Let me start by saying that The Wind in the Willows is delightful. It is a romp in the purest, most innocent sense of the word—and better yet, it is a British romp, so you can safely imagine all the characters in tweed.
This collection of tales, chronicling the four-way friendship between a Rat, a Mole, a Toad, and a Badger, was penned during the “Golden Age” of children’s literature (the mid-19th century to the early 20th century). Up until the 1600s, specially designated children’s books did not even exist, because childhood was not considered a separate or significant period. Children were viewed as smaller, grubbier adults upon whom the Bible should be thrust at every opportunity in the name of education.
Once childhood was recognized as a distinctive period, and children as a group began to receive special treatment for the unique needs this interval represents, the body of children’s literature began to develop.
The Wind in the Willows as a written work (and, now, classic) evolved out of the bedtime stories Kenneth Grahame told his son, the oh-so-nobly-named Alistair. The early chapters establish and build upon the friendships between the featured foursome, while the later stories concentrate on the fumbles and foibles of Toad.
Toad is the star of the show. He represents the British upper class, using his unlimited wealth to chase his childish impulses, ever in denial of life’s consequences. He’s far and away the most interesting character, and arguably the most complex.
Things Toad Does:
- Steals a car
- Wrecks said car
- Goes to jail (on a 20-year sentence, no less) for stealing and wrecking the aforementioned car
- Disguises himself as a washerwoman to escape from jail
- Forgets his wallet
- Talks his way onto a train
- Steals a horse
- Attempts to sell said horse to a peddler
- Steals a car again (the same one as before)
- Wrecks said car (again)
Things Toad Is:
At the end of the book, Toad, Mole, Rat, and Badger have to seize Toad Hall back from the weasels and stoats who have taken over in Toad’s absence. Then they throw a party.
Like I said: a romp.
I’m finding unexpected similarities across the many English novels included on The List. Toad, Mole, Rat, and Badger remind me very much of the hobbits of Hobbiton. (They don’t volunteer for a mission to save Middle Earth, but if they did, they would be about as likely to succeed.) Sebastian in Brideshead Revisited shares personality traits with Toad, and England feels like the same drowsy, peaceful place in both The Wind in the Willows and Middlemarch. Also Jane Eyre. And Wuthering Heights. The English love their countryside—I can tell you that much.
It would be hard not to like the amusing, feel-good playground-for-the-brain that is The Wind in the Willows. In fact, don’t trust anyone who hates it. They probably grew up without love or TV.
Is It One of the Greatest Books of All Time?
Hailing this collection of children’s bedtime stories as one of the greatest books of all time—better, apparently, than anything Victor Hugo ever wrote—seems like a stretch. Top 500, perhaps, but not top 100, if I’m going to be the judge.
“Well, never mind what done it,” said the Mole, forgetting his grammar in his pain. “It hurts just the same, whatever done it.”
The Mole was a good listener, and Toad, with no one to check his statements or to criticize in an unfriendly spirit, rather let himself go. Indeed, much that he related belonged more properly to the category of what-might-have-happened-had-I-only-thought-of-it-in-time-instead-of-ten-minutes-afterwards.
It was, to be sure, but a small thing that I asked—merely leave to blossom and expand for yet one more evening, to let myself go and hear the tumultuous applause that always seems to me—somehow—to bring out my best qualities.
For others the asperities, the stubborn endurance, or the clash of actual conflict, that went with Nature in the rough; he must be wise, must keep to the pleasant places in which his lines were laid and which held adventure enough, in their way, to last for a lifetime.