When the books I’m reading start, cumulatively, to get a little dark, it’s nice to take a step back once in a while and indulge in a more playful book. The Wind In The Willows is a curious example this, because it treats its characters and scenes with a gravity that you simply don’t find in modern children’s fiction. The world of the Willows is a mishmash of fantastic ideas, and the sincerity with which Kenneth Grahame underpins the whole enterprise lends an air of wonderment to the proceedings, anchoring passages of unashamed fun to a substantial foundation while infusing the more emotional moments with oodles of pathos. This, in turn, creates a rock-solid emotional bond between the reader and the characters, making for an absorbing and emotionally satisfying narrative.
When you stop to think about it, though, the structure of the book is kind of bizarre. There’s a central narrative which goes roughly as follows; the four main characters meet, Toad gets himself into trouble, escapes these troubles, and they all then band together to defeat a common enemy. That’s a very simple skeleton, but the meat on those bones is what makes the book interesting.
Sometimes Grahame will press pause on the main story and devote a chapter to Mole and Rat having an unrelated adventure before bringing the reader back to check in on the main narrative. This means the reader spends much more time with Rat and Mole, which demonstrates where Grahame’s authorial sympathies lie.
Allow me to explain. Mr Toad is the breakout character in the story, and the one most readers will remember first when the book is mentioned, and for good reason – he propels much of the plot, and is the most outrageously entertaining character by far. But he is also reprehensible; a charlatan and a fiend, and utterly despicable in more than a few ways. He’s the definition of a loveable rogue, but beneath all of the bluster and noise, he’s not actually all that interesting. The inception and development of the friendship between Mole and Rat is much more endearing, and provides a real emotional centre for much of the narrative. Grahame recognises that the reader would benefit from investing in that relationship, but he also recognises that Mr Toad could easily overpower the narrative without intervention. The device of introducing random side quests for Rat and Mole is a really interesting response to this, both when it works (such as when they discover Mole’s old home) and when it doesn’t (such as when Rat nearly gets hypnotised into joining the Navy). It also expands the world of the Willows, introducing us to more characters and places, and even developing the mysticism of the world in a truly fascinating passage where they stumble across the demigod Pan.
In trying to pin down what makes the book truly great, I ended up confusing myself a little by summarising all of its quirky contradictions. The four main characters are all male, yet this is in no way a “boyish” book; Mr Toad embodies some pretty egregious vices, and yet he’s the most widely beloved character in the story; the structure is episodic but it flows well, while the pacing is “varying”, to be kind, and yet still pretty satisfying…I think the illustrations by the incomparable E.H. Shepard (who, perhaps most famously, illustrated A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh) perfectly captures what makes the book so loveable: they’re slightly otherworldly, but homely; you feel as if you could reach out and touch them, yet somehow they’re always a little out of reach. The Willows really are a magical place, and I can’t think of anyone I’d prefer to guide me through them than Rat, Mole, Badger, or Mr Toad.