My rating: 4 of 5 stars
The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame was my dad's favorite book when he was a kid in the 1950s. I didn't read it until I was an adult, and it was a bit hard for me to place it in its proper context without looking up a little background on it. It was originally published in 1908, and I suppose the anthropomorphized animal tale can be thought of as a descendant of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (first published 1865) and an ancestor of Winnie-the-Pooh (1926). In fact, 'Winnie-the-Pooh' author A.A. Milne adapted parts of The Wind in the Willows into a stage play called Toad of Toad Hall in 1929.
'Willows' is really a set of two interconnected stories. One is a set of vignettes about the friendship between Mole and Rat. Wikipedia says Rat is actually a water vole, which I suppose is a European animal somewhat similar to an animal I see outside my house all the time, the muskrat. The setting of 'Willows' is the area surrounding the Thames River in England.
Kenneth Grahame was a banker by trade, and he worked for the Bank of England for most of his career. He had a secondary career as a writer, though, and he wrote these stories particularly for the amusement of his own son Alistair - similar to the way Peter S. Beagle wrote The Last Unicorn.
The other vein of stories running through 'Willows' is about Toad, an impulsive and vainglorious animal with a habit of taking up hobbies and then abandoning them. He does have an ongoing obsession with motorcars, though, which gets him into trouble with the law. (Keep in mind that in 1908, motorcars were very new and still had to share the roads with horses and carriages.) He ends up imprisoned, but escapes with the help of the jailer's daughter. He spends much of the book disguised as, and mistaken for, a human washerwoman. He considers this a great insult to his pride.
The age and setting of the story make it a bit exotic to me. Grahame contributes to this impression by creating an idealized, pastoral setting, a version of Merry England. You can read more about Merry England or Merrie Olde England in the "pseudohistory" category on Wikipedia. The writer(s) define it as "an English autostereotype, a utopian conception of English society and culture based on an idyllic pastoral way of life that was allegedly prevalent at some time between the Middle Ages and the onset of the Industrial Revolution. More broadly, it connotes a putative essential Englishness with nostalgic overtones, incorporating such cultural symbols as the thatched cottage, the country inn, the cup of tea and the Sunday roast. Children's storybooks and fairy tales written in the Victorian period often used this as a setting as it is seen as a mythical utopia. They often contain nature-loving mythological creatures such as elves and fairies, as well as Robin Hood. It may be treated both as a product of the sentimental nostalgic imagination and as an ideological or political construct, often underwriting various sorts of conservative world-views."
I don't think 'Willows' is political, but it is nostalgic and idealized. Although Grahame was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, his father moved him and his three siblings to the Oxford area (Berkshire, which is just south of Oxforshire) when Grahame was five years old. He grew up boating on the Thames with his uncle in settings that inspired 'Willows' (and probably would have seemed familiar to Lyra Belacqua in The Golden Compass).
While fairies and elves fail to show up in the 'Willows' stories, the god Pan makes an appearance, although he is described rather than specifically named. When Otter's little son Portly goes missing, Rat and Mole find him sleeping peacefully between the cloven hooves of Pan, who is playing the pan-flute. After Mole and Rat depart with Portly, Pan wipes the memories of the animals clean of every having met him, presumably because the old gods are somewhat terrifying to mortals.
There are just a few fantasy elements in the story; they pop up and then they quickly dissipate, as when the Wayfarer - a wandering sea rat - seems to put some kind of spell over Rat that makes him want to leave home and take to the sea. He shakes off the spell with the help of Mole.
It took me a little while to get into this book, because at first it seems to be a collection of loosely-related talking animal stories with very little plot. Once the Toad stories take prominence, there's a bit more of a plot, and it does have a recognizable climax and denouement, even if the ending does seem a bit rushed. I wouldn't go so far as to say it's become a new favorite of mine, but I do appreciate some of its charms. I think Rat was my favorite character. Who wouldn't want to do little else in life besides hanging out with friends and messing about in boats?
The Disney film The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad dates from 1949. As best as I can remember, I have only watched the Ichabod part of the cartoon, which is the animation of Washington Irving's 1820 longish short story "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow." 88 years older and American, the story of the Headless Horseman is an odd juxtaposition with a thoroughly English, early 20th century book. I'm not sure what Walt Disney was thinking with that one. You can still ride Mr. Toad's Wild Ride at Disneyland in California, but its equivalent at the Magic Kingdom in Florida closed in 1998.
Grahame also wrote a short story called "The Reluctant Dragon," which was also made into a Disney cartoon.
If your local (U.S.) library subscribes to Hoopla, you can read the e-book free there.