Let me start by saying that The Wind in the Willows is utterly delightful. It is a romp in the purest, most innocent sense of the word—and better yet, it is a British romp, so you can safely and realistically imagine all the characters in tweed.
This collection of tales, chronicling the four-way friendship between a Rat, a Mole, a Toad, and a Badger, was penned during the “Golden Age” of children’s literature (the mid-19th century to the early 20th century). Up until the 1600s, specially designated children’s books did not even exist, because childhood was not considered a separate or significant period. Children were viewed as smaller, grubbier adults upon whom the Bible should be thrust at every opportunity in the name of education.
Once childhood was recognized as a distinctive period, and children as a group began to receive special treatment for the unique needs this interval represents, the body of children’s literature began to develop.
The Wind in the Willows as a written work (and, now, classic) evolved out of the bedtime stories Kenneth Grahame told his son, the oh-so-nobly-named Alistair. The early chapters establish and build upon the friendships between and among the featured foursome, while the later stories concentrate on the fumbles and foibles of Toad.
Toad is the star of the show, and does he ever know it. He represents the British upper class, using his unlimited wealth to chase increasingly childish impulses, ever in denial of life’s consequences. He’s far and away the most interesting character, and arguably the most complex.
Things Toad Does:
- Steals a car
- Wrecks said car
- Goes to jail (on a 20-year sentence, no less) for stealing and wrecking the aforementioned car
- Disguises himself as a washerwoman to escape from jail
- Forgets his wallet
- Talks his way onto a train
- Steals a horse
- Attempts to sell said horse to a peddler
- Steals a car again (the same car as before, naturally)
- Wrecks said car
Things Toad Is:
At the end of the book, Toad, Mole, Rat, and Badger have to seize Toad Hall back from the weasels and stoats who have taken over in Toad’s absence. Then they throw a party.
Like I said: a romp.
Across the spectrum of English literature, in my experience, there is a great deal of overlap. Toad, Mole, Rat, and Badger remind me very much of the hobbits of Hobbiton. (They do not volunteer for a mission to save Middle Earth, but if they did, they would be about as likely to succeed.) Wealthy fop Sebastian Flyte of Brideshead Revisited shares many of Toad’s less admirable personality traits, and England feels like the same drowsy, peaceful place in both The Wind in the Willows and Middlemarch. And Jane Eyre. And Wuthering Heights. The English love their countryside—I can tell you that much.
It would be hard not to like the amusing, feel-good playground-for-the-brain that is The Wind in the Willows. In fact, don’t trust anyone who hates it. They probably grew up unacquainted with love or TV.
“The Mole was a good listener, and Toad, with no one to check his statements or to criticize in an unfriendly spirit, rather let himself go. Indeed, much that he related belonged more properly to the category of what-might-have-happened-had-I-only-thought-of-it-in-time-instead-of-ten-minutes-afterwards.”
“It was, to be sure, but a small thing that I asked—merely leave to blossom and expand for yet one more evening, to let myself go and hear the tumultuous applause that always seems to me—somehow—to bring out my best qualities.”
“For others the asperities, the stubborn endurance, or the clash of actual conflict, that went with Nature in the rough; he must be wise, must keep to the pleasant places in which his lines were laid and which held adventure enough, in their way, to last for a lifetime.”
A writer, reader, and traveler, Jamie Leigh writes a literature review blog at the100greatestbookschallenge.wordpress.com and won the Purdue University Kneale Literary Award in 2008.