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.


36 thoughts on “Depth and Reflection in The Wind in the Willows

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  1. It’s been years since I read it to my children. It’s got some passages for sure. Still, it’s a classic, and I don’t regret the time I gave to it.

  2. I read this in school – I think maybe in the 6th or 7th grade? So I can see how it can be difficult for a young child. I don’t remember the story at all so it was nice to read your description.

    I tried very recently to “change” a friend, in a very very subtle way. I have a very dear friend who is also very blunt (polar opposite of me). She’s amazing in so many ways but I have to consciously remind myself not to get offended when she gets like this and I know that her style was one reason she and her husband were always arguing as well. So, one day I told her about this personality book that I had – it’s a simplistic book and it starts off with a kind of silly animal fable but they break down people into 4 overall “types” and talk about the misunderstandings that can arise because of the different styles. I thought of her because she fits so well one of the types that is discussed. She was very interested and so I lent it to her. Then, a week later, she returned it to me, saying she found the animal fable silly and wasn’t able to continue with the rest of the book. So much for my plan 😉

    As I’ve gotten older, though, if a friend does something that really does bother me, I am more likely to tell her. I did that once and things got awkward for a little while, but then everything cleared up and we’re great again. I’ve decided to do this because I realized that if something is really bothering me, I end up letting those feelings fester anyway, and in the end risk ending the friendship altogether.

    1. That is great advice. Your story of trying to lend the book is interesting. I can remember similar situations with some of my family members, and my “explanation” for them rejecting it would be that it was too close to home. Maybe I’m wrong, but perhaps your friend didn’t want to continue reading it because she recognized herself and it was uncomfortable?

  3. Great post, makes me want to tackle the Wind in the Willows again. I think I last read it in junior high.

    I’m running into the problem of trying to help a friend see their shortcomings at work. This person is both a colleague and a close friend who we socialize with. Her workload is very overwhelming, and she’s not able to keep up at all. Several times over the last several weeks, she’s asked me to drop everything and rush a project on my end because it had been lost in her inbox and we were now 2 weeks or even a month behind schedule!

    So far, I haven’t taken the direct approach (which my husband keeps telling me to do). Instead of addressing the issue from our “friend relationship,” I’ve gone through our boss to try and get her some help with her workload. I hope it doesn’t seem like I’m ratting her out, but the essential problem is the volume of work. And since this is actually a work issue, I think it’s best to leave the personal relationship out of it. It’s hard to separate the two, though!

    1. It is hard! And if you keep it strictly work related, then such correction from a boss (if she knows it is coming from you) could then be interpreted as interpersonal. That’s a tough situation. But you certainly don’t need to keep covering her load or worrying about huge projects at the last minute because of it.

  4. Lovely post, Emily. Do try and read this aloud with your daughter again when she is older. My son and I did read it aloud together — I think he was 8 — and he talks about it still. Now, at 12, he wants to read it again on his own. It is a slow book, but I think that is the way of life that is presented — to be in the moment and soak it in, to learn and to grow — and that demands slowness. That is one of the lessons, I think, that Toad has to learn, that he needs to slow down. We could all do with a little more of that. 🙂

    I will talk to a friend, even if it is hard, if I think that there is a chance of real dialogue and if the friendship is worth salvaging — sometimes it simply isn’t and the conflict may be necessary to break from something not necessarily right.

    1. That is good to hear. I will try to read it to her again. And yes, we could all slow down for sure! I know that is something I need to learn and have been needing to learn for a very long time!

  5. I try not to interfere in friend’s lives as much as possible because once, and only once, I tried to “help” by doing what I thought would keep a friend of mine from wasting a year of her life waiting for a guy she wanted who didn’t feel the same and was confusing her with his actions. I told her how he really felt.

    Because I told her, she ended up uncomfortable around him while he was still around and I ended up looking like a schmuck. So, yeah. I don’t tell people when they’re going to do something stupid anymore. I probably come across as cold, but I’d rather have that than what I went through back then.

    1. Oh man, that sounds like a tough situation. Whenever something like that backfires on me, I feel like I “learned my lesson,” but I also wish that I had never acted. It is so much more comfortable not to act, but perhaps it is necessary sometimes and comfort isn’t the most important thing. Now you’ve got me “preaching” to myself!

  6. I love The Wind in the Willows! A librarian friend once told me that your literary preferences can be traced back to one of two seminal children’s books: The Wind in the Willows and Alice in Wonderland. I’m firmly in the W/W camp, hence my love for down-to-earth lit like Jane Austen. But I tried to read it to my children too and they snoozed off. They’re more accustomed to faster-paced stories, so the dreamy minutiae of WW was too dense for them. I’ll try again later but after the rip-roaring activities of Percy Jackson I’m not sure if they’ll be thrilled by Toad’s poop-pooping through the English countryside.

    The friend thing: in A Jane Austen Education (blog review coming soon), author William Deresiewicz says that telling the truth is a test of friendship. If you truly love your friend, you’ll put their well-being above your own. So even if it costs you, you tell the truth. But I haven’t been able to bring myself to put this to the test. I have had a friendship wither because there were issues that I couldn’t bring up but the suppressed truth came through in my altered behaviour. I probably should have bit the bullet and told the truth, because the relationship ended anyway.

    1. That’s so interesting about true friendship and it lasting through some of that honesty. I do think I have friends who would take my comments seriously and not hate me, but those are usually the friends that I don’t see the need for saying anything! They are just fine the way they are. 🙂 I like the idea of the two children’s books leading to what kind of literature you may prefer in the future. Unfortunately, I had not read either one as a child! I have read both for this blog, and thank goodness for that.

  7. i tried reading this to my first grade class and they loved it! although, i also picked up the “junior classics” version from the dollar spot in target, so it definitely made the reading style more enjoyable.

    i’ll admit, i haven’t actually read the original, but i’ll have to do so now.

    1. Yes, do! And I love that dollar spot with the books at Target. We’ve gotten quite a few good classics for my daughter there, but I thought they were all originals. I may need to look more closely at the text now and see if they are altered!

  8. It’s been ages since I read this book, but I always remember thinking of Badger as a grownup and tehrefore feeling his right to tell of Toad. My mind is kind of blurred though becasue of all teh films and Pantos of it I’ve seen since then. Lovely post, Thank you.

    1. Thanks! I think Badger’s qualities certainly make him seem older and therefore wiser and more experienced. I can’t remember if he was actually older either, but I can see the advantages in that.

  9. I never have read this one. I have always loved the title of it, just never got around to it. Definitely going on my to-read list.

  10. Emily, I have been obligated to tell clients, subordinates, and colleagues things that needed to be said. Sometimes I would begin with “I would be remiss if I did not tell you…” or “We’ve worked a long time together and know each others’ faults….” It is difficult and we must focus on the issue, not a personality trait (if you can avoid it). I have to do this as a parent and a spouse, as well. Yet, since I am far from perfect as we all are, we need to “give like we want to get.” I try to be very diplomatic and choose my battles. There are many, many, many things better left unsaid. And, if you find you need to say them, cool off and say them when they stand a better chance of being heard. I have also found as an Old Fart, there are very few things in life, where someone is 100% at fault, and the other person is blameless. Good post on an interesting read. BTG

    1. That is so true. All of it! I especially like what you say about fault and blame. There really is no “innocent” party. We are all flawed. I also like your introductory comments to the honesty. I could probably benefit from those. Thanks for your Old Fart wisdom.

  11. I love A Wind in the Willows, but I didn’t read it as a child. As an adult it’s the slowness that I love most about the book. The pace of the River. The mundane housekeeping of Mole and how he visits Rat and Rat’s house is different. How Badger is very particular about visitors but welcomes them generously anyway…. all the little details are fantastic. Toad is my least favorite but I do love how the bulk of the action is in “taking Toad in hand.” As far as taking my own friends in hand, it doesn’t go so well. I tend towards blunt delivery in the best of times. Straightforward honesty is why my friends love me. It’s also why they don’t tell me things in avoidance of my quick judgement. They prefer the term ‘brutal honesty’ and I’ve worked hard on wielding my truths without brutality and to temper my judgement because they’ve been so honest with me about my own shortcomings. Some of my friendships have not lasted because I’ve gone ahead and said what they were not willing to hear, what they were hiding from, what was none of my business to point out, and that’s a bitter pill certainly, but I can’t regret being real and honest with the people I love. It would be shallow and polite relationships if we weren’t real and honest with each other.

    1. It is nice to know that I’m not the only one to have read this as an adult. And I agree that relationships are shallow if honesty is absent. I have some of those. Well, many of those. I just can’t bring myself to be blunt or brutal. I am too afraid of the consequences, and in that, I think there is a measure of selfishness. I would rather protect myself than “help” a friend. I guess it depends on who that friend is, but your comment has really made me think.

  12. I’ve had this book on my bookshelf from when I was too young to read it, and then I got around to it when I was around 7 or 8 or so, and then loved it for the rest of my life. I quote it every time I’m on the water:
    “There is nothing–absolutely nothing – half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.”
    I always feel sad for all the people at Disneyland who ride “Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride” and don’t get the references.

  13. I would love to read it,still haven’t and I’ glad for all your warnings which made me want to read it even more 🙂

    To answer your question,I always appreciate it when people are blunt with me but with good intent and I am too,sometimes. Your and other people’s reaction really does depend on who’s making the comment and how he does it. Is it constructive criticism or destructive cynicism and is it obvious which one?!
    The problm here is that others want to feel good about themselves when they correct sth you do and thus a comment like that is rarely “benign”.

    1. You’re right. It does depend on context, and even then, in favorable ones, a “constructive” comment can still have negative consequences. Thanks for reading!

  14. Wow, this made me want to read this book. I always have wanted to but never got into it. I think I’d look at it with new eyes after reading this post. Love how you found the depth in this book and related it to life.

  15. Emily, thanks for your reflections on this book, one of my favorites. I always thought of the deity in “Piper at the Gates of Dawn” as Pan, because Pan is the god of the animals. In Greek belief, he was their protector, as he protects the lost baby in the story. He plays the pipes for which Pan is known. I don’t think this rules out other interpretations, though, because the point is an encounter with the divine, not the specifics of which god they meet.

    1. I like that. Thank you for sharing that with me and broadening my interpretation. I come from a Christian tradition, which means I make the mistake of interpreting everything that way. But that is my lens, so I guess it isn’t a mistake… Anyway, I’m glad to know there are other options. 🙂

  16. I loved this book enough that I looked up the author in “Lives of the Novelist” (Yale Press) published last year. He was terribly hen-pecked. His wife allowed him to change his underwear only once a year. No wonder he escaped into fantasy, and I’m glad he did.

  17. Reblogged this on Chosen and commented:
    I should have known that The Wind in the Willows is one of the greatest books ever (based on BBC, they said so). Fine, let’s finish this right on!

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