The Wind in the Willows

The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame


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.

Now We Were Very Young & Now We Are Six



When We Were Very Young and Now We Are Six by A.A. Milne

1924, 1926

Illustrated by Ernest H. Shepard


James James

Morrison Morrison

Weatherby George Dupree

Took great

Care of his Mother,

Though he was only three.

James James

Said to his Mother,

“Mother,” he said, said he:

“You must never go down to the end of the town,

if you don’t go down with me.”


The mother, alas, ignores her son’s injunction and vanishes, irretrievably: “LAST SEEN/WANDERING VAGUELY/QUITE OF HER OWN ACCORD”. In Ernest Shepard’s accompanying illustration, the young James is madly pedaling his tricycle in desperate pursuit of his flighty mother as she disappears around a corner. download-3Disobedience is one of A.A. Milne’s most memorizable poems, and one of his best. He portrays the wonderful independence of a child’s mind and the natural audacity – James James goes immediately to the royals for help, in this case King John. Children reading the poem delight in the conceit – for children who are rarely in charge, it is a welcome relief to enter a world in which the mother is leashed to the tricycle rather than vice versa, and the mother is guilty of disobedience and suffers the consequences. It is a sign of Milne’s respect for children that there is no happy resolution – the mother is gone, for good. James James is not particularly sad about his loss, but simply disappointed that his mother failed to listen to him.DdFwIR9X0AENVXB

Milne published his two volumes of poetry when his only child, Christopher Robin, was four and six. The world portrayed was that of his son, one of Nurses and Nannies, beetles and bears and the great outdoors, and the occasional royalty. These latter were whimsical and flawed. Take the ruler in The King’s Breakfast, for instance, who is thwarted in his desire for some butter for his bread. The Queen, the Dairymaid, and the cow all try to persuade him that marmalade would be preferable. The King takes to his bed, whimpering with dismay, until he finally gets his desire fulfilled. Or Bad Sir Brian Botany, an old obstreperous knight who uses his battle axe to blip the villagers on their heads – until they rise up and dunk him in the duck pond, and more.   It is a world in which children can be wonderfully entertained by not much, as when a child watches spellbound as two raindrops (James and John) race, with many starts and stops, down a window-pane.