) seems more analogous to that prevailing in The Wind in the Willows than any other single book. Dickens's band of good friends and jolly bachelors—the scholarly Pickwick, the amorous Tupman, the poetic Snodgrass, and the sporting Winkle—as a group seem to maintain the particular type of relationships common to Grahame's creatures. They also, in general, enjoy a life style similarly full of the creature comforts of food and drink and, although the Pickwick group is more errant than Mole, Rat, and Badger (since they are about as wandering as Toad might like to be), the Pickwickians seem to share the same need for felicitous space. The words that Andre Maurois uses to describe Dickens's work could, with the exception of the last phrase, well be applied to The Wind in the Willow: “A whole picture of rural England rose up, a very eighteenth century and rural England, alive with that sort of childlike delight which the English take in simple pleasures, the enjoyment of roaring fires on the hearth, sliding in snowy weather, a good dinner, and simple, rather absurd love-affairs.”15

Unlike Dickens, Grahame is no longer able, as he was in The Headswoman, lightly to satirize the relations between the sexes, so the absurd love affairs are noticeably absent in The Wind in the Willows except in faint suggestions in the scenes between Toad and the jailor's daughter. Yet, some of the major incidents in Pickwick are echoed in the later book: for instance, the trouble with a recalcitrant horse and Pickwick's imprisonment. Strong analogies can be drawn, many of which may simply mean that Grahame, in the guise of an animal novel for children, is, in addition to following a Homeric tradition, also operating in a British tradition, which combines the pastoral with the lightly picaresque. Such a conclusion would only serve to reenforce Green's demonstration that Grahame is extremely eclectic in gathering the psychic raw materials for a work that will unify all of these diverse influences and, in Lowe's terminology, “transmute” them through the exercise of an individual “creative imagination”—so that the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts.


Since the publication of Green's groundbreaking study in 1959, The Wind in the Willows has been subject to much scrutiny of the sort that Grahame tried to avoid when he wrote to Teddy Roosevelt about the book: “Its qualities, if any, are mostly negative—i.e.—no problems, no sex, no second meaning.”16 As Green comments, “on the internal evidence of the book itself this is … flagrantly untrue.”17 Green goes about gathering “circumstantial evidence” that demonstrates if not ulterior purpose on Grahame's part—which he so consistently denied—at least inadvertent portrayal of the external and internal conflicts, psychological and social, delineated in the interpretation given in this chapter.

Scholarly studies. Since Green's study, which itself was reissued in a shorter, more heavily illustrated edition in 1982, a number of dissertations and articles have taken off in many directions, on paths that Green often pointed out but did not follow. With the upsurge of academic interest in children's literature in the universities in the 1970s, The Wind in the Willows, like other acknowledged classics in the field, became a prime candidate for this type of analysis.

For instance, in her doctoral dissertation on “the child in pastoral myth” (1977), Phyllis Bixler Koppes asserts that Grahame succeeded through the use of literary fantasy (as he had not done in the more realistic Golden Age stories) in achieving a balance between child and adult roles and in creating a sense of community and cooperation.18 In her multilevel interpretation of the book, she delineates more fully than Green how the main characters of The Wind in the Willows “can fit quite comfortably within the Freudian model of the human psyche: Toad is the embodiment of the unrestrained energetic force of the Id which evokes the discipline of that Super-Ego, Badger. Rat and Mole, who are in the foreground of most of Grahame's book, represent the mediating Ego.”19

Appearing about the same time, Geraldine Poss's article describes The Wind in the Willows as “an epic in Arcadia,” examining the nature of the transformation of the Odyssean elements within a traditional pastoral romance setting.20 She also shows that this transformation is in the direction of eliminating women from all consideration, and she articulates the regressively antifeminist element in the book.

My own article, entitled “Toad Hall Revisited,” used Bachelard to examine the search for felicitous space.21 Perhaps in response to my overemphasis on the expression of a need for security and on the ameliorative nature of the ending, Marion Hodge and Roderick McGillis, in their more recent readings, both emphasize the restlessness, longing, and a virtual “divine discontent” that also exist beneath the surface of the work.22 They and several others have pointed to the dubious nature of Toad's reformation.

The politically conservative implications of the book and its relationship to the socioeconomic trends of its time were more fully explored in 1982 by Green himself in an article entitled “The Rentier's Rural Dream.”23 Others writing on this theme have included Julius Zanger in “Goblins, Morlocks and Weasels: Classic Fantasy and the Industrial Revolution,” and Tony Watkins in “‘Making a Break for the Real England’: The River Bankers Revisited.”24 Watkins picks up on the fact that shortly after 1 January 1983, when The Wind in the Willows came out of copyright, the English Tourist Board began a series of advertisements featuring Toad, Mole, or Rat “riding in a vintage car or consulting a map on their way to a castle.” The accompanying slogan read “The Real England: Make a Break for It.” Watkins's article demonstrates how an Arcadian fantasy becomes part of the sense of “national heritage” (for Americans, too!) even if Grahame's vision had to be subtly altered to include the motorcar as a positive element.

Although Grahame would have preferred it, no serious commentator recently has talked about the book in such a fundamentalist vein as A. A. Milne in his introduction to the 1940 Rackham illustrated edition: “One does not argue about The Wind in the Willows. … The book is a test of character. We can't criticize it because it is criticizing us. … It is a Household Book.”25 On the contrary, continued academic interest in The Wind in the Willows has substantiated the complexity of Graham's vision and its multiplicity of meanings, rather than those “negative qualities” that Grahame claimed for it. The book has lasting appeal precisely because adults can argue about it and be interested enough in it to want to pass it on to their children by reading it with them.

Adaptations. Difficulties in capturing this complexity and multiplicity have prevented neither illustrators from attempting to picture the riverbank world nor dramatists and moviemakers from invading it.

Milne, himself, protesting his inadequacy all the while, was, of course, the first to make a play of the book, entitled Toad of Toad Hall. The playwright shared a stall with Grahame and his wife when they came to see the production. The Grahames were either very polite or unfeignedly delighted with the play, as Milne described it. While Milne cut out a great deal, he was hesitant to make many other changes from the original in the parts he did retain. Such hesitancy was hardly true of Walt Disney, who, in 1949, combined Washington Irving's Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon (1819-20) and The Wind in the Willows in a curious amalgamation entitled “Ichabod and Mr. Toad” (Disney had previously made a film of The Reluctant Dragon).

Another animated version, using the voices of several renowned actors, was later made for television.26 Perhaps the most “far-out” of dramatizations, however, was a musical produced at the Folger Theatre in the summer of 1983.27 The latter was innovative in intriguing ways, making the weasels into “punk-rockers” dressed in black leather, and turning Mole into a brainy young female who finally wins the heart of a dreamily unresponsive Rat. Since Grahame denied social commentary and advertised his book as “free from the clash of sex,” such transformations do violence to his stated intent, yet they certainly, if somewhat unsubtly, pinpoint tensions beneath the surface of the text.

Such adaptations, whether dramatically noteworthy or not, are worth considering not only to note the way in which classics become “popularized” but to determine whether such popularizations are likely to be the only way in which a book like The Wind in the Willows, with its difficult prose style, will reach children, particularly American children, today. One recent commentator, Harry Allard, describes The Wind in the Willows as “a masterpiece, elegantly layered, as in a pied Italian ice.”28 Such elegantly layered works are often an acquired taste, as The Wind in the Willows, even with its appeal to many basic appetites, has proved to be among modern children.


  1. Green, Grahame, 256-59; see also Chalmers, Grahame, 123-29.

  2. First Whispers, 51-94.

  3. Quoted in Green, Grahame, 226.

  4. Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, trans. Maria Jolas (New York: Orion, 1964).

  5. Quoted in Green, 17-18.

  6. See both Lucy Waddey, “Home in Children's Fiction: Three Patterns,” Children's Literature Quarterly 8 (Spring 1983):13-14, and Christopher Clausen, “Home and Away in Children's Fiction,” Children's Literature 10 (1982):141-52, for interesting discussions of characters' relationships to their homes in children's literature in general and in The Wind in the Willows in particular.

  7. The entire letter is reprinted in Chalmers, Grahame, 62-63.

  8. All of the following emphasize Mole's importance: Richard Matthew Skoket, “Functions of Voice in Children's Literature” (Ph.D. diss., Harvard University School of Education, 1971); Peter Hunt, “Necessary Misreadings: Directions in Narrative Theory for Children's Literature.” Studies in the Literary Imagination 18 (Fall 1985):116; Humphrey Carpenter, Secret Gardens: A Study of the Golden Age in Children's Literature (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1985); Neil Philip, “Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows: A Companionable Vitality,” in Touchstones: Reflections on the Best of Children's Literature (West Lafayette, Ind.: ChLA Pub., 1985), 96-105.

  9. Green, Grahame, 282-84.

  10. An article by Elizabeth A. Cripps, “Kenneth Grahame: Children's Author?” Children's Literature in Education 12 (Spring 1981): 15-20, first suggested to me the fruitfulness of examining differences in syntax between the original letters and the book.

  11. First Whispers, 51.

  12. Green quotes from John Livingston Lowes, The Road to Xanadu (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1927 [pp. 427-28]): “The notion that the creative imagination, especially in its highest exercise, has little or nothing to do with facts is one of the pseudodoxia epidemica which die hard. For the imagination never operates in a vacuum. Its stuff is always a fact of some order, somehow experienced; its product is that fact transmuted” (Grahame, 239).

  13. Quoted by Green, Grahame, 280-81.

  14. Ibid., 281.

  15. Quoted by Clifton Fadiman in the introduction to Charles Dickens, The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club (1836-37; reprint, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1949), xviii-xix.

  16. Quoted by Green, Grahame, 274.

  17. Ibid.

  18. Phyllis Bixler Koppes (Phyllis Bixler), “The Child in Pastoral Myth: A Study in Rousseau and Wordsworth, Children's Literature and Literary Fantasy” (Ph.D. diss., University of Kansas, 1977).

  19. Ibid., 313.

  20. Geraldine D. Poss (Geraldine DeLuca), “An Epic in Arcadia: The Pastoral World of The Wind in the Willows,Children's Literature 7 (1975):80-90.

  21. Lois R. Kuznets, “Toad Hall Revisited,” Children's Literature 7 (1978):115-28.

  22. Marion Hodge, in a paper delivered at the meeting of the Philological Society of the Carolinas, March 1984, and Roderick McGillis, “Utopian Hopes: Criticism Beyond Itself,” Children's Literature Association Quarterly 9, no. 4 (Winter 1984-85):184-86. Michael Steig, “At the Back of The Wind in the Willows: An Experiment in Biographical and Autobiographical Interpretation,” Victorian Studies 24 (1981):303-23, also emphasizes this ambiguity.

  23. Peter Green, “The Rentier's Rural Dream,” Times Literary Supplement, 26 November 1982, 1299-1301.

  24. Julius Zanger, “Goblins, Morlocks and Weasels: Classic Fantasy and the Industrial Revolution,” Children's Literature in Education 8 (1977):154-62; Tony Watkins, “‘Making a Break for the Real England’: The River-Bankers Revisited,” Children's Literature Quarterly 9 (Spring 1984):34-35.

  25. A. A. Milne in the introduction to The Wind in the Willows (New York: Heritage Press, 1940), x.

  26. The Wind in the Willows, Rankin/Bass production, Vestron Video. With Charles Nelson Reilly as Toad, Roddy McDowell as Rat, Jose Ferrer as Badger, and Eddie Bracken as Mole.

  27. The Folger production, with a book by Jane Iredale, was reviewed in “Toad & Mole & Rat—Oh My!, ‘The Wind in the Willows’ Blows into the Folger,” Washington Post, 8 August 1983, C3-4.

  28. Harry Allard, “‘The Wind in the Willows’: 75th Birthday,” Parents' Choice 6 (Autumn 1983):15.

Further Reading

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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 nineteenth-century issues and concerns in his work. Green finds Grahame a more troubled figure than does Chalmers.

Prince, Alison. Kenneth Grahame: An Innocent in the Wild Wood. London: Allison and Busby, 1994, 384 p.

Identifies Elspeth Grahame's exaggerations in both Chalmers and Green.


Gilead, Sarah. “Grahame's The Wind in the Willows.Explicator 46, no. 1 (fall 1987): 33-6.

Discusses the significance of the River Bank in Grahame's novel.

Hunt, Peter. In the Wind in the Willows: A Fragmented Arcadia. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1994, 142 p.

Full-length critical analysis of The Wind in the Willows.

Kuznets, Lois R. Kenneth Grahame. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1987, 156 p.

Biographical and critical study. Includes an annotated bibliography of selected secondary sources.

———. “Kenneth Grahame and Father Nature, or Whither Blows The Wind in the Willows?” Children's Literature 16 (1998): 175-81.

Examines the “idyllic male-only animal world” of Grahame's novel.

Milne, A. A. Introduction to The Wind and the Willows, by Kenneth Grahame, pp. vii-x. New York: The Heritage Press, 1940.

A graceful appreciation from a fellow writer who dramatized the novel.

Robson, W. W. “On The Wind in the Willows.” In The Definition of Literature and Other Essays, pp. 119-44. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982.

Considers the novel in a wider literary context and identifies its “artful artlessness” as a vehicle “for more serious purposes.”

Additional coverage of Grahame's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults, Vol. 5; Children's Literature Review, Vol. 5; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 108, 136; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 80; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 34, 141, 178; DISCovering Authors: British Edition; Major Authors; and Illustrators for Children and Young Adults, Eds. 1, 2; DISCovering Authors 3.0; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Ed. 2; Reference Guide to English Literature, Ed. 2; St. James Guide to Children's Writers, Vol. 5; St. James Guide to Fantasy Writers; Something about the Author, Vol. 100; Twayne's English Authors; Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism, Vol. 64; Writers for Children; and Yesterday's Authors of Books for Children, Vol. 1.

Juanita Price (essay date 25 January 1988)

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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 affinity with the natural world—with a certain style of writing, and with Grahame's insights into the absurdities and idiosyncrasies of human nature. (2:52) [References cited by number and page are listed in the bibliography at the end of this article.]

But what of the circumstances leading toward this creation and its creator? And were the Toad/Rat/Mole/Badger stories ever intended for publication? And how, as a classic, did the book take on a life of its own?

Born 20 July 1859, in Edinburgh, the child Kenneth spent happy years among the lochs and firths of the western Scottish highlands … where he found tranquility in nature which he explored alone because he was already slightly aloof from his other three siblings. (2:173)

When he was five his mother died, and he experienced the complete uprooting of his life. His father, who subsequently moved to the Continent, sent the children to live with the maternal grandmother, Mrs. Ingles, at Cookham Dene, a village near the Thames in Berkshire, England. An older sister described the grandmother as “not strictly cruel, but simply not demonstrative” in her care of the children. (2:8)

So the boy Kenneth turned to the woods and fields and small animals. This countryside became the setting for his eventual bedtime stories and letters to his own son.

Grahame attended St. Edward's School in nearby Oxford; there he became head scholar, took part in rugby and debating, and began to explore the upper reaches of the Thames in a canoe. His first published article, on the good and evil effects of “Rivalry,” appeared in the school newspaper.

Lack of family funds obliged him to give up his ambition to go to the University. So KG went to London and entered upon a career with the “Old Lady of Threadneedle Street,” as the Bank of England is known. He rose to responsibility by becoming acting secretary of the bank at age 34 and full secretary five years later.

In London he served in the Scottish Regiment, took part in social work at Toynbee Hall and learned to sing, fence and box. Among his acquaintances was a Shakespearian scholar, Dr. F. J. Furnivall, who also ran a men's rowing club. “Bluff, cheerful, full of purpose on an excursion and knowledgeable about what to take along and where to go,” did Furnivall become the Water Rat in The Wind in the Willows? (9:217)

In the decades KG worked at the bank he apparently felt very much at home in the London literary milieu. His mentor, poet/critic/editor William Ernest Henley, published many of KG's essays in his literary review, National Observer. These were collected into Pagan Papers in 1893.


For relaxation on evenings and holidays KG had begun writing about his boyhood days in Berkshire with memories of his grandmother and her house contributing much to these writings. Ever the champion of young people against tyranny of their elders, he wrote a story about some boys and girls and their various escapades in defiance of the “hopeless and incapable” grownups. (8:140)

This story, The Golden Age, published when KG was 36, became a widely read book. In the prologue, entitled “The Olympians,” he speaks of his early childhood without “a proper equipment of parents” and one whose “nearest—aunts and uncles—treated us with indifference, even stupidity.” Adults were Olympians—they commanded no respect, never indulged in the pleasures of life, went regularly to church but betrayed no delight in the experience, talked over children's heads during meals about political inanities, never defended or retracted or admitted themselves in the wrong. (5:4)

The Golden Age was followed within three years by Dream Days, whose characters were “not any particular children” but “any and all children.” Grahame thus became established as a writer about children though not as a writer for children. (8:140)

KG also contributed his writings to the Yellow Book, an illustrated quarterly published in London from 1894-1897, edited by Henry Harland. Its contents were a miscellany of short stories, poetry and exotic drawings with an emphasis on the bizarre. Aubrey Beardsley was art editor and Oscar Wilde, Max Beerbohm, John Davidson and G. B. Shaw among the contributors.

In the London of the 1890s the ideal male was independent—free of adult restraint, responsibility and sex—but with a boyish charm. Was this ideal male the Prince of Wales acting like a schoolboy, his escapades engendering the Queen's displeasure? (10:167)

At the age of 40 Grahame married Elspeth Thompson, age 37, of Edinburgh. Their only child, Alastair, a frail boy with poor eyesight, grew up pampered and privately tutored. “The marriage itself was lacking in emotional or sexual maturity.” (10:168)

An anecdote has been handed down about Mrs. Grahame, dressed for a dinner engagement and anxious not to be late, asking her maid: “Where is Mr. Grahame, Louise?”

“He's with Master Mouse, Madam. He's telling him some ditty about a Toad.”

In the nursery Mrs. Grahame found her husband—a tall, broad, mustached, distinguished-looking gentleman, immaculately dressed—with his son Alastair, familiarly known in the household as Mouse. The boy, who had a face like a Maxfield Parrish illustration, was listening raptly to a bedtime story of the Toad and his friends the Rat, the Mole and the Badger.

Yet Grahame's deprived early childhood apparently hindered him from ever becoming the husband and father he must have wished to be. He was inventing these stories when Alastair was about the same age as he had been when “happy in nature.” (2:175) He was almost 50, financially secure, and himself spending a good bit of time away from their London home. Had he become the personification of the independent adult of 1890s London?

When ill health in his 49th year forced Grahame's resignation from the Bank of England, he retired to spend the rest of his life in seclusion in the Berkshire countryside. Living at Boham's farm house in the hamlet of Blewbury (1:124) and out of touch with the literary world, he wrote nothing after he left the Bank, although he lived for another quarter century.

Asked why he stopped writing when he had the leisure, KG told a visitor, “I am not a professional writer. I have never been and never will be by reason of the accident that I don't need any money. And I do not care for notoriety.” (8:140) His summers were spent boating and fishing in Cornwall, or traveling quietly with his wife in Italy.

His last years were clouded by the death of his son at age 20 while an undergraduate at Oxford. Accounts vary as to whether Alastair fell under or jumped from a moving train. (10:169)

The Grahams then went to live at Pangbourne in another dignified, secluded cottage. Here KG died at age 73 and was buried beside his son on the bank of the Thames.

Elspeth Grahame lived well into the 1940s. Her introduction to First Whisper of “The Wind in the Willows” (Lippincott, 1944), a charming bit of literary history published in America during World War II, offers the best insight into the creation of this classic children's book.

Prior to the dinner-engagement story, Mrs. Grahame recalls an incident during the family's summer holiday at an old Scottish castle, when a visitor arrived one evening and went upstairs to meet the author.

The small boy Alastair had already gone to bed and his father was telling him a bedtime story. The visitor, not interrupting, listened spellbound at the door of the nursery as KG told “a magic tale with a Badger in it, a Mole, a Toad, and a Water Rat, and the places they lived and were surrounded by.” (4:3)

First Whisper is a reproduction of KG's letters to Alastair. According to Elspeth, Mouse refused to go away for many weeks to the seaside because he would miss the adventures of Toad. So his father promised further installments to be forwarded in writing.

Mouse's nursery-governess, who read the adventures aloud to the boy “evidently saw something unusual about them,” Mrs. Grahame remembers, “for she preserved and posted them to me for safekeeping, knowing full well that, if restored to the author, they would merely be consigned to the wastebasket.” (4:1)


Some years later “a lady agent for an American firm of publishers arrived in a taxi from London at the house in Berkshire … to proffer a request that Kenneth write something for them on any subject and at any price he desired.” Kenneth said he had nothing ready and regarded himself “not as a pump, but as a spring.” (4:4)

“The lady seemed disappointed,” Elspeth continues. “I bethought me of the bedtime stories now more or less in manuscript form, and after some discussion, it was decided that the adventures of Toad, Mole and Company should go farther afield and be published in America.” (4:4)

But the American publishers were displeased! Where were the children in The Golden Age and in Dream Days? The Americans were at a loss to adapt themselves to “the transmutation of realistic boys and girls into animals” (4:4) who

like us human folk are forever busy—Mole, the field worker, the digger; Rat, the perfect waterman, wise about currents, eddies and whatnot; Badger, big and stout, uncouth but oh! how dependable, a champion of the smaller folk; and Toad, the impossible and loveable, never out of a scrape and never ceasing to boast.


Therefore, Kenneth asked for the manuscript to be sent back, and it was forthwith published in England. Grahame himself wrote on the dust jacket that the book is “perhaps chiefly for youth.” (10:174) Upon its publication the book's reception was muted.

The Wind in the Willows did enjoy acceptance in America, however. President Theodore Roosevelt sent copies to Grahame to be autographed for his children, Kermit and Ethel.

The book was dramatized after 21 years by A. A. Milne as Toad of Toad Hall and under this title enjoyed a new popularity and has been widely performed. (8:140)

The most famous quotation from The Wind in the Willows, and its only citation in John Barlett's Familiar Quotations, appears in the chapter, “The River Bank.” (7:6,7)

The Rat sculled smartly across (to the river's edge) and made fast. Then he held up his fore-paw as Mole stepped gingerly down … and to his surprise and rapture found himself actually seated in the stern of a real boat.

“This has been a wonderful day!” he said, as the Rat shoved off. … “Do you know, I've never been in a boat in all my life.”

“What?” cried the Rat, open-mouthed.

“Never been in a … what have you been doing?”

“Is it so nice as all that?” asked the Mole shyly … as he leant back and surveyed the cushions, the oars, the rowlocks … and the boat swayed lightly under him.

“Nice? It's the only thing.” said the Water Rat solemnly, as he leaned forward for his stroke. “Believe me, there is nothing, absolutely nothing, half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats. Simply messing—about—in—boats.”

One summer an American family, the Bodgers from California, made a summer excursion to the Berkshires in the 1950s to rediscover the riverbank's locale on the Thames. John Bodger, a reference librarian, his wife Jean, a connoisseur of children's books, nine-year-old Ian and three-year-old Lucy stayed at the Red Lion Inn at Henley. (1:106)

The family hired an elderly boatman to take them up and down the river several times to seek out the New Iron Bridge and the boat at Rat's house directly across from Pangbourne; the place where Rat and Mole had their picnic; Mapledurham House, with a few details from Hardwich House downstream, which has been accepted as Toad Hall; and a house named Blewbury which appeared to be Mole's house and where the kitchen was undoubtedly Badger's. (1:118-121)

By the end of the week, the boatman finally unbent enough to talk to them while on a final picnic. (1:132) Yes, he had known Mr. Grahame. No, he had never read any of his books. He was amazed to discover that the old gentleman had once been Secretary of the Bank of England, though he did remember people saying that Queen Mary had written to Mrs. Grahame when her husband died. Mr. Grahame was “a foine (cq) old gentleman, a wonderful looking chap. He used to go for a walk almost every day, rain or shine, walking along the bank. He loved the river. …”

“And messing about in boats,” young Ian Bodger interposed, “Simply messing about with boats. …”

“That's a funny thing the lad just said,” he told the family. “That's the very way he always put it. He'd come walking down that path and stand watching me … painting, calking, or getting boats into the water … he always said exactly the same thing, ‘There's nothing, absolutely nothing, like messing about with boats.’ I thought it was a joke, like. And now this little lad comes along … It fair gives me a turn!” he mused. (1:133)


All of Kenneth Grahame's works benefitted tremendously from superb illustration, in the earlier decades by Maxfield Parrish and Ernest H. Shepherd, and later by Arthur Rackham.

Parrish illustrated the 1908 edition of The Wind in the Willows, as he had illustrated editions of The Golden Age in 1904 and Dream Days in 1907. Several of Parrish's colored pictures for The Golden Age hung on the living room walls at Boham's. Clayton Hamilton, an American professor of English, visited KG there and commented on the paintings.

Grahame, who had never laid eyes on Maxfield Parrish, asked, “Does he look like the sort of man who ought to paint such pictures?” Upon Hamilton's assurance that Parrish was “one of the handsomest men in the United States,” KG remarked, “I'm glad … people really ought to look like themselves.” (4:29)

Artist Ernest H. Shepherd illustrated the 1922 edition of The Golden Age. His charming account of meeting Grahame as an old man in the early 1930s was published in Horn Book magazine in April 1954.

KG told Shepherd where to look for the meadow, the river bank, the pool and the Wild Wood where his animals lived so that the artist could sketch accurately for the 1933 edition of The Wind in the Willows. Shepherd returned later to show the results. “Though critical, the author seemed pleased and said, ‘I'm glad you've made them real.’” (11:83, 84, 86)

Regarding the modern child as reader, this children's librarian is inclined to think that this classic is not a book a child would choose on his or her own—although a child exposed to it may well pick it up again as an adult. Rather, this is a book to be read aloud, first, because it is slightly above the average child's unaided capacity to read to her/himself. And, secondly, by hearing the tale the child may savor the beauty of style, the rhythmic and poetic prose, the power of the imagination, and a wealth of commentary on the human experience.

As Dora V. Smith, an authority in the field of children's literature, told the National Council of Teachers of English at their golden anniversary convention in 1960, “There are no stories or books which every child should read, but there are a great many which it would be a shame for a child to miss.” (12:XV)

The Wind in the Willows is one of the latter!

Works Cited

1. Bodger, Jean. How the Heather Looks: A Joyous Journey to British Sources of Children's Books. Viking, 1959.

2. Cameron, Eleanor. The Green and Burning Tree: On the Enjoyment and Writing of Children's Books. Little Brown, 1962.

3. Grahame, Kenneth. Dream Days. London: Bodley Head, c1898; c1907, 3rd ed., illus. by Maxfield Parrish.

4.———. First Whisper of the Wind in the Willows. Edited, with an introduction by Elspeth Grahame. Lippincott, 1944.

5.———. The Golden Age. London: John Lane, Bodley Head. c1896; c1904, illus. by Maxfield Parrish.

6.———. Pagan Papers. London: Bodley Head. c1893; c1898.

7.———. The Wind in the Willows. Scribner, 1908. Edition of 1933, illus. by Ernest H. Shepherd. Renewal c. 1961, Ernest H. Shepherd.

8. Kunitz and Haycraft. Junior Book of Authors. Wilson, 1935.

9. Oxford University Press. Oxford Companion to Children's Literature. Edited by Humphrey Carpenter, 1984.

10. Sale, Roger. Fairy Tales and After. Harvard University Press, 1978.

11. Shepherd, Ernest H. Illustrating “The Wind in the Willows.” Horn Book magazine, April 1954.

12. Smith, Dora V. Fifty Years of Children's Books. National Council of Teachers of English, 1963.

Barbara Wall (essay date 1991)

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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 only Grahame, Dodgson and Macdonald for her examples of children's classics in ‘Tolkien and the Rhetoric of Childhood’; The Oxford Companion to Children's Literature speaks of The Wind in the Willows as being ‘one of the central classics of children's literature’. Unlike Dodgson, however, Grahame did not sustain address to children. Although Grahame's status as a writer for children is high, in reality he wrote little expressly for children. … The Golden Age and Dream Days, it is true, have often appealed to imaginative children who have the capacity to read the events and the dialogue and to ignore the adult narrator's attitude to his child characters and his narratees. Grahame, writing these pieces over a period of time for publication first in periodicals, seems gradually to have become aware that he had an aptitude for writing for children which he was unable to use as long as he was restricted by the narrative persona he had adopted. In ‘The Reluctant Dragon’, the penultimate story in Dream Days, he broke away from the pattern into which his success had locked him. After half-a-dozen introductory pages he provided a new narrator, the circus-man, who could, within the existing framework, tell a story simply and unselfconsciously. Gone is the knowing narrator, with his arch and sophisticated language; in his place is an oral story-teller whose attention is on his story, not his manner of telling. Gone is the implied adult reader; in his place are two child narratees, Charlotte and the unnamed narrator as a child, whose adult presence can now be forgotten.

In ‘The Reluctant Dragon’ Grahame produced his one undisputed children's story. The great difference in tone which it displays suggests that Grahame had become aware that he could no longer continue with the kind of story which had made his name. He had been making many of the points made by Jefferies in Bevis—the children's despising of the adult world, the contempt, mixed with slight compassion, for girls, the ability of children to do without adults in their secret lives—but throughout the series, whether because of the strength of deep-seated emotions, or because the theme once set and accepted he was unable to escape it, he had been locked into a pattern in which all happiness was tempered by bitterness, resentment and self-pity. That he wanted to escape is suggested by ‘The Reluctant Dragon’. All its characters—even the dragon—are kindly and beneficent. The tone is so markedly different, and the story so out of place in Dream Days, that it is reasonable to suggest that Grahame knew that he had exhausted the earlier vein. He had exorcised that particular demon and had to turn elsewhere if he was to continue to write. It is not surprising to find that The Wind in the Willows is a completely new departure with a new narrative voice. The new voice, however, was not the unvarying voice of the oral story-teller of ‘The Reluctant Dragon’, nor is the implied reader a child, like Charlotte. Whatever Grahame meant to do, he has in The Wind in the Willows produced a complex intermixture of narrative relationships.

The genesis of the story is well known. According to his wife's account, Grahame told bed-time stories of a Toad, a Badger, a Mole and a Water-rat to his small son Alastair, and began to write down episodes of these stories when the little boy was unwilling to go for a seaside holiday because it would mean that he would miss the adventures of Toad. First Whisper of ‘The Wind in the Willows’ prints the fifteen letters which Grahame sent his son between 10 May and the end of September 1907. The letters begin with Toad's stealing the motor-car and end with the banquet with which the novel also concludes. At first they are mere sketches of events, but towards the end, although the final version is more polished and more detailed, the story is presented at some length and much as we have it today. Alastair, as narratee, is always a felt presence in these letters, and in the novel, too, in these incidents. This is not always the case with the other, later, parts of The Wind in the Willows, which Grahame prepared for publication in response to a request from the American magazine, Everybody's.

The Wind in the Willows certainly opens in a way that suggests a child narratee—and thousands of parents have read these words to their young children.

The Mole had been working very hard all the morning, spring-cleaning his little home. First with brooms, then with dusters; then on ladders and steps and chairs, with a brush and a pail of whitewash; till he had dust in his throat and eyes, and splashes of whitewash all over his black fur, and an aching back and weary arms.

(p. 1)

The mole is small and alone, hardworking and weary. He is to be regarded with friendly amusement. His expletives are childlike and amusing in their mildness: ‘Bother!’, ‘O blow!’, ‘Hang spring cleaning!’ The description of his tunnelling upwards has a repetitive chant-like rhythm not unlike, though far less memorable than, the chants to be found in Just So Stories.

So he scraped and scratched and scrabbled and scrooged, and then he scrooged again and scrabbled and scratched and scraped, working busily with his little paws and muttering to himself, ‘Up we go! Up we go!’ till at last, pop! his snout came out into the sunlight, and he found himself rolling in the warm grass of a great meadow.

(p. 1)

But though a child reader is certainly implied in these passages, even on the same page a less accommodating narrative voice is giving warning that this is to be a book in which the narrator's focus will not remain fixed on a child and a child's story:

Spring was moving in the air above and in the earth below and around him, penetrating even his dark and lowly little house with its spirit of divine discontent and longing.

(p. 1)

It soon becomes clear that both narratee and implied reader in this story may change from paragraph to paragraph. Sometimes the 1890s essayist is still at work:

the river still chattered on to him, a babbling procession of the best stories in the world, sent from the heart of the earth to be told at last to the insatiable sea.

(p. 3)

At other times, in a manner reminiscent of both Dodgson and Beatrix Potter, the narrator appears to be talking to a child about a character already known and loved.

As he gazed, something bright and small seemed to twinkle down in the heart of it, vanished, then twinkled once more like a tiny star. But it could hardly be a star in such an unlikely situation; and it was too glittering and small for a glow-worm. Then, as he looked, it winked at him, and so declared itself to be an eye; and a small face began gradually to grow up round it, like a frame round a picture.

A brown little face, with whiskers.

A grave round face, with the same twinkle in its eye that had first attracted his notice.

Small neat ears and thick silky hair.

It was the Water Rat!

(p. 3)

Just as the characters are part animals, part children, part men, and never settle into any one role, just as the characters are sometimes as tiny as their animal selves would be, and sometimes as large as their male counterparts and sometimes somewhere between, so the narrative voice veers wildly and unselfconsciously: the precious fin de siècle poet—

Comfrey, the purple hand-in-hand with the white, crept forth to take its place in the line; and at last one morning the diffident and delaying dog-rose stepped delicately on the stage, and one knew, as if string-music had announced it in stately chords that strayed into a gavotte, that June at last was here

(p. 30)

gives place to the jaunty parodist,

‘Oddsbodikins!’ said the sergeant of police, taking off his helmet and wiping his forehead. ‘Rouse thee, old loon, and take over from us this vile Toad, a criminal of deepest guilt and matchless artfulness and resource. Watch and ward him with all thy skill; and mark thee well, greybeard, should aught untoward befall, thy old head shall answer for his—and a murrain on both of them!’

(p. 87)

and to the genial writer of comic verse for children.

The World has held great Heroes,
As history-books have showed;
But never a name to go down to fame
Compared with that of Toad!

(p. 144)

That many adults respond strongly to the tug of nostalgia which is the mainspring of Grahame's work, has clouded their ability to see, in historical perspective, what Grahame was doing. He is neither as innovative nor as original as his admirers assert. The Golden Age and Dream Days are not addressed to children, are indeed rather flattering to adults in their ridiculing of children. The Wind in the Willows, whatever its virtues, is a flawed and uneven work, for Grahame, unlike the Kipling of the Puck books, who deliberately worked his material in ‘overlaid tints and textures’, appears to be unaware of his uncertain stance. He does not oscillate between stances for artistic reasons, but because he has never seen the book as a whole. It has plenty of good episodes, addressed to different audiences, but no centre. The Toad stories which began as letters to a real child gave Grahame the opportunity to write about a very masculine world, in which male creatures live comfortable and somewhat irresponsible lives, and are constantly retreating into cosy womb-like holes, in a way that would have been impossible outside the framework of stories for children. In the letters written to Alastair the narrative voice does not vary, but once a wider audience was addressed, the narrator could, under the cloak of writing, as he said, for ‘youth’, indulge in a nostalgia and a sentimentality which might otherwise have alienated adult readers. W. W. Robson points out in The Definition of Literature that the two chapters ‘The Piper at the Gates of Dawn’ and ‘Wayfarers All’ have ‘none of the atmosphere of the children's book’ (p. 130). He might more accurately have said ‘are not addressed to children’. Yet it is hard to believe that they would have occurred outside a children's book. It was because Rat and Mole were firmly fixed as characters in a children's story, and therefore in a sense not to be taken too seriously, that they could safely be used in episodes dealing with the author's own imperfectly understood longings.

While modern critics are more likely to praise writers who use dual rather than double address, Grahame's particular variety of double address, in which the narrator shows no consciousness at all of an implied child reader for chapters at a time, surprisingly, is seldom criticised. It suits adult readers, perhaps, better than it does children. Humphrey Carpenter, in Secret Gardens, speaks of The Wind in the Willows as two linked stories, a ‘comic narrative about Toad’ and an ‘Arcadian vision of the River Bank’ (p. 157). Indeed he goes further: ‘The two are really separate books, and The Wind in the Willows could exist quite satisfactorily (for adult readers) without Toad’ (p. 229). It certainly seems odd that a critic and admirer of children's literature, in a book about books for children, should consider expunging from a children's classic, even in a parenthesis, the very character which has most attracted children. The fact that The Wind in the Willows is so celebrated as a children's classic casts a curious light on the part adults have played in the creation of such classics, for in fact much of the book has as its subject nostalgia for childhood, a feeling which children cannot share. It is undoubtedly true that the great children's classics are those that appeal strongly to adults.

Maureen Thum (essay date fall 1992)

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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 essay, Grahame retells the legend of “a certain English saint—Edmund Archbishop and confessor,” who had a vision: “a fayr chylde in whyte clothynge which sayd ‘Hayle, felowe that goest alone.’” Grahame describes those who, like Edmund, “choose to walk alone”: They know the special grace attaching to it, and ever feel that somewhere just ahead, round the next bend perhaps, the White Child may be waiting for them” (qtd. in Green 4). As Grahame explains:

For Nature's particular gift to the walker, through the semi-mechanical act of walking … is to set the mind jogging, to make it garrulous, exalted, a little mad maybe—certainly creative and suprasensitive, until at last it really seems to be outside of you and as if it were talking to you while you are talking back to it. Then everything gradually seems to join in, sun and the wind, the white road and the dusty hedges, the spirit of the season, whichever that may be, the friendly old earth … till you walk in the midst of a blessed company, immersed in a dream-talk far transcending any possible human conversation.

(qtd. in Green 5)

Such experiences lead to the “high converse, the high adventures … in the country of the mind” (qtd. in Green 6).

For Grahame, then, landscape has a mental dimension. A similar relationship of the perceiving subject to the external world is expressed in most, if not all, of the episodes of The Wind in the Willows and is particularly evident in the many journeys depicted in this work. During these journeys, the external world reveals itself not merely as an independent, material reality, or as a collection of objective data. Instead, even though the author describes it in a detailed, apparently realistic manner, the objective world is also portrayed as a subjective mental territory.2

Journeys, whether physical or mental, undertaken or longed for, have an important function in The Wind in the Willows. Indeed, the novel consists for the most part of a series of real or imagined and imaginary journeys, all of which reveal themselves to be explorations of various aspects of preexistent or nascent states of consciousness.3 Mole's initial journey of exploration is a case in point. Like many of the journeys in the The Wind in the Willows, it is not merely an exploration of consciousness; it entails a mental change. Thus Mole never returns permanently to his old burrow and his former mental state. Instead, he finds a new “home” quite unlike his abandoned underground house in the meadow. During a single brief visit, he attempts to revive the old feelings attached to his former abode. But, as Mole discovers, his movement beyond the restricted world of his burrow in the meadow has become one of those profound experiences which alters the mind-set and cannot—as Grahame suggests—be undone. He can, of course, always return, as he tells himself at the end of the chapter. But throughout the subsequent episodes, he never does.

Most of the journeys in The Wind in the Willows express a simultaneous mental evolution and exploration of consciousness. In Mole's venture away from his burrow, the change is expressed in a failure or even refusal to return home permanently. In other journeys, the physical displacement is followed by a return to the point of departure. But even if the physical movement away from home is spatially inverted, the mental process initiated by the journey leads beyond the “starting point” to an awakening of or modification of consciousness. None of these undertakings, then, can be seen as mere repetitions of a single predictable movement or paradigm. They do not reflect a static world, or a static world view. Instead, they express a continuing experiential process which, mediated though a series of journeys, varies markedly from one instance to the next.

I have singled out two episodes from the chapters entitled “The Wild Wood” and “Piper at the Gates of Dawn” as telling expressions of Grahame's narrative method. The first is Mole's trip alone through the winter-bound Wild Wood, and the second is the boat ride down the river as Ratty and Mole look for Portly, the lost little otter. Both are physical journeys undertaken by the characters; but both are in equal measure journeys of self-exploration within a landscape of the mind. And both bring about new perceptions of reality and thus an expansion of consciousness despite the physical return “home.”

In the first of these episodes, Mole, who has broken away from the routine of a humdrum, trivial existence the previous spring, enters a dimension of reality which has previously been closed to him. Not only does he venture out into the barren winter landscape, but he enters the “Wild Wood”—the threatening dwelling place of “wild” creatures, a place completely unfamiliar and even foreign to a meadow-dweller like him. In the second, Mole is accompanied by Ratty, his mentor and teacher, into a new and hitherto unsuspected dimension of reality and consciousness. During both ventures, the protagonists seek the meaning which lies beyond the surface of material reality. This meaning, never completely disclosed, and only apprehended darkly and imperfectly, is embodied in the image of the wind which insistently whispers its message as it moves through the reeds and willows on the banks of what Water Rat calls not just “the river,” but “the River.”

The process of awakening is first initiated in the opening chapter when Mole is aroused one spring morning by an urgent call which he does not attempt to, and perhaps cannot, define. The call, which draws him from the relatively secluded “cellarage” where he has lived in modest comfort and apparent contentment, is neither “instinctual” nor “natural” in the sense of animal instinct.4 Instead, as the words “divine discontent” suggest, it is of divine origin. Later, during the night journey on the river, it is even more specifically defined as the “sudden clear call from an actual articulate voice” (120). Again it is the voice of a divine spirit, of the nature-god Pan (120). Grahame's concept of the “call” is similar to that of the Romantic lyric poets, whom Grahame is consciously echoing.5 In The Wind in the Willows, the process set in motion by the call is objectified by the journey. Obeying the summons and filled with “a spirit of divine discontent and longing” (1), Mole takes the first step which will eventually cause him to overcome the limitations of the restricted world—the burrow and the meadow—which has circumscribed his existence until now. It leads him to the river, to a domain whose existence he had never before suspected. The mere sight of this body of flowing water, the symbol for time and change, intoxicates Mole, who watches “bewitched, entranced, fascinated” (3).

Mole's subsequent meeting with the Water Rat begins with his perception of nothing more than an eye. As Mole gazes in fascination, first at the river itself and then at a dark hole in the opposite bank, he sees something mysterious, twinkling like a tiny star, and he thinks: “But it could hardly be a star in such an unlikely situation; it was too glittering and small for a glow-worm. Then, as he looked, it winked at him, and so declared itself to be an eye; and a small face began gradually to grow up round it, like a frame round a picture” (4). The eye, here the image of consciousness itself, is of primary importance in this encounter. The face only defines itself secondarily, almost as if it were subordinate to perception. As the image suggests, the Water Rat allows the Mole to “see” in an unaccustomed manner. Ratty leads him to a new perception of himself and to a new view of the world by initiating him into a wider circle of existence: the realm of the river bank. In subsequent episodes, as their friendship grows, Mole progresses beyond the role of “apprentice,” so that he in turn supports his friend. Together they explore aspects of a world which neither had as yet encountered. Thus the process of widening consciousness, first suggested by the image of the eye, continues in various forms throughout the The Wind in the Willows.

Mole's visit to the Wild Wood exemplifies this process. Like his journey to the Rat's river home, it is undertaken alone. Indeed, it is his first attempt to set out on his own since his initial venture to the river bank. Significantly, he sets out on this venture not only without Ratty's guidance, but contrary to his new friend's specific—albeit somewhat indirect—warnings. Mole's subsequent entrance into a different dimension of consciousness is shown to be an unsettling, even frightening occurrence, since it upsets his preconceptions and causes a radical change in his perception of reality.

The initial scenes of the chapter play an important role in setting the stage for the drama which later unfolds in the Wild Wood. The chapter opens as Ratty and Mole sit before the fire in the Water Rat's burrow. It is winter. Longingly they have pictured the past spring and summer in a series of memories which shed their afterglow upon the grey present. Grahame very clearly evokes the Romantics' feelings of discontent and their resultant yearning for an ideal time—here suggested by past spring and summer seasons—while having to live in the seeming monotony of a sterile present—here represented by winter, which has imprisoned them in the burrow.

The images of summer which Ratty, Mole, and their friends summon forth are based at least in part on real, remembered experiences; nevertheless, they also disclose themselves to be at least partially a fiction, since the remembered reality of the summer months is mediated through a shared tradition of literary images and literary language. But Grahame's portrayal is not simply an unconscious echoing of past traditions; it is a highly conscious analysis of the nature of perception and memory as filtered through cultural tradition. Ratty's and Mole's lyrical affirmation of remembered spring and summer are thus expressed through the medium of a series of literary paradigms from the past. The longed-for season appears imagistically as a pageant “unfolding itself in scene pictures that succeeded each other in stately procession” (40); it is a picture book “with illustrations so numerous and so very highly coloured” (40), and it is a play, in which each of the flowers—purple loosestrife, willow-herb, comfrey, and others—comes forth as a player announcing a new moment in the unfolding drama. The “diffident and delaying dog rose stepped delicately on the stage” to announce the coming of June (40). The players themselves—the flowers along the river bank—are associated with pastoral, chivalric, medieval romance and fairy-tale motifs in this staged play of summer. The “meadow-sweet,” for instance, appearing as shepherd boy, knight, and prince, awakens summer to life and love.

All of the literary images presented in this evocation of an ideal summer are reflected in the mirror of the river—here the symbol of time and memory—so that the entire landscape becomes a symbol for the workings of consciousness. Elements of the depicted landscape embody the act or process of remembering as a combined resumption of literary language and empirical perceptions which are awakened to life in consciousness, and which in turn awaken consciousness to further self-exploration.

Ratty responds to this awakening of consciousness with an outburst of creativity, scribbling verses by the fire. The Mole, who has no such means of expressing his perceptions, is filled instead with a kind of restlessness which leads him to venture out of doors. There, with his senses awakened, he sees to his astonishment not the expected cliché of the barren and sterile winter landscape, but instead, the reality of the actual landscape of winter in all its overwhelming intensity. Although the inherited literary filter had caused him to long for the lost ideal of summer and to deprecate the winter landscape, he finds that his actual perceptions of reality do not completely correspond to literary models for those perceptions. As he emerges from the warmth of the burrow into the cold air, he immediately finds that his previous view of winter as mournful and distressing—in contrast to the warmth, joy and richness of the longed-for summer—was merely a preconception. He is now prepared to see a new kind or criterion for beauty, a criterion which does not correspond to the literary paradigm he had previously accepted: he is able to discern the stark appeal of an apparently lifeless landscape.

Despite the “hard steely sky,” the country “bare and entirely leafless,” “he thought that he had never seen so far and so intimately into the insides of things as on that winter day when nature was deep in her annual slumber and seemed to have kicked the clothes off” (41). Although the “rich masquerade”—the literary cliché of the desirable summer landscape—still beckons him, he is able to see it at least in part as an illusion, even a deception, since it has enticed the eye and has prevented him from seeing that beauty could assume quite different, less overtly diversified but equally valid forms. It has prevented him from perceiving the beauty of a seemingly dead landscape:

Copses, dells, quarries and all hidden places, which had been mysterious mines for exploration in leafy summer, now exposed themselves and their secrets pathetically, and seemed to ask him to overlook their shabby poverty for a while, till they could riot in rich masquerade as before, and trick and entice him with the old deceptions. It was pitiful in a way, and yet cheering—even exhilarating. He was glad that he liked the country undecorated, hard and stripped of its finery. He had got down to the bare bones of it, and they were fine and strong and simple. He did not want the warm clover and the play of seeding grasses; the screens of quickset, the billowy drapery of beech and elm seemed best away. …


Now that he sees the winter landscape unobstructed by handed-down images of the literary tradition, the Mole feels a sense of exhilaration. As Grahame reveals in this passage, the history of art can overlay or even shut out reality, and prevent the subject from “seeing” with his or her own eyes. Thus, the bare and dark winter landscape seemed forbidding and “unpoetic,” but in his newly receptive state, Mole looks at the winter landscape “objectively” for the first time. He no longer wants or needs the inherited images which have become accepted as criteria for the “beautiful”; instead he forms his own criteria for what “beauty” is. In this sense, the individual finds that what he has assumed to be aesthetically pleasing was in part at least a deception, and often merely a decoration; he sees that the literary stereotype of spring and summer acted as a filtering medium which allowed only a limited perception of the external world.

I do not wish to imply here that Grahame is rejecting the experience of summer landscape mediated through literary tradition as merely deceptive or artificial. His many lyrical passages describing the beauties of the river—for instance, the night journey to find the lost little Otter, when the summer landscape is transformed by the moonlight (123)—argue the contrary. Instead, he is affirming, through Mole's perceptions, the possibility of different criteria for equally valid experiences. The stark landscape, with its revelation of the bare bones of structure, may be seen to suggest the aesthetic criteria which informed much of late nineteenth and early twentieth century painting and sculpture in the move toward abstraction. To a certain extent, in these opposing pictures of the joyous summer pageant and the stark and forbidding—yet strangely appealing—winter landscape, Grahame explores different aesthetic modes of perception in their relationship to one another. For Mole, the experience of the winter landscape is new and unprecedented; it is an experience as yet unshaped by known patterns and by a known language. Grahame expresses the experience spatially as Mole's entrance into an unknown territory: the Wild Wood at night. This journey is his exploration of consciousness unfettered by cultural preconceptions about the nature of experience.

Once the natural light fails in the Wild Wood, the light is switched on in Mole's subconscious mind. The inner world of as yet unexamined emotions, of dark and frightening impulses, overwhelms rational consciousness with a compelling power. He is now travelling in a mysterious, unknown realm. Grahame represents this process as a rhythmical progression:

There was nothing to alarm him at first entry. Twigs crackled under his feet, logs tripped him, funguses on stumps resembled caricatures, and startled him for the moment by their likeness to something familiar and far away; but that was all fun and exciting. It led him on, and he penetrated to where the light was less, and trees crouched nearer and nearer, and holes made ugly mouths at him on either side.


Three parallel sentences stress the rising tension: “Then the faces began,” “Then the whistling began,” and “Then the pattering began” (42-3). They appear, like a refrain, accompanying Mole's intensifying fear and isolation as he penetrates deeper and deeper into the forest, until he finally loses all control: “In panic he began to run too, aimlessly, he knew not whither. He ran up against things, he fell over things and into things. … At last he took refuge in the deep dark hollow of an old beech tree. …” (45).

Mole's journey into darkness may be interpreted at several different levels. It is the story of the lost, frightened creature in the woods at night. But it is also a description of the mind's troubling disorientation, a disorientation which afflicts the individual who begins to look deeply into the nature of reality and who finds himself in uncharted psychological territory. Mole enters without prejudice and without preparation, against his mentor's advice. His mind is now open, but also adrift. Thus the terror of the Wild Wood, of the unexplored regions of the mind, overcomes him. He has entered the subconscious mind without a reliable guide and hence “unprotected.” Grahame shows the fear and apprehension which accompany a re-forming, or an exploration of hitherto unexamined or unrecognized dimensions of consciousness. For Mole, this is frightening, dangerous, forbidden territory.6

Rat, on the other hand, has passed through this physical and mental territory before. His past experience causes him to come prepared with a single purpose in mind, a purpose which directs his vision, making it more focused and accurate in one sense, but less open, less sensitive in another. He comes “manfully,” armed with weapons to protect himself against the fears engendered by this unknown territory and because he is “protected,” he sees what he expects to see. Thus his practicality, while necessary, discloses itself at least in part to be a limitation. When he finds Mole cowering in the hollow tree, he expresses the balanced, reasonable view of the civilized individual who is aware of the uncharted depths of the human mind and takes precautions to offset the dangers of his wanderings in such regions: “You shouldn't really have gone and done it, Mole … We river-bankers hardly ever come here by ourselves” (47). According to Ratty, at least under these circumstances, living is a craft which the individual learns. One doesn't venture into the Wild Wood unprepared. One has, as protection, signs, sayings, passwords, and so forth, all of which represent fixed forms of language, fixed ways of seeing things and preconceived means of controlling one's perceptions.7

As the Water Rat's sage advice reveals, once a person is equipped with the learned signs and symbols for his “journey”—i.e. once he has language which molds his perceptions of and thus controls his vision of external reality—he is no longer as much assaulted by fear and awe. And yet this experience of fear seems in some cases to be an inevitable prerequisite for new knowledge. Protecting oneself from such an experience means limiting the possibility for perception. Thus the Mole's terror is presented ambivalently; it has both drawbacks and advantages, loss and gain. It is true that the Mole must be rescued by a wiser friend so that he does not become trapped in a region of consciousness which he cannot handle; yet he emerges with a new view of the world, a deeper insight into his own nature and into the nature of reality.

The limitations of Ratty's role are humorously emphasized in a parody of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson which appears following Mole's rescue.8 Ratty is cast in the role of an omniscient Holmes, who is equipped to predict every aspect of a tricky and mysterious case and for whom objective reality always turns out to be a touchstone and proof for the validity of his method. Mole plays a wondering, ingenuous Watson who is overwhelmed at Holmes' ability to analyze and to explain every aspect of reality according to intricate causal connections. The two of them have found the door of Badger's home in the woods:

The Mole fell backwards in the snow from sheer surprise and delight. “Rat!” he cried in penitence, “You're a wonder! A real wonder, that's what you are. I see it all now! You argued it out, step by step, in that wise head of yours, from the very moment that I fell and cut my shin, and at once your majestic mind said to itself, ‘Door-scraper!’ And then you turned to and found the very door-scraper that done it. Did you stop there? No. Some people would have been quite satisfied; but not you. Your intellect went on working. ‘Let me only just find a door-mat’ says you to yourself, ‘and my theory is proved!’ And of course you found your door-mat. You're so clever, I believe you could find anything you liked. ‘Now,’ says you, ‘that door exists as plain as if I saw it. There's nothing else remains to be done but to find it!’ Well, I've read about that sort of thing in books, but I've never come across it before in real life.”


Although Ratty appears to carry the day with his—here delightfully satirized—wisdom, experience, and emphasis on the matter-of-fact, the focus in this chapter is on the Mole as he explores the darker aspects of consciousness; he encounters fear, death, dissolution of formal “consciousness.” But he arrives at a new perception in this mental journey both of himself and of the external world.

The divine call that rouses Mole from his dormant existence below the ground continues with quiet insistence throughout the episodes of the book, embodied in the image of the wind whispering through the reeds and willows. It is a motif expressed in the title of the book, an impulse which is only apparently external since its power could not become manifest without the readiness of the perceiving subject to heed it. It is this impulse which initiates the mental journey to a new state of consciousness.

During the chapter “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn,” both the Water Rat and the Mole hear the call as they set out on a night journey in search of a lost child. It draws them to experience a reality which is at odds with the ordinary daylight world perceived by rational consciousness. Grahame uses the rhythmical changes which mark the daily passage of time as analogous to movements of the human spirit. Thus the falling darkness on the river after sunset corresponds to the gradual admittance into a nocturnal realm of fantasy and visions, to a release from the comfort but also the limitations of a rationality which sustains our daytime view of the world.

In this darkness—a time of mystery and terror—they begin to hear the call not simply as a vague whispering of the wind, but as a “sudden clear call from an actual articulate voice” (120). At this point, the dark landscape is suddenly flooded by moonlight, suggesting the almost visionary nature of their perceptions. The “silent silver kingdom” before them is as radiant as by day but “with a difference that was tremendous” (120). Now the moon appears as a vessel which lifts with “slow majesty till it swung clear of the horizon and rode off, free of the moorings” to remain “serene and detached in the cloudless sky” (120). This is the image of the mind in contemplation, freed from the shackles of purposeful—i.e. limiting—rationality and routine.

As in the Wild Wood chapter, Mole sees a new view of what he had assumed to be familiar territory. Even matter-of-fact Ratty is overwhelmed and transported so that he is able, for a time, to escape the limitations of a dogmatic rationality. The landscape, altered by the seasons, and stripped of the overlay of literary language, previously appeared in the Wild Wood chapter ‘with its clothes kicked off’ (41). Here the landscape is transformed by the moonlight, appearing in “new apparel” as an exotic realm which reveals itself only to those who are prepared to gaze beyond what Grahame later refers to as the “veil” (123): “Their old haunts greeted them again in other raiment as if they had slipped away and put on this pure new apparel and come quietly back, smiling as they shyly waited to see if they would be recognized again under it (120).” As they move along the river, darkness gradually shrouds the landscape. With the return of darkness, “mystery once more held field and river” until the light slowly changes and the suns rays begin to emanate from beyond the horizon to indicate the return of day (120). Here at dawn, during the indecisive time when neither light nor darkness—neither rational consciousness nor the non-rational, unconscious mind—reigns completely, Ratty hears the sound of music and is filled with an indescribable longing. As it fades, he comments to Mole: “So beautiful and strange and new! Since it was to end so soon, I almost wish I had never heard it. For it has aroused a longing in me that is pain, and nothing seems worthwhile but just to hear that sound once more and go on listening to it forever. No! There it is again” (121). At first Mole is perplexed: “I hear nothing myself … but the wind playing in the reeds and rushes and osiers” (121). But, as objects begin to grow more distinct in the dawning light, he too is transported: “Breathless and transfixed, the Mole stopped rowing as the liquid run of that glad piping broke on him like a wave, caught him up, and possessed him utterly” (122). There are echoes of Milton's ode, “On the Morning of Christ's Nativity,” as Rat and Mole are enthralled by a direct vision of the divine in nature. The vision is crystallized in a moment of revelation which is not accessible to the rational mind.9

It is significant for Grahame's view that the moment of revelation is not represented as occurring in a totally spiritual, non-tangible realm which denies the validity of, or appears in opposition to, the physical world. Physical reality is neither suppressed nor excluded from the vision of the divine. Instead it is enhanced: the roses are vivid, the willow-herb riotous, and the odors are strong and pervasive (122). Pan himself—the nature god of classical antiquity—appears on a small island in the equivalent of a garden—nature's “garden” of wild things: “And then, in that utter clearness of the imminent dawn, while nature, flushed with fullness of incredible color, seemed to hold her breath for the event, he looked in the very eyes of the Friend and Helper; saw the backward sweep of the curved horns …” (125).10 Nature's garden is a new Eden. The appearance of the divine spirit in the shape of Pan suggests that the transcendent world does not deny or devalue the physical world. The transcendent realm includes the physical world which has been transformed, or transfigured. Again Grahame echoes Milton's Nativity Ode, suggesting in this Edenic vision a synthesis of classical and Christian imagery in the figure of Pan/Christ.11

With the gradual coming of daylight, the rational part of consciousness asserts itself, and the vision is lost. Grahame does not portray the rational world as a prison from which one longs to escape into the visionary darkness of the night country. Instead he depicts the forgetfulness of the daytime spirit as a kind of protection against the possible insurgence of a dangerous longing for the night. Night is the realm of inspiration, the source of visions, and ultimately, of poetry. But those who dwell there exclusively are rendered incapable of living in the everyday world. Pan grants to Ratty and Mole oblivion; their encounter with the divine thus remains an only partially remembered event which rationality must disregard or at least hold in check. Divinely ordained, privileged moments cannot become a substitute for life in its entirety:

As they stared blankly, in dumb misery deepening as they slowly realized all they had seen and all they had lost, a capricious little breeze, dancing up from the surface of the water, tossed the aspens, shook the dewy roses, and blew lightly and caressingly in their faces, and with its soft touch came instant oblivion. For this is the last best gift that the kindly demigod is careful to bestow on those to whom he has revealed himself in their helping: the gift of forgetfulness. Lest the awful remembrance should remain and grow, and overshadow mirth and pleasure, and the great haunting memory should spoil all the after-lives of little animals …


In the moments that follow the return of Portly to his home, Ratty and Mole once again hear the sound of the wind playing in the reeds, a sound which seems to them now to be a mysterious voice speaking to them: “Lest the awe should dwell—and turn your frolic to fret—You shall look on my power at the helping hour—But then you shall forget! (130). The reeds take up the refrain, “forget, forget” as the voice of the “helper” and “healer” fades and at last is lost in the ordinary everyday sounds of the river.

In The Wind in the Willows, both Ratty and Mole follow the mysterious call which leads them beyond the limitations of their customary existence to explore a hitherto unrecognized domain of consciousness. This experience of awakening and discovery changes their view of themselves and of the world. Both are, in a sense, wanderers in a domain that only appears to be modest and circumscribed. Grahame reveals to his reader, whether child or adult, that the English landscape in the subtle beauty of its seasonal changes can elicit and reflect the entire range of human experience from the darkest, most frightening impulses of the subconscious mind to the contemplative experience of the divine. Encountering the “new” does not depend for Grahame on mere physical displacement, on travelling to far-off, exotic lands. Instead it derives from the ability to see both in a physical and a mental sense. For those who are attentive to the whispering of the wind in the reeds and willows, the divine may make its presence felt, bringing the message that revelation and the miraculous may be found in the ordinary. In The Wind in the Willows, landscape—the country of the mind—is almost like a living entity and a revelation; it is, in Grahame's words, “as if it were talking to you” (qtd. in Green 5).


  1. The article first appeared in St. Edward's School Chronicle 12 (July 1913): 270-71. It has been reprinted in Green 4-6.

  2. As U. C. Knoepflmacher comments, children's fantasies often appeal to a dual audience, both child and adult at different levels of the text: “Children's books, especially works of fantasy … hover between states of perception that William Blake had labeled innocence and experience” (497). Sarah Gilead cites examples of children's works which, like The Wind in the Willows, exhibit the characteristics Knoepflmacher describes (145-48).

  3. The journey into a physical landscape which simultaneously becomes an exploration of consciousness has numerous precedents in literature, especially among the Romantic poets. Richard Gillin comments that Grahame, “with surprisingly few explicit verbal echoes … manages to call up for readers familiar with the Romantics—as his Victorian audience certainly was—some central poems of the canon …” (169). In The Wind in the Willows these echoed passages are not merely transcriptions; instead they reflect Grahame's view of nature and of the external world represented in art as a kind of picture language of the soul, a view which Grahame shared at least in part with his Romantic predecessors.

  4. Mole's response is certainly neither “instinctual” (Gilead 155) nor “natural” (Michael Mendelson 131), unless one uses these words metaphorically. Instinct, for an animal like a mole, would mean the automatic response to environment which would force it to live its life in a burrow. Unlike his real counterparts in the wild, Grahame's Mole is capable of making a radical change and adapting to a communal life with a creature of a different species who lives in a different environment. Nor is it instinctual for an animal in spring to leave its home only to return for a brief visit. The fact that Mole responds to a call that has little to do with “instinct” in its strictest sense may be seen more clearly if one looks at the later chapter, “Dulce Domum”. There, the smell of his old burrow does activate his natural homing instinct, an instinct to which he only very briefly succumbs.

  5. Grahame's concept of the call may be compared to that of the German idealist philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte, who speaks of the “Anstoss,” a mysterious impulse or divine call which summons the individual and sets in motion “das Setzen,” a dynamic process of self-exploration and self-realization; see the definitions in Fichte's early work on the theory of knowledge, “Die Wissenschaftslehre,” found in Volume 1 of his collected works. There are numerous examples in German and English poets; see, for example, Wordsworth's “Ode: Intimation of Immortality”: “Ye blessed Creatures, I have heard the call / Ye to each other make” (153). The Romantics drew upon and transformed a much older tradition expressed, for instance, in medieval mystical writing.

  6. Critics have suggested that the Rat/Mole chapters take place in an idyllic world untroubled by the incursions of reality; see Roger Sale (176), Mendelson (129), and Gilead (152-53). In characterizing the episodes involving Rat and Mole as “secure” and “idyllic,” their commentaries disregard the issues Grahame raises in the chapter on the Wild Wood, which is far more than an incident having “value mainly as a moral lesson” (Gilead 153). As Mole's very real terror indicates, this is not merely an idyllic world without dangers. Both Ratty's weapons and Otter's sharp teeth show that the danger is quite real (67).

  7. In the chapter “Wayfarer's All,” Ratty's propensity to cling to conventional language allows him to be seduced by the seafaring rat's idealized account of the wanderer's life, and the role of Rat and Mole are reversed. Mole, who has already seen the potential deception of such literary images in the Wild Wood episode, and who is able to see the reality of the surrounding “ordinary” landscape as beautiful in all its manifestations, prevents his friend from succumbing to an intoxication with a purely rhetorical construct.

  8. My thanks to Frank Riga, Canisius College, Buffalo, New York, for pointing out the parodic parallel to the Watson-Holmes relationship. In reference to the parody, one of my readers noted Ernest H. Shepard's drawing of Ratty which strongly suggests Holmes with the jacket, characteristic cap and pistol. As Shepard later related in “Illustrating The Wind in the Willows,” he had consulted with Grahame about these drawings, which first appeared in the 1933 edition (Shepard IV-VI). The parody is telling. Not only does the passage emphasize the limitations of the completely matter-of-fact approach to the world, but it counters the claim of Gilead that the adventures of Mole and Rat contain no satirical elements. Similar satirical notes may be heard throughout the opening chapters.

  9. The reference, while not verbally explicit, is nonetheless clear: “When such music sweet / Their hearts and ears did greet / As never was by mortal finger strook, / Divinely warbled voice, / Answering the stringed noise, / As all their souls in blissful rapture took …” (lines 93-8).

  10. Gillin points out that despite the Romantic echoes, the emphasis on solitude, such as one finds in Wordsworth, is not Grahame's point. For Grahame, the experience of the divine in nature is communal and social. It represents not a retreat into self, but a self-transcendence, a moving out of and beyond the ego (173). Lois Kuznets comments that for contemporaries of Grahame, Pan often represented “the frustrating dualisms of modern society and a divided sensibility in which the civilized intellectual self was perforce separated from the natural, animal self.” In both an essay “The Rural Pan” in Pagan Papers and in this scene, Grahame “emphasizes the god's good-natured sociability rather than his randy goatishness” and not only “repress[es] Pan's sexuality but exaggerate[s] his paternity” (“Kenneth Grahame and Father Nature” 178-79). I would add that the context of Pan's appearance in this night journey puts into question the dualism between subject and object, between mind and matter by showing that even in this most deeply rooted spiritual experience, the physical world plays an essential role.

  11. Milton's Nativity Ode depicts the Shepherds and Pan in a pastoral scene which echoes the ancient tradition associating the figure of Christ with Pan: The shepherds on the lawn, / Or ere the point of dawn, / Sat simply chatting in a rustic row; / Full little thought they then, / That the mighty Pan / Was kindly come to live with them below … (lines 85-90). The time (dawn), the appearance of the “mighty Pan” to ordinary creatures of this earth, as well as the divine music which takes the souls of the observers “in blissful rapture” (line 98) are echoed in Grahame's depiction, enhancing the connotative richness of the portrayal and stressing the visionary nature of the experience without overt reference to Christ and to Christianity. Such a reference would not only be out of place in the “animal” world of The Wind in the Willows, but would reduce the multi-valency of the compelling images presented in this scene.

Works Cited

Fichte, Johann Gottlieb. Sämtliche Werke. Vol 1. Ed. J. H. Fichte. Berlin: Veit & Co., 1845-6.

Gilead, Sarah. “The Undoing of Idyll in The Wind in the Willows.Children's Literature 16 (1988): 145-158.

Gillin, Richard. “Romantic Echoes in the Willows.” Children's Literature 16 (1988): 169-174.

Grahame, Kenneth. The Wind in the Willows. (1908) New York: Dell, 1969.

Green, Peter. Kenneth Grahame. A Study of his Life, Work and Times. Edinborough: John Murray, 1959.

Knoepflmacher, U. C. “The Balancing of Child and Adult: An Approach to Victorian Fantasies for Children.” Nineteenth Century Fiction 37 (1983): 497-530.

Kuznets, Lois. Kenneth Grahame. Boston: Twayne, 1987.

———. “Kenneth Grahame and Father Nature, or Whither Blows The Wind in the Willows.Children's Literature 16 (1988): 175-184.

Mendelson, Michael. “The Wind in the Willows and the Plotting of Contrast.” Children's Literature 16 (1988): 127-144.

Milton, John. Complete Shorter Poems. Ed. John Carey. London: Longman, 1978.

Sale, Roger. Fairy Tales and After: From Snow White to E. B. White. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1978.

Shepard, Ernest H. “Illustrating The Wind in the Willows.The Wind in the Willows. Kenneth Grahame. New York: Scribner's, 1953.

Wordsworth, William. The Prelude: Selected Poems and Sonnets. New York: Holt, Rhinehart and Winston, 1963.

Peter Hunt (essay date 1994)

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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, a babbling procession of the best stories in the world. …



[T]he trees were thicker and more like each other than ever. There seemed to be no end to this wood, and no beginning, and no difference in it, and, worst of all, no way out.


No traditional critical analysis can do justice to the complexity of The Wind in the Willows: we cannot separate structure from symbol, symbol from character, or character from language. Its narrative structure reflects its symbolism, its symbolism is contained in its characters, its characters and their dialogue are made of language, and its language, in turn, parallels the narrative structure. Thus, if there is a good deal of overlap and interweaving in the present discussion, this in itself is an indirect tribute to the book.

It may be for this reason that one can only guess as to which part of the text is likely to strike the reader first or most forcefully. Perhaps what the characters seem on the surface or what they do are the things that we remember; reflections on symbolism might come later, or might register only subconsciously. Many readers might remember the anarchy of Mole or the gravity of Badger before they realize what these characters might mean. However, characters and actions exist only within a framework, and underlying the basic decisions that we make about whether the book is for us—for the adult or the child (or the child within us, perhaps)—is the shape of the book, its narrative structure.

The Wind in the Willows has a particularly fascinating structure; there is more than one kind of book here, and the same characters function differently in each one, and mean different things. Critics have not overlooked this. Jay Williams notes this basic point well: “Technically, Grahame's book shouldn't work. It appears to violate the primary canon of a book: unity. It is, in fact, three books pasted together, the adventures of Toad, the tale of the friendship of Rat and two prose-poems about the English countryside. Nevertheless, the book does play, as we used to say in show business.”1 Just how well it plays is another matter, though; as Humphrey Carpenter has noted, less charitably, “Though it is fine enough in structure, one feels that it is often shakily executed, and that the exercise could scarcely be repeated successfully, so near does it come to collapse.”2

The simplest way of looking at the book is to identify its two basic narratives, Mole's story and Toad's story. The first narrative is peaceful and local, the second outgoing and violent; one critic has called them the centrifugal and centripetal plots.3 The first, in its pace, reflectiveness, and seriousness, is more suited to adults than to children, whereas the second is farcical. The first is home, the second abroad; the first is slow and deep (as well as symbolic), the second fast and shallow (as well as funny). The two chapters that interrupt Toad's adventures, “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn,” and “Wayfarers All” can be seen either as a counterpoint to the farce, or part of the reflective, centripetal, adult novel.

An exploration of certain ways one might read the structure of this book may give us some clue as to the responses that are possible: as Mole said of the countryside in winter: “He was glad he liked the country undecorated, hard, and stripped of its finery. He had got down to the bare bones of it, and they were fine and strong and simple” (43). Before we explore these bones, though, we can outline the theory that makes looking at them worthwhile.

It is well established that the human mind, especially in childhood, responds positively to “closure”: it is easier and more comfortable to have a sense of ending or resolution in most tasks. This applies particularly to narrative. Broadly, there are three classes of story: those that return to where they began, or have normality and security restored to them; those that acknowledge the stable “center” of home, family, security, and yet move beyond it; and those that break completely away from this on an actual or symbolic level.

The first kind of story structure, the “closed” story, is very common in children's books: the child reader can enjoy vicarious excitement and yet return safely home. Classic examples are J. R. R. Tolkien's The Hobbit (with its significant subtitle, Or There and Back Again), or Arthur Ransome's Swallows and Amazons—but there are thousands upon thousands of others. This form is also common in lowbrow books that adults read below their intellectual capacity—romances and pulp novels, notably. This coincidence has led to some confusion in the minds of adults between the children's book and “poor” literature, and we may be able to detect just this confusion behind some of our reactions to The Wind in the Willows.

The second kind of story is what we might call the “semiclosed” story, Bildungsroman, or “growth-novel.” Here, the characters begin at home, but develop through experience, so that they can move on or away in a significant way. Home may have an influence, but it serves essentially as something to be left behind. Books that take this shape are “developmental.” They are for adolescents, perhaps: they posit confrontation with new experience rather than the confirmation of past experience. They are, in short, rather less comfortable: resolution is not total, security is not reconfirmed. Curiously, critics often have trouble coming to terms with such stories. This last concern is perhaps most relevant to The Wind in the Willows.

Tolkien again provides a good example of this type with Frodo's story in The Lord of the Rings; Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden is another. Picturebooks, too, such as Rosemary Wells's Timothy Goes to School or Benjamin and Tulip show this basic pattern—which can cause further confusion. Books that look like books for children (notably picture books) are sometimes disconcerting in that they can have the “wrong” narrative shape.

The third kind of story is that with an unresolved ending or one in which very great changes or shifts have taken place in the course of the narrative. This is recognized as the “adult” narrative, a shape that allows us—indeed, forces us—to move on, as it were, ambivalently into the future. This shape acknowledges in a fundamental way the complexity of existence.

The dominance of the narrative shape in how we perceive stories can be demonstrated by various fantasy genres, and the folktales and fairy tales from which they derive. In folktales especially, the themes are profound, elemental, savage: they are often about wish-fulfillment, revenge, sex, yet they are now typically thought of as appropriate to children. The reason for this is, in part, that such stories very often come to a clear resolution—which is not what an essentially utilitarian western culture has trained its adults to recognize as significant. Stories that have ambivalent endings, on the other hand, such as the Russian tale retold by Arthur Ransome, “The Soldier and Death,” have not been so easily assimilated into children's literature.

Often these several kinds of text exist side by side, uncomfortably. Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which is essentially a Bildungsroman of Huck overlaid with an adult novel about Jim the slave, collides in the last chapters with the resolution-seeking children's book character of Tom Sawyer. In The Lord of the Rings, Sam Gamgee's plot is of the first type, Frodo's of the second, the elves' and men's of the third. In P. L. Travers's Mary Poppins there is a clash between the children's resolving stories and Mary's unresolved (and unresolvable) adult story. Small wonder such books find it difficult to find a niche in the literary hierarchy: they seem on their surface to be one thing, but a very different level makes its presence known as we read them.

The Wind in the Willows exemplifies all these questions about narrative, and it is clear that what narrative means to us is interrelated with the symbolism of its characters. A good example may be found in a series of stories contemporaneous with The Wind in the Willows, one that may well have influenced it—the Sherlock Holmes stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Although intended for, and primarily read by adults, these stories have been appreciated by children and adolescents (they are currently available in Britain in several editions designed for the “junior” market). Whatever their content in terms of dealing with horror or murder, almost all of the stories are of the first of our narrative types: there is resolution, which is reinforced by the very powerful symbols of the omnipotent, almost godlike Holmes and the comfortable lodgings of Baker Street, which contrast with the threatening, fog-filled London. Whatever adult problems are “out there,” we, standing beside the childlike Dr. Watson, can be confident and comfortable in the knowledge that we can return home unharmed. Of course, the Sherlock Holmes stories are not considered to be “great literature”—and, of course, they cannot be, given that “greatness” (or “adultness”) is commonly associated with a certain plot shape. To enjoy Sherlock Holmes, therefore, involves responding to secure narratives, to gratify “childish” impulses.

And so it is with The Wind in the Willows. For Dr. Watson, read Mole; for Holmes read the Water Rat (who is wise to the ways of the river); for the London underworld, read the Wild Wood. The parallels are valid: although The Wind in the Willows and the Holmes stories speak both to adults and to children, their status is held to be questionable.

In this respect, though, The Wind in the Willows is more complex: it provokes multiple responses, because the narrative shapes require such responses. If certain parts of the book are “for adults,” then, we might be able to identify these by tracing the various shapes in the book.

One way of identifying the shapes is to consider “external” evidence: How was the book written? For this we can turn to the research surrounding The Wind in the Willows.


Mole drew his arm through Toad's, led him out into the open air, shoved him into a wicker chair, and made him tell him his adventures from beginning to end. … Toad, with no one to check his statements or to criticise in an unfriendly spirit, rather let himself go.


It is significant that the story of how The Wind in the Willows came to be written must be unraveled from the accounts of his wife Elspeth and of his first biographer, Patrick Chalmers. It seems clear from the evidence that Grahame's marriage was not a happy one, and he spent a good deal of time abroad or otherwise away from his family. Equally, Elspeth Grahame, perhaps as a disappointed reaction to her husband's behavior, seems to have put a vast amount of emotional energy into convincing herself that Alastair was a remarkable child. (This pressure may well have led to what was almost certainly his suicide while at Oxford University.) Grahame is said to have told his small son bedtime stories, one of which was reported to Elspeth by her maid, when she was asked, before a dinner party, where her husband was. The maid replied, “Oh, he is up in the night-nursery, telling Master Mouse [Alastair] some [story] or other about a toad.” Elspeth later elaborated this story, most improbably, with eavesdroppings. Grahame also wrote a short piece about a pig, “Bertie's Escapade,” which was “published” in a small magazine that Alastair and a friend produced. Elspeth described it as “really a sort of rehearsal for The Wind in the Willows.4

In the summer of 1907, Grahame stayed in London while Alastair and his mother remained at their home in Cookham Dene (within commuting distance of London) or were on holiday. Grahame wrote a series of letters that contain most of Toad's adventures—a small part of chapter 6 and a good deal of the material that appears in chapters 8, 10, 11, and 12. He supplemented this by asking Alastair what he remembered of the bedtime stories and by getting Miss Stott, the governess, to quiz him.5 The earliest surviving original letter gives some clue to how Grahame worked. It is dated 10 May 1907.

My Darling Mouse,

This is a birth-day letter to wish you very many happy returns of the day. I wish we could have been all together, but we shall meet again soon, & then we shall have treats … Have you heard about the Toad? He was never taken prisoner by brigands after all. It was all a horrid low trick of his. He wrote that letter himself—the letter saying that a hundred pounds must be put in the hollow tree. And he got out of the window early one morning, & went off to a town called Buggleton & went to the Red Lion Hotel & there he found a party that had just motored down from London, & while they were having breakfast he went into the stable-yard and found their motor car & went off in it without even saying Poop-poop! And now he has vanished & every one is looking for him, including the police. I fear he is a bad low animal.6

The letters make curious reading, in that, from 17 July, when Grahame is writing about Toad's encounter with the Gipsy (in what became chapter 10), the letters become only a serial—that is, there are no greetings or personal comments to Alastair; as David Gooderson points out, “the boy's letters … contain resentment at his parents' frequent absences. He missed them, appealing to them individually and together … to come and see him.” Most of the appeals seem to have been in vain.7

The letters “to” Alastair form the backbone of this part of the book, and Grahame revised them carefully. Compare, for example, these passages from the letters and from the published chapter 8, “Toad's Adventures.” The letters read:

Then the gaoler's daughter went & fetched a cup of hot tea and some very hot buttered toast, cut thick, very brown on both sides, with the butter running through the holes in it in great golden drops like honey. When the toad smelt the buttered toast he sat up & dried his eyes for he was exceedingly fond of buttered toast; & the gaoler's daughter comforted him. …

The published text is far more sensuous:

When the girl returned, some hours later, she carried a tray, with a cup of fragrant tea steaming on it; and a plate piled up with very hot buttered toast, cut thick, very brown on both sides, with the butter running through the holes in it in great golden drops, like honey from the honeycomb. The smell of that buttered toast simply talked to Toad, and with no uncertain voice; talked of warm kitchens, of breakfasts on bright frosty mornings, of cosy parlour firesides on winter evenings, when one's ramble was over and slippered feet were propped on the fender; of the purring of contented cats, and the twitter of sleepy canaries.


As Lois Kuznets has pointed out, many of these changes are “self-reflexive and not all of them readily accessible to the child reader.”8 Grahame has built up the narrative, and in doing so, has accentuated the symbolic and allusive content.

Beyond this, we know that “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn” and “Wayfarers All” were “written separately and later inserted into the draft,”9 but there is no evidence as to when the first five chapters were written—nor why or at what point they were inserted into the manuscript. Peter Haining has suggested that “Wayfarers All,” “the most quoted chapter in the book,” was presaged by an essay that Grahame had written for The Yellow Book in July 1895, called “The Wanderer.” In this, the writer walks along the sand listening to the tales of a London businessman who has had “the rare courage … to kick the board over and declare against further play.”10 “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn,” on the other hand, is clearly similar in its celebration of quasi mysticism to a hundred other pieces written around this time.

This curious process, in which the making of two thirds of the book, of two of the narratives, is unchronicled, even by Elspeth Grahame, is highly suggestive. First, is it clear that Toad's adventures, initially for a child, subtly altered their narrative shape and allusiveness as they developed. Second, those parts of the narrative which are not mentioned in the account of how The Wind in the Willows came to be written are in fact, as we shall see, the very personal Bildungsroman elements of Mole's story and the mystic or escapist adult interpolations. In a very important sense, recognizing the different narrative shapes unlocks the secrets of both the intent and intended audience of The Wind in the Willows.


Spring was moving in the air above and in the earth below and around him, penetrating even his dark and lowly little house with its spirit of divine discontent and longing.


Grahame knew his classics well, and in some senses he was writing an epic. The Wind in the Willows is divided into twelve chapters in the classical manner—one of which is called “The Return of Ulysses”—and parts of Toad's adventures parody the Odyssey. However, the direct resemblance of the book as a whole ends there; it is, rather, the first five chapters that form, as it were, a mini-epic, a complete story in themselves, a complete narrative section. Within this section some of the rules of epic are followed. More important, these first chapters contain the narrative shapes that I discussed earlier.

We begin with the Mole, the central subject—in a useful technical term, the “focalizer” of most of this section: we focus on him, looking over his head as his adventures unfold, seeing things from his point of view, observing what he observes. The narrator may be omniscient, but “he” introduces his world from Mole's angle.

In chapter 1, the story starts in the middle of Mole's spring cleaning: Mole leaves home, a significant escape in narrative terms, and comes up from his underground drudgery into the sunlight (we shall return to the multiple symbolism here). He rambles and meanders away from his home, comes to the River, meets the Water Rat, and in one breathless sweep he is initiated into a new world, a new society: like Bilbo Baggins, Huck Finn, Laura Ingalls, or Alice, a new world has opened up, and for the time being there is no looking back. And it is all very gentle and easy: as the Water Rat says, “‘Look here! If you've really nothing else on hand this morning, supposing we drop down the river together, and have a long day of it?’” (6-7).

The narrative now does two things: it develops Mole's change in life, and—for Grahame was nothing if not a very careful craftsman—it introduces motifs and characters that are going to recur and, despite its warring elements, give the whole book cohesion. These include the River, food, the Wild Wood (“‘O that's just the Wild Wood,’ said the Rat shortly. ‘We don't go there very much, we river-bankers’” [9]), and new friends: Badger (“H'm! Company” [13]), Otter (“Proud, I'm sure” [13]) and, of course, Toad (“It's all the same whatever he takes up; he gets tired of it, and starts on something fresh.” [14]).

By the end of the chapter, then, Mole has moved from one life to another; indeed, he has changed homes. There has been a moment of truth, a moment of danger, when he overreaches himself and falls foul of the River. But, as with many children's stories, security is immediately reinforced by all kinds of comforting symbols. The wording at the end of the chapter is significant:

When they got home, the Rat made a bright fire in the parlour, and planted the Mole in an armchair in front of it, having fetched down a dressing-gown and slippers for him, and told him river stories till suppertime.

(19; emphasis added)

This whole chapter, because of its structure (leaving home, being initiated, finding a new home) introduces us to the overall structure of Mole's Bildungsroman. Although he has moved on, there is plenty of compensating psychological closure for the characters and the reader—the warmth, the cozy words and images. How far what we have seen can be read as escape by adults or as comfortably bounded adventure by children, we shall consider later.

In chapter 2, “The Open Road,” Mole is still the narrative's focalizer, and it is in relation to him that we first encounter Toad. (This is worth remembering, for the chapters that feature Toad are sometimes lumped together as if together they had a kind of unity.) “The Open Road” might be seen as a prelude to the later adventures, but it is Toad observed, not Toad accompanied: it is Toad the eccentric, judged by conservative norms, not Toad the rebel judged by his own standards.

The chapter begins firmly on the riverbank, where Rat is sitting, composing a song; this is the secure home, set on a “bright summer morning” surrounded by friends. Rat and Mole, safe in their two-animal boat, set out on an adventure, by degrees: first they visit Toad's house, and then they travel in a substitute home, Toad's “canary-coloured cart.” Like the incident with the gipsy in chapter 10, this cart (or caravan) may well have been inspired by one of Grahame's favorite books—indeed, one of the inspirational books of the nostalgic-country movement—George Borrow's Lavengro (1851). This, one of Borrow's three fantastic-autobiographical books (the others were The Bible in Spain [1843] and The Romany Rye [1857]), romanticized the idea of the gipsy/Romany, and held great appeal for citybound people such as Grahame. In The Wind in the Willows, he celebrated Borrow's freedom of spirit, not only in the caravan but in the character of Toad.

Toad conducts a mild running battle against Rat's devotion to his river, and he manipulates Mole's divided loyalties between his new way of life and an even newer one. As the narrator reflects, in an interesting comment upon both Mole and Grahame:

Poor Mole! The Life Adventurous was so new a thing to him, and so thrilling; and this fresh aspect of it was so tempting; and he had fallen in love at first sight with the canary-coloured cart and all its little fitments.


Thus, the means of transport which Toad adopts, for all the sardonic tones with which his friends regard it, is in keeping with the quiet rural ways and Mole's quiet progress. In this respect, it is significant that for two days they “ramble over grassy downs and along narrow by-lanes … across country by narrow lanes,” and it is only when they reach “their first high road” that disaster—in Mole's terms—strikes. Indeed, so secure is Mole's place in the scheme of things now that the Rat discounts Toad, and talks “exclusively to Mole” (39).

As might be expected, this excitement and displacement—indeed, destruction of a way of life—requires a strong closure, and sure enough, Rat and Mole deposit Toad at Toad Hall and return, in keeping with the circular narrative, to where they began.

Then they got out their boat from the boat-house, sculled down the river home, and at a very late hour sat down to supper in their own cosy riverside parlour, to the Rat's great joy and contentment.

(39; emphasis added)

The chapter ends, as it began, on the riverbank, with Mole now pursing that most secure and well-documented of pastimes, fishing. In the first chapter, Mole had moved on a little, but home was reasserted. In the second chapter, there is the classic shape of the children's story: home-adventure-home. With the next two chapters, the pattern changes again.

The idea of Badger and the Wild Wood had been established in the first chapter, and Mole's adventure of chapter 3 is presaged in a sinister way with Mole finding “his thoughts dwelling again with much persistence on the solitary grey Badger, who lived his own life by himself, in his hole in the middle of the Wild Wood” (41). The radical disturbances of this chapter also begin with a very strong evocation of “the pageant of the river bank,” in a passage no less purple than the loosestrife featured on the riverbank: all is secure, all is ordered. Yet the Mole, in a moment of pride or, more classically, hubris, “slips out” to go to the Wild Wood alone, and approaches his nadir, the low point of his existence. Everything in the Wild Wood is the opposite of the riverbank house—cold, dark, threatening, and uncertain. In the exact middle of chapter 3, in the exact middle of this first group of five chapters, we find Mole thoroughly defeated: the child who has disobeyed his elders or, alternatively, the innocent adult who has disobeyed the expert. Grahame leaves no effect untried in his buildup to the “Terror”; Mole has retreated into a hollow tree, itself a poor mockery of the security he has given up.

He was too tired to run any further and could only snuggle down into the dry leaves which had drifted into the hollow and hope he was safe for the time. And as he lay there panting and trembling, and listened to the whistlings and patterings outside, he knew it at last, in all its fullness, that dread thing which other little dwellers in field and hedgerow had encountered here, and known as their darkest moment—that thing which the Rat had vainly tried to shield him from—the Terror of the Wild Wood!


More unsettling still is the fact that the narrative leaves Mole there. For the first time in the book, the narrator's attention abandons Mole; he is stripped even of the strength of his centrality. The limits of the innocent/child have been reached, and a superior power is needed. That superior power is the new focalizer, the Rat, who grimly and efficiently arms himself according to the necessary rules and confronts the Wild Wood—and defeats it: “the whistling and pattering, which he had heard quite plainly on his first entry, died away and ceased, and all was very still” (48). Clearly, Rat is an insider, one who knows “passwords, and signs, and sayings which have power,” and accordingly he brings comfort and sleep to Mole. However, Rat serves here as a brother figure rather than as a father figure: when even he is almost defeated by the snow, an even greater power is needed to restore confidence. Chapter 3 ends, as it were, on the brink of closure, on the brink of security, as Rat and Mole hammer on Badger's door.

From the depths of the cold Wild Wood to the security of Badger's house is a short step, and in some editions, a drawing by Ernest H. Shepard contrasts, on the left, Rat and Mole in the snow, and on the right the rich glow from Badger's kitchen. From this point, in the epic scheme of The Wind in the Willows, everything is, for Mole, upwards. Not only are his physical wants provided for and his bruised ego massaged, but he is admitted into an even more exclusive society—Badger's—which, literally and figuratively, underlies the rest of the world. (The illustration by Shepard emphasizes this even more; whereas in the text, Mole and Rat follow Badger “down a long, gloomy, and, to tell the truth, decidedly shabby passage” (60), Shepard pictures a hall with a draped coatrack, a walking stick, and a barometer—all comfortable symbols of British middle-class life.)

Structurally, this opening scene of chapter 4 counterbalances the depths of misery to which Mole (and Rat) had sunk. Symbolically, it is much more: indeed, of all the symbols in children's literature, the kitchen is among the most potent (this will be discussed in more detail in chapter six). The episode at Badger's is a long, low-key episode, enclosed and full of comforts. Mole's bedroom is half full of winter stores of food, and the following morning's breakfast is lavish—and involves buttered toast, a nursery delight that crops up again in Toad's adventures. The Terrors of the Wild Wood are further tamed by the appearance of the lost hedgehogs, to whom Mole and Rat can feel superior, and by the domesticating idea that there are schools for hedgehogs out there—and, further still, by the appearance of the fearless Otter.

Mole is also initiated into the underground society, whose strengths could hardly be more explicitly stated; as Mole says: “Once well underground … you know exactly where you are. Nothing can happen to you, and nothing can get at you. You're entirely your own master” (70). (There must be a good many of us who have found a similar comfort—and not only as children—under the blankets on the day before some distasteful experience. John Moore, the distinguished English country writer, several of whose books owe various debts to The Wind in the Willows, uses a similar device in his Dance and Skylark [1951].11)

It is when Mole and his friends at last set out for the riverbank home that the lack of closure of the chapter reveals how Mole has moved on. Compared with the ending of chapter 3, this is a positive rather than a negative lack of closure. Otter (“as knowing all the paths” [76]) guides them back across the frozen fields, and the contrast between what is behind them and what is before them is described very strongly: behind them “they saw the whole mass of the Wild Wood, dense, menacing, compact, grimly set in a vast white surroundings; simultaneously they turned and made swiftly for home, for firelight and the familiar things it played on …” (86). And though the chapter ends before they get there—we are left with Mole “eagerly anticipating the moment when he would be at home again among the things he knew and liked” (76)—this implied but uncompleted closure ends on a soothing note.

Arthur Ransome uses the same device, although on a larger scale, in his “Swallows and Amazons” series (1930-1948), the displacement from “home” increasing with each book, so that Swallows and Amazons (1930) begins and ends with the same characters at the same place, whereas Great Northern (1948) begins and ends far from home, without even the main characters “on stage.” Grahame, in The Wind in the Willows, skillfully manipulates the changes in narrative structure, between the different parts of a single book.

Yet the riverbank, of course, is not Mole's home at all, and chapter 5, the final chapter of this group, complements the first. In it, Mole moves backward, from being part of his new society to revisiting his old, and in doing so closes this independent part of the book. Of course, this closure also integrates the new (Rat and all he brings) with the old; just as Mole came into Rat's home, so Rat comes into Mole's. The fact that the final focalizer of the chapter is Mole, tucked up in bed, is balanced by the fact that Rat, the facilitator, is nearby.

As with the other chapters, there is a contrastive structure in chapter 5, “Dulce Domum.” The scenes at the beginning, with the companionable Mole and Rat making their way home past the huddled sheep in the frosty air, contrast home and away, inside and outside: Mole and Rat watch people in the warm houses of the village, from the outside—and, ironically, the bored caged bird. In the middle of the chapter, at Mole End, they are in a “cheerless … long-neglected house” (87): by the end of it, Mole is rolled up snugly in his blankets looking “round his old room, mellow in the glow of the firelight that played or rested on familiar and friendly things which had long been unconsciously a part of him” (96).

Leaving aside any other implications, this is the structure that brings, in effect, Mole's story to a close. He has been out into the world, he has matured, as each chapter has shown, and he is now home again; he has grown up and can now take the world or leave it. Under the guidance of the Rat, he is able to accept his place both in his new world and his old. As a piece of psychology, it embodies a familiar pattern as people grow up and away from their origins; and though it might seem to be optimistically simple, or (as I shall argue later) disconcertingly restrictive, there is no doubt that the message speaks to a large audience. The Mole “saw clearly how plain and simple—how narrow, even—it all was; but clearly, too, how much it all meant to him, and the special value of some such anchorage in one's existence” (96).

This, then, is the secret narrative of The Wind in the Willows, whose origins are uncertain, which speaks to elements in both the adult and the child—the circle of home and experience: of finding new paths and reconciling them with old places. But if Mole's story is universal in one way, Toad's may be in another, even though on the surface it might seem that it is now time for the farce to begin.


“Now, Toady, I don't want to give you pain, after all you've been through already; but seriously, don't you see what an awful ass you've been making of yourself?”


In chapter 6 there are some very marked changes—from deep winter to early summer, from evening to morning, from Mole's home to Rat's, from rest to preparatory activity. There is also a marked change of pace. In the stories involving Toad there are many more scenes and characters than in Mole's story—and as many again in that than in “Wayfarers All” and “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn.” The latter of these, which for all intents and purposes has only two characters in it, and unity of time and very nearly of place, is bounded by two chapters that leap across time, place, and a multiplicity of characters.

It is generally agreed that the impression of irresponsible action is sustained in Toad's adventures, although this presents certain theoretical difficulties. To describe narrative, as Jonathan Culler has put it, we must decide what actually constitutes an event. Is it a change of place, characters, dialogue … ? Culler suggested that we need to characterize events (or “plotemes,” by analogy with phonemes) as “culturally marked significant actions. … What the reader is looking for in a plot is a passage from one state to another—passage to which he can assign thematic value. …”12

Although more interesting from the viewpoint of fantasy and social symbolism, Toad's adventures have their own structural logic. They can be seen either as three chapters (for most of which Toad serves as the focalizer) which almost invert Mole's progress, or as five chapters that have a circularity of plot, moving from home to home. What is most striking from the viewpoint of the structural coherence of The Wind in the Willows is that time and again, Toad's story reflects and parodies Moles: far from being uneasy partners, these two plots reflect each other.

In “Mr. Toad,” “Toad's Adventures” (chapter 8), and “The Further Adventures of Toad” (chapter 10) Toad is at first seen from the outside, as his friends gather to reform him. Like the Mole, he escapes the shackles of convention, although his movement from Toad Hall is downward rather than upward—indeed, it is difficult not to stumble over symbolism at almost every turn! Like Mole, Toad rambles away from his life irresponsibly, but instead of joining an established society such as that of the riverbank, he joins the new, symbolized by the automobile. (There is, indeed, a literal collision between old and new, between cart and car!) In doing so, he crosses the divide between two kinds of fantasy world, from that of the animals to that of the humans—a change so radical that Grahame, as we shall see, is forced to use not quasi realism (for example, that of the riverbank) but a grotesque pantomime world. The chapter ends with Toad, famously, “a helpless prisoner in the remotest dungeon of the best-guarded keep of the stoutest castle in all the length and breadth of Merry England” (117). For all that it is made safe by humor, it is a nightmare of sorts, the opposite of Mole's happy haven at Rat's house. And at that point, at the peak of the verbal excitement and the depths of Toad's despair, there is a pause, and the book shifts radically to the long, sustained prose-poem of “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn”—as far from high farce as one could imagine.

In “The Paper at the Gates of Dawn” we see a celebration of “insiderism”. Moreover, important from the viewpoint of the narrative, Mole takes a small but stolid part in it: he is elevated to, and totally absorbed into, this safe world of a mystical, adult pattern. The anarchic child that is Toad is placed very firmly in the proper scheme of things.

The next chapter, “Toad's Adventures,” is the first that is truly Toad's own, and the farce is resumed. After another escape and another chase, it ends with Toad again displaced, and, like Mole, taking refuge in a hollow tree—although he doesn't suffer from Mole's tortured insomnia: “At last, cold, hungry, and tired out, he sought the shelter of a hollow tree, where with branches and dead leaves he made himself as comfortable a bed as he could, and slept soundly till the morning” (153).

In terms of Toad's adventures, this unresolved chapter end brings us to a parody of home; in terms of the whole book, it parodies the structure that we have seen before. The incidents may well be farcical, not to be taken seriously, but the underlying narrative pattern is doing something more serious: it is moving Toad on through the same developmental cycle we saw with Mole. This may well seem to be taking the farcical character of Toad altogether too seriously—but the reader may well be making sense of the whole book through the parallels in the narratives.

Again, from this relatively carefree level, we move to the mesmeric atmosphere of chapter 9, “Wayfarers All,” and here the chief significance is again the role that Mole plays. Now he is not simply the “young friend” of Rat: he is a positive influence in sustaining the status quo. It is he who applies to Rat a doctrine that Rat had given him in the first chapter: “‘beyond the Wild Wood comes the Wide World,’ said the Rat, ‘And that's something that doesn't matter, either to you or me. I've never been there, and I'm never going, nor you either, if you've got any sense at all’” (10). Now that the Rat, mesmerized, wishes to do just that, Mole, by his lyrical description of the joys of home (and we have already seen that he did not regard himself as a poet) helps to “cure” Rat of this wayward madness. The implication is that Mole has become a complete insider: no longer an acolyte of the Rat, his status is secure.

Not so Toad, though: alternating between triumph and catastrophe, he careers on his way, through chapter 8, surviving the most awkward of all the human-animal encounters (with the barge-woman) and parodying Borrow's Lavengro in his meeting with the gipsy. If “Wayfarers All” is written from Grahame's firsthand experience of the Mediterranean and his inner longings, “The Further Adventures of Toad” draws rather more on literary antecedents—among them, again, parody. The last time we saw Toad on a common (in England, an open area of rough grazing land, which anyone can use), it was in company with Mole and Rat, the horse grazing beside the canary-colored cart and “a yellow moon, appearing suddenly and silently from nowhere in particular, came to keep them company and listen to their talk” (31). This time, however, there is hot sunshine, and both the common and the gipsy are regarded with a singular lack of romanticism, and with a startling allusion to the very thing that is taboo in Mole's world:

He looked about him and found he was on a wide common, dotted with patches of gorse and bramble as far as he could see. Near him stood a dingy gipsy caravan, and beside it a man was sitting on a bucket turned upside down, very busy smoking and staring into the wide world.


Just as Mole's escape from the terrors of the Wild Wood is celebrated by the meal in Badger's secure kitchen, so Toad's escape is, parodically, celebrated by “wild” food. Whereas the meal that Mole eats is very symbolic and unspecific, the meal that Toad “takes on board” is very specific, indeed, very literary food. The “hot rich … most beautiful stew in the world, being made of partridges, and pheasants, and chickens, and hares, and rabbits, and peahens, and guinea-fowls, and one or two other things” is very reminiscent of the Irish stew concocted by Harris, George, and “J” in Jerome K. Jerome's Three Men in a Boat (a book I shall consider in more detail in chapter 7). That stew was also made of “one or two other things”: “here was a dish with a new flavour, with a taste like nothing else on earth … and as for the gravy, it was a poem—a little too rich, perhaps, for a weak stomach, but nutritious.”13

The end of Toad's adventures in the “outside” world demonstrates Grahame's narrative technique. The automobile, the very same one, reappears; Toad is again swaggering through the countryside—and at the last, at the close of chapter 10, he finds himself under the eye of Rat again. And it could hardly be overlooked that this encounter with Rat (198) is expressed in virtually the same words as was Mole's first encounter with the Rat (4). When Mole first saw that twinkle in the depths of the hole it meant a new freedom, but for Toad it means captivity: to both—although, as we shall see, this is suppressed in the text—it means repression.

The two-chapter coda that follows, “‘Like Summer Tempests Came His Tears’” and “The Return of Ulysses,” chapters 11 and 12, could be seen as completing Toad's odyssey, with its climactic battle and his return to home and possible accession to adulthood. This is an attractive view, and one that could be sustained theoretically—indeed, one that probably subsists at the back of many readers' minds. However, in terms of narrative technique, it must be pointed out that the focus is less and less on Toad, and the narration tends to view the actions more abstractly.

Thus Toad is now put firmly in his place as the errant child of the book: it is Mole and Badger who have been suffering, and it is Mole who is regarded as Badger's most trusty lieutenant:

Toad felt rather hurt that the Badger didn't say pleasant things to him, as he had to the Mole. …

“Excellent and deserving animal!” said the Badger, his mouth full of chicken and trifle. “Now, there's just one more thing I want you to do, Mole, before you sit down to your supper along of us; and I wouldn't trouble you only I know I can trust you to see a thing done, and I wish I could say the same of every one I know. I'd send the Rat, if he wasn't a poet … I'm very pleased with you, Mole!”


By shifting his point of view from Toad as focalizer to Mole as focalizer, Grahame harmonizes the two apparently opposing (but actually complementary) elements in the book—the structures of conservatism and anarchy, of various kinds of experience. Thus the book ends on a note of stability and unity. Mole is grown up, having proved himself in many different ways, and Toad has been civilized and has, in his fashion, grown up too: “After this climax, the four animals continued to lead their lives … in great joy and contentment” (240). On the course that brings us to this point two stories have been blended together: at the beginning it is Mole who is shy of the important Mr. Toad, but by the end the positions, if not actually reversed, are considerably altered. As we have seen, though, the stories are also symbiotically related, each reverberating off the other. Thus, the dismissive tone that Roger Sale has adopted is difficult to justify: “The book must end lamely since a chastened Toad is of no interest; and the unchastened Toad has too many tales told of him already.”14


Their old haunts greeted them again in other raiment, as if they had slipped away and put on this pure new apparel and come quietly back, smiling as they shyly waited to see if they would be recognized again under it.


The above discussion, of course, is not the only way to read the text, although it is generally agreed that there are two stories. It is possible to conjecture, as Neil Philip does, that “for Grahame Mole, not Toad, was the book's protagonist is proved by one of his suggested titles, fortunately unused, Mr Mole and His Mates.15 The fact that Toad's story is generally considered to be inferior to Mole's is a central issue in the critics' battle for the book; however, it is debatable whether this position amounts to the colonization of a children's book by adults or, rather, to the rescue of an adult's book by casting its lesser parts into perspective. Humphrey Carpenter is generally dismissive of the comedy of Toad's story: “But this idiom was not Grahame's forte and he does not seem very comfortable in it.”16 Such a comment seems to overlook some of the greatest moments of farce in the English language—Toad and the Bargewoman, Toad in the court of law, or Toad hijacking the automobile—as well as their significance as counterpoints to the other parts of the book.

To counteract this tendency to downgrade half of the book, Michael Mendelson argues that the text can in fact be considered as a whole, and “instead of separating the two stories and devaluing one” he prefers to examine “how Grahame not only juxtaposes but interlaces” his two different plots. Mendelson sees a constant dialectic between responsibility and romance: Mole's adventurous spirit is moderated by the steady life of the riverbank; Toad's adventurous spirit is seen in contrast to the values of the riverbank's dwellers. He also points out that there is a seasonal element in the book which reinforces the subtle parallelisms and counterthemes. For example, the change of season between high summer and winter in chapter 3 presents us with a question: “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.”17

Similarly, with the arrival at Badger's house, “the call of adventure” is juxtaposed with “the lure of home.”18 This is a persuasive argument, for parallelism is clear throughout the text: at almost every point, Grahame is working an art of contrasts that overrides any narrative disunity. Thus there is, underlying the book—as an symbolic substratum—the idea of the eternal seasons, with which Rat but not Toad is in accord. In this structuring of the book, the two stories “finally dovetail” when Rat rescues Toad; from that point on, “the two stories continue to coalesce, as the reunited friends resolve to retake Toad Hall … a consolidating motive that will call up heroic adventurism in the service of the pastoral home.”19

At this point, the narrative structure coalesces with the ideological-political one. But the importance of considering the underlying narrative structures is clear—as is the fact that a reader may well recognize and react to several structures simultaneously. As Sarah Gilead has noted:

Much children's literature … dramatises conflict between a child-realm and an adult-realm, without being able to settle conceptually in either one. “Childhood” may be lost in the past and retrievable only through distorting adult fantasy, wish, or memory; “adulthood” may be intolerably weighted with frustration and loss. But it is rare to find these issues dramatized in the interaction between two rival plot lines and in their alternate narrative perspectives. In Grahame's novel, we find the narrative structure itself made metaphor for the psychocultural conflicts within the characters, the work as a whole, and perhaps the literary genre which that work exemplifies.20


  1. Jay Williams, “Reflections on The Wind in the Willows.” Signal 21 (1976), 104.

  2. Humphrey Carpenter, Secret Gardens, 169.

  3. Michael Mendolson, “The Wind in the Willows and the Plotting of Contrast,” Children's Literature 16 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988), 127-44.

  4. Elspeth Grahame, First Whispers of “The Wind in the Willows” (London: Methuen, 1944), 2; Chalmers, Kenneth Grahame, 121.

  5. David Gooderson, “Introduction” to Kenneth Grahame, My Dearest Mouse: “The Wind in the Willows” Letters (London: Pavilion/Michael Joseph, 1988), 12.

  6. Grahame, My Dearest Mouse, 18-23.

  7. Ibid., 2.

  8. Lois Kuznets, “Toad's Journey to Buggleton or Kenneth Grahame's Trip from Bedside to Book,” in Proceedings of the Thirteenth Annual Conference of the Children's Literature Association, edited by Susan R. Gannon and Ruth Anne Thompson (West Lafayette, Ind.: Children's Literature Association, 1988), 78.

  9. Eleanor Grahame, “The Story of The Wind in the Willows: How It Came to Be Written” (1950), 2, cited by Peter Green, Kenneth Grahame, 266.

  10. Peter Haining, Paths to the River Bank: The Origin of The Wind in the Willows: From the Writings of Kenneth Grahame (London: Souvenir Press, 1983), 95, 99.

  11. John Moore, Dance and Skylark (London: Collins, 1951), 171-72.

  12. Jonathan Culler, “Defining Narrative Units,” in Style and Structure in Literature, edited by Roger Fowler (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1975), 138-41. See also Peter Hunt, Criticism, Theory and Children's Literature (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1991), 121-27.

  13. Jerome K. Jerome, Three Men in a Boat [1889] (Harmondsworth, Eng.: Penguin, 1957), 136.

  14. Roger Sale, Fairy Tales and After: From Snow White to E. B. White (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1978), 185.

  15. Neil Philip, “The Wind in the Willows: The Vitality of a Classic,” in Children and Their Books, edited by Gillian Avery and Julia Briggs (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989), 307.

  16. Carpenter, Secret Gardens, 154.

  17. Michael Mendelson, “The Wind in the Willows and the Plotting of Contrasts”, 130-31.

  18. Ibid., 132.

  19. Ibid., 139.

  20. Sarah Gilead, “The Undoing of Idyll in The Wind in the Willows,Children's Literature 16 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988), 156-57.

Deborah Stevenson (essay date fall 1996)

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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 culture and literature, and the kind of history literature makes as well as the kind of literature history makes: the forces, in short, that make children's literature the intriguingly peculiar genre it is. New historicism has made for fruitful analysis in the hands of critics such as Tony Watkins, who has used it to illuminate the questions of the cultural effect books have on their readers and how books make their mark on history; children's-literature scholars such as Jacqueline Rose, working nominally in another theoretical discipline, have also considered significant questions of cultural valuation and meaning. In analyzing the nature of a classic, which status in children's literature depends not only on the intrinsic characteristics of a text but also on the nostalgia evoked in retrospective adults, one cannot divorce the text or the responses to it from the culture that created them and the culture they create.

“What is a classic?” T. S. Eliot asked, and several generations of critics have wrestled with the answer. Gerald Graff notes that literature and discourse about literature respond to social pressures and demands; so too is literature shaped to fill a social need (1). Children's literature, with its peculiarly complex audience of children, spirits of childhood memory, and adults seeking nostalgic recreation of a literary past, asks particular things of its favorite texts before it grants them access to its pantheon; its classics gratify different impulses from and gratify impulses differently than classics of adult literature. Many critics, most notably Jane Tompkins in Sensational Designs (1985), have argued that a text's classic status depends on external forces as well as on its internal characteristics; therefore, in addition to asking “What is a classic?” it is useful to inquire, “What isn't a classic, and what is the difference?” There is no way to control for all variables in literature, and where the double-blind method of science controls for the sway of individual readings, it is in part those very individual interpretations that we seek to quantify. If, in Tompkins's words, it is “the context—which eventually includes the work itself—that creates the value its readers discover there” (33), it is enlightening to compare texts that resemble each other in a multitude of ways but whose most significant difference is their history; such a comparison makes clear that elision of personal time may be possible, but elision of cultural time—history—is not.

Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows (1908) preceded William Horwood's sequel, The Willows in Winter (1994), by more than eighty years, yet the latter displays an astounding fidelity to the tone, characters, and theme of its original. Horwood has followed Grahame's book, which is intent on recapturing a mythical golden age, with his own attempt to recapture the recapturing of that same golden age. To shed light on the meaning of such a continuation, it is useful to examine the challenges such a sequel faces, the patterns of similarity and dissimilarity between Grahame's text and Horwood's, and, finally, the nature of the fictional history that a children's-literature classic creates for its audience and its dependence on time.

Sequels are common things these days, many of them written by authors who had no hand in the making of their originals. In children's literature, Jane Leslie Conly followed her father's Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH (1971) with her own Racso and the Rats of NIMH (1986) and, later, R-T, Margaret, and the Rats of NIMH (1990). The Wind in the Willows was itself previously continued in Dixon Scott's A Fresh Wind in the Willows in 1983 as well as receiving the Wide Sargasso Sea—or Wide Sargasso Riverbank?—treatment in Jan Needle's 1981 Wild Wood (released only in Britain and marketed as an adult book), which related the story from the point of view of the working-class weasels and their cohorts.

This recent flux of continuations seems to reflect some specific contemporary inclinations. Marketing, of course, is one force behind the creation of such books, since it is generally easier to feed an established literary appetite than to develop a new one. The change of authorship presents less of a problem than it might have previously: continuations in other media, such as film and television, have accustomed contemporary audiences to the idea that consistency inheres in characters rather than in authorship.1 As a result, ours is a particularly fructive time for this kind of continuation, and a multitude of writers are demonstrating that, as Richard Boston says in Punch's review of Scott's earlier sequel to The Wind in the Willows, “There is nothing—absolutely nothing—half so much worth doing as simply messing about with books” (73).

The task of following one's own fiction with a sequel is difficult enough: authors change opinions, stances, and tastes, they lose interest or originality, they suffer from anxieties of self-influence. Even when written by the author of the first book, a sequel often disappoints devoted fans of the original. Hazel Rochman, in her article discussing the simultaneous appearance of sequels to three classics of 1972, Robert Newton Peck's A Day No Pigs Would Die, Jean Craighead George's Julie of the Wolves, and Barbara Robinson's The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, notes that though “we want more. Or at least we think we do,” sequels can make us “wonder whether we were wrong about the first book” (27). An immediate or planned-for sequel may be less disconcerting, but when a story has lived self-contained for thirty years, the mental rebalancing act required to reclassify it as merely a first chapter seems to slight both the text and its readers, demanding either a revisioning of the first work or a dismissal of the second.2 As in science-fiction plots where the protagonist awakens from cryogenic sleep to find himself lost in a world whose making he did not share, these stories cannot survive their own anachronism; history has marched on without them. George's sequel Julie (1994) picks up at the exact moment the previous book ended, despite the intervening decades; the result is to demolish retroactively the closure of Julie of the Wolves in favor of reestablishing it one book later in a slightly different form. The finiteness of a single text permits it to be definitive; readers can pleasurably imagine continuations (should they choose to do so) without having to accept them as authentic, whereas “even the best of sequels has to limit us to only one resolution” because “the writer … seems to have the authority to say what really happens next” (Rochman 27). A cherished text is holy writ, and while there are degrees of literalness in interpretation, there remains a general suspicion about the addition of a new book. Though the desire to spend more time in a beloved fictional world excites reader interest in sequels, the wish to preserve the integrity and “authenticity” of the original experience plays against that desire.

An author continuing another's text is under a particular burden, one that might not exist for authors continuing their own work. Such a sequel must please an audience not considered to belong to that author by right and custom, it must generally bridge a substantial gap of years since the original, and it must echo the personal style of an entirely different creative mind while avoiding gross mimicry. Reviews of these narratives tend to judge them according to the invisibility of their change of authorship, using the “if you hadn't known, would you have known” test to gauge success. This critical methodology might seem to depend unfairly on extrinsic factors rather than intrinsic merit, but in some ways such a yardstick is eminently appropriate, since invisibility is generally the goal of these sequel authors. As Heidi Ganner-Rauth, in her work on nineteenth-century continuations, remarks, “Imitation … remains the basic quality of these works and subjects them to a double standard of criticism. As works in their own right … they are severely limited by the imitative nature that at the same time makes the reader and critic measure them against models of inimitable greatness” (140). Truly new horizons are impossible and undesirable here. While authors of such books may attempt, for artistic reasons, to make these texts self-contained, complete independence would defeat their purpose; to read Emma Tennant's Pemberley (1993) without being aware of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice is pointless. Like parodies, these books must successfully relate to another text in order to succeed. Invisibility of the change of authorship is quite a different goal from total effacement of the text; authors are paradoxically hoping that they will be mistaken for the original authors even as they are hoping that their sequels will be regarded as individually significant.

While its sequels are all fairly recent, The Wind in the Willows was a much-illustrated and re-visioned classic even before it finally entered legally the public domain where it had been culturally held for so long. The version illustrated by Ernest Shepard is, perhaps, the best known to American readers, but The Wind in the Willows, as a text, transcends mere editions, operating as a textual concept as much as a physical book. In attempting to reconfine the River Bank into a small world of text rather than the Wide World of websites, filmstrips, and melamine dinnerware, the sequel seeks to conflate what Chase terms public time, broader cultural history, with private time (4-5). Horwood is trying to substitute his personal River Bank history and the chronology of a reader experiencing both books together for the public passing of time since the publication of The Wind in the Willows.

We may judge such continuations severely, but they are hardly the only extensions of the text. There have been other phenomena based on The Wind in the Willows, most of which carry little of the important nostalgia that surrounds the book itself. Disneyland's Mr. Toad's Wild Ride, itself based on a Disney animated feature, has probably introduced more children to Toad's not-so-august presence in the last twenty years than has The Wind in the Willows, a fact that probably causes reading parents much distress. There have been Wind in the Willows movies as well as a Saturday morning cartoon entitled The Reluctant Dragon and Mr. Toad (1970-72) that at least nominally featured two Grahame characters. Grahame, especially Grahame's Toad, has been repeatedly considered worth drawing upon, or at the very least considered marketable (Michael Mendelson notes, for instance, the Toadophilia of several recent stage productions). These other versions, however, have never eclipsed the iconic status of the original text but have instead simply bolstered it by making it part of a larger phenomenon.

Yet, in our current view of such popular culture, a cartoon spinoff and an amusement park ride are so obviously vulgarizations that we do not hold them to the same standards; Ellen Seiter, among others, discusses in detail the standards to which we do hold them and notes that Disney (holder of licenses for The Wind in the Willows) is among the most successful at strategic and profitable use of such merchandizing (198). We know that Mr. Toad's Wild Ride will not be like the printed world of River Bank and Wild Wood, and we can therefore dismiss it even as we perhaps guiltily enjoy it. Extending the book without attempting to be it, such a ride is obviously capitalizing on the great name of Toad without necessarily trying to recapture the literary spirit of The Wind in the Willows, it differs little from commodities such as lunchboxes and baseball caps. Theatrical productions have a greater aura of respectability, but their evanescence and their different relationship with their audience again remove them from overt competition with the original. All these phenomena, however, reinforce the public aspect of the sequel's cultural history. Though Horwood would like to divest The Wind in the Willows of much of its current cultural context, he cannot do so; the story no longer happens only inside the book. He cannot simply write a private exploration of a world when he has to deal with a public reexperiencing.

Nor can a parodic literary companion to Grahame's book, such as The Willows in Winter, be written off by devotees who shrug off cartoons and bumper cars. They are both books; an obvious similarity, perhaps, but one that overrides many differences, especially to a child listening to both books read aloud and who may not be interested in issues of temporal distance. In his introduction to the St. Martin's Press edition of Grahame's Wind in the Willows, illustrated by Patrick Benson (1985), Horwood deals with this dilemma by evading direct acknowledgments of authorship, referring to “Grahame's great work and the power and the magic of his characters” as the forces behind The Willows in Winter while speaking proudly of the positive responses of its readers (14). Horwood's introduction to this new edition, which was issued as a companion piece to his own sequel, seeks to set concrete limitations on fluidity, implying that Benson's illustrated version will soon be the definitive text. In order to secure his sequel's position, it benefits Horwood to pin The Wind in the Willows down to the new edition, because it is that edition that particularly leads to his The Willows in Winter, if that version is definitive, then his sequel is more likely to gain acceptance. The point is continuation but not replication, a blend of creativity and imitation. These continuations are similar to romans à clef; the interest in these books' characters is pre-generated, so the author need not convince the audience that these people (or moles and rats) are worth knowing. We know in advance who they are, and we wait to see whether they measure up to our foreknowledge. In the case of The Wind in the Willows, however, a sequel that stands alone, not depending on readers' knowledge of the first book, would not only violate the principle of continuation but would also violate the very retrospective yearning that is the essence of the first book; to separate from the original here is to fail to understand it.

St. Martin's Press has employed every peritextual device possible to link the two titles. The American jacket of Horwood's book prominently labels it “The Sequel” (not a sequel) to The Wind in the Willows, nowhere mentioning Scott's earlier sequel or the change in author between the first volume and the second. The illustrations by Patrick Benson are consciously à la Shepard, with their homely hatchings and cross-hatchings and respectful fidelity to familiar faces. Even the mapping on the endpapers echoes Shepard's; it is the same layout, the same style, the same angle of view—a deliberate attempt to put this story in the same literal landscape as the first.

The publisher closes the gap between the two texts further by remaking the first book in the second one's image. A new edition of The Wind in the Willows now appears in bookstores next to Horwood's sequel; Horwood has contributed the introduction and Benson the illustrations, and the cover, titling, and spine are designed in the same style. The effect is chiasmic, anchoring book one in book two as firmly as two is anchored in one. (The flap copy on this edition of Grahame's book terms it, ironically, “the perfect companion to The Willows in Winter.”) In a further connection, Horwood dedicates his book not, as many authors do, to his own child, but to Grahame's child, Alastair, that uneasy ghost whose literary inspiration provided a comfort to the world apparently denied him by his own life. A more logical dedication would have been to Grahame, or, even more accurately, to The Wind in the Willows itself, but this conflation (which indulges in a certain amount of poetic license, since Horwood never knew Alastair Grahame, merely the book he inspired) again works to close the gap between the two books, suggesting that both books belong in the same universe, inspired as they were by the same person.

The packaging and peritextual connections do not entirely mislead: The Willows in Winter is in some ways quite successful as a sequel, generally meeting basic audience expectations. It is doubtful that many young readers would notice much stylistic difference between the books, as Horwood's ear for Grahame's language is excellent: the dialogue is reassuringly replete with familiar ejaculations and dash-interrupted fragments, the narrative affectionate and still leisurely by today's standards. His River Bank is an immediately recognizable place:

The mallards were back on the river, and in the water meadows on the far side many of the wintering geese had already departed, and the others were testing their wings. While all along the bank was a sight that never failed to stir the Rat's spirit, and warm his heart: the willows, in bud so long, were showing signs of leaf at last. Not much, it is true, but there were enough touches of green to hint at the gentle, swaying glory that would soon be theirs.


Fidelity to Grahame's (or perhaps Shepard's) landscape is maintained, references to events in the earlier book are carefully incorporated, and the boyish public-school camaraderie is unforced.

Grahame's most notorious character is credibly revived; his reformation unsurprisingly short-lived, the recidivist Toad has moved (as he did in Scott's earlier sequel) from driving to flying, which seems a logical next step for Toad as well as providing an opportunity for technological scrapes of appropriate notoriety. Toad's triumphant glee is familiar (“Then they were up and away, tearing once more into the sky, with Toad so exultant that he half rose in his seat to wave one hand and turn to the horrified Rat and laugh in his face. ‘I've done it! I can fly! I can fly!’” [90]), as is his literal downfall:

A little later Toad re-opened his eyes—for he had closed them some time before—saw that the clouds were shooting vertically upwards and he and the machine therefore shooting downwards, and he huddled down into his seat and covered his head with his hands in the hope that his problem might go away.


While Scott's book often bogged down in excessive detail and disjointed episodes, Horwood's possesses a smooth momentum with the continuing stories of Mole's disappearance and Toad's aeronautic exploits and their consequences.

Yet Horwood's achievement in emulating these aspects of Grahame's writing makes his departures from Grahame's sensibility the more apparent. There are several important differences between Horwood's created world and Grahame's, differences that prevent The Willows in Winter from offering the same sense of cozy insularity, protection from harsh reality, and seductive nostalgia as its predecessor. Despite its darker moments, The Wind in the Willows conveys ultimately the “pleasure of enclosed space, of entering a charmed circle, of living in a timeless snugness” (Sale 168); The Willows in Winter contains these pleasures too, but its own darker moments pose a serious threat to the ultimate imaginative victory of such joys. While Toad remains the same, other characters change significantly—most importantly Mole. Horwood's Mole has matured and gained status beyond that of Mole at the end of The Wind in the Willows. Such a character alteration may perhaps be a necessity in a sequel, since to have kept Mole the same would have been to place this book in the multiple-volume series tradition, where there is no growth and no change and Nancy Drew is forever eighteen. While not inevitable, the tradition of a young novitiate protagonist in a new world is widespread and enduring; many sequels face the problem of what to do with this role once the protagonist has matured through the first novel. Nonetheless, even though a reader proceeding to the second volume from the first may no longer wish to be the neophyte and may relish having “graduated,” along with Mole, to the rank of knowledgeable river-banker, that growth results in a different kind of reading experience, one that no longer parallels a reading of Grahame's book. The competing desires to have more of the same and to stay faithful to the truth of the original, in which Mole matured, create a conflict; Horwood chooses the first impulse with regard to Toad and the second with regard to Mole. To lose a neophyte Mole is to take the original reader-proxy out of the book, since Mole's Nephew, a new young figure in Horwood's story, is too insignificant and too amorphous as a character to take that role. A child reader exploring Horwood's River Bank is the only inexperienced one there.

Orthodoxy and cold reality have invaded the previously untouched River Bank. In Grahame's book, as Lois Kuznets notes, the Wide World is rejected as dangerous, but in Horwood's, the Wide World is no longer an unthinkable place: Mole's Nephew hails from there, and Badger is known to its courts of law (96). The endpaper maps acknowledge this widened scope. Just as Grahame shied away from the Wide World while Horwood moves freely in it, Shepard's map only pointed to town life beyond its borders, whereas Benson's map shrinks the River Bank and wood so as to include the town (and a human's mansion) within its compass. Human beings roam freely through Horwood's story, and they interact with animals without any of the delicate tension between species that Grahame deftly maintains. The reality that The Wind in the Willows was created to exclude has been admitted to The Willows in Winter, thereby undermining that book's intention to offer similar sanctuary to regretful Olympians. On a spiritual level, Horwood has replaced Grahame's gentlemanly Edwardian paganism with suggestions of Christianity and a recurrent death-and-resurrection motif.3 These modifications alter the sphere of the River Bank considerably, calling into question the nature of the text's audience as well as that of the work. While this shift does not necessarily turn Horwood's book into a work for adults, it does result in a different kind of children's book from Grahame's. No matter how hard it tries not to be, The Willows in Winter is a product of its time, a time that includes children's books such as Brian Jacques's Redwall series (1986-), whose world of animal characters, in its violence and political overtones, is closer to Animal Farm than The Wind in the Willows. Horwood cannot evade the children's literature that is in order to produce more of the children's literature that was.

More important than those concrete changes, the luxuriation in yearning is missing from the later book. In the first book the characters yearned, and yearned extravagantly. They yearned for home, they yearned for travel, they yearned for the fellowship of their good companions. These Edwardian sentiments apparently have no place in the contemporary world, and the characters in the sequel worry and fret instead. Just as hints of Christian Orthodoxy encroach upon Grahame's verdant paganism, a certain diligence encroaches upon the pagan enjoyment, coloring the characters' actions and motivations. The objects of Grahame's yearning were as vivid as the yearning itself, but Horwood shies away from Grahame's rhapsodic enjoyment of and longing for this Arcadian existence of food, river, and fresh fields; the details of homes and dens seem cursory, and food here is not lovingly described and practically orthographically tasted but merely, if often, mentioned. Despite his affection for it, Horwood, apparently, can resist the world Grahame created in a way Grahame could not. Grahame struggled, through literature, to capture an existence for which he longed; Horwood struggles to recapture Grahame's book but never succeeds in recapturing that book's employment of description as incantation in hopes of bringing to reality a longed-for existence. The description, the narrative, suffices for Horwood, and this sufficiency is alien to Grahame's conception—and to ours.

The classic status and nostalgic nature of The Wind in the Willows mean that any literary successor would encounter difficulty regardless of its interior fidelity to Grahame's vision or its authorship. As Eliot notably describes in “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” each work of literature alters the canon to which it belongs, so that a reproduction of The Wind in the Willows, entering a world where The Wind in the Willows already exists, cannot have the impact of the original. Such a sequel's success is dependent on its relationship to the literary world, a world that has been altered by that sequel's precursor. Historically speaking, literary ontogeny depends on, if it does not actually recapitulate, phylogeny. A sequel cannot replicate the impact of its predecessor merely by replicating its predecessor. Even were a long-lost sequel penned by Grahame himself in 1909 to turn up today, it would struggle with many of the same problems that Horwood's book faces. The nexus of a book and its time, a book's production and reception, a book and its tradition, is unique. Our The Wind in the Willows is the book over which Fred Inglis rhapsodizes in The Promise of Happiness, saying, “It would be hard to imagine a parent who loved it not wanting his child to love it” (117). It is not the book that confused the critics of 1908. Horwood must sequelize the former, not the latter, because his audience knows what The Wind in the Willows's original audience did not—that this story is a Treasure of Childhood, that Grahame's book is, as Peter Hunt states, important because it is important (12). Generations of affection and cultural regard have given it a patina, as if it were a fine antique; it has acquired Michel Foucault's “slow accumulation of the past, a silent sedimentation of things said” (141). Horwood can recreate the structure, design, and material, but only time and the reverence of generations can recreate the patina. As a result, that very accrued cultural affection for The Wind in the Willows, the decades-old longing for its vision, which presumably is what prompted Horwood to pen his sequel in the first place, diminishes that sequel's effect.

“Longing is what makes art possible,” says Lawrence Lerner in a discussion of Marcel Proust (52); sometimes, too, longing is what makes it rewarding—and saleable. The pastoral utopia Horwood creates must perforce be distant in order to be successful, but he must also place it not only out of time, as Grahame did, but in a time not his own. Brook Thomas argues that the problem with American culture is amnesia (85); Malcolm Chase and Christopher Shaw, arguing from the British point of view, maintain that nostalgia involves a recreation of the past as a substitute for memory, an emotional hyperamnesia that “told us about the present through its falsification of the past” (1). Grahame's remembering wistfulness and his audience's capitulation are excellent examples of the effectiveness of such a recreation—his temporal dislocation succeeds in transforming his pastoral utopia into a cultural history. Horwood's specific external referent of the first book prevents his nostalgia from becoming the past as he would wish it; its imitation of Grahame's transformation cannot transform itself. Peter Bishop, in his insightful analysis of a similarly objectified and fetishized nostalgia in the fine arts, claims the pastoral as the aesthetics of nostalgia, and he engages in provocative interrogation of the role of nostalgia in the creation of a re-imagined Constablian world—tranquil, retrospective, shifting, and commodified. Grahame's work is acted upon similarly, and if The Wind in the Willows is the commodification of nostalgia, The Willows in Winter is the commodification of the commodification of nostalgia.

Elizabeth Cripps suggests that Grahame has “an extraordinarily vivid recollection of what it is like to be a child,” but I would argue that Grahame has an extraordinarily vivid sense of what it is like to have been a child, and that it is the crucial difference between that present and past tense that makes Grahame strike a chord in adults (17). Barbara Wall points out that Grahame “could, under the cloak of writing … for ‘youth,’ indulge in a nostalgia and a sentimentality which might otherwise have alienated adult readers” (142). Once safely under this cloak, however, nostalgia and sentimentality are not only acceptable but desirable, and this distance between the child that was (who was unlikely to be as moved by nostalgia and sentimentality in this guise) and the adult that is (whose easiest source of gratification for this literary desire lies in children's literature) is the space in which classic status for children's texts is born.

Inglis seems to view The Wind in the Willows as a protection against the ferocities of the contemporary world, suggesting of Grahame's happy and safe world that “all of us would wish our children to feel the strength of such an image” (119-20). But is it that image, as Inglis says, or that image realized that we wish for, and is it for our children or for ourselves? If this image is, as some have argued, a portrait of childhood, children presumably experience the actuality and have little need of the image. The safety, innocence, and coziness of The Wind in the Willows are what many people desire for children and childhood today; yet, as Kuznets points out, contemporary children do not have the interest in the book that many adults evince (x).

Horwood's temporal backtracking, however, is more problematic than that of his adult readers. Grahame depicted a fantasy world, one seemingly set in his own time but in reality possessed of pastoral timelessness; Horwood must cope with the additional task of making his fantasy a historical novel, placing it in a specific time just after Grahame's book. The sequel seeks both historicity and ahistoricity, hoping for its predecessor's timelessness but also hoping to elide decades and to take root retroactively in its predecessor's time. The Wind in the Willows calls adults not only back in their own personal time but back in chronological and cultural time, to a prewar era when books such as these, we imagine, could be accepted uncynically. As with childhood itself, this world's very lostness is what makes it desirable and makes its idealization possible.

The longing for this lost landscape has taken some remarkably literal forms. Joan Bodger, in her attempt to hunt down the River Bank, describes an elusive literal geography as place after place in England proves not to be its model, yet the quest itself replicates the relationship with the book as she begins to reinvent her surroundings in The Wind in the Willows's image. This process is widespread: not only can one transmit The Wind in the Willows through time, one can even transmit time through The Wind in the Willows, as the English Tourist Board attempted to do in their 1983 campaign depicting Mole, Rat, and Toad touring small rural towns and ancient castles, getting back to the organic community of “real Britain,” which is, of course, their natural habitat. The Wind in the Willows represents—and prompts—the performance of acts of nostalgia. Like Bodger, tourists search for its fictional world as a reality; unlike Grahame, the Tourist Board promises that they will find it. This affection for the book's venerableness has an ubi sunt quality to it; the idyllic pastoral world that Grahame depicts, that the Tourist Board attempts to sell, and for which his readers yearn, is too rosy a picture for contemporary credibility. Distance allows us to find Grahame's vision of an unbelievable time convincing, since both he and his time are far away. Horwood is in our time, and he must consciously situate his world in a known past as distant from him as from us.

Grahame's world, of course, was authentic only insofar as it was fictional. Watkins specifically addresses the extent to which Grahame's fantasy was responding to and enabled by his historical circumstances (188-89), making clear that the River Bank was not only a utopia but a “utopia of a specific social group” (191). The very unattainability of Grahame's world, however, keeps it desirably ineffable. As Ralph Harper notes, “nostalgia is neither illusion nor repetition; it is a return to something we have never had” (26). Our generations of use of The Wind in the Willows have elided Grahame's book with the dream depicted within it, making it a cultural metonym for its own reverie, a cultural icon even to people who have never read it. Probably many of the adults who give the book to a child as a gift, secure in the knowledge that they are passing on something wonderful, could not tell Rat from Mole. But adults have no past with Horwood's new book; it offers no doorway to a golden prewar world.

Nevertheless, both these books may well have much to offer contemporary children. They are both filled with richly drawn and involving characters, they depict an attractive and enticing world, and they offer pleasing adventures in congenial fictional company. While child readers are not yet at the stage where they fondly recall The Wind in the Willows as a part of their distant youth, they are not entirely insensible to retrospective adult pleasure in a text; the sharing of a parent's literary taste can often bring great satisfaction. Even without such external benefits, an acquaintanceship with Mole and Toad may well prove rewarding for those contemporary children who find the book. The Wind in the Willows's cultural achievement, however, lies in the remembering wistfulness in it and around it, which adults, and not children, create. This remembering wistfulness is the key to the story's place in the tradition of children's literature, and the absence of this quality in Horwood's sequel renders the latter book, ultimately and inevitably, a failure. Horwood has created a gutted continuation—a talented one, but one that fails to accomplish the primary achievement of Grahame's book; he substitutes his own recapturing of the first work for Grahame's capturing of an unattainable idyllic dream of childhood. The first book yearned for a golden childhood, for which words were made to substitute. The second yearns only for a book—The Wind in the Willows. Where readers used The Wind in the Willows to join with Grahame in longing, they can only use the sequel to join with Horwood in appreciation of the first book. The absence of this nostalgia from Horwood's volume means that readers are no longer complicit in the author's relationship with his world.

Literal landscapes these books may share, but canonical landscapes they will not. The possibility of embrace by a current generation of readers is slim. If the timing is perfect, if youngsters read The Wind in the Willows as a cherished book of their parents, find it rewarding, and go on to Horwood's volume and continue to find the characters congenial, then perhaps both volumes might be passed together onto their offspring, or their students, or their library patrons. I predict, however, that Horwood's The Willows in Winter, like Scott's sequel, will, despite its merits, be an historical footnote but not a beloved companion to the first book. Its internal flaws, which uncannily echo its external obstacles, combine to prevent it from becoming the metonym for childhoods and innocent worlds past that Grahame's book is—prevent it, in short, from becoming a classic.


  1. Horwood remarks in his author's note at the end of the book on the “universality of the four great characters Grahame first created”; he observes, “It is for readers to work out their own meanings for these characters” (294).

  2. Media fans, in fact, clearly distinguish between those episodes or incarnations they accept as “real” within a specific fictional universe and those they do not; the former are labeled “canon.”

  3. Horwood says in his afterword that “I know that many readers share with me—and with Grahame—a sense of mystery about nature and life forces to which we prefer not to give religious or sectarian names” (293-94). Various characters, however, allude to prayer; Toad passes a cathedral and thinks of “sinfulness and retribution”; and Badger acts as a clergyman at the small wake the friends hold for Mole when his absence leads them to declare him dead. In The Wind in the Willows there was no real death, just the allusion to “animals suddenly disappearing,” but one cannot avoid the subject in The Willows in Winter: Mole is presumed dead, Toad presumes Rat dead, the others presume Toad dead. Toad is in the dock not for “cheeking a policeman,” a deliberately silly crime, but for murder. Rat, peculiarly enough, is even presumed a suicide at one point. Each of these three characters reappears in a dramatic resurrection, and the motif is underscored when Toad Hall goes up in flames at the end of the book and Toad instantly makes his plans for rebuilding.

Works Cited

Bishop, Peter. An Archetypal Constable: National Identity and the Geography of Nostalgia. Madison: Fairleigh Dickinson UP, 1995.

Bodger, Joan. How the Heather Looks: A Joyous Journey to the British Sources of Children's Books. New York: Viking, 1965.

Boston, Richard. “Tales from the Riverbank.” Punch 13 April 1983: 73.

Chase, Malcolm, and Christopher Shaw. “The Dimensions of Nostalgia.” The Imagined Past: History and Nostalgia. Ed. Christopher Shaw and Malcolm Chase. Manchester: Manchester UP, 1989. 1-17.

Cripps, Elizabeth. “Kenneth Grahame: Children's Author?” Children's Literature in Education 12.1 (Spring 1981): 15-23.

Foucault, Michel. The Archaeology of Knowledge and the Discourse of Language. Trans. A. M. Sheridan Smith. New York: Pantheon, 1972.

Ganner-Rauth, Heidi. “To Be Continued? Sequels and Continuations of Nineteenth-Century Novels and Novel Fragments.” English Studies: A Journal of English Language and Literature 64.2 (1983): 129-43.

Graff, Gerald. Literature Against Itself: Literary Ideas in Modern Society. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1979.

Grahame, Kenneth. The Wind in the Willows. 1908. Intro. William Horwood. New York: St. Martin's, 1995.

Harper, Ralph. Nostalgia: An Existential Exploration of Longing and Fulfilment in the Modern Age. Cleveland: P of Western Reserve U, 1966.

Horwood, William. The Willows in Winter. New York: St. Martin's, 1994.

Hunt, Peter. The Wind in the Willows: A Fragmented Arcadia. New York: Twayne, 1995.

Inglis, Fred. The Promise of Happiness: Value and Meaning in Children's Fiction. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1981.

Kuznets, Lois R. Kenneth Grahame. Boston: Twayne, 1987.

Lerner, Lawrence. The Uses of Nostalgia: Studies in Pastoral Poetry. New York: Schocken, 1972.

Mendelson, Michael. “The Wind in the Willows and the Plotting of Contrast.” Children's Literature 16: 127-44.

Rochman, Hazel. “After Happily Ever After.” New York Times 13 November 1994: Book Review 28.

Sale, Roger. Fairy Tales and After: From Snow White to E. B. White. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1978.

Seiter, Ellen. Sold Separately: Children and Parents in Consumer Culture. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1993.

Thomas, Brook. “The Historical Necessity for—and Difficulties with—New Historical Analysis in Introductory Literature Courses.” Practicing Theory in Introductory College Literature Courses. Ed. James M. Cahalan and David B. Downing. Urbana: National Council of Teachers of English, 1991. 85-100.

Tompkins, Jane. Sensational Designs: The Cultural Work of American Fiction 1790-1860. New York: Oxford UP, 1985.

Wall, Barbara. The Narrator's Voice: The Dilemma of Children's Fiction. New York: St. Martin's, 1991.

Watkins, Tony. “Cultural Studies, New Historicism and Children's Literature.” Literature for Children: Contemporary Criticism. Ed. Peter Hunt. London: Routledge, 1992. 173-95.

Mark I. West (essay date 1999)

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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 Grahame told to his son Alastair. The boy took a special interest in Toad and delighted in hearing about Toad's misadventures. When Alastair was separated from his father during the summer of 1907, he asked him to send more letters about Toad's activities. Alastair's governess preserved these letters, and Grahame later used them as the basis for The Wind in the Willows (Elspeth Grahame 1-22).

Toad's popularity among children is certainly understandable. He is an exuberant troublemaker, and children are usually drawn to such characters. As Nicholas Tucker has pointed out in “The Children's Falstaff,” Toad “dared do and express many of the things they may have often felt like doing, and such children could both feel superior to Toad's obvious deficiencies and excesses and also revel in them at the same time” (163). Toad's self-centeredness is another quality with which children can easily identify. Narcissistic tendencies, Freud argues in his essay “On Narcissism,” are basic characteristics of infants, and more recent psychological theorists have suggested that these tendencies remain strong throughout adolescence (Hamilton 118-19). Thus, it is not surprising that children can relate to Toad's boastfulness as well as his egocentric view of the world.

Since Toad exhibits many childish qualities, it is tempting to view him as a child. A number of people have, in fact, taken this position. Lois R. Kuznets, for example, argues that Toad can “be seen as representative of a child struggling to control his impulses and tailor his needs to the demands of society” (111). Others have suggested that Toad is simply a caricature of Alastair (Green 282). These interpretations certainly explain some of Toad's immature acts, such as throwing temper tantrums. Some critics, however, feel that it is an oversimplification to regard Toad as a child in an amphibian's skin.

Grahame's biographer, Peter Green, feels that Toad should be viewed as an adult with a “queer pathological streak” (284). A careful examination of the text tends to bear out Green's interpretation. However childishly Toad may behave, Grahame never suggests that he is not an adult. He portrays Toad as an affluent but irresponsible young man. Like most adults, Toad is fairly independent. He controls a large estate and makes major purchasing decisions. He thinks of himself as a gentleman and is generally regarded as such by his peers.

There are several other factors that indicate that Grahame wants Toad to be thought of as an adult. Although most of the characters in The Wind in the Willows are animals, Grahame clearly indicates that some are adults and some are children. The Otter's son, Little Portly, is definitely a child. The field mice who sing Christmas carols to Mole and Rat are portrayed as children. Nowhere in the book, however, is Toad equated with these young animals. For the most part, they are expected to look up to Toad, a point that Grahame underscores in the book's conclusion:

Sometimes, in the course of long summer evenings, the friends would take a stroll together in the Wild Wood, … and it was pleasing to see how respectfully they were greeted by the inhabitants, and how the mother weasels would bring their young ones to the mouths of their holes and say, pointing, “Look, baby! There goes the great Mr. Toad!”


Toad also has little in common with the children whom Grahame so lovingly describes in two of his earlier books, The Golden Age and Dream Days. These characters exude innocence and gentleness, qualities that Toad obviously lacks. As Green convincingly argues, Grahame is much more inclined to associate negative qualities with adults than he is with children (177). For this reason, Green feels that Toad is modeled, not after Alastair, but after some of the eccentric adults with whom Grahame was familiar. The two examples whom Green mentions are Horatio Bottomley, a flamboyant politician (242-43), and Oscar Wilde (284). If Toad is seen as an adult, however, it becomes more difficult to account for some of his peculiar actions. One possible way to explain much of Toad's behavior is to view him as a narcissist.

Although The Wind in the Willows was written well before the coining of the phrase “narcissistic personality disorder,” Grahame's portrayal of Toad could almost be a case illustration of this particular psychological problem. In addition to his exhibiting the surface characteristics of a narcissist, Toad's thought processes and basic behavior patterns closely resemble this personality type.

In describing Toad's personality, Grahame anticipates some later theories on narcissism. Most psychological theorists who have studied narcissism agree that narcissistic behavior can often mask feelings of self-doubt and inferiority. The narcissist has a weak sense of self and attempts to compensate for this by engaging in grandiose fantasies and by seeking admiration and approval from others (Masterson 7-9). As Richard M. Restak states in his book The Self Seekers, “For the narcissist, life consists of an unending round of maneuvers aimed at bolstering self-esteem” (128). So long as these maneuvers are successful, the narcissist gives the appearance of being extremely self-satisfied. If, however, these maneuvers fail, the narcissist's feelings of self-doubt well up, resulting in severe depression.

Toad's periodic bouts with depression clearly follow this pattern. He tries to think of himself as an admired figure, but when this image is threatened he becomes despondent. The most dramatic example of this type of reaction occurs when Toad is imprisoned. Faced with a lengthy sentence, he practically loses his will to live. He refuses his meals, and he constantly castigates himself. At one point he calls himself a “stupid animal” and then goes on to say, “Now I must languish in this dungeon, till people who were proud to say they knew me, have forgotten the very name of Toad” (142-43). His depression, in other words, stems from his realization that he may have lost the admiration of his peers. He comes out of his depression only after having convinced himself that the jailer's daughter “admired him very much” (147).

In addition to causing depression, the narcissist's sense of self-doubt can lead to other problems. One of these is a tendency to engage in dangerous activities. Restak provides the following explanation for this behavior:

Burdened with crushing feelings of inertia and deadness, the under-stimulated self frantically reaches out to the world in order to grasp the excitement and vitality which it inwardly lacks. Forms of self-stimulation replace natural and spontaneous excitements. Frantic efforts are employed to critically stir up a sense of aliveness and vitality. Addictions, sexual promiscuity and perversions, alcohol and drug-induced “highs,” dangerous sports and recreational activities (hang gliding, motorcycle racing, etc.)—all are, in the last analysis, attempts to artificially repair the chronic state of under-stimulation.


The urge to live recklessly is certainly present in Toad. He feels that he is “at his best and highest” (121) when he is careening around in an automobile. He finds it impossible to drive at a moderate speed, even though he knows that he is risking his life. In fact, the knowledge that he is in danger gives Toad a sense of exhilaration. Such behavior may also be indicative of subconscious self-destructive impulses. The fact that he continues to drive recklessly after being injured in several accidents suggests that, on some level, Toad's accidents are deliberate. According to Karl Menninger, an authority on self-destructive behavior, such purposive accidents are a step in the direction of suicide (293-94). It is possible, in other words, that Toad's self-doubt borders on self-negation.

Since the narcissist is preoccupied with himself, he has difficulty relating to others. This point is stressed in the original Narcissus myth. Handsome Narcissus is sought after by many would-be lovers, but he rejects their advances. Instead, he falls in love with his own reflection. Contemporary theorists argue that the narcissist is incapable of forming strong bonds with others largely because of an inability to feel empathy. While the narcissist may be gregarious, he is primarily interested in winning admiration from others, not their friendship or love. Expanding on this point, Restak explains that “people are important to the narcissist only as a means of bolstering his sense of self” (128).

The narcissist's approach to relationships characterizes Toad's dealings with Mole, Rat and Badger. Toad is always a gracious host, but he refuses to talk about anything but himself. He constantly boasts about his possessions and embraces anyone who seems to admire his things. He takes an instant liking to Mole, for example, simply because Mole is impressed with his new caravan. Toad never concerns himself with how his actions might adversely affect others, and he shows little gratitude when his friends attempt to help him. Although they have come to expect such behavior, Toad's friends are sometimes hurt by his lack of empathy. Toward the end of the book, Rat tells Toad, “You don't deserve to have such true and loyal friends, Toad, you don't really” (225). Toad begins apologizing to Rat, but he stops in mid-sentence upon learning that supper is ready.

The narcissist's inability to accept other people as equals results in another problem—an inability to accept criticism. In the opinion of the narcissist, no one has a right to criticize his behavior; anyone who does is perceived as being cruel and unreasonable. Nathan Schwartz-Salant discusses this narcissistic trait in Narcissism and Character Transformation:

The experience of being with a person with a narcissistic character disorder is one of being kept away, warded off. … Criticism is met with extreme resistance. The person with a narcissistic character disorder has so little sense of identity … that any criticism at all is felt as a personal threat.


Toad's resistance to criticism is evident throughout The Wind in the Willows. On numerous occasions, Badger and Rat criticize Toad for his selfish and self-destructive behavior, but Toad never recognizes the legitimacy of their complaints. He sometimes gives the appearance of making constructive use of criticism, but he immediately reverts to his old ways. For instance, when Badger criticizes Toad for driving so recklessly, Toad apologizes and promises to reform. A few minutes later, however, he says, “I've been searching my mind since, and going over things in it, and I find that I'm not a bit sorry or repentant really, so it's no earthly good saying I am” (110). Since Toad seems to be incapable of accepting criticism, his apparent reform at the end of the book is unconvincing. One wonders why Toad is suddenly able to respond constructively to criticism. Grahame was well aware of this problem. In response to an inquiry about Toad's transformation, Grahame wrote, “Of course Toad never really reformed; he was by nature incapable of it. But the subject is a painful one to pursue” (Grahame, My Dearest Mouse 190).

Although Toad can be seen as having a narcissistic personality disorder, it is more difficult to explain why he developed this problem. Psychologists are not in complete agreement about the causes of narcissistic behavior in adults. In recent years, however, Heinz Kohut's theories on this subject have gained a considerable following. Kohut argues that the young child has a fragile but grandiose sense of selfhood. This fragile self can easily disintegrate unless it is reinforced. Most parents, Kohut believes, achieve this reinforcement by accepting and confirming the child's sense of self in all of its grandiosity. As Michael J. Patton and John S. Sullivan state in an article on Kohut's theories, most parents help their child “believe that he or she is perfect, powerful, loved, admired, and in symbiotic union with others” (376). Kohut calls this process mirroring (116). If this mirroring process does not occur, Kohut feels that the child may never develop a secure sense of self. Such a child, upon reaching adulthood, is likely to become a narcissist.

Grahame provides little information about Toad's childhood, but the information he does provide suggests that Toad may not have experienced the mirroring process that Kohut describes. At no point in the book is Toad's mother mentioned while Toad's father is mentioned on several occasions. Thus Toad's mother may not have been available to help build her son's sense of self. Toad's father was present, but he may have been too preoccupied to pay much attention to his son.

The elder Toad clearly spent most of his time amassing his fortune and maintaining Toad Hall. He also showed little confidence in his son. He never, for example, told his son about the underground passage into Toad Hall. According to Badger, he felt that Toad was too “light and volatile in character” (230) to be entrusted with the secret. It is possible, therefore, that Toad never experienced the unequivocal acceptance of a loving parent. This lack of parental acceptance may explain why, as an adult, Toad so desperately seeks approval and admiration.

Although this interpretation of Toad's personality explains much of his behavior, some may feel that it robs Toad of his charm. Toad is dearly loved by countless readers, and it is hard to accept the psychological problems of a loved one even if he is only a fictional character. Psychiatrists and psychologists are well aware of this difficulty. Often the friends of a psychiatric patient initially refuse to acknowledge their friend's problems. Once they do, they tend to distance themselves from their friend.

Such reactions are understandable, but they do a disservice to their friend. It is important to acknowledge a friend's psychological problems, but it is also important to remember the friend's endearing qualities. This holds true for Toad as well. He is a narcissist, but he is also an amusing companion. He is gregarious and often generous. His childish antics are amusing, and his exuberant approach to life is stimulating. Even though he may not be capable of truly loving others, there is something lovable about Toad. He longs for company, and it would be a shame if the acknowledgment of his narcissistic tendencies cost him his friends.

Works Cited

Freud, Sigmund. “On Narcissism.” In vol. 14 of The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Trans. James Strachey. 24 vols. London: Hogarth, 1957.

Grahame, Elspeth. Introduction. First Whisper ofThe Wind in the Willows.” By Kenneth Grahame. Ed. Elspeth Grahame. 1-22. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1945.

Grahame, Kenneth. My Dearest Mouse: “The Wind in the WillowsLetters. Ed. Marilyn Watts. London: Pavilion, 1988.

———. The Wind in the Willows. New York: Scribner's, 1965.

Green, Peter. Kenneth Grahame: A Biography. Cleveland: World, 1959.

Hamilton, Victoria. Narcissus and Oedipus: The Children of Psychoanalysis. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1982.

Kohut, Heinz. The Analysis of the Self. New York: International Universities, 1971.

Kuznets, Lois R. Kenneth Grahame. Boston: Twayne, 1987.

Masterson, James F. The Narcissistic and Borderline Disorders. New York: Brunner/Mazel, 1981.

Menninger, Karl. Man Against Himself. New York: Harcourt, 1938.

Patton, Michael J. and John J. Sullivan. “Heinz Kohut and the Classical Psychoanalytic Tradition: An Analysis in Terms of Levels of Explanation.” Psychoanalytic Review 64 (1980): 365-88.

Restak, Richard M. The Self Seekers. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1982.

Schwartz-Salant, Nathan. Narcissism and Character Transformation: The Psychology of Narcissistic Character Disorders. Toronto: Inner City, 1982.

Tucker, Nicholas. “The Children's Falstaff.” Suitable for Children: Controversies in Children's Literature. Ed. Nicholas Tucker. 160-64. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976.


Critical Overview