Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame

The Wind in the Willows has been a much loved children’s classic almost since author Kenneth Grahame first released it in 1908. The idea that animals dress, live and act like people in animal form wasn’t new even back then, in that respect Grahame could be considered a contemporary of Beatrix Potter, although Potter seemed to write for a younger audience than Grahame. The Wind in the Willows began life as stories that the former secretary of the Bank of England told to his young son Alastair, in fact Mr Toad is in part based on the boy’s headstrong nature.

It’s not really a single narrative, but rather a series of stories or adventures had by the principal characters of Mole, Ratty (actually a water rat or vole), Toad and Badger. Otter also occasionally pops in for a say and the search for his missing son; Portly, by Mole and Ratty is actually the basis of one of the most fantastical chapters; The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, where the mole and the water rat find the missing young otter in care of Pan.

The bulk of the story centres on Mr Toad. The wealthy, but irresponsible and vain amphibian becomes obsessed with motor cars, which back in 1908 were still in their infancy as a mode of transport, eventually steals a car, is caught and sentenced to 20 years in gaol. He escapes disguised as a washerwoman, leads the police on a merry dance, is eventually acquitted and has to take his mansion; Toad Hall, back from a band of weasels and stoats that have appropriated it.

The major characters all serve a purpose, the wide eyed and naïve Mole kicks the whole thing off by abandoning spring cleaning his hole and meeting Ratty on his beloved river. Ratty is a dependable good natured loyal friend to both the deserving Mole and the far less deserving Toad. Toad embodies many of society’s worst qualities, but is somehow appealing all the same. He seems to be the most popular, or possibly the most memorable character in the book, whether that’s because he really is or because the best known retelling of the story; Disney’s The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr Toad, centres mainly on the second half of the book covering Toad’s escapade, is debatable. Badger is another stout and loyal, if somewhat gruff, companion.

I’m sure the author meant it as a series of stories featuring anthropomorphic animals to entertain his son, but because of the time it was written and with Grahame’s eye for detail and characterisation, as well as the social circles he moved in, it’s also a gentle dig at the middle and upper class Edwardian society of the time, especially Toad, cast as one of the increasingly irrelevant aristocracy of the age.

It’s a gentle whimsical series of tales and well worth the time taken to read it, it’s one of those books that can be read as a child and appreciated for different reasons as an adult.

Kenneth Grahame was not alone in writing entertaining stories of the goings on of animal folk. There’s the aforementioned Beatrix Potter. Later on Richard Adams Watership Down came along and A.R Lloyd’s underrated Kine. Garry Kilworth’s House of Tribes, featuring mice is also well worth reading in this vein. William Horwood’s Duncton Moles series is along those lines and in fact Horwood also wrote 4 sequels to The Wind in the Willows (The Willows in Winter, Toad Triumphant, The Willows and Beyond and The Willows at Christmas).

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