Wind in the Willows is an odd little book. We call it children’s literature, though it comes with a healthy undercurrent of Edwardian-era socialism (not to mention a strange interlude featuring Pan, the pagan god of nature). There aren’t many books I remember from my childhood with the same fondness, and I find myself picking it up from time to time still to browse Ernest Shepard’s wonderful illustrations in my 1959 edition.
And the story is familiar to most, even those who haven’t read the book. We all know Toad. We know it because we remember Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride at Disney World (which was replaced, to the horror of many, with the Winnie the Pooh ride some years back). Disney also paired Toad, for reasons I do not understand, with Ichabod Crane in a 1949 film narrated by Bing Crosby and Basil Rathbone: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0041094/. There have been a number of cartoon versions, one featuring the cast of Monty Python (!), another directed by Jules Bass and Arthur Rankin of stop action/Christmas special fame, and several dubious ”sequels” such as The Willows in Winter, which I have not seen but which I imagine stars Peter O’Toole.
Some books are born odd and stay odd, even as they enter the pantheon. (Slaughterhouse Five comes to mind. Yes, it is a great book. But it’s WEIRD, people. ) Anyway, it’s not the strangeness that prompts me to write this.
It’s Toad. Fat, wealthy, narcissistic Toad who alienates his friends, runs over innocent pedestrians, and (eventually) escapes from jail dressed as a laundress. Toad, who steals a horse from a nasty barge-woman:
The barge-horse was not capable of any very sustained effort, and its gallop soon subsided into a trot, and its trot into an easy walk; but Toad was quite contented with this, knowing that he, at any rate, was moving, and the barge was not. He had quite recovered his temper, now that he had done something he thought really clever; and he was satisfied to jog along quietly in the sun, taking advantage of any by-ways and bridle-paths, and trying to forget how very long it was since he had had a square meal, till the canal had been left very far behind him. …
[Later, after a hearty meal, he was] indeed a very different Toad from the animal of an hour ago. The sun was shining brightly, his wet clothes were quite dry again, he had money in his pocket once more, he was nearing home and friends and safety, and, most and best of all, he had had a substantial meal, hot and nourishing, and felt big, and strong, and careless, and self-confident.
Not so unlike Winnie the Pooh, for that matter. Just the sort to be called a “lad” or, when he grows older, a “chap,” and to be said “tut tut” to, I think. We like fellows like Toad. Even though he drives like a demon and sings boastful little songs: “The clever men at Oxford/Know all that there is to be knowed/But they none of them know half as much/As intelligent Mr. Toad.”
He does no real harm to anyone other than to upset their expectations. But Kenneth Grahame, author of Wind in the Willows, punishes Toad thus:
“To my mind,” observed the Chairman of the Bench of Magistrates cheerfully, “the only difficulty that presents itself in this otherwise very clear case is, how can we possibly make it sufficiently hot for the incorrigible rogue and hardened ruffian whom we see cowering in the dock before us. . . . Mr. Clerk, will you tell us please, what is the very stiffest penalty we can impose for each of these offenses? Without, of course, giving the prisoner the benefit of any doubt, because there isn’t any.”
The Clerk scratched his nose with his pen. “Some people would consider,” he observed, “that stealing a motor-car was the worst offense; and so it is. But cheeking the police undoubtedly carries the severest penalty; and so it ought. Supposing you were to say twelve months for the theft, which is mild; and three years for the furious driving, which is lenient; and fifteen years for the cheek, judging by what we’ve heard from the witness-box, even if you believe only one-tenth of what you heard, and I never believe more myself – those figures, if added together correctly, tot up to nineteen years -”
“First-rate!” said the Chairman.
” – So you had better make it a round twenty years and be on the safe side,” concluded the Clerk.
. . . Then the brutal minions of the law fell upon the hapless Toad, loaded him with chains, and dragged him from the Court House, shrieking, praying, protesting; across the market-place, where the playful populace, always as severe upon detected crime as they are sympathetic and helpful when one is merely “wanted,” assailed him with jeers, carrots, and popular catch-words; past hooting school children; . . . on and on, past the rack chamber and the thumb-screw- room, past the turning that led to the private scaffold, till they reached the door of the grimmest dungeon that lay in the heart of the inner-most keep.
Where Toad was to remain until he made a daring escape.
Okay, you might say, what’s so bad about that? Two things, actually.
For one, Grahame was no stodgy Victorian. He was a thoroughly embedded part of the Edwardian naturalist movement, a movement which was itself closely tied to socialism on both the Fabian and the Marxist sides. He would have been familiar with the social and political literature of the day: naturalism and Darwinism; the first stirrings of feminism; arguments for public education and the control of vice as social reform. As the twentieth century began it was more possible than it had likely ever been to think for and to express oneself. Toad could and should have been such a one, but Grahame put him in a dungeon of failed hopes.
And second, like A. A. Milne after him, Grahame wrote his young son, Alastair, into the story. But not as Rat or Mole, the two fun- loving and kind-hearted characters more or less at the center of the tale. Alastair, in Grahame’s eyes, was Toad.
The child was born partly blind and was sickly for most of his life. Grahame nicknamed him “Mouse.” The characters in Wind in the Willows took shape in bedtime stories Grahame told young Mouse for years. In time he began to travel alone and wrote letters home to Mouse, continuing the stories for him. Grahame and his wife reportedly created a Fabian paradise for Mouse, protecting him, coddling him, making believe that Mouse was indeed their golden child.
But a golden child he was not, a fact that became unavoidable when Mouse went off to school. He was unsuccessful at Rugby School and Eaton, and was eventually sent off to Christ Church. One evening he left the school for a walk. Some time later he was discovered dead by the nearby train tracks. Although it seemed likely to have been a suicide, the official determination, meant to spare the Grahames the truth, was that it had been an accidental death. Grahame wrote little more and died twelve years later. (If this plotline appeals to you, you might wish to read A.S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book, which in my opinion borrows rather much from it).
In the book, the weasels and stoats take over Toad’s marvelous house when he goes off to prison, but after his escape Toad regains it with the help of his friends. He becomes, in Grahame’s words, “an altered Toad” and a “great Toad,” one who sheds his frivolity for the sake of achievement.
I prefer him singing. And I miss the ride.