The Wind in the Willows

The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame (1859–1932) was derived from the bedtime stories he told his son Alstair Grahame (1900–1920), which he then transcribed, collated, and published in 1908. Eighteen years later, Winnie the Pooh, the first in a series of four Pooh books published by A. A. Milne (1882–1956), was written as the result of the same intent of sharing his bedtime entertainment for a son, Christopher Robin Milne (1920–1996) with a larger audience. It is not incidental to remark that both of these books are charmingly illustrated with water-colored line drawings: those in The Wind in the Willows by Arthur Rackham and the ones in Winnie the Pooh by E. H. Shepard.

Although they once met, because of their age difference, Grahame and Milne were not contemporary friends. Nevertheless, taken together their books personify a literary kinship. This is based on ingenious plots, which portray as their protagonists a group of animals living in proximity to one another in a wildwood. In The Wind in the Willows there is a correspondence of the character traits of friendship, camaraderie, and hospitality of these animals that chime with those human beings to such a degree that we genuinely identify with them. Thus we imagine ourselves burrowing or crawling with one or the other of them into a riverbank dwelling or forest den in which we find ourselves in a cozy home with the same kind of furnishings and foods with which we are familiar. Thus, in The Wind in the Willows the ingenious Rat, the congenial Mole, the egotistical Toad, the kindly Badger, and the wise Owl come alive in our imaginations in the same way as Pooh, Eeyore, Piglet, Rabbit, Kanga, and Roo do in Winnie the Pooh.

I have no better way to urge you to reread both of these wonderful books than to offer you here the introduction Milne wrote to The Wind in the Willows.


To the moderately well-read person Kenneth Grahame is known as the author of two books written in the nineties: The Golden Age and Dream Days. In his spare time he was Secretary of the Bank of England. Reading his delicately lovely vision of childhood, you might have wondered that he could be mixed up with anything so unlovely as a Bank; and it may be presumed that at the Bank an equal surprise was felt that such a responsible official could be mixed up with beauty. In 1908 he wrote The Wind in the Willows. The first two books had been about children such as only the grown up could understand; this one was about animals such as could be loved equally by young and old. It was natural that those critics who had saluted the earlier books as masterpieces should be upset by the author’s temerity in writing a different sort of book; natural that they should resent their inability to place the new book as more or less of a ‘children’s book’ than those which had actually had children in them. For this reason (or some other) The Wind in the Willows was not immediately the success which it should have been. Two people, however, became almost offensively its champions. One of them was no less important a person than the President of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt; the other was no more important than the writer of this introduction.

For years I have been talking about this book, quoting it, recommending it. In one of my early Panegyrics I said: “I feel sometimes that it was I who wrote it and recommended it to Kenneth Grahame.” This is even truer now than it seemed to be at the time. A few years ago I turned it into a play called Toad of Toad Hall, which ran for many Christmas seasons in London; and constant attendance at rehearsals made me so familiar with the spoken dialogue, that I become more and more uncertain as to which lines of it were taken direct from the book, which lines were adapted, and which lines were entirely my own invention. It has been a great disappointment at times to see some pleasant quotations after the words: ‘As Kenneth Grahame so delightfully said,’ and to realize the he actually did say it and an equal disappointment at times to realize that I didn’t. When he and Mrs. Grahame first came to see the play, they were charming enough to ask me to share their box. I was terrified, for had I been the writer of the book and he the dramatist, I should have resented every altered word of mine and every interpolated word of his. He was not like that. He sat there, an old man now, as eager as any child in the audience, and on the occasions (fortunately too rare) when he could recognize his own words, his eye caught his wife’s, and they smiled at each other, and seemed to be saying: ‘I wrote that’ – Yes, dear, you wrote that,’ and they nodded happily at each other and turned their eyes to the stage. It was almost as if he were thanking me in his royally courteous manner for letting him into the play at all, whereas, of course, it was his play entirely, and all I had hoped to do was not to spoil it. For, when characters have been created as solidly as those of Rat and Mole, Toad and Badger, they speak ‘ever after in their own voices, and the dramatist has merely to listen and record.’

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, because it is criticizing us. As I wrote once: It is a Household Book; a book that 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.


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The Wind in the Willows