The Wind in the Willows

Luanne wrote the following introduction to a Signet Classics edition of The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame.


The title itself is an invitation. It appeals not just to the reader’s mind, but to her senses—a call to abandon the mundane and visit the riverbank to feel the wind on your face, hear it rustling the willows. The novel opens with Mole, “working very hard all the morning, spring-cleaning his little home.” He has dust in his eyes and throat, whitewash all over his black fur. But, “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.” By the end of the first paragraph, Mole has quit his work to pop up into the sunshine—as I now invite you to do, by entering the world of this wonderful book.

Mole has a natural optimism, a childlike joy. When he answers the call to leave his work and commence his journey, he has no destination or agenda. He is very much in the moment, moved by the spirit. “‘This is fine!’ he said to himself. ‘This is better than whitewashing!’ The sunshine struck hot on his fur, soft breezes caressed his heated brow, and after the seclusion of the cellarage he had lived in so long, the carol of happy birds fell on his dulled hearing almost like a shout. Jumping off all his four legs at once, in the joy of living and the delight of spring without its cleaning, he pursued his way across the meadow till he reached the hedge on the further side.’”

The Wind in the Willows celebrates nature, friendship, loyalty, and adventure. Mole’s travels bring him into contact with Ratty, Badger, and Toad. Mole makes friends easily; he is a seeker, and he reminds us that too much seclusion, too much time in our “cellerages,” will dull our hearing and more. Kenneth Grahame knew this very well. He had a terribly sad childhood—all the more so, because it had begun so happily.

Kenneth Grahame was born on March 8, 1859, in Edinburgh Scotland, the third of four children. His father was a successful lawyer. When he was appointed sheriff of Argyllshire, the family moved to Inverary, in the western highlands. It is said that Kenneth’s parents were devoted to each other, that the family was happy (as families with parents who are devoted to each other can so often be.) But in 1864, a month before Kenneth’s fifth birthday, his mother caught scarlet fever. So did Kenneth. He was very ill, close to death, but somehow clung to life. His mother died.

Could there be anything more traumatic for a young child? Kenneth was filled with not only grief, but also the guilt of having survived the same illness that had killed his mother. His father drank to dull the pain, became an alcoholic. Incapable of caring for his children, he sent them to live with his wife’s mother, said by biographical accounts to have been cold and distant.

Kenneth’s new home, “The Mount,” was in the village of Cookham Dene, on the banks of the Thames River. It would become the setting for The Wind in the Willows. Suffering so much loss so young—not just his mother, and not just his father, but his entire childhood as he’d known it, as well as his health—for his own bout with scarlet fever had left him with a chronic bronchial condition—affected Kenneth very deeply. A sensitive child, he turned to his imagination to help him survive his grief, creating richly imagined worlds into which to retreat. He was very isolated.

He loved books. His dream was to attend Oxford University, study literature, and become a writer. But his uncle controlled the family fortune, and insisted that he follow the family tradition of law and finance. Although Kenneth did just that, becoming a leading figure in the Bank of England, he proved that no matter what your family forces you to study, no matter where a controlling uncle might steer you to work, a true writer can’t be kept down: “on the side” Kenneth wrote essays and short stories for children. He eventually retired from the bank in 1907, after being shot during a robbery.

When he was forty, Kenneth Grahame married Elspeth Thomson, a wealthy barrister’s daughter. Some biographies say that they had the equivalent of an “arranged marriage.” Possibly their union was based more on class and status than love. I don’t know. But it seems not to have been happy.

Now, here is where this sad beginning turns into a love story: Kenneth and Elspeth had a son. Alastair. He was born prematurely, nearly blind. Kenneth adored his son, nicknamed “Mouse,” and told him bedtime stories based on his own childhood of wandering the riverbanks near his grandmother’s home. He populated his tales with animals who seemed almost human. Mole is hardworking, earnest, eager; Ratty—except for one brief encounter with the Sea Rat in the Wayfarers All chapter, is content with his life at the river’s edge; the Badger is secretive, haughty, slightly aggressive; and Toad, that bacchanalian amphibian—wild, exuberant, acquisitive, and tending toward the arrogant.

When Kenneth had to be away from home, he would write tender letters to Alastair, continuing the riverbank stories on paper. He evokes such a blessed world, one of nature, companionship, and being in the present moment [p. 48]: “Late in the evening, tired and happy and miles form home, they drew up on a remote common far from habitations, turned the horse loose to graze, and ate their simple supper sitting on the grass by the side of the cart. Toad talked big about all he was going to do in the days to come, while stars grew fuller and larger all around them, and a yellow moon, appearing suddenly and silently from nowhere in particular, came to keep them company and listen to their talk.”

Toad’s “talking big” leads him into trouble. He buys a shiny new motor-car in his favorite color—bright red, of course. His father has already warned him against such excess, he’s squandering his family money. Toad has wonderful friends, a grand house, and beautiful surroundings, but he is dissatisfied, always chasing happiness through possessions. His friends realize that he is missing the important things in life, and they try to teach him to be sensible. Rat vows [p. 104], “We’ll rescue the poor unhappy animal! We’ll convert him! He’ll be the most converted Toad that ever was before we’ve done with him!”

There is something poignant and hopeless about their well-meaning interference. Throwing all their efforts into convincing Toad to see the light, to change his ways, to appreciate the life he has—even to the point of holding him down so he can’t drive his fast car—is a lot like the family of an alcoholic hiding bottles to keep him from drinking, begging him to stop his destructive behavior, and it echoes back to the pain of Kenneth Grahame’s early life.

Once the friends seem to have convinced Toad to curb his addiction, he seems to comply. But then comes the trigger [p. 113]: “[Toad] was about half-way through his meal when an only too-familiar sound, approaching down the street, made him start and fall a-trembling all over. The poop-poop drew nearer, the car could be heard to turn into the inn-yard and come to a stop, and Toad had to hold on to the leg of the table to conceal his over-mastering emotion.” Such insight, coming from a man who lost his father and family happiness to alcoholism, is affecting indeed.

In Dulce Domum, Latin for “Home Sweet Home,” Mole returns with Ratty to Mole End, the home he left at the novel’s start. The chapter takes place in December, at Christmastime, and it’s filled with the vivid, visceral shock of returning home after a long absence. Ratty, intent on their journey, at first wants to hurry past. Mole follows, but suddenly he is overtaken by homesickness. It wells up, and he beseeches his friend [p. 90]:

“Poor Mole found it difficult to get any words out between the upheavals of his chest that followed one upon each other so quickly and held back speech and choked it as it came. ‘I know it’s a—shabby, dingy little place,’ he sobbed forth at last, brokenly: ‘not like—your cosy quarters—or Toad’s beautiful hall—or Badger’s great house—but it was my own little home—and I was fond of it—and I went away and forgot all about it—and then I smelt it suddenly—on the road, when I called and you wouldn’t listen, Rat—and everything came back to me with a rush—and I wanted it!—O dear, O dear!—and when you wouldn’t turn back, Ratty—only one look—it was close by—but you wouldn’t turn back, Ratty, you wouldn’t turn back! O dear, O dear!”

Gentle Mole has been so easy-going, yet here he speaks his mind and bares his soul so honestly, revealing such anguish, it tugs the heart of both Rat and the reader. Rat responds instantly, with understanding and sympathy, and they enter Mole End. The mixture of joy and grief is powerful as Mole walks through his long-neglected, beloved home. The pleasure he feels, seeing and touching all his old things, mingles with old memories, regrets, and shame over his humble abode. The episode reveals the depth of Mole’s emotional life, but Rat’s response is equally telling: he comforts his friend, setting out to forage through the cupboards for sardines, biscuits, and a sausage encased in silver paper.

They begin to prepare a Yule feast, and Ratty draws him out, calling Mole End [p. 95] “the jolliest little place I ever was in.” Putting his friend first, the Rat sacrifices his own comfort, getting Mole to tell him stories about his home: “Rat, who was desperately hungry but strove to conceal it, nodding seriously, examining with a puckered brow, and saying ‘wonderful,’ and ‘most remarkable,’ at intervals, when the chance for an observation were given him.” Mole enters into the spirit, cheering up, and when his neighbors the field mice come around for their customary carol sing, they are invited to join the party. Together, in the glow of cozy lantern light, they all sing a carol [p. 97]:

Villagers all, this frosty tide, Let your doors swing open wide, Though wind may follow and snow beside Yet draw us in by your fire to bide; Joy shall be yours in the morning!

Grahame invests his characters with such wonderful, human qualities; he understands so much about friendship, about appreciating the specifics of each other, the idiosyncrasies that make us tick. In detailing the relationships between Mole and his friends, Grahame communicates deep truths about the human heart. They care about each other in encouraging and supportive ways. In The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, a young otter goes missing, and the animals rally round the family.

Rat says:[p.116] “Mole, I’m afraid they’re in trouble. Little Portly is missing again; and you know what a lot his father thinks of him, though he never says much about it.” Remembering that Grahame wrote these stories for his young son, it’s tender to think of the message he was trying to get across, especially when the animals pull out all the stops, searching for the lost child.

Again and again, Grahame fills this section with beautiful, elegiac nature writing, emotional because Mole and Ratty are not sure whether the child will be found dead or alive. [p120]: “Fastening their boat to a willow, the friends landed in this silent, silver kingdom, and patiently explored the hedges, the hollow trees, the runnels and their little culverts, the ditches and dry water-ways. Embarking again and crossing over, they worked their way up the stream in this manner, while the moon, serene and detached in a cloudless sky, did what she could, though so far off, to help them in their quest; till her hour came and she sank earthwards reluctantly, and left them, and mystery once more held field and river.”

Grahame writes of nature as mystical and benevolent, and without using the name of God, refers to “Him,” and to the river as a holy place. Mole feels a great awe, asks if Rat feels afraid, to which Rat replies [p. 124]: “‘Afraid?’ murmured the Rat, his eyes shining with unutterable love. ‘Afraid! Of Him? O, never, never! And yet—and yet—O, Mole, I am afraid!”

The religious tone of The Piper at the Gates of Dawn is in many ways different from the rest of the novel. It speaks of faith and helpless longing—quenched only by the beauty of nature and the closeness of the divine. Rat seems to grasp this instinctively, trying to pass it on to Mole as they continue their search for the child [p. 121]:

‘’O Mole! The beauty of it! The merry bubble and joy, the thin, clear, happy call of the distant piping! Such music I never dreamed of, and the call in it is stronger even than the music is sweet! Row on, Mole, row! For the music and the call must be for us.’ The Mole, greatly wondering, obeyed. ‘I hear nothing myself,’ he said, ‘but the wind playing in the reeds and rushes and osiers.’”

And that is the point…the wind in the reeds. Listening to that gentle sound, following it down the river. It’s a reminder to search in quiet places, to stay alert for the smallest stirrings. Drawn to an island covered with orchard trees—crabapple, wild cherry, and sloe, fringed with willow, silver birch, and alder—there is a sense of benevolence. When they find the child safely sleeping on that small island, there is joy and gratitude, that faith has been rewarded.

The last chapters spin into action. The characters brave the Wild Wood, ominous and filled with danger. Toad steals a motorcar; trying to escape being caught, he disguises himself as a washerwoman. In one hilarious and psychologically telling passage, he can’t help himself from bragging about the charms of Toad Hall—even while trying to hide his own identity. Weasels and stoats, Wild Wooders, invade Toad Hall, and the River Bankers drive them out.

More fast-moving and chaotic than earlier episodes, the later chapters are also less philosophical and beautiful. The exception is Wayfarers All, in which Rat is confronted with his own dreams and restlessness, his own limitations. He meets the Sea Rat, full of stories about storm-driven voyages to Lisbon, Oporto, and Bordeaux. The chapter is a dreamscape of seaports, fights, deep-sea fishing, harbor life. Rat’s longing is powerful, and he is haunted by seas never sailed. Feelings of failure and regret surge up in him; he weeps, falls into a depression.

Once again, friendship saves the day. Mole listens patiently, letting Rat pour out his feelings about the call of the sea and adventure. With the knowledge of a true friend, Mole hands Rat a pencil and a few sheets of paper [p. 163]:

“‘It’s quite a long time since you did any poetry,’ [Mole] remarked. ‘You might have a try at it this evening, instead of—well, brooding over things so much. I’ve an idea that you’ll feel a lot better when you’ve got something down—if it’s only just the rhymes.’ “The Rat pushed the paper away from him wearily, but the discreet Mole took occasion to leave the room and when he peeped in again some time later, the Rat was absorbed and deaf to the world; alternately scribbling and sucking the top of his pencil. It is true that he sucked a good more than he scribbled; but it was a joy to the Mole to know that the cure had at least begun.”

Redemption and healing through writing; clearly Kenneth Grahame knew something of this, given his early life. Telling stories about Mole to his beloved, vision-impaired son, nicknamed “Mouse,” may have seemed like simple entertainment. But The Wind in the Willows is so woven through with threads from Kenneth’s own experience, it seems that he may have taken some of Mole’s writing cure himself.

Alastair Grahame died in 1920, two days before his twentieth birthday. An undergraduate at Oxford, his father’s alma mater, he was killed by a train, a suspected suicide.

After his beloved son’s death, Kenneth Grahame stopped writing his riverbank stories. In 1924, he wrote, “Any child will agree with the American poet Walt Whitman when he says: ‘To me every hour of the day and night is an unspeakably perfect miracle.’ In my tales about children, I have tried to show that their simple acceptance of the mood of wonderment, their readiness to welcome a perfect miracle at any hour of the day or night, is a thing more precious than any of the labored acquisitions of adult mankind.”

“As for animals,” he went on,” I wrote about the most familiar in ‘The Wind in the Willows’ because I felt a duty to them as a friend. Every animal, by instinct, lives according to his nature. Thereby he lives wisely, and betters the tradition of mankind. No animal is ever tempted to deny his nature. No animal knows how to tell a lie. Every animal is honest. Every animal is true—and is, therefore, according to his nature, both beautiful and good.”

Kenneth Grahame died in Pangbourne, Berkshire, on July 6, 1932. Since then, “The Wind in the Willows” has become a classic, beloved by children and adults alike. Its truths are so deep and true, its language so beautiful. Whether you’re seeking adventure or serenity, and you’ll find both within these pages, may you enjoy your time on the riverbank.