Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind and the Willows, though written for children, is a subtle and sophisticated work. The animals’ conflict between the urge to escape from their apparently happy life on the river and in the manor house and their desire to return home reveals the conflict between comfort and danger. It also reflects their anxiety and fear of change as the seemingly stable Edwardian society approached the universal cataclysm of the Great War. Grahame also satirizes in Mr. Toad’s car craze the dissolute nouveau- riche friends of the pleasure-loving King Edward VII. The other animals represent the pedantic schoolmasters and rebellious boys in prep schools which, despite their limitations, offer male comradeship and the lack of emotional conflict with women. Most important, the circular structure of the book, which ends when the animals defeat the revolutionary weasels and restore the old established order, expresses the author’s politically con- servative views.
In ‘The Voyage’ Charles Baudelaire wrote of the urge to travel: ‘For chil- dren crazed with maps and prints and stamps – / The universe can sate their appetite.’ D. H. Lawrence, though content in Sicily, echoed Baudelaire and exclaimed in the opening sentence of Sea and Sardinia: ‘Comes over one an absolute necessity to move.’ The tradition of escape to the open road is strong in English literature from Daniel Defoe’s Tour Through the Whole Island of Great Britain (1724-26) through George Borrow’s romp with the gypsies in Lavengro (1851) to W. H. Davies’s The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp (1908). In ‘The Vagabond’ (Songs of Travel, 1896) the eternally restless wanderer Robert Louis Stevenson simply asked: ‘Give the face of earth around / And the road before me. . . . / All I seek, the heaven above / And the road below me.’ In Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, published the same year as Davies’s book, Toad announces the major themes of the novel. He yearns for the thrill of ‘the open road, the dusty highway, the heath, the common, the hedgerows, the rolling downs! … Here today, up and off to somewhere else to-morrow! Travel, change, interest, excitement! The whole world before you, and a horizon that’s al- ways changing!’
The eponymous hero of Thomas Mann’s ‘Tonio Kröger’ contrasts his re- spectable bourgeois life with that of eccentric wayfarers and insists, ‘After all, we are not gypsies living in a green wagon.’ In a popular poem the Georgian poet Ralph Hodgson wrote: ‘Time, you old gypsy man, / Will you not stay, / Put up your caravan / Just for one day?’ The rebellious painter Augustus John celebrated his bohemian life in a gypsy caravan teeming with multiple mistresses and irregular offspring. Following this tradition, Toad’s first mode of open-road transport is a little rolling house, ‘“a gypsy caravan, shining with newness, painted a canary-yellow picked out with green, and red wheels. . . . ‘There’s real life for you, embodied in that little cart.’ ”
In real life more ambitious wanderers – Herman Melville, Paul Gauguin and Stevenson – escaped to more distant waters and exotic locales. The worldly Wayfarer almost succeeds in luring the Water Rat away from the companionable river with a Keatsian apotheosis: ‘What seas lay beyond, green, leaping, and crested! What sun-bathed coasts. . . . What quiet har- bours, thronged with gallant shipping bound for purple islands of wine and spice, islands set low in languorous waters!’
The Wind in the Willows, like Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan, began as a story told to a child. Eminently suited to escape to the open road, the characters are bachelors, have no children or families (which binds them to each other) and live in an entirely male world. The young hedgehogs and squeaky-voiced field mice are children, but have no visible parents. Only Otter has an errant young son Portly (not fat, but heading for port). The Pan chapter, like an Intermezzo in an opera, provides an idyllic contrast to Toad’s manic adventures. The gentle Pan plays birdsong pipes and com- forts the lost Portly who nestles beneath his shaggy limbs and between his protective hooves. This benign Pan is very different from the frightening “panic” during the animals’ final fight with the weasels, and from E. M. Forster’s ‘The Story of a Panic’ (1904) and the ‘Panic and emptiness’ in Howards End (1910).
The animals are independently wealthy and don’t have to work. Toad has a shadowy housekeeper and presumably other servants to maintain his considerable establishment; the others look after themselves, though Rat complains about spring cleaning. Toad, who once asked for a lawyer to see to his will, would probably leave his inherited money to his friends so they could refurbish their modest dwellings and upgrade their riverine transport. Mole, Rat and Toad are careless, reckless, entirely their own masters and at liberty to do exactly as they wish. Rat insists that fellows should ‘be allowed to do what they like when they like and as they like.’ For Toad, the ‘first and best thing of all [is] that he was free!’
Though not nearly as appealing as rabbits, deer or monkeys, Grahame’s animals do not have their traditionally negative qualities. Mole is not half- blind, Rat is not plague-infested, Badger is not fierce and aggressive, Toad is not croaking and slimy. The characters walk on their hind legs and take on the qualities of human beings, but retain their animal traits. Toad has paws, not webbed feet, and the others have fur. They have human tastes, habits, reason and morals, including respect for traditional hierarchy and fear of the police, as well as human dress, speech, housing, food and mon- ey. They read newspapers and books, keep pet birds, smoke pipes and row boats. Their clothes are suitable for humans, with proper holes for their tails, and expose their real faces above the collars. Their clothes conceal the animals’ appearance at the same time as they reveal it.
Toad, Rat and Otter are amphibian; Badger, Mole and the weasels are terrestrial. The first two live underground; weasel and stoat are never afloat. Toad (and the others) must be as tall as people to be able to drive a car and ride a horse. Though he looks like a Toad, he is treated like a criminal when he gets into trouble. He’s absurdly sentenced to twenty years for car theft, cast into irons and chained to the wall of the dungeon. If he weren’t so humanly tall on his hind legs, he could easily slide through the bars and hop it.
None of the people in the train station finds it strange to see Toad dressed in women’s clothes and attempting to purchase a ticket without sufficient funds. The animals are anxious about food and absolutely hate to miss their regular carnivorous grub. All these jolly good chaps and chums want to be tidy, snug, cozy, comfy and secure.
The four main characters are brilliantly delineated. The blunt, unsocial Badger is the largest, strongest, oldest and wisest. Dogmatic, hectoring and censorious, he plays a disapproving Samuel Johnson to Toad’s dissipated James Boswell. Like Mr. Pickwick, Mr. Toad – with his car crashes, escape from prison, train chase, hopeless laundering and abundant tears – is one of the great comic characters in English literature. The flamboyant Toad is puffed up with foolish pride but easily deflated. He’s also a melodramatic actor and persuasive pleader for sympathy. The resourceful Rat is reflective and yearning to wander. The Mole is shy and dreamy. These characters resemble the inhabitants of a prep school. Badger is the severe but pater- nal Headmaster, Toad the incorrigible naughty boy, Rat the romantic and martial leader, Mole the mild and dutiful follower, and weasels the rough bullies. Badger, who knew Toad’s father, explains – though he has no de- scendants – that he’s maintained his labyrinthine subterranean passages for future generations. His specialized knowledge of this underground world enables him to secretly enter Toad Hall and drive out the intrusive weasels. Badger’s more humane punishment is to cudgel rather than shoot them.
A strict class system prevails. Badger and Toad are awarded the honorific ‘Mr.’ The latter is, like Ratty and Moley, called Toady, but no one dares to use the familiar Badgey. Toad has the most money, Badger the most respect. Rat, Mole and Otter stand a notch below them. The lowly hedgehogs dutifully tug their forelocks when tipped by Badger and the carol-singing mice are also suitably deferential. The militant and anarchic weasels are below the others but a cut above the stoats, who must stand guard out in the cold while their masters feast at the Banquet Hall.
Grahame’s amusing mixture of high and low style has the same charm and artistry as his portrayal of the characters. As schoolboy slang clashes with pompous polysyllables, the style both dramatizes the idiosyncratic characters and signals the suddenly changing mood and tone. The chameleon style includes:
Defiant refusal: ‘Shan’t!’
Sly euphemism: ‘Greedy beggars!’
Emphatic repetition: ‘He wouldn’t show his face here . . . Toad wouldn’t.’
Adverbial additions: ‘replied cheerfully,’ ‘cried indignantly,’ ‘replied soothingly.’
Familiar compliments: ‘I like your clothes awfully, old chap.’
Friendly abuse: ‘Stop it, you silly ass! … You dull-witted animal.’
Colloquial commands: ‘Stir your stumps, Toad, and look lively!’
Ungrammatical assertions: ‘Nor don’t the ducks neither!’
Working-class speech: ‘Uses up a power of shirts, it does, till my missus is fair tired of washing ’em.’
Old-fashioned expressions: ‘I’ve been so frightened, you can’t think!’ ‘Why, you must be perished.’
Pathetic supplication: ‘O, Badger … let us in, please … We’ve lost our way in the snow.’
Studious formality: ‘Gave further sitting accommodation for the socially disposed.’
Lofty rhetoric: ‘Toad’s ancestral home, won back by matchless valour, con- summate strategy, and a proper handling of sticks.’
Purple prose: ‘[The heat] rolled away at the dispersing touch of the cool fingers of the short midsummer night.’
One of the great ironies of the book is that both the river and Toad Hall are portrayed as paradisal places, yet the animals – except for Badger, their steady anchor – have a powerful urge to escape. Rat enthusiastically tells Mole that what the river ‘hasn’t got is not worth having, and what it doesn’t know is not worth knowing …. It’s always got its fun and its excitements.’ Guy de Maupassant’s memoir Afloat (1888) caught the dreamy and reflec- tive mood when gliding on the river: ‘I saw water, sun, clouds and reefs – and I simply thought, as one thinks when the flow rocks you, numbs you and leads you about.’ The water continued to beckon and resonate in the late 1930s. In Homage to Catalonia George Orwell – remembering his Edwardian childhood and alluding to the trees in Grahame’s title – longed for ‘the slow moving streams bordered by willows.’ In Coming Up For Air his hero dreams of ‘the green pools under the willows.’
The boats – moored, calmly drifting or slowly propelled – suggest tranquility, leisure time and escape from the terrestrial world. They float, with gentle strokes of the oars that pull with the current, close to the willow- lined banks and down the rippling streams. The river extends the horizon, reflecting the light of the sky and giving the animals freedom to renew themselves. But there is always the threat of industrial encroachment from steamships, motor cars, roaring trains and threshing machines that chop up the small beasts of the field.
Toad’s well-appointed mansion, another idyllic place, is ‘a handsome, dignified old house of mellowed red brick, with well-kept lawns reaching down to the water’s edge.’ Nevertheless, Toad escapes, first from the confines of his bedroom, then from his prison. Like Lucy Lockit who helps Captain Macheath escape from prison in John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera (1728), the jailer’s good-hearted daughter helps Toad escape by arranging a change of the clothes with the official washerwoman.
The theme of escape is autobiographical. It reflects Grahame’s urge to flee from his tedious job in the Bank of England, from his miserable and oppressive marriage, and from his sick, half-blind and backward child – whom he sometimes left behind on holidays. His young son killed himself in 1920. Using a rough-weather metaphor in a revealing passage, he explains the Wayfarer’s irresistible impetus to travel: ‘Family troubles, as usual, began it. The domestic storm-cone was hoisted, and I shipped myself on board a small trading vessel.’
Mole, Rat and Toad, terribly keen on the poetry of motion, respond to the call of the world and the craving for change. Mole and Rat abandon their secure and settled life in burrow and on river for the excitement of life on land. The cold-blooded Toad is more hot-tempered than the warm-blooded mammals. He is always eager to embrace the latest fad, take part in surprising adventures and suffer a series of disasters. The narrative immediately perks up whenever he appears.
In the course of the book Toad travels by river boat, gipsy caravan, stolen car, slow barge, stolen horse and steam train (when, as in the early silent film The Great Train Robbery, 1903, he’s pursued by another train) and he plans to buy a fast motorboat. When a luxurious car frightens Toad’s sturdy horse, propelling his caravan into a deep ditch and wrecking it, Toad, far from frightened, decides he must have a car of his own. He may also be wanting, a few years after the Wright brothers’ first flight in 1903, an even more dangerous aeroplane.
Toad’s obsession with cars – like that of Edith Wharton, Henry James and Joseph Conrad in the Edwardian period – amounts to auto-eroticism. The sculptor Jo Davidson described driving with Conrad, a moving menace on the quiet Kentish roads, when lessons and licenses were not required. The car “was not acting well. Conrad at the wheel [was] trying to be po- lite in conversation over his shoulder while jabbing levers of the machine that went this way and that and seemed more inclined to go astern than forward.” Toad presents a similar threat to unwary motorists. As Rat tells Mole, ‘Another smash-up only last week, and a bad one. You see, he will insist on driving himself, and he’s hopelessly incapable …. You know that
coach-house of his? Well, it’s piled up – literally piled up to the roof – with fragments of motor-cars …. He’s been in hospital three times.’
When confined to quarters, the manic Toad also indulges in vicarious and compensatory travel. In a blurb written for his publisher, Grahame insisted that his book was ‘clean of the clash of sex.’ This was either disingenuous or blind to his own secret urges. Reversing Freud’s classic statement, Toad could well say, ‘Where Ego was, there Id shall be.’ In an unmistakable portrayal of masturbation and orgasm, Toad’s “violent paroxysms” take place secretly in his bedroom as he crouches on a chair as if mounting a woman in the sexual act, and makes ‘uncouth and ghastly noises’ till he finally reaches a climax and is completely satisfied. The contemporary review in the London Times, which stated, ‘as a contribution to natural his- tory this work is negligible,’ missed the point as completely as the review of Lady Chatterley’s Lover in Field and Stream: ‘this fictional account of the day-to-day life of an English gamekeeper is still of considerable interest to outdoor-minded readers.’
The recurrent episodes and circular structure of the book suggest that Toad is doomed to repeat his mishaps. He cannot break out of his disastrous cy- cle of pride and punishment until he returns to his old life in the established order. He sobs when Badger chastises him for the seven crashed cars, sobs when he discovers that he’s lost his possessions and has no money for the train ticket, and sobs again when Badger gives him another wigging for consistently bad behaviour. (Mole and Rat also shed tears in moments of crisis.) Toad is thrown down and restrained when he buys yet another new car, Rat is also forcibly subdued when he tries to escape with the seductive Wayfarer. A caravan is wrecked in a ditch and a car is wrecked in a pond. Toad steals a car and steals a horse. He’s thrown out of a barge and thrown out of a car. He fails to do the laundry of the barge woman and of the train driver. He’s tossed into the water by the barge woman, sunk in the water when the stoats stone his boat and falls into the water on the way to fight the weasels.
Despite Grahame’s assertion at the end of the book that ‘he was indeed an altered Toad!,’ he will not be emasculated and turned into a well-behaved dullard. He cannot easily cure his recurrent mania or change his deep- rooted character, and remains the same as always. His sudden contrition is merely another instance of cunning deceit. The next time Toad feels the absolute necessity to move, he’ll speed away to another adventure.
After all the tumultuous quests for freedom and desires to escape in The Wind in the Willows, the essentially conservative animals restore the old so- cial hierarchy. Badger echoes the pentameter of Johnson’s ‘Vanity of Human Wishes’ – ‘They mount, they shine, evaporate, and fall’ – by defining the transient nature of human beings: ‘they stay … they flourish, they build and they go.’ Opposing Toad’s quest for the open road at the beginning of the book, Badger sagely asserts, ‘Up and out of doors is good enough to roam about … but underground to come back to at last – that’s my idea of home!’