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 Plot

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The Wind in the Willows relates the adventures of four characters in a series of chapters, each of which forms a complete story focusing on one or more of the four. Together, the chapters, whose plot lines sometimes intermix, follow the adventures of Toad.

Mole, a main character, abandons spring cleaning to stroll along the riverbank, where he meets the friendly Water Rat, who shows him the joys of “messing about in boats.” After some time, the two friends become involved with the third character, Toad, the rich owner of the palatial Toad Hall.

The eccentric Toad persuades Mole and Rat to accompany him on a journey in his well-appointed gypsy caravan. This, however, is overturned when the horse pulling it bolts at the sight and sound of a motorcar. Mole and Rat are happy to return home safely; Toad, though, has acquired a fixation with motorcars.

Across the river is the Wild Wood, inhabited by creatures that are vicious, except for the gruff, reclusive Badger, who lives underground in this area. Mole, exploring the Wood, gets lost, but he and his rescuer, Rat, find shelter with Badger.

Toad’s adventures begin to appear in alternating chapters, forming a complete story of their own. Enamored of expensive motorcars, he wrecks one after another until his friends lock him in his bedroom to cure him of his mania. Through trickery, he escapes; he then steals a car and drives it off.

Toad is apprehended and sent in chains to a dungeon, where, despondent, he mopes until the gaoler’s kind daughter suggests how he might escape (disguised as the prison washerwoman). Next, he attempts to buy a train ticket to Toad Hall. Having no money, he persuades the engine driver to take him on. They are pursued by his gaolers, but the driver shows him mercy, and Toad is once again free after jumping from the train.

Toad’s next encounter is with a real washerwoman on a barge. After discovering his identity, she throws him into the canal. To get even, he steals the horse that pulls her barge and rides it until he sells it to a gypsy for pocket money and breakfast.

Still disguised as a washerwoman, Toad tries to hitch a ride in a passing motorcar. It is the same car he had been jailed for stealing. The occupants do not recognize the thief and even allow “her” to sit in the front seat and learn to drive. Recklessly, Toad admits to his true identity. After the car has overturned, he once more runs for his life. Fortunately, he ends up in the river and is rescued by Rat.

All the main characters band together to regain Toad Hall for its rightful owner. In Toad’s absence, it had been taken over by weasels, stoats, and ferrets from the Wild Wood. The friends’ campaign, under the direction of Badger, is successful. The book ends with a gala celebration of the return of normality and the hoped-for reformation of Toad.

Places Discussed

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River

River. Fictional river in England that flows to the sea past meadows, woods, and towns and which serves as the focus of the novel. The river, never named in the story, is modeled after the rivers of southern England well known to Kenneth Grahame throughout his life. It gurgles along its course between banks covered with rushes, flowers, reeds, and trees—silver birch, alder, and willow trees. As the novel progresses, it is the setting for Rat’s patient tutelage of Mole, Mole’s growing skill as a boatman, Otter’s despair over the disappearance of his son, Toad’s near-drowning following...

(This entire section contains 412 words.)

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his escape from prison, and Rat and Mole’s mystical encounter with Pan.

Riverbank

Riverbank. Rat’s home, a multichambered hole in the muddy riverbank just above the water line. It is a marvel of cozy domesticity with its parlor where armchairs are pulled close to the fireside, its kitchen which supplies the food for the table and picnic baskets, and its bedrooms offering rest in their soft sheets and blankets.

Toad Hall

Toad Hall. Toad’s home, a large English country house with lawns sloping down to the river. In keeping with his bombastic character, Toad’s home is a grandiose establishment. In addition to an imposing brick manor house it includes a banqueting hall, a coach house and stable-yard, and a boathouse. Toad, careless in so many ways, is equally careless in appreciating all that his home means to him. Only after he has lost it does he understand its value. To regain his home, Toad works on a battle plan devised by Badger, who knows of a secret tunnel leading from the river to the interior of the house.

Mr. Badger’s home

Mr. Badger’s home. Extensive series of stone-lined rooms connected by paved passages, and bolt holes underground in the Wild Wood. In the novel, Badger observes that when humans went away, their structures fell into ruins and were eventually engulfed by the forest, and the animals, who always remain, made use of what the people left behind to create secure and comfortable homes.

Mole End

Mole End. Mole’s home, a simple underground burrow in the meadow near the river, with sleeping bunks built into the parlor wall.

Pan Island

Pan Island. Small wooded island in the river. Here Rat and Mole, in their search for Otter’s lost son, experience at sunrise the mystical presence of the god Pan, guardian of animals.

Historical Context

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Grahame was born during the Victorian Era, when the British Empire was at its peak. Its financial institutions were strong and stable. Their manufacturing industries were ever-growing. However, right about the time the first major tragedies were occurring in Grahame’s life—the death of his mother at age five and his father’s desertion of his family when Grahame was eight—Britain found that its stable roots were being shaken. The Crimean war with Russia from 1854 to 1856 had already cast doubt on England’s military strength. Threats of war with Germany, France, Russia, and even the United States compromised overall confidence in the Empire.

British society was also stressed by unrest and fluctuation. In 1870, educational reform brought literacy to the working classes, allowing them to expand their awareness within the political, intellectual, and literary arenas, shifting focus and power away from the old land-owning families. The Trade Union Amendment Act of 1876 gave legal sanction to trade unions, leading to dissatisfaction among industries and major strikes in the 1880s and 1890s. In the beginning of the twentieth century, laborers found a major political voice with the formation of the Labour Party, which is still one of the two main political parties in England to this day. Education reform continued with the founding of the Worker’s Education Association in 1903. The roots of the Irish independence movement were also established around this time.

The women’s movement contributed to this period of social upheaval. Britain’s male-dominated society, though oppressive to half of the population, had maintained a certain amount of stability in the early part of the Victorian age. When liberation organizations established themselves, like the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies in 1897, the Woman’s Social and Political Union in 1903, and the Women’s Freedom League in 1908, the maledominated status quo began to break down.

Changes were occurring throughout England, not just in the cities and industrial areas, but also in the countryside. The rural life was diminishing as urbanization spread. According to Peter Hunt in The Wind in the Willows: A Fragmented Arcadia, the last three decades of the nineteenth century saw Britain’s cultivated land reduce by half. Railroad lines crisscrossed England as well as roadways, with the automobile becoming more and more popular. Not only was the countryside disappearing, but it was becoming less pristine and much more easily accessible.

Hunt suggests that all these changes gave rise to a nostalgic attitude toward the Victorian life-style that was reflected in some of the literature of the times: “the post-Romantic fashions of the Victorian age became more and more ‘precious’ and, by Victorian standards, corrupt.” He goes on to explain that these writers “would look ‘inward’ but they also looked out to the countryside, to an arcadian past....”

Grahame was among these writers. As Kuznets quotes in her article “Kenneth Grahame and Father Nature, or Whither Blows The Wind in the Willows?” Grahame once said to his Scribner’s editor that he wanted to write a book that was “free of problems, clear of the clash of sex.” Grahame certainly had his share of problems in his lifetime, not only during his childhood, but also later with an unhappy marriage, and a nearly blind son. The Wind in the Willows was a window to a simpler place and a simpler life: a life “clear of the clash of sex,” and thus no unhappy marriages and no women’s movements disrupting a male-dominated society: a life “free of problems,” where children don’t have disabilities, and where a child may sometimes get lost but is found again through the help of a magical piper: a place where there are no wars, but only the occasional skirmishes with Stoats and Weasels, who are repentant enough the next morning to get pats on the head: most importantly, a place where a small riverbank community is still intact, pristine, and buffered from the world at large by an untamed wood.

Setting

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The Wind in the Willows is set in the English countryside along the banks of the River in a locale similar to that of Cookham Dene. Mole leaves his underground home and moves in with Water Rat whose snug burrow fronts the River. Nearby, at Toad Hall, lives the wealthy and eccentric Toad whose elegant country estate has been handed down to successive generations of Toads. Within walking distance is the mysterious Wild Wood, once the site of a large city but now overgrown with a dense stand of trees and inhabited by hostile creatures such as weasels and stoats. The Wild Wood is also the place where the levelheaded Mr. Badger makes his home. The setting is clearly pastoral, and the only reminders of the industrial age that intrude are the motor car and the railroad, both of which land Toad in trouble.

Literary Style

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Golden Age of Children’s Literature
The Golden Age of children’s literature has been defined as lasting from the publication of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in 1865 until World War I. Before that time, literature written for children was primarily considered a didactic tool, leaving little room for the imagination. During the Golden Age, the imaginative aspect of children’s literature blossomed. The works within the genre were more readily enjoyed by children.

Scholars consider The Wind in the Willows to be a contributor to the Golden Age, published near the period’s end. Though it may be valued for the examples the animals provide to children with their loyal friendships and displays of hospitality and compassion, its primary purpose is to entertain, in true Golden Age form.

Animal Novel
The tradition of using anthropomorphized animals in both oral and written storytelling is quite old and worldwide spread. Up until the Golden Age, its usual form was the animal fable: short tales in which anthropomorphized animals are used to parody or otherwise criticize human failings. These were often archetypal characters with one or two dominant attributes. One of the most common archetypes is the trickster, an example of which is the Big Bad Wolf from the story of Little Red Riding Hood. The characters in The Wind in the Willows are not archetypes, nor is the novel allegorical like fables. As Kuznets points out in her biography of Grahame:

The Wind in the Willows is a book of fair length, with well-developed animal protagonists, who participate in a similarly well-developed plot, built on conflict, both internal and external, to some resolution of those conflicts.

This defies the form of the fable, and, in fact, shares more characteristics with the novel, which is intended for entertainment rather than moral instruction. It was in fact, one of the first animal novels, which paved the way for others to come, such as Charlotte’s Web, published in 1952, or more recently, Redwall, published in 1986.

Literary Qualities

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The Wind in the Willows is told in the style of many children's bedtime stories. The tales can function as separate stories or be read as a more lengthy account of the adventures of Rat, Mole, Badger, and Toad in the world alongside the River. Like A. A. Milne's tales of Winnie the Pooh and Christopher Robin, these are certainly more than tales about cute animals who lead a jolly life. Grahame is interested in what it means to be a friend, what "home" really is, and how people express their loyalty to friends and home. He explores these topics by placing his characters in predicaments and letting them find their own solutions, as when Mole does not heed Ratty's warning and gets lost in the Wild Wood or when Toad becomes the victim of his automobile obsession. Although his stories take the form of bedtime narratives, they do more than just entertain, they also explore human nature.

There are three chapters in The Wind in the Willows that are particularly interesting for their sophisticated literary form: "The Piper at the Gates of Dawn," "Wayfarers All," and "The Return of Ulysses." The first two chapters serve as pauses between the animals' adventures. In "The Piper at the Gates of Dawn" Grahame explores the beauty of the coming sunrise and poetically describes the woods and animals during this momentary pause between night and dawn. Grahame draws on the myth of Pan in the form of the mysterious goat-footed piper who lulls Rat and Mole with his music just before the sun appears over the horizon. In "Wayfarers All," on the other hand, Grahame captures the mood of birds preparing to fly south for the winter, their sense of urgency and the emotions they experience as their time of departure draws near. He shows us Rat's uneasiness and discontent as he listens first to the birds' conversation and then to the tales of the Sea Rat who is on his way to the ocean and more adventures. Finally, in "The Return of Ulysses" Grahame parodies the adventures of Ulysses in those of Toad, Rat, Badger and Mole. The parallels to the Odyssey are strong: Toad first becomes separated from his home and friends and is sent to prison and, in making his long and difficult way home, has adventures on land and sea. And, when he finally gets back to the River, he must retake his ancestral home from invading weasels, ferrets, and stoats.

Grahame describes the natural world in a vivid manner. The worlds of the River, the Wild Wood, the animals' homes and the surrounding countryside are all drawn with meticulous attention to details that bring each scene to life for the reader. Grahame also plays on his characters' natural "animal" characteristics to add to the vividness of his descriptions as, for example, when he uses a toad's natural ability to swell or shrink to show Toad's anger or dejectedness.

Social Sensitivity

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There is very little in The Wind in the Willows that could cause even the youngest reader difficulties. What little violence there is is handled in a humorous way; in fact, no one suffers more than a few bruises, as in the banquet hall scene in the book's final chapter. The dangers that do threaten the characters, such as Mole's near drowning, are handled so that the character comes to no real harm, but learns a valuable lesson about prudent behavior. The characters are honest, simple folks who eventually learn from their mistakes, even Toad. And they certainly provide examples of what it means to be a loyal friend and a trusting companion. Grahame is not a didactic writer; in fact, he prefers to let his characters learn from experience, clearly believing that it is impossible to tell someone how to behave correctly if that person refuses to see the correctness of the advice, as in the case of Toad who only learns to be less boastful and self-centered after experiencing a series of humiliating adventures. All the telling on the part of Rat, Badger, and Mole were to no effect. Toad had to learn his lesson himself, in his own time.

Compare and Contrast

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1908: The speed limit for automobiles is 20 miles per hour (mph) in England. Automobiles are found mostly in Western Europe and North America.

Today: The speed limit for automobiles in England is as high 70 mph, though it is not uncommon for the flow of traffic to move at 80 mph. Automobiles are found in virtually every country in the world.

1908: The population of the Great Britain is approximately 40,000,000.

Today: The population of Great Britain is approximately 60,000,000. While this is a 50 percent growth, roads and urban development have increased at a drastically higher rate, countered by a sharp decrease in cultivated and undeveloped land.

1908: Women in Great Britain do not have the right to vote and have little political power in general, especially with the death of Queen Victoria in 1901 and the ascension of King Edward VII to the throne.

Today: Women over the age of thirty have had the right to vote since 1918 with women over the age of twenty-one gaining the right in 1928. Women occupy many high level political positions, including seats in the parliament. Margaret Thatcher was elected prime minister in 1979. The monarchy is again occupied by a woman, Queen Elizabeth II.

Media Adaptations

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In 1930, A. A. Milne wrote a successful musical stage version called Toad of Toad Hall, which focuses on the adventures of Toad. A. A. Milne is most well-known for his Winnie-the- Pooh books.

Numerous animated film adaptations have been made of The Wind in the Willows. One of the earliest and most interesting is the 1949 Disney version entitled Ichabod and Mr. Toad, which also included stories from Washington Irving’s Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon. A recent popular version was produced by HBO Studios in 1996.

Several audio versions of The Wind in the Willows have been recorded, including one produced by Naxos on Audio CD in 2002.

For Further Reference

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Chalmers, Patrick. Kenneth Grahame: Life, Letters, and Unpublished Work. London: Methuen, 1933. Early account of Grahame's life and work, both as an education reformer and as a writer of essays and The Wind in the Willows.

Grahame, Eleanor. Kenneth Grahame. New York: Walck, 1963. Grahame's widow recounts his life and work.

Green, Peter. Kenneth Grahame, A Biography. London: Murray, 1959. Discusses Grahame's life, career, his theories of education, his work as an essayist, and his children's books.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources
Gaarden, Bonnie, “The Inner Family of The Wind in the Willows,” in Children’s Literature: Annual of The Modern Division of Children’s Literature and The Children’s Literature Association, Vol. 22, 1994, pp. 43–44, 46.

Grahame, Kenneth, The Wind in the Willows, Grosset & Dunlap, 1966, p. 11-221.

Green, Peter, Kenneth Grahame: A Biography, World Publishing, 1959, p. 1.

Hunt, Peter, The Wind in the Willows”: A Fragmented Arcadia, Twayne Publishers, 1994, pp. 5, 6, 13.

Kuznets, Lois R., Kenneth Grahame, Twayne Publishers, 1987, pp. 2, 4, 15, 97, 124, 126.

—, “Kenneth Grahame and Father Nature, or Whither Blows The Wind in the Willows?” in Children’s Literature: Annual of The Modern Division of Children’s Literature and The Children’s Literature Association, Vol. 16, 1988, p. 175.

Marshall, Cynthia, “Bodies and Pleasures in The Wind in the Willows,” in Children’s Literature: Annual of The Modern Division of Children’s Literature and The Children’s Literature Association, Vol. 22, 1994, p. 60.

Further Reading
Bate, Roger, and Keith Hartley, Saving Our Streams: The Role of the Anglers’ Conservation Association in Protecting English & Welsh Rivers, Institute of Economic Affairs, 2001. Bate and Hartley consider the Anglers’ Conservation Association’s fight to clean up and preserve English and Welsh rivers that have been damaged through urban development and pollution. The legislation affecting the conservation of river-based ecosystems, also know as riparian systems, is also examined.

Carpenter, Humphrey, Secret Gardens: A Study of the Golden Age of Children’s Literature, Pubs Overstock, 1991. The book examines works from the golden age of children’s literature and their authors, including the sources of their inspiration and the cultural circumstances that led these authors to direct their writing towards children.

Eckermann, Erik, and Peter L. Albrecht, World History of Automobiles, Society of Automotive Engineers, 2001. Eckermann and Albrecht describe the development of the automobile, from what lead to its invention to the most recent technological advances. Photographs and diagrams complement the text.

Green, Peter, Kenneth Grahame: A Biography, World Publishing, 1959. The earliest comprehensive biography of Grahame, Green’s biography is the one most commonly referenced by literary scholars. The book is accompanied by twenty-two pictures and illustrations.

Bibliography

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Carpenter, Humphrey. “The Wind in the Willows.” In Secret Gardens: A Study of the Golden Age of Children’s Literature. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1985. Carpenter, coauthor of The Oxford Companion to Children’s Literature, concludes that, of all the subjects in his study, only Grahame managed to create a utopian world. For Carpenter, it is the level at which The Wind in the Willows explores the artistic imagination that gives it coherence.

Chalmers, Patrick R. Kenneth Grahame: Life, Letters, and Unpublished Work. London: Methuen, 1933. This biography, appearing a year after Grahame’s death, sentimentalizes the genesis of The Wind in the Willows. Valuable in its extracts from Grahame’s letters to his son documenting the development of the story, and from correspondence between Grahame and his readers and publishers.

Green, Peter. Kenneth Grahame 1859-1932: A Study of His Life, Work, and Times. London: John Murray, 1959. Considered a groundbreaking study. Presents as in-depth analysis of the psychological undercurrents, social context, literary sources, and creative method that produced The Wind in the Willows.

Kuznets, Lois R. Kenneth Grahame. Boston: Twayne, 1987. Cogently discusses the work’s thematic and formal complexity, from its mock-epic structure and density of style to its archetypal associations. Surveys modern evaluations and adaptations.

Sale, Roger. “Kenneth Grahame.” In Fairy Tales and After: From Snow White to E. B. White. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1978. Examines The Wind in the Willows as a classic of children’s literature. Sale argues that the book, reflecting Grahame’s own anxieties, offers reassurance in the face of the demands of adult life.

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