The Wind In The Willows - Kenneth Grahame, Ernest H. Shepard image
Following the resounding success of my Locus Quest, I faced a dilemma: which reading list to follow it up with? Variety is the spice of life, so I’ve decided to diversify and pursue six different lists simultaneously. This book falls into my BEDTIME STORIES list.

I have a little boy and love reading to him, so this reading list will cover the classic (and new) children’s stories we’re enjoying together.

The Wind in the Willows is a funny old book, isn’t it?

The adventures of Ratty, Mole and the Toad; they didn’t make much of an impact on me during my childhood. I read the book, I liked it well enough, I remembered the characters, but that was about it – it was never a favourite.

I think I got a lot more out of it as an adult, reading it aloud in bitesize chunks to a drowsy baby, every night for a couple of months. It gave me time to ponder the book between readings. But I still think it’s a funny old book.

I mean, we start off focused on Mole as he ventures out from his underground home, befriends the Water Rat and discovers the gently joy of the riverside life in springtime. Ratty and Moley then potter about the countryside together, meeting the different folk who live thereabouts. The focus drifts over to Toad, who – I have to agree with my wife – is a bit of a tool. Toady has a big adventure on his own, and then teams up with Ratty and Mole (and the Badger, of course) for the final big showdown.

It’s all terribly episodic; it’s great for a bedtime story as most chapters reach their own conclusion, but the plot (such as it is) is all over the place and never really builds up much momentum until Toad goes off on his grand adventure. But somehow that doesn’t matter – the plot is not the important thing here.

What shines through on almost every page, in some beautifully evocative, vivid and sometimes poetic description, is a passionate and articulate adoration for the British countryside, nature and the changes of the seasons. I grew up in a green and leafy suburb and my favourite place to escape away to was a quiet little lake in the woods – so I can certainly appreciate the sentiment. But Grahame goes far above and beyond that; there’s no talk of religion in this book, but there is a god (small G) – Pan – and nature is the religion here.

Looking at The Wind in the Willows as a fantasy novel is somewhat confusing – the internal logic is more dreamy than scientific. These characters are animals... who walk upright, talk, dress and act like people. But they also keep animals who act like animals – Toad has a working carthorse and a pet canary, neither of which talk or wear clothes, etc. But they do live in a world dominated by humans, Toad steals a man’s car and gets sent to a human prison in a human city, guarded by humans. And humans keep animals as pets – the jailor’s daughter would like to keep Toad as a pet, but doesn’t tell him so because he’s too proud. And these talking animals of ours, eat the same food as humans – often processed food, made from animals – which is a confusing ethical dilemma.

Then there’s the issue of scale and size. To some degree, the characters reflect the sizes of the animals which are their namesakes –eg, Badger and Otter are larger than Mole and Ratty. But at other times, the scale is confusing – Toad rides a stolen horse comfortably, and escapes the city dressed as a washer woman – so he seems to be in-scale with humans, and he’s of a similar size to his friends, ergo they’re all human sized. But a human sized Rat living in a hole in the riverbank seems... grubby. Whereas a rat sized rat, wearing little human clothes, living in a hole in the riverbank is... romantic?

Sexism. Where are the women? Only two female characters appear in the whole book – and they’re both humans! Where are all the animal-women? We meet a wide array of talking creatures – mole, rat, toad, badger, otter, weasel, stoat, rabbit, hedgehog, mouse and bird – but all male. There’s mention of female family members, but they’re never seen. And there’s one particular scene (I didn’t note down when, I’m afraid) when the boys are sitting discussing the day’s events and dinner is bought to them. By whom, may I enquire? I get the feeling the women are all there, doing the women’s work, but invisible. It’s like a world of Oxford dons, wrapped up in their own little tweed worlds, boating on the river, while the common life drifts beneath their attention.

If you get the feeling I’m overly critical of this classic story – I’m not really (hence the four-star rating) – but as I said at the beginning, it’s just a funny old book!

If you find yourself reading it in the near future – try rolling some of the sentences around your mouth, rather than reading it all inside your head – there’s a real music and magic to the words. The Wind in the Willows made bedtime stories feel like a performance – one I greatly looked forward to!

After this I read: Komarr