Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows is an acknowledged classic; and I’m somewhat ashamed to say that I only got around to reading it a couple of weeks ago. It’s all Walt Disney’s fault, his fault and the fault of the other cartoon popularizers of the book, as I explain below. I finally picked it up on the Kindle some while back, as one of their periodic specials; and I finally “picked it up” to read it just recently.
I first tried reading The Wind in the Willows when I was in elementary school. All I knew about the book was that it was about “Mr. Toad”. I knew Mr. Toad from “Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride” at Disneyland (still a favorite), and I can vaguely recall a series of C or D-list color cartoons about Mr. Toad from about that time—the sort of thing that played on Sunday mornings because it wasn’t good enough for Saturday mornings. Which, looking back on my Saturday mornings, is a pretty severe indictment. (A quick google brings up the 1970 Rankin-Bass production “The Reluctant Dragon and Mr. Toad Show”.) I don’t believe I saw any of the Disney cartoons until I had kids of my own.
So, I was expecting to read a book with Mr. Toad as the hero. Instead, I got some nonsense about a Mole cleaning his house and then going and messing about in boats with some Rat for no particular reason. I wanted to read about Mr. Toad. So I skipped forward, looking for stuff about Toad, and what did I find? An illustration of Mr. Toad in prison! This wasn’t the book I was looking for, and I put it down and never picked it up again.
Even if I’d had a clearer notion of what to expect, I doubt I’d have enjoyed the book at that age; it turns out to be a quiet, rainy day sort of book, filled with joy in the world as it is, rather than a book of action and derring do. And Mr. Toad is manifestly not the hero of the book, even if he is central to much of it; because Mr. Toad, though much loved by the true heroes, Mole and Rat, is a weak-willed conceited buffoon whose vices invariably get him in trouble. I won’t go so far as to say that he’s an anti-hero, but he’s manifestly intended as a comical example of What Not To Do.
I eventually watched the Disney cartoons with my kids when they were little, and though truer to the plot of the book that the cartoons I remember from those Sunday mornings, they really aren’t true to its spirit. They paint Mr. Toad and his friends in bright colors, but the proper colors are the pale grays and greens and browns of the English countryside, with occasional splashes of color. I kept thinking of Tolkien’s paintings of the Shire.
Anyway, I enjoyed myself; and I can’t help thinking that Mole and Rat (and Badger!) would be delightful people to know.