First published in 1908, The Wind in the Willows belongs to a golden age of children's books. These charming tales of the riverbank, describing the adventures of Ratty, Mole, Badger and their irrepressible but conceited friend, Toad of Toad Hall, have become classics loved as much, perhaps, by adults as by children.
The Wind in the Willows was not originally intended for publication, being a collection of tales first told to the author's son. It was slow to achieve the extraordinary popularity it enjoys today. A. A. Milne's dramatization, Toad of Toad Hall (1929), did much to enhance interest in the original text.
Like many of the best children's books. The Wind in the Willows is deeply appealing to adults too: quite simply, it is beautifully written, in a style which makes few concessions to its supposed audience, especially in those lyrical passages intended to evoke an English pastoral ideal. And that ideal lies at the heart of the novel.
Kenneth Grahame, writing in the comfortable, prosperous safety of an Edwardian England that seemed destined to last forever, promotes a vision of domestic security perfectly tempered by adventures which are themselves kept within bounds by the reassuring figures of Badger and Otter. These animals are the protectors of Ratty and, above all, of the vulnerable yet brave and sensitive Mole. The boastful Toad threatens to upset the idyll but, again, it is Badger who leads the campaign to bring Toad to his senses and to drive out the presumptuous creatures of the Wild Wood who have taken over Toad Hall. Some commentators have detected in all this a kind of allegory of Edwardian conservatism threatened by the first stirrings of proletarian power, wand there may well be truth in this rather earnest interpretation. More simply we might say that Grahame is eager to present a view of the world in which modesty and sanity prevail over anarchic greed. Whatever one's reading, it is hard now not to see The Wind in the Willows as a poignant elegy for a world which was about to be shattered for ever in the carnage of the trenches.
The novel - if it can be so described - consists of a number of loosely-linked tales which are at first centred around the Mole and his new friend the Water Rat. The circle of friends expands to include, chiefly, Toad and Badger Mole has to be taught the ways of the riverbank, but also the limits of the animals' world: as Ratty says, 'beyond the Wild Wood comes the Wide World... and that's something that doesn't matter, either to you or to me. ' Toad, in turn, must be taught to understand his own limits, and it is the education of Toad which becomes the main narrative thread of The Wind in the Willows. Drama and excitement are provided by the bombastic, headstrong Toad, whose adventures with motor cars provide some of the best comedy of the book as well as (perhaps) developing Grahame's bias against a modern, mechanised world which is just beginning to encroach on the pastoral idyll so lovingly brought to life in this most enchanting of books.
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