Wind in the Willows

EH Shepard’s illustration of Ratty and Mole on the river.

My wife and I recently read Wind in the Willows together. We found the book more charming than we remembered from childhood and marvelled at how many points of connection we were able to make to our own present-day lives.

It’s a story of friendship and small adventures, life along a river, having fun, having too much fun, lessons learned, sharing and gratitude. The characters include Mole, Ratty, Mr. Badger and the flamboyant thrill-seeking Mr. Toad. I particularly identified with Mole, who starts things off by emerging from his underground burrow to be born into the world (the opposite of Alice who tumbles down a rabbit hole to experience the topsy-turvy Wonderland).

Mole is an innocent character, yet shrewd enough to evade dim-witted rabbits who want to tax him for no good reason. Mole dismisses them with the phrase, “onion sauce!” and continues on his way. He discovers a friend on the riverbank, Ratty, who introduces Mole to the delights of boating. Ratty’s philosophy is: “Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing — absolutely nothing — half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.” Mole insists on learning how to handle a boat himself. Ratty is the ideal teacher and the two learn to depend on one another.

However there is much talk of the wealthy Mr. Toad, who flits from one whim to another with enthusiasm but with little regard for safety or the needs of others. Toad and Mole are opposites. Toad is lovable, but egotistical and mischievous. He ignores his friends’ advice and doesn’t learn from his mistakes as he drifts ever farther afield. Mole gets homesick and has to choose between spending time with his friends and living like a hermit by himself. Ratty suggests a solution. Mole can visit his home whenever he likes, and still see his friends. In other words, his spirit of adventure doesn’t have to end because he wants to go home from time to time.

The book encourages adventures, but also suggests that one can easily go too far. Good adventures cement friendships and lead to shared experiences. Bad adventures disrupt friendships and lead to distrust and misfortune. The river is the perfect symbol of the good adventure. It offers variety and novelty, yet connects all the friends in a lively and delightful environment.