I wasn’t going to review this book. It’s a fantasy, for one thing, and it’s hardly an obscure work. Quite the opposite. However, someone I know knew I had recently read the book and asked I post about it.
Essay: The Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Grahame, 1908.
Grahame’s novel is about many things, an England whose passing was noted in a story of talking animals, and a story of romance and beauty.
For me, though, it was a novel of friendship, friendship of the best kind.
Toad, the novel’s most famous character, is a flighty creature given to sudden fads pursued enthusiastically, disastrously, and expensively. But, as Rat says of Toad at the beginning of the story,
So simple, so good-natured, and so affectionate. Perhaps he’s not very clever—we can’t all be geniuses; and it may be that he is both boastful and conceited. But he has got some great qualities, has Toady.
Toad is, I suppose, a symbol of a foolish, moderately wealthy gentry who can indulge their modern enthusiasms. But, while his vanity and recklessness and impulsiveness give us plenty of laughs, they land Toad in jail from which he escapes in a humiliating way. Toad returns to his ancestral home to find it occupied by the Weasels.
His good friends help retake it.
They are Rat, generous, hospitable and friendly, and Mole, the homebody who hears the call of romance and travel. It is first view of a river where he makes friends with Rat. Badger is a creature of gruff appearance but generous, stalwart and loyal and committed to looking after Toad as he promised Toad’s late father he would.
And, after constantly warning Toad about the inevitable results of his foolishness and helping him out of a mess he created, they finally put their foot down and force Toad to acknowledge some truths about himself and turn over a new leaf. Friends who will rein us in at times are a blessing.
‘Now, look here, Toad,’ said the Rat. ‘It’s about this Banquet, and very sorry I am to have to speak to you like this. But we want you to understand clearly, once and for all, that there are going to be no speeches and no songs. Try and grasp the fact that on this occasion we’re not arguing with you; we’re just telling you.’
Toad saw that he was trapped. They understood him, they saw through him, they had got ahead of him. His pleasant dream was shattered.
‘Mayn’t I sing them just one little song?’ he pleaded piteously.
“No, not one little song,” replied the Rat firmly, though his heart bled as he noticed the trembling lip of the poor disappointed Toad. ‘It’s no good, Toady; you know well that your songs are all conceit and boasting and vanity; and your speeches are all self-praise and—and—well, and gross exaggeration and—and—’
‘And gas,’ put in the Badger, in his common way.
‘It’s for your own good, Toady,’ went on the Rat. ‘You know you must turn over a new leaf sooner or later, and now seems a splendid time to begin; a sort of turning-point in your career.’
And these friends are bonded to their place. Toad’s motoring about shows the dangers of not appreciating your limits and home.
And when Rat hears the romantic tales of the wayfaring Water Rat, stories of Corsica and Greece, he is enticed to join him. It is Mole who talks him out of it, shows him that beauty is around them already, not in the promise of a foreign land. A friend can know us so well that they can remind us of what our nature is and where our rational happiness lies.
It is by staying at home and tending to their friends, altering Toad for the better, that our characters become respected members of the Wild Wood.