The Wind in the Willows

The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame

1908

Illustrated by Ernest H. Shepard

The Wind in the Willows is one of the treasures of childhood.  Start with the memorable Toad: shamelessly boastful, maddeningly conceited, extravagantly self-indulgent while at the same time affectionate, well-intentioned, and good-natured.  Leaving the grand Toad Hall, he indulges a whim for the open road by procuring a gypsy caravan, painted canary yellow with green trim and red wheels.  When a brilliant motor-car whizzes past, spooking the horses and leaving the caravan up-ended in the ditch, Toad is disastrously smitten.  He sits in the road in a trance murmuring “Poop-poop!” and then proceeds along a magnificently self-destructive path fueled by his obsession with motor-cars.  After smashing seven and stealing another, he is sentenced to 20 years.  Aided by the gaoler’s daughter, he disguises himself as a washerwoman and makes his escape.  There follows an exhilarating train ride with the warders hot in pursuit, an interlude with a barge woman that culminates in Toad absconding with her horse, a horsetrading scene with a gypsy who offers “Shillin’ a leg”, and a last hair raising ride in a motor-car. 

The adventures of Toad, the reckless, the incorrigible, provide the excitement and the humor.  But The Wind in the Willows is really two interwoven tales, each of which is essential to the other.  Playing Penelope to Toad’s Odysseus are Rat, Mole, and Badger, who prefer to stay home – where they cultivate an Arcadian vision of home as haven of tranquility.  Enter their sanctuaries and find a fire in the hearth, armchairs before the blaze, a simple meal shared with friends, an inviting coziness.  The book is a hymn sung in praise of the English countryside and a carefree life of bucolic domesticity.  Kenneth Grahame, a child of the Industrial Revolution, sought in his writing to return to the pristine rural ideal that was the antithesis of a mechanized age.  The Victorian era saw the flourishing of a number of eccentric cults, one of which was a neopaganism devoted to Pan and a pastoral spirituality.  Hence the strange mysticism in the bizarre chapter, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn.  How audacious that Grahame could transition from a surreal scene in which Rat and Mole are bowing down before Pan on a holy island to the dungeon where Toad is histrionically indulging in self-pity and transitory remorse before effecting his escape.

The Wind in the Willows has been graced by illustrations by such famous artists as Arthur Rackham, Tasha Tudor, Michael Hague, and Michael Foreman, but the truest images are those by Ernest H. Shepard who did equal justice to Toad’s humorous escapades and Mole’s cozy burrow.

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