The Wind in the Willows: a Professor’s Toast (1)

Today is January, 3rd and it’s also Sunday. I’ve been bringing you stories each Sunday for a while, now, but today is a special day, so I’ve decided to drift a bit from Norse tradition, as I’m sure you’ve had your fill with triplets of princesses, am I right? Maybe we’ll have a series on […]

Today is January, 3rd and it’s also Sunday. I’ve been bringing you stories each Sunday for a while, now, but today is a special day, so I’ve decided to drift a bit from Norse tradition, as I’m sure you’ve had your fill with triplets of princesses, am I right? Maybe we’ll have a series on British pastoral stories instead.

What day is today?

Well, I’m glad you asked. Today is J.R.R. Tolkien’s birthday and it’s traditional to have a toast. No, I do not mean a sandwich, you fool. At 9 pm, whatever your local time might be, you should raise a glass and toast to the beloved author and scholar who brought us such wonders. You find everything explained in the link above. The toast is simple.

The Professor!

So, here’s my birthday toast. I’m going to talk about an unusual story, one of my favorite stories of all times in fact, an extremely British story our Oxford professor had the chance to show appreciation for. I am going to talk about Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows.

The Wind in the Willows

The Wind in the Willows is a children’s book published in 1908 and authored by former banker turned novelist Kenneth Grahame. As we will see in the quote I choose to end this article with, the book was originally meant to be called The Wind in the Reeds, but it apparently was too close to a poetry collection by W.B. Yeats, The Wind among the Reeds, and it changed its title one week before it went to press. There are no willows, therefore, or at least there are no significant ones.

My first contact with it, came through C’era una volta (Once Upon a Time, and no, I don’t mean the series) a periodic children’s magazine with audiotapes and a beautifully illustrated leaflet. Each issue contained a set if stories, usually balanced to be a classical fairy-tale, something romantic, something funny, something more modern, to suit everyone’s taste. This particular piece of the story was narrated by Giulia Lazzarini and used illustrations by one Richard Hook, and I know that only because a beautiful person under the nickname of Bliblila has put the story on youtube and the pages on a blog. I was very little, when I was listening to these stories, and I ingored it was a book. I am positive my mother ignored that too, otherwise she would have fetched it for me as I have always been an avid reader and she had always encouraged that, but the story sticked with me.

Flash forward a couple of decades.
I am browsing a bookstore in search of The Annotated Classic Fairy-Tales by Maria Tatar for an exhibition I was curating and there it is. I notice a thin, medium-sized, hardcover Italian edition of this tale, and I start flicking through it. “This looks a lot like a story I used to listen to when I was a child”, I think to myself. “No, this is the story I used to listen to when I was a child”. The edition in question is the beautiful version illustrated by Inga Moore, and I had no idea it wasn’t the complete version, at the time. It was literally the only copy of the only edition in the store. But more on that later.

Kenneth Grahame’s story is set in what is usually defined as a pastoral version of Edwardian English Countryside, highly idealzed and painted like a picture, and is divided in stories. In the opening scene of the book, Mole is spring cleaning his burrow and at last looses patience, leaves the underground and springs on the surface, only to fall in love with the River and its Countryside. He then meets Rat, a water vole, and they become friends. They go rowing with a boat on the river and they take up living together in Rat’s riverside house.

Other episodes in the book involve Toad, a rich and vain fellow with a passion for motorcars, and Badger, a respected personality who lives in the Wild Wood. The latter is the part of the story that was narrated in the audiobook from my childhood. Toad is involved in the most extravagant and action-paced portions of the story, while Mole and Rat’s adventures, included as independent short stories inside the book and omitted in many adaptations, are more pastoral and quiet, in line with their nature. In one of these stories, the two even come to meet the God Pan, though they are later made oblivious that the encounter ever happened.

Editions and Illustrations

The first edition of the book came out in 1908 and was without illustrations, with just a cover drawing by Graham Robertson featuring the God Pan by the riverside. The novel was e tremely successful: by 1929, when Winnie The Pooh’s dad A.A. Milne was adapting it for the stage as Toad of Toad Hall, it had reached its 31st printing and one of the main illustrators for the tale is the same E.H. Shepard who had done illustrations for Milne’s work and who allegedly started working on it with the author’s consent, though Grahame had already passed away when this edition came out in 1931. He then went back to colour them in 1953.

The first artist to fully illustrate the book, however, was the American illustrator Paul Bransom, in 1913, who did so with ten full-color paintings. Bransom was a self-taught artist who had practiced drawing animals at the Washington National Zoo and previously worked illustrating Jack London’s Call of the Wild in 1910.

Paul Bransom’s Art Nouveau cover.

Compared to other illustrators, Bransom took a highly naturalistic approach: the riverside is depicted with great attention, all animals are represented realistically, even the eccentric Toad, and only the Sea Rat at the end of the story is seen wearing clothes. Rather than stressing comical characters in Grahame’s story, Bransom chooses to focus on the beauty of the setting, a feature that’s masterfully encapsulated in the art for the cover, an illustration that’s deeply influenced by Art Nouveau and John Ruskin’s Arts and Crafts movement, and in which he chooses to directly quote Claude Monet’s series Matinée sur la Seine (1896).

One of Claude Monet’s painting in the series.

He also goes as far as drawing a parody of Édouard Manet’s famous Déjeuner sur l’herbe.

Grahame himself liked the illustrations and wrote back to his agent, in 1913:

I was much relieved to find no bowler hats or plaide waistcoats.
And I like the drawings, too, very much.
They have charm and dignity and good taste.

The second artist to produce illustrations for the whole book was Nancy Barnhart in 1922, also an American, whom we know very little about if not that she proposed drawings for this book in her late years and was very pleased they had been accepted. Her work is paired with a dust jacket illustrated by Edith Morris, whose identity I am not completely sure either. If you happen to own a copy of this particular edition, it’s rather rare and precious. Her illustrations have been recently republished in this edition.

The third artist to approach the work before Shepard was Wyndham Payne (1927), who took a radically different approach than the one Grahame praised about Bransom. His animals are fully dressed, precisely in tartan plaids, and exhibit walking canes, hats, spectacles.
Regardless of this, the kind-spirited Grahame answered him at the request of a signed copy and found a way to praise his work as well by writing him:

I was greatly amused by your spirited little drawings.


Payne’s work was influential enough, however, that another artist had to take inspiration from the talking tree he decided to put on the cover, in order to repeat the same character (which is not in the book) with the same style.
That other artist was no other than Arthur Rackham, in 1940, and it’s the absolute last book he worked on before he died: his edition was issued posthumously and has a troubled editorial history. Rackham had been a long-time fan of the book and had always regretted having to turn down the invitation to illustrate it, almost thirty years before this second opportunity arose. He was already ill when publisher George Macy offered him to illustrate it, and he was moved by the suggestion, and immediately started working on it.

Richard Cuffari and Tasha Tudor both worked on it in 1966. Particularly, The Wind in the Willows was the very first book Cuffari ever illustrated, and he went on from there, to become a very successful and prolific artist, while Tasha Tudor is one of the best artists of her time: aside from being also an author, she had worked on stories like A Child’s Garden of Verses by Robert Louis Stevenson, The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett (another of my all-time favorite books) and A Little Princess by the same author, before approaching The Wind in the Willows. Her work is absolutely charming.

Michael Hague, one of my favorite illustrators, also worked on the book in 1980. I’m not completely sure his particular style, which I generally adore, is suitable for the charming countryside that is meant to surround the Wind in the Willows, but his indoor scenes (if we can rightfully say “indoor” giving the particular circumstance) are absolutely amazing.

Michael Hague shows us Mole and Rat dining together.


Other notable editions include Inga Moore‘s, the one I accidentally found in a bookstore and is currently sitting in my lap, and the sumptuous illustrated edition issued by the folio Society in 2006, illustrated Charles van Sandwyk.

If you’re interested in the editorial history of this book, however, W.W. Norton & Co (the same publisher of the already mentioned Annotated Classic Fairy-Tales) has an Annotated Wind in The Willows by Annie Gauger. I will be using it a lot, in this article.


In 1929, as I mentioned, A.A. Milne adapted a selection of the story as Toad of Toad Hall, and this is the play Tolkien is talking about in his On Fairy-Stories (later). Milne also wrote an introduction to the story and one can arguably said he rather liked it.

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.

Milne is without any doubt the most famous stage adaptation of the story, closely followed by the 1985 Tony-nominated Broadway musical starring Nathan Lane in the role of mr. Toad, but there’s a lot of other adaptations and the story is still inspiring playwriters all around the world (an opera for children in two acts by Elena Kats-Chernin will premiere in July 2021).

When it comes to movies, the most famous adaptation is probably the 1949 animated movie by Walt Disney, included in The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad. This was far from being what Disney had originally in mind, but more on that later.

There’s also a live-action movie directed by Terry Jones (1996), but you can also find a couple of stop-motion versions, particularly one from 1983 which prompted the start of a tv series. There’s also a 1987 animated musical with original songs including one performed by folk singer Judy Collins, and a 1995 animated movie narrated by Vanessa Redgrave.

Around 2003, Guillermo del Toro was working on an adaptation for Disney, but there was a falling-off due to “artistic disagreements” involving a skateboard.

What about Tolkien?

Tolkien mentioned The Wind in the Willows in his essay On Fairy-Stories, and specifically two times: one when talking about animal fables and the other one when explaining how anything involving a dream as a portal of access to the story isn’t really a fairy-tale.

The essay originated from a 1939 lecture held at the University of St. Andrews in one of the Andrew Lang lecture series and in that lecture he focused on Andrew Lang’s work as a folklorist and collector of fairy tales, bluntly disagreeing with lots of his choices. The finished version was firstly published in 1947 in the book Essays Presented to Charles Williams, originally curated by C.S. Lewis and intended as a gift for their friend and fellow Inkling Charles Williams upon his awaited return to the Oxford University Press. The guy died before he could return, the book was published as a homage, it received little attention and was out of press by 1955. It started getting more attention when Tolkien published it again, in 1964, within Tree and Leaf. The edition I recommend is the one within The Monsters and the Critics, and Other Essays.

Gardens of the Merking: a non-Arda related illustration by J.R.R. Tolkien.

Anyway, in the essay Tolkien basically distinguishes stories into five categories: fairy-stories (the ones he’s concerned about), traveller’s tales, science fiction, beast tales, and dream stories.

«The beast-fable has, of course, a connection with fairy-stories. Beasts and birds and other creatures often talk like men in real fairy-stories. In some part (often small) this marvel derives from one of the primal ‘desires’ that lie near the heart of Faërie: the desire of men to hold communion with other living things. But the speech of beasts in the beast-fable, as developed into a separate branch, has little reference to that desire, and often wholly forgets it. The magical understanding by men of the proper languages of birds and beasts and trees, that is much nearer to the true purposes of Faërie. But in stories in which no human being is concerned; or in which the animals are the heroes and heroines, and men and women, if they appear, are mere adjuncts; and above all those in which the animal form is only a mask upon a human face, a device of the satirist or the preacher, in these we have beast-fable and not fairy-story: whether it be Reynard the Fox, or The Nun’s Priest’s Tale, or Brer Rabbit, or merely The Three Little Pigs. The stories of Beatrix Potter lie near the borders of Faërie, but outside it, I think, for the most part».

And in the footnote he adds, almost reluctantly:

«I would also include The Wind in the Willows in beast-fable».

However, while getting into an explanation of dream stories, he uses The Wind in The Willows as a good example of fairy-tale.

There is no suggestion of dream in The Wind in the Willows. ‘The Mole had been working very hard all the morning, spring-cleaning his little house.’ So it begins, and that correct tone is maintained.

He also mentions A.A. Milne’s adaptation, though not naming it explicitly (as he was expecting his readers/audience to know perfectly well which play he was referring to, at the time).

«Naturally only the simpler ingredients, the pantomime, and the satiric beast-fable elements, are capable of presentation in this form. The play is, on the lower level of drama, tolerably good fun, especially for those who have not read the book; but some children that I took to see Toad of Toad Hall brought away as their chief memory nausea at the opening. For the rest they preferred their recollections of the book».

Tolkien’s interest in Grahame and his work is furtherly confirmed by his interest in obtaining a copy of the author’s published letters, that were collected in 1944 in First Whisper of The Wind in the Willows by his widow Elspeth. He writes about it to his son Christopher, somewhere around August 1944 and you can find the letter issued under nr.77 in the published collection of Tolkien’s correspondence.

As Verlyn Flieger recalls in her chapter “J. R. R. Tolkien and the Folklore Controversy” within There will always be a fairy-tale, C.S. Lewis’ essay “On Stories”, published within the same collection, also had some things to say about The Wind in The Willows, this time directly in correlation with Tolkien’s The Hobbit, and writes:

«The Hobbit escapes the danger of degenerating into mere plot and excitement by a very curious shift of tone. As the humour and homeliness of the early chapters, the sheer ‘Hobbitry’, dies away we pass insensibly into the world of epic. It is as if the battle of Toad Hall had become a serious heimsökn and Badger had begun to talk like Njal».

Flieger completes Lewis’ consideration by agreeing with him:

«It hardly needs pointing out that The Hobbit, whose very human hero talks with an eagle and exchanges riddles with a dragon, qualifies in this respect as a fairy story. But can we find in Tolkien’s story a true eucatastrophe and happy ending? The answer is both yes and no, for The Hobbit is an idiosyncratic fairy story whose tone and ethos shift markedly halfway through».

There are more punctual influences that Grahame’s story had on Tolkien, but for now let’s stick with that.

The Wind in the Willows, story by story

1. The River Bank

The Mole had been working very hard all morning, spring-cleaning his little home.

As Tolkien noted, the story’s tone is set up from the very beginning and there’s little doubt about the degree of anthropomorphism we have to apply to Mole and to the other characters. Everyday objects are mentioned since the very beginning as parts of Mole’s ordinary life: brooms, steps, chairs, whitewash. This is not obvious and it doesn’t automatically come from the fact that the animal is talking: consider the very different tone set in Watership Down, where rabbits are depicted as close to nature as possible, regardless of their epic tale of mythical echoes.

Inga Moore’s illustration of Mole whitewashing his house.

Mole is doing the work himself, and the issue of who works and who doesn’t will be clearly significant when we meet the vain mr. Toad, but for now lets’ leave it at that.
Mole is spring-cleaning and is tired from the hard work, when Spring visits him.

Spring was moving in the air above and in the earth below and around him, penetrating even his dark and lowly little house with its spirit of divine discontent and longing.

This particular incipit is most likely autobiographical, as Grahame himself had retired to the Countryside after a career in the Bank of England. Only for him what prompted to change his life and go back to his beloved Countryside (he had spent some time in a riverside town called Cookham Dean, as a child) hadn’t been the fair goddess of Spring, but a respectably dressed socialist by the name of George E. Robinson who, on November 24th 1908, came into the Bank, went into Grahame’s office and started shooting with a revolver. Grahame withdrew in Durham and published The Wind in the Willows 5 years later.

Just as Grahame, Mole decides to move to the Countryside, but in his case (of Mole’s) the gesture translates in a more symbolic ascent from the underground to where the sun shines. Some critics, including Annie Gauger and Peter Hunt (who in 1994 wrote a book called The Wind in the Willows: A Fragmented Arcadia), had argued that the very way Grahame describes this scene is a quote from the incipit of William Wordsworth’s autobiographical poem The Prelude of 1805. Our hero is effectively born again and there’s little mention of his life before this moment, at least until a very late story in the book. The very word Grahame picks to define Mole’s house, cellarage, is weirdly obscure and, according to Annie Gauger, it’s a recognizable neologism from Shakespeare’s Hamlet (1602).

E.H. Shepard’s Mole whitewashing.

Mole is our bridge from a familiar word to the new, enchanting marvels of the riverside, and we experience this marvel through his eyes. In Tzvetan Todorov‘s theory, we can distinguish different kinds of fantastic literature based on the experience of the supernatural. The fantastic is experienced through the hesitation of a main character coming from a world dominated by the laws of physics, who finds himself into a different world, dominated by different laws. If there’s an explaination for these events, an explaination that turns out to be rational, we talk about “uncanny”. If the supernatural is confirmed as part of the story, we talk about “marvelous”. The Wind in The Willows doesn’t fulfill all the requirements highlighted by Todorov, but it’s equally interesting to look at it through the Bulgarian critic’s eyes, because there’s a fantastic world within the fantastic world: a talking mole with ladders and paintbrushes guides us to the surface, where we meet other similar creatures, and through his eyes we experience the wonder. It is absolutely similar to the role played by both Bilbo Baggins and Frodo, respectively in The Hobbit and The Lord of The Rings, where a fantastic creature we never heard of (a hobbit) guides us to discover the marvels of creatures we thought we knew (dragons, orcs, elves) and we find ourselves being more empathic with the whole tale.

According to Douglas A. Anderson in his Annotated Hobbit, the resemblance doesn’t stop here: the hobbit’s comfortable house recalls a lot Badger’s and Mole’s houses in The Wind in The Willows, being both inspired by the traditional countryside. Bag End, Bilbo’s famous house on top of the hill, shares with Mole’s House the same denomination, “End”, commonly used for a countryside house. Socially, however, Bilbo seems to resemble more of a mix between the respectable Badger (when The Hobbit starts) and the eccentric Mr. Toad (by the beginning of The Lord of The Rings).

The most famous illustration for the inside of Bag End is provided by Tolkien himself as the final illustration and happy ending for The Hobbit.

Anyway, this is how it comes to be that Mole takes up and leaves his house, and finds himself out and about in springtime. The first creature he meets is a rabbit, an elderly rabbit who is guarding the hole in the hedge and pretends payment of sixpence, an amount of money weirdly favored by British storytales and songs: after all, it’s the coin traditionally put into Christmas puddings and brides place one of them in their shoes for good luck. Mole is too much in a hurry and too much in good cheer to pay any attention to him, and rushes past him making fun of his lot by mentioning a sauce usually served with baked rabbit.
Rabbits are usually not very smart, in Grahame’s books, and the theme will be taken upon by A.A. Milne for his rabbit (probably one of the most significant differences between the book and Disney’s cartoon, in which rabbit is a lot more sensible than the orher animals). The only artist to show us this scene is Arthur Rackham.

Onion sauce! Onion sauce!

In the same portion of the story, Wyndham Paine chooses to show Mole not running about, but quietly enjoying the sun and looking up to a birdhouse (a concept we have later on in the book), with an unrelated text seemingly quoting J.K. Jerome’s Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow.

«The best part of a holiday, perhaps… to see all the other fellows busy working».

At last, Mole arrives at the river and it’s love at first sight. The excitement he felt for the open air, springtime and the sun, gives way to a more tender feeling, more than an infatuation. The river is presented as a playful animal that, even if there are no females by choice in The Wind of the Willows, we might even go as far as defining a playful and possibly deadly water nymph:

…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.

The river is a proper character in lots of English novels, notably George Eliot in The Mill on the Floss (1860) and Charles Dickens in Our Mutual Friend (1865).

Arthur Rackham’s illustration of the river.

The sensations used to describe the river are mostly sounds and smells, very little pictures, but Mole is never explicitly described as being blind or short-sighted, even if some illustrators autonomously decided to put small glasses upon his little nose. Lots of biographers of Grahame, including Peter Green, Alison Prince and Michael Steig, have variously connected this choice with the illness of Grahame’s son Alastair, which also translated in a progressive blindness. It is not for us to psycho-analyze the author in his family trauma, but such an important detail is obviously ignored on purpose. Let us not forget that the stories are originally born as stories told, through tales and letters, to the child himself, a child who has to be prompted to go outside because of his congenital illness and his troubled personality.

Regardless of this, Grahame doesn’t resist giving Mole at least a hint of short sight, when he spots a dark hole on the other bank, right above the rim of the water, and a sparkle that turn out to be the eyes of his soon-to-be friend Rat.

Bransom’s Rat Hole is… a rat hole.

Mole finds himself filling in with imagination the gaps left by the dark surrounding Rat’s house, which to be completely honest is never defined as such and might as well be a regular hole, as the realistic Bransom’s illustrations show us. Shepard changes it, adding a square doorway and Rackham adds a quaint dock, along with other details.

The adjective used in the book to describe it is the rather particular bijou, French for jewel, that the Oxford English Dictionary defines as “small, elegant, and luxurious”. It is precisely the kind of feeling about Rat’s house: he doesn’t seem like the kind of fellow who is in any kind of economical trouble.

“dreamily he fell to considering what a nice, snug dwelling-place it would make for an animal with few wants and fond of a bijou riverside residence, above flood level and remote from noise and dust”

Critics have longly argued (because that’s what they do: they argue) about the reason why Grahame, an English gentleman who has lived in London, decides to have a Rat, a pest, as one of the most positive characters of his story. Brian Jacques, in his introduction to the annotated version, describes how it is that we arrive to take a shine to him: «a debonair chum, at once impeccably mannered and suitably attired».

Anyway, pest or not, Rat appears to be shaped after Grahame’s long-time friend, the scholar Frederick Furnivall, who had a deep intellectual influence on Graham and, according to Annie Gauger, was also “wild about boats”. Jessie Currie, a neighbor of both, wrote Graham proposing to arrange a meeting and described the character as such:

He will ask you if you can scull. If you say ‘No’ he will take you up the river to teach you. If you say ‘Yes’ he will take you up the river to keep you in practice. He will take you anyhow.

Another possible model for Rat, according to Grahame’s biographer Green, could have been Etward Atkinson, who lived in a boathouse in Cornwall, called Rosebank, and had it filled with mechanical toys, living a life that has been described as “of highly civilized seclusion”.

The first exchange between the two is one of the example of Grahame’s political and social subtexts, and though I am little interested in that, it is worth noting that Rat is clearly bourgeoise and acts out of neighborly courtesy, at least at first, while Mole doesn’t fully know how to behave.

The two animals get in Rat’s boat, a small blue and white rowing boat, and they start doing what Rat considers to be the best occupation ever (and what probably is the most quoted sentence in the whole book): messing about in boats.

“Nothing seems really to matter, that’s the charm of it. Whether you get away, or whether you don’t; whether you arrive at your destination or whether you reach somewhere else, or whether you never get anywhere at all, you’re always busy, and you never do anything in particular; and when you’ve done it there’s always something else to do, and you can do it if you like, but you’d much better not.”

Incidentally, this is the first time when we find ourselves at odd with somethinf Grahame does a lot: his animals seem to deal with dimensions in a way that can only be described as from the realm of dreams. Dimension don’t seem to matter: at one point, we are dealing with a regular rat, in a hole near the waterbank; the next moment, they are sculling (rowing) in a boat and we might try and imagine a very small, rat-sized boat, but we’ll be at odds when they start to deal with horses and cars. Truth as that, as it often happens with fairy-tales, we simply have to roll with it, and accept it as one of the rules of the world.

Nothing seems to trouble Rat, not even a near boat-wreck, and he loads the boat with a fat wicker luncheon-basket, in one of the most illustrated scenes if this first story.

Arthur Rackham’s loading of the boat.

The basket is meant for a luxurious pic-nic and, in case you’re planning a Wind in the Willows themed party for the upcoming spring, here’s the menu:

  • cold chicken, tongue, ham and beef;
  • pickled gherkins salad;
  • French rolls;
  • cress sandwiches;
  • potted meat;
  • ginger beer, lemonade and soda water.

The recipes seem to come straight out of Mrs Isabella Beeton‘s Book of Household Management published from 1861 and on this website you have few excerpts with some additiona ideas. Other references might include Eliza Acton‘s Modern Cookery for Private Families (1845), Elizabeth Raffald‘s The Experienced English Housekeeper (1769), Hannah Glasse’s The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy (1747), and Maria Eliza Rundell‘s A New System of Domestic Cookery (1806), all books from which Mrs Beeton shamelessly copied.

Rat define this menu as the minimum, what he usually takes with him on these kind of excursions, regardless of Mole’s expressions of marvel at such abundance. If you compare this with what the dwarves find to eat at Bag End when they show up, uninvited and unexpected, at the beginning of The Hobbit, you have all you need in order to face impromptu guests with the grace of a well-mannered hole-dweller.

That menu started off with tea but, as soon as Balin arrives, you can carry on with beer, seed-cake, bread and butter, read wine, meatloaf, salad, cheese, along with cold chicken and pickles (which came to replace tomatoes in the 1966 edition).

Rat also takes his time to introduce us to the other character of the three main environments of the tale: the riverside, where he lives, the Wild Wood, where Badger lives, and Toad Hall. We see a mayfly, which is often mistakenly illustrated as a dragonfly, and within the riverside, he mentions otters, king-fishers, dabchicks, moorhens (the female of the red grouse, which we will also meet by the end of the story). In the Wild Wood, aside from dear old respectable Badger with whom nobody dares to mess, we have squirrels and rabbits, somehow alright but “a mixed lot”, and weasels, stoats and foxes: Rat has a civil relationship with them, but they are untrustworthy and they will grow to be the next best thing we have to a villain in this variously-paced set of tales.

Arthur Rackham’s picnic scene.

While the two friends have their picnic, we meet Otter and briefly see Badger (who quickly turns around and disappears because three people are too many people for him). Badger is here depicted in a way that’s not unusual for this kind of animal in children’s stories: he’s quiet, respectable and respected. We have these kind of badgers in Beatrix Potter‘s tales and in The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis. Lewis himself wrote, in his “On three Ways of Writing for Children”:

Consider mr. Badger—that extraordinary amalgam of high rank, coarse manners, gruffness, shyness, and goodness. The child who has once met Mr. Badger has ever afterwards in its bones a knowledge of humanity and of English social history which it could not get in any other way.

Rat and Otter also introduce us to Toad, who has taken up a racing boat as his new hobby, but we only see him through their eyes as he struggles and then tilts the boat. The particular sport he has taken up is punting, which is rowing in a long, flat boat which uses long poles instead of rows. It takes balance and concentration. Toad, as we will see, has other (very hidden) qualities rather than these.

During this time, we also get to meet some very particular elements of this particular river: the lock, which is the Italian chiusa, part of a canal system and used to transfer boats from a level to another level of two canals (or of a single canal, as it happens here in Milan) and the weir, another part of the canal system which acts like a dam; we also see a water mill, with a wheel and its house, which is apparently described after a XVII Century sawmill up in Fowey, Cornwall. There’s also a towpath, near Rat’s house, which is that kind of road used by horses to tow boats against the stream flow (in Milan they are called alzaia, which has to do with the fact the the road was higher than the canal bank).

They too manage to tilt their boat on their way back, when a too eager Mole tries to row it, but eventually they make it home. That’s Rat’s home.

“When they got home, the Rat made a bright fire in the parlour, and planted the Mole in an arm-chair in front of it, having fetched down a dressing-gown and slippers for him, and told him river stories till supper-time.”

Rat feeds Mole a cheerful meal we don’t have the menu of, and then escorts him to the best guest bedroom upstairs (implying there’s more than one) and this is pretty much the beginning of their beautiful friendship: the one between Mole and the River. Oh, yeah, and Rat too.

“He learnt to swim and to row, and entered into the joy of running water; and with his ear to the reed-stems he caught, at intervals, something of what the wind went whispering so constantly among them.”


  1. I’ve only read w of these but I think they are brilliant. Don’t understand the nickname. Saw your job info and you are brilliant. Like the wild mix of interest.
    Found your WITW pages researching the book bios annotated versions and haven’t found the answer to my theory. About to send a scraping email to Peter Hunt to lay out my theory on Kenneth Grahame after I email it to 40 friends so he can’t rip me off. Ciao – Roberto from Detroit

    1. Wow, I’m really glad you found it and you liked it! I have a rather vocal audience for the technical AEC stuff, but my audience for all the rest of the stuff is far less chatty. :-D
      What’s the theory on Grahame? Maybe I can help.

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