Depth and Reflection in The Wind in the Willows

I tried to read The Wind in the Willows (1908) by Kenneth Grahame and number 30 on the BBC book list to my daughter, but after a few pages, she said, “I don’t understand what is going on.”  I couldn’t blame her.  It turned out to be a fun story, but the prose is somewhat dense for a young child to understand.  I finished reading it without her.

I liked the adventures of Toad, Rat, Mole, and Badger.  They all possessed different human qualities that allowed for conflict and comic relief among the four of them.  The most reckless of the bunch is definitely Toad.  He comes across as the typical rich, spoiled boy, who likes fast cars and lives in luxury.  Unfortunately, this leads to a lot of pride and lack of self control, for which Toad suffers but never seems to learn from.

wind in the willows cover

Yet he does learn because of his good friends: Rat, Mole, and Badger. The three at first try to talk sense into Toad, but he won’t listen.  They succeed in the end, helping him to learn his lesson and learn it well.  They help him to be humbled and to change.  I found this part of the story funny and delightful, but I couldn’t help but also relate it to human affairs.  I am not sure that many of us would be in Toad’s position of pride and then allow our friends to speak such stark truths to us about our own faults.  I am also not sure that we would act as Rat, Badger, and Mole do in persisting with their efforts to change Toad and in doing it so forwardly.

The events show what good friends can and should do, but I don’t know that I have ever been that good of a friend by telling somebody exactly what they have done wrong and giving them a reality check.  I think that if I have attempted to do so, it would have been mildly and with many protestations of , “but I really don’t mean it,” or “I think you’re fine the way you are,” so as not to offend.  I am not blunt, for fear of hurting others’ feelings, and even when I haven’t tried to point out others’ faults for their own good, they have still reacted badly to me just for being myself.

I guess what I am trying to say is that I admire the animals in this story for being such good friends by taking Toad in hand, but I know I wouldn’t have the strength to do so for one of my friends.  I think the friendship would crumble, but then I guess one would have to wonder how great of a friendship it was to begin with.

Have any of you been bold with a friend about their faults and seen positive results from it?  Have you been that friend who needed correcting?  How did you take it?

The other part of the book I liked was the religious/mystical connection to a higher power.  From my Christian perspective, I would say the vision that Rat and Mole had of a smiling being with a flowing beard would be Christ (or it could be Heavenly Father).  I suppose other interpretations are possible, but what I liked about the vision was the connection to nature.  Before it happens, they “stood on a little lawn of a marvellous [sic] green, set round with Nature’s own orchard-trees—crab-apple, wild cherry, and sloe” (p. 82).  They are in an Edenic setting, the perfect place for encountering a heavenly being described as “the Friend and Helper” (p. 82).  It really is a calm and wonderful scene and honestly unexpected for me.  I didn’t see it coming, but it makes sense.  Why wouldn’t animals be close to divine beings?  Anyway, it was lovely and symbolic, and just as delightful and humorous that the animals quickly forgot the encounter, almost as soon as it had happened.

That made me think.  How much do I forget?  What “divine” encounters do I have each day that I dismiss quickly and instead focus on what went wrong or who wronged me?  One of my favorite lines from the music of Les Miserables is this: “To love another person is to see the face of God.”  I see this sort of divine encounter possible each day, yet I am like Rat and Mole, and I quickly forget or disregard those good feelings and parts of myself in favor of dwelling on the less divine and the less worthy.

It is hard, since we are human.  We are fickle and natural and carnal.  But I see ourselves in these animals personified.  Rat, Mole, wise Badger, and prideful Toad are all of us.  They may seem like silly characters in a children’s book or simple animals come to life through anthropomorphism, but they are really a reflection of human nature and folly.

My daughter didn’t get this book or have the chance to like it, but I liked it.  At times, honestly, I got sleepy while reading.  I kept wanting to take naps.  But it was a book that needed to be read slowly.  It was a book that made me think.  On the surface, it seemed simple, shallow even.  But I found that it was much deeper than I anticipated and that those depths reflected my humanity right back at me.