Here’s an all-time classic from Scottish author Kenneth Grahame (1859-1932). Boasting one of the greatest titles in literature, it’s also a charming affair.
Packed with anthropomorphic animals, the 1908 work is a staple at primary schools for young readers. Plus, it’s a joyous world to return to as an adult.
The Wind in the Willows
The story follows the lives of four anthropomorphised animals:
- Rat (who’s actually a water vole).
It’s Edwardian England, which was a brief period of time from 1901-1910.
Many of you may know the story verbatim, we guess, but it’s worth retelling here. If, for example, you’re a philistine who doesn’t read.
But certainly, those four characters are now icons of friendship, daft behaviour, fun, and English eccentricities. Or quirkiness in general.
First, though, a brief trip through its history. How did The Wind in the Willows become a literary classic?
Kenneth Grahame was from Edinburgh. He moved down south as a young man and worked for the Bank of England from 1879 through to 1908.
Married to Elspeth Thomson in 1899, his only child was Alastair. Unfortunately, his son had poor physical and mental health (and died at age 19 in 1920).
When his son was younger, Grahame sent him letters packed with fun adventures. He eventually took those ideas and developed them into The Wind in the Willows.
Many of his concepts for the book came from his time in London, where he would lark about on the River Thames in a boat.
Larking wasn’t in order when it came to getting his latest book onto shelves. It’s the norm in the literary world, but he had trouble getting it published.
Several publishers rejected the manuscript (highlighting how random the industry is—an all-time children’s literature classic could have been lost had Grahame given up).
But, thankfully, Methuen and Co. took it up in England. Whilst in the US, Scribner took over publishing duties.
And literary critics panned it. Grahame was already published by that point with other children’s works—apparently the critics didn’t like the marked shift in tone. So, the negative reviews piled on in.
However, the public immediately fell in love with it. Everywhere. In 1909, Grahame received a letter from US President Theodore Roosevelt thanking him for the book.
It’s a sure sign of a classic when you come across people, such as Presidents, rereading a book over and over.
And it’s also apt The Wind in the Willows begins with the arrival of spring—as we’re now enjoying in April of 2020.
The story begins with Mole meeting Rat. The former is good-natured but bored of cleaning his home, so heads outside and bumps into the latter.
Rat takes him on a boat ride. On another day, Rat goes to visit Toad—he’s a wealthy, benevolent sort, but a bit aimless and conceited.
He abandons his interests in an instant, becoming obsessed with new fads—such as a motorcar, which forms arguably the most famous scene in the book. A Toad hurtling about in an early automobile—joyriding, essentially.
Meanwhile, Mole wishes to meet the elusive Badger. So Rat takes him to the introverted beast.
They then learn Toad has smashed up seven cars already, has had numerous trips to hospital because of that, and has had to pay enormous fines.
Worried about Toad’s wellbeing, they aim to protect him from his impulsive ways. They put him under house arrest, but he escapes and heads off on another reckless joyride.
This time the police catch him and he heads off to jail for 20 years. But soon escapes, causing more mayhem in the process.
The Wind in the Willows then plays out with more high jinks, before Toad learns the errors of his ways and seeks to reimburse and support those whom he’s wronged.
So—a classic. It’s 112 years since its publication, but it’s a joyous affair.
You can pick this up in various forms, including abridged versions with more pictures. There are some beautiful versions with amazing artwork.
As The Wind in the Willows is crying out to support its prose with images—it’s such a charming and lively world, you really want to see Grahame’s characters come to life.
Well worth picking up a picture book type version, then. For your kids, if you have any. And if not, revisit this one. Because it’s glorious.
The Wind in the Willows is one of the most famous children’s books. So it’s no surprise there are many, many stage, TV, radio, and film adaptations.
The above was a 1983 stop motion animation by Cosgrove Hall Films (who handled an adaptation of Truckers from Terry Pratchett’s brilliant Nome trilogy). David Jason provided the voice for Toad and Chief Weasel.
In 1996 there was a live-action British production, headed by Monty Python’s Terry Jones.
He wrote and directed the film—he also stars as Mr. Toad. You can tell he was enjoying himself with this one.
Michael Palin, Eric Idle, John Cleese, Stephen Fry, and Steve Coogan (of Alan Partridge fame) also had starring roles.
There was also a 1995 animated production, featuring the vocal talents of Alan Bennett, Michael Palin again, Rik Mayall, and Emma Chambers (famous for her Alice Tinker role in Vicar of Dibley).
For radio, there are at least 11 productions to date. Although the last was in 2002.
Although in 2014, American web series Classic Alice produced a reimagining of the book in a six part series.
It’s still very active in theatre, though. In 2019 there was a musical play by Michael Whitmore for the Quantum Theatre in London.
And until the coronavirus outbreak, there was a June 2020 two act opera for kids from the Staatstheater Kassel theatre in Germany.
That’ll now, obviously, face delays—but should return to the stage once we’re over all this unpleastness.
The Wind in the Willows is surely set to continue on in popular culture. The title alone deserves blasting from the rooftops by loudspeaker. Perhaps using Brian Blessed’s voice.