Melancholy and mania: The Wind in the Willows

In 1903, author and banker Kenneth Grahame was shot at by a man the London papers would politely term a “Socialist Lunatic.” The shooter was swiftly wrestled to the ground and taken to an insane asylum, but a shaken Grahame understandably began to retreat from banking. Three years later, he moved his family a little further out of London, to Berkshire, and a few years after that, retired from banking entirely in the same year that saw the publication of his masterpiece, The Wind in the Willows (1908). (Link to the annotated edition.)

It would be a mistake to call the book an instant hit. Critics, who rarely embraced children’s literature at any time, were at a loss to know what to do with a book about talking animals in the English countryside, one which, worse, refused to maintain any specific tone, veering from slapstick humor and rousing adventure to slow contemplative passages, where animals went from merrily celebrating Christmas with cheerful carols to kneeling in awe before the god Pan. Nor did it exactly follow a traditional narrative format. Certainly, parts of the book—those telling the riotous adventures of the conceited Toad—somewhat resemble a novel, but these parts are continually undercut by short stories about the Water Rat and the Mole, making the book a sometimes uneasy blend of novel and short story collection. (Some editions omit the short stories entirely, focusing only on Toad’s adventures; this means missing Grahame’s most lyrical and moving yet slow passages.)

But enough children (and grownups) responded to Toad’s adventures that the book became an established children’s classic. And as a child, I found myself agreeing with both these children and the book’s critics, loving, liking, and hating the book in equal measure. As an adult, I’m having similar reactions – if loving, liking, and hating slightly different parts.

Admitedly, I think perhaps I was spoiled for this book when a child by two factors: one, a character in one of my favorite books, Dancing Shoes, described it as a favorite, which greatly raised my expectations, and two, the Disney film, where a triumphant Toad takes off for still more adventures on a little plane, in stark contrast to his depressed and reformed nature at the end of the book. As an adult, I can appreciate that Toad enjoys the reformed act and the attention it brings him; as a kid, I wanted him on that plane. (Yes, I was entirely missing the point.)

But then and now, I could love the characters: Mole, Rat, Toad, the formidable Mr. Badger, and a host of others: Otter and various rabbits, squirrels, mice and hedgehogs. (Also, two horses, but unlike the wild animals the horses never speak. As a reader of Black Beauty this disappointed me.) Except for the horses, the animals live in a shadowy half world between human and animal: portrayed as typical English gentlemen eating, for the most part, very human food frequently completely inappropriate for their species, they are still afflicted (and afflicted is the exact word here) with animal instincts and fears: the need to hibernate, or possibly hibernate, during the winter; the refusal to speak too much about the future; the fear of the ever present traps; the way that the underground animals—Mole and Mr. Badger—feel so much more alert and safe in tunnels, which oppress the Rat, making him feel sleepy.

Exactly what the relationship these mostly human animals have with the real animals often remains unclear. They live in remarkably human like residences (even the underground ones) and utilize such items as tins of sardines and human money, and seem to be highly literate. Still, the only animal who interacts extensively with humans is the conceited Toad, who is often mistaken for an elderly woman—and despised once his nature is found out. At the same time, he is treated, for all legal purposes, as a human, and has no trouble pretending to be one. The other animals, less bold, socialize only with each other, and criticize Toad—rightly—for making a fool of himself with human gadgets and toys. Perhaps explaining this too much would just spoil the magic.

Toad, by the way, is a brilliant creation, a character so self-delusional that he can openly brag about the exploits that caused him to be arrested, left in jail, forced to wander around hungrily, and get tossed off a boat by a woman. He occasionally bursts into songs about this, delighted in his own cleverness and supposed good looks. (Most illustrated editions do a delightful job of showing the contrast with his actual, well, toadiness.) Even Ratty’s acid observation that Toad’s adventures are hardly something to brag about only punctures that ego for a moment.

Which is why the ending of the book sits so uneasily with me: a reformed Toad is just not believable, since even in Toad’s worst moments, he rarely grasps that he has any need to reform. It smacks of an editor demanding not merely a happy ending, but—essential for a children’s book—some indication that Toad has learned a moral lesson. I can believe that of the other characters in the book, who do, but not Toad, who seems to be incapable of learning anything other than how to drive the latest intriguing machine.

I can, however, believe in Toad’s frequent depressions (both feigned and real.) But it was not until this read that I realized just how much those dark feelings pervade this book: Mole, Toad, Otter and even the practical Rat experience multiple episodes of deep depression, crying and losing interest in life. Toad’s swings between megalomania and depression appear to be entirely dependent upon whether or not he’s allowed to do cool things and sing. (We can all sympathize.) But in the other cases, these episodes of crying or apathy or both are explained as part of the natural order of things – the instinct for home, or for migration, or hibernation.

But although most of these moments of despair are tied to animal instincts, I think a truer source may be Grahame’s own awareness of the instability of life, the way life can never quite be controlled. Grahame, after all, had entered a supposedly safe, stable career, only to find that stability shattered with a gun, and he was never to find the tranquility he kept seeking.

It adds to a certain feeling of melancholy that hangs over this book, despite the often funny dialogue. The animals in some ways lead an idyllic existence, with little to do but muck about in boats on the river, but always, dangers and death and fear lurk nearby. Their world is changing from slow boats and barges to terrifying and loud motorcars and trains. (In a way, Toad’s wildly destructive path through these modern inventions is almost a protest.)

That melancholy is perhaps best expressed in the chapter where Mole and Rat, for a moment, encounter Pan—and then are forced to forget them, not allowed to remember the almost inexpressible joy and awe and beauty they encounter. Someday, I may yet encounter a “characters are forced to forget a magical moment” that I can enjoy; this isn’t one of them. As a child, I found this entire passage incomprehensible; as an adult, I find it infuriating.

I also couldn’t help noticing a faint—very faint—note of misogyny on this reread. The book has one sympathetic female character with a speaking role, the gaoler’s daughter, who helps Toad escape from prison, and a second, well drawn, but less sympathetic female character who rapidly sums Toad up and later throws him from her barge. The Water Rat’s reaction to this—”By a woman, too!” adds a note of disdain, and although the barge-owner is clever enough to see through some of Toad’s lies, she cannot see through all of them, and her reaction is not meant to garner a sympathetic response from readers. Other than these two human women, the speaking parts are all male: even the little group of caroling field mice are all boys. Which would not be much of a problem—after all, the Winnie-the-Pooh contingent is also quite masculine, with the semi-exception of the motherly Kanga—except for that slight undertone of resentment and anger at the two human women. (By this time, Grahame’s marriage was in trouble, although the couple remained devoted to their only son, Alistair, who was the first to hear the stories gathered in The Wind in the Willows. Alistair, suffering from various health problems, would commit suicide at 20.) And I can’t help but notice that the only animal mistaken for a human is believed to be a hideous and helpless older woman. It’s funny, yes, but on this reading, I found it cruel.

But if I cannot exactly enjoy the Pan chapter, or believe the last few pages, I can still recommend this book for a short, leisurely winter’s read. It reads better than I remembered, and indeed, may be yet another one of those children’s books more appreciated by grownups than children, although I suspect most kids will still enjoy Toad’s adventures and laugh at his silly songs.

Interesting and probably meaningless sidenote: Winnie-the-Pooh creator A.A. Milne, a huge fan of the work, adapted a portion of it for the stage play Toad of Toad Hall, which in turn helped lead to and inspire the Disney film The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad, which in turn led to the creation of a Disney ride, Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, which in turn in Walt Disney World was transformed in recent years to The Many Adventures of Winnie-the-Pooh, which in turn leads to a shop. (If you pay attention you can still see the characters from Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride in the Winnie-the-Pooh ride.)

Mari Ness would petition Disney to restore Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, but (cough) she must admit that she was wearing Eeyore slippers while writing this review. Don’t judge her. Well, for the slippers, at least.


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