One can argue over the merits of most books, and in arguing understand the point of view of one's opponent. One may even come to the conclusion that possibly he is right after all. One does not argue about The Wind in the Willows. The young man gives it to the girl with whom he is in love, and if she does not like it, asks her to return his letters. The older man tries it on his nephew, and alters his will accordingly. The book is a test of character. We can't criticize it, because it is criticizing us. As I wrote once: It is a Household Book; a book which everybody in the household loves, and quotes continually; a book which is read aloud to every new guest and is regarded as the touchstone of his worth. But I must give you one word of warning. When you sit down to it, don't be so ridiculous as to suppose that you are sitting in judgment on my taste, or on the art of Kenneth Grahame. You are merely sitting in judgment on yourself. You may be worthy: I don't know. But it is you who are on trial.
– A.A. Milne, Introduction
Some tales are so indelibly etched into our social fabric that it becomes almost impossible to say more than a simple "that was a true classic." In re-reading Kenneth Grahame's 1908 "children's" novel The Wind in the Willows, all the usual tools in the critical kit ended up being set aside. There is something universal about Grahame's characters and their plots. Who hasn't known a Toad, full of reckless abandon and life? Who hasn't sympathized with Mole as he ventures forth from his subterranean home and into a new life? Rat's sagacity and capacity for friendship also appeals to readers, and Badger and Water Rat and even the pesky stoats and weasels haven't yet been given their due. There is something archetypical about these characters, yet these anthropomorphic animals still possess a uniqueness that makes them all the more memorable because they are simultaneously themselves and representations of humanity as a whole.
For those living (and of course, growing up) in Edwardian England, six years before the terrible calamities of World War I, life was changing rapidly. From the earliest industrial factories of a century before to the emerging motor cars, daily life could involve a mixture of traditional culture, replete with social visits and its attendant protocol, and technological innovations that had already begun to transform labor and society. There are echoes of both inside The Wind in the Willows, as the gatherings of the four friends often contained references to then-modern life and the changes occurring within.
Too often, children's fiction writers try too hard to moralize, to create something that is instructive to children (and those adults who read to them). Although The Wind in the Willows contain several passages that readers may have noted for their excellent moral value, the story itself does not pause to underscore these virtues. Rather, The Wind in the Willows contains a freshness to it that does not brook confinement to singular definitions. Take for instance this passage from the first chapter, as Mole is abandoning his home:
Never in his life had he seen a river before – this sleek, sinuous, full-bodied animal, chasing and chuckling, gripping things with a gurgle and leaving them with a laugh, to fling itself on fresh playmates that shook themselves free, and were caught and held again. All was a-shake and as-shiver – glints and gleams and sparkles, rustle and swirl, chatter and bubble. The Mole was bewitched, entranced, fascinated. By the side of the river he trotted as one trots, when very small, by the side of a man who holds one spellbound by exciting stories; and when tired at last, he sat on the bank, while the river still chattered on to him, a babbling procession of the best stories in the world, sent from the heart of the earth to be told at last to the insatiable sea.
This passage too easily could have been trite and devoid of feeling. Grahame manages to describe a scene in such a fashion, with his triple participles and twinned verbs, that the reader is invited to pause just a moment and recall the burbling sounds of a favorite creek or river. Instead of being longueurs that delay us from the "meat" of the plot, these passages are essential to the themes being explored within the novel. Plowing ahead, like Toad driving dangerously in one of his numerous cars, only leads to a vague sorrow that one did not stop to consider the lilies of the river valley or those quiet reposes that friends share.
Friendship lies near to the heart of the narrative. Grahame's four main characters (Mole, Rat, Toad, Badger) each possess their charms and foibles and each are on display as they interact with one another. Some readers (I am one) might read Toad's wildness and associate that with parts of their lives. Others may see reflections of themselves (as children or as adults or in-between) in Toad's friends, who seek to wrest him away from his reckless, self-destructive behavior and toward the generous side of him that each of the three cherishes, even as they grow exasperated with his excesses. Although Toad's larger-than-life personality is prominent throughout the main narrative, it does not dominate the larger tale, which touches upon matters of non-dogmatic morality and decency toward one's fellow beings.
Easily one could write pages and pages on The Wind in the Willows and barely scratch the surface. But that is not really the point of the novel, is it? Perhaps Milne says it best in that we do not judge the book but instead the book serves as a tool of judging our own characters. How many works, fiction and non-fiction alike, can this claim be made of...and feel true?